Rose opens up to the Doctor about the one time in history she wants to see more than any other: the day her father died. But when they go back to that moment, Rose rushes out and saves her dad from being hit by the car that was meant to kill him. That leads to a time paradox, angry time aliens, an angrier Doctor, and one of the best episodes of the first series.

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Billie Piper gets a full-on showcase through this episode, years before the BBC brought in a female screenwriter for this series. As you might expect, she has a lot to deal with in an episode explicitly about the death of Rose’s father, Pete, and how she has to battle through the stories she’s been told about Pete in order to find out what truth lied within them. When she jumps in front of a car and saves her dad’s life, it immediately put down this huge emotional stake for the audience, and there’s a sudden swell of dread for what this means for Rose, for Pete, and for Jackie Tyler. It’s the first episode to really get involved in what time travel can allow within a narrative, and it pushes the human characters into this possibly dark, but possibly hopeful place before finding a resolution which straddles the two.

Father’s Day is one of the stronger episodes of Doctor Who, grounding itself in what is essentially a string of lengthy conversations between the characters. The Doctor loses faith in humanity before finding his strength again through hearing a nice story about how a chance encounter led two side-characters to fall in love. Rose fails to deal with her grief and then has to deal with her father walking and talking again, no longer idealised but living and breathing. Characters are attacked and have to find a way to move on; the Doctor gets to yell at Jackie. There’s a lot going on in a confined space, and it gives the characters a chance to both find breathing space and achