21st Century Doctor Who Reviews: Father's Day

Boo Who Who.

Doctor Who's never really been known as a programme that tugs at the heartstrings. Take your vox pops to the streets and see how many people say: "Ah! Doctor Who – the show that makes me bawl like a baby!" Which is fair enough, since its chief function is to provide brilliant escapist science fiction drama week in, week out.

When it wants to, Doctor Who can turn on the emotional tap – in particular, the last few years have seen an upsurge in tearjerkers. Some of the storylines have gone for the jugular by putting both characters and viewers at home through the emotional wringer. Even the Doctor has broken out the crying towel on more than one occasion – the 10th incarnation was almost on the verge of tears as he regenerated (now if only they'd have used that 4th take when he actually breaks down... social media would have exploded into billions of tiny fragments).

Mind you, some fans have claimed that this approach is a welcome tonic after the supposedly stiff-upper lips of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Which is actually a lazy argument when you look at companion exits of Jo, Jamie, Zoe or Sarah, not to mention the watery eyed reactions to the farewells of Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker. Heck, even the Daisiest Daisy speech from The Time Monster is rather moving in the right context. But then along came Father's Day, which rewrote the rules for 21st century Doctor Who blubbing.

But here's the conundrum. Like with many walks of life, do I approach Father's Day using the heart or the head? Right now, I'm torn in two. Having recently become a daddy to two amazing daughters, I should be able to relate to this story in a way that I'd never done before 2015. But on the other hand, Mr Picky Journalist Bensalhia taps me on the shoulder to bring me back down to Earth with a bump, pointing out a number of logistical flaws and inexplicable nonsense. It's an ongoing battle.

Never say I'm not dedicated to this reviewing lark. The only way to see this conundrum through is to view Father's Day twice. And I'm talking regular speed, not this x 1.5 fast forwarding cobblers.

Father's Day can be seen as a bold example of how the new production team were willing to experiment with the tried and tested formula of Doctor Who. Normally, it's alien invasions and threats that form the centrepieces of a standard adventure. This time around though, the aliens are shoved into the background, to make way for the real meat of the story – the death of Rose's father, Pete Tyler.

Rose decides that she wants to go back in time and find out all about her father, from his stumbling wedding vows through to the cold November day when he's killed by a speeding car. Even though the Doctor's highly sceptical of such a request, he still agrees to take her to November 7th 1987, so that she can be there at his side when he finally passes over to the other side. However, that would be a pretty dull story – not to mention a short one, so naturally, Rose does what any one of us would probably do in that position – she saves Pete's life.

And guess what? All hell breaks loose.

Not only does Rose distort the fabric of time by breaking the cardinal rule of not changing fixed events, she then goes and embraces the whole Blinovitch Limitation Effect by later saying hello to her baby self, making a very bad situation worse. Rose should have asked the Doctor to tell her about the events of Mawdryn Undead, while taking notes.

When Rose meets Pete, he's not quite the devoted dad that she thought he was. Pete's whole life seems to be one long disaster, with failed wheeler dealer schemes (Rose calls him “a bit of a Del Boy”) and a history of two-timing Jackie with other women. This is the worst possible news for Rose, who is forced to confront the fact that her father isn't exactly Saint Pete. Her shocked face when she witnesses Pete and Jackie arguing outside the church tells a thousand stories. Clearly those bedtime tales that she heard about her dad during childhood are more fictitious than making chocolate biscuits out of a breadcrumb and butterbean machine.

It's those human failings though that make Pete an endearing character. He may live in a fantasy world in which his Trotter-style capers amount to something important, but he also comes across as a decent, likeable man. Furthermore, he's clearly more open-minded than most, given his gradual realisation that the grown-up Rose is his daughter from the future. Whereas Jackie typically passes this off as nonsense (she later accuses Pete of giving their daughter a second-hand name after she thinks that grown-up Rose is his latest floozy conquest), Pete is keen to find out all about the future ("What, do they all have time machines where you come from?") and his future life.

In fact, Pete's smarter than you may think. He manages to piece all the facts together – Rose from the future; The Doctor's references to "A wound in time"; the Reapers; Rose's over-enthusiastic praise of how he read her bedtime stories as a kid; and the mysterious car that keeps fading in and out of existence outside the church. All of this comes to a head in his matter-of-fact admission that he knows that he's meant to be dead ("I'm so useless, I couldn't even die properly"). In the end, he proves to be the father that he is rather than the daydreaming layabout, and throws himself in front of the car so as to restore the balance.

Where Father's Day wins out is in its dialogue and performance, which is both believable and moving. The initial realisation of Pete's (and Rose's subsequent reaction) and the scene in which he says goodbye to his daughter ("Are you going to be there, for me, love?") are packed with killer lines that stay on the right side of mawkish sentimentality. The smaller details add to the effect, such as Pete's awkward body language when he first confronts Rose, or his little swig of Dutch Courage before he prepares to sacrifice himself.

Shaun Dingwall and Billie Piper step up to the plate with excellent results. Dingwall gets the hapless character of Pete, and he adds the right mix of world-weary charm and pathos, whether it's in his teary conversations with Rose or that shot in which he looks out of the window at the looping phantom car. In that short sequence, we see Pete's face go from wonder through to grim realisation through to sadness through to determined resolve as he knows what must be done. Great stuff.

The real revelation of Father's Day is Billie Piper, who actually outdoes Christopher Eccleston in the acting stakes this time around. It's a genuinely thoughtful and moving performance that manages to tug at the heartstrings without being too cloying or mushy. Even without the barrage of tear-jerking scenes, Piper also manages to squeeze in some well-judged comedy, especially Rose's spluttering horror at the prospect of a date with her father ("There for you is like, pfff, it's like the Bermuda Triangle"). Altogether, Father's Day proves to be Billie's most valuable contribution, just nudging out her equally impressive turns in the Bad Wolf and Army Of Ghosts two parters. You can understand why Rose became such a big hit in such a short space of time after watching Father's Day.

Which I've now just sat through for the second time. Having swapped my Daddy Head for my Smartarse Journalist Head, viewing Father's Day this way throws up a number of issues. Wipe the tears away from Billie's and Shaun's outstanding performances, and you're left blinking in the cold, harsh reality that the story actually doesn't make a lot of sense.

Father's Day is about people making the wrong decisions. Pete fools about with other women under coats and fails to come up with a fool-proof money-making plan. Rose saves her dad's life, comes into contact with her baby self, and throws the whole world into chaos. But by far the worst decision comes from a Time Lord who really should know better.

Depending on your championing of Father's Day, the Doctor's decision to take Rose back to the point of Pete's death is either a little odd at best, reckless at the middling stage, or at worst, downright cruel. Taking her back a second time confirms the diagnosis. The Doctor may have throttled, insulted and waffled on about burnt toast to his companions, but putting Rose in this situation is a psychologist's field day. Time and again, Uncle Terrance's “Never cruel, never cowardly” has been a mainstay of 21st century Doctor Who, but on this occasion, the overused mantra is null and void.

Having just sneaked a peek at Cornell's review of Terror Of The Autons from 1993, it's ironic that he criticises a Doctor who's supposedly depicted at odds with his own expectations. While the Third Doctor may dish out more insults than a ham-fisted bun vendor, he's still more recognisably Doctorish than the irresponsible, immature and ineffectual version that we get in Father's Day.

Of course it's inevitable that Rose is going to try and save her father's life. Take a kid to a sweet shop and tell them that they can't have any sweets – what do they do? Stuff their faces with as many jelly babies and Werther's Originals as their little mouths can hold. The same rule applies here, but the blame lies with the designated driver, not the tempted passenger.

What's worse is that after he's still smarting from Adam's recent betrayal, the Doctor starts ranting and raving at Rose, calling her "Another stupid ape". He huffs and puffs and blows his TARDIS house down, and it's uncomfortable to witness. While Eccleston does his best with the material he's given, it's easily the nadir of the Ninth Doctor's short tenure.

Having stormed off like a jilted teenager, the Doctor comes running back when he finds out that his TARDIS has become an ordinary police box (although we never quite find out why it does so). But once he barricades the pitiful batch of wedding guests in the church against the dreaded clutches of the cleansing Reapers, he's running low on ideas. Marching furiously up and down like an angry guardsman, the Doctor's too busy shouting at Rose and Jackie to actually come up with a half-decent solution to the problem.

He's also too busy getting misty eyed at the prospect of a normal everyday life like Stuart the Groom and Mrs Stuart the Bride. In his time, the Doctor's seen some wonders like the tranquillity of the Eye of Orion, the verdant jungle of Zeta Minor and the fairy-tale splendour of Tara, but today he's dreaming of a drunken stumble outside some dingy old nightclub. “Street corner... two in the morning... getting a taxi home...” It's one of the most unintentionally hilarious bits of dialogue ever spluttered in Doctor Who. Why explore the galaxy when you can experience chavvy revellers puking into the gutters, jealous rage brawls, and a greasy kebab from the all-night cafe next door to the nightclub?

While this drearily humdrum existence is in keeping with Cornell's fondness for the New Adventures, it's only digging the hole deeper for the Doctor in Father's Day. Having failed to come up with a solution beyond “Zap”-ping the TARDIS back into existence and actually taking baby Rose into another room where she can't come into contact with her adult self, the Doctor proceeds to throw himself on the mercy of the invading Reapers. Who quickly gobble him up faster than the Doctor could chow down on a beef and onion kebab. Deathwish or desperation? Your choice.

If the portrayal of the Doctor is less than flattering, the same goes for Jackie, who is depicted as a shouty, impatient simpleton. With a face like thunder (hey, one of her best friends is only getting married after all), Jackie fails to grasp even the most basic of instructions and concepts, instead relying on furiously OTT histrionics.

The supporting characters are also forgettable, as Cornell introduces the Happy Families playing card pack of wedding guests. Aside from Stuart the Groom and Mrs Stuart the Bridesmaid, there's Stuart's Father (who's too busy telling his son to jilt his missus on what should be the happiest day of his life), and Stuart's missus' friends called Bev or Roz or Shaz or whatever their names are. None of these make any impression on the story, chipping in with tedious “Cor, that's what I call a meringue” chit chat.

Even when dramatic things are happening, none of the characters react like real people. The end of the world is nigh, and one of Mrs Stuart's pals reacts like it's last orders at the bar. Worse still, when Pete's finally succumbed to his inevitable fate, the wedding guests mooch uselessly around the church entrance as if they are waiting for the ice cream van. There's no shock, no tears, no panic, nothing.

The lack of urgency is only matched by the lack of a decent resolution to the problem. With Pete having restored the status quo by giving up his life, the Doctor, Stuart's pop, and the vicar all come back to life without so much as a scratch. No more Reapers. Everybody (bar Pete) lives. It's the first time that modern Doctor Who will use the reset button, but it's by no means the last. It's a pet peeve of mine, since it's a lazy cop-out way of wrapping up the plot, and brings Father's Day to a less than satisfactory conclusion.

On the up side, director Joe Ahearne proves to be a dab hand with this smaller-scale story. He adds a surreal, childlike quality to the story with many memorable images: The empty shell of a TARDIS. The phantom car. While the execution of the overgrown CGI bat/bird hybrid Reapers has dated, Ahearne overcomes their deficiencies with well-handled POV shots.

It's interesting that Ahearne also manages to capture the feel of 1987, with its big hair, brick phones, Acid House posters and whiff of Thatcherism in the air (money and wealth still talk in Jackie's world). You too can groove on down to the well-chosen sounds of 'Never Gonna Give You Up' by Rick Astley and 'Never Can Say Goodbye' by The Communards. Although where's 'Living In A Box' when the Doctor staggers out of the empty TARDIS, or 'If You Let Pete Stay' by Terence Trent D'Arby as Rose pleads with the Doctor for another chance for her dad?

Murray Gold's score is also very good, with an equally dreamlike, off-kilter feel to it. Thankfully, this soundtrack is less bombastic than many of his other attempts, and it's all the more effective for that.

Father's Day is a quandary for me. If the heart rules the head, then it's a worthy experiment that's genuinely emotional with stand-out performances from Shaun Dingwall and especially Billie Piper. Swapped the other way round, and it's a frustratingly incoherent, poorly characterised jumble that hinges on an iffy premise, an uninspired resolution and a Doctor who's both cruel and cowardly.

I guess I'll just have to leave my pea-sized brain in the fishtank from now on...

* Travel back in time with me as I revisit the eras of 1970s and 1980s Doctor Who!


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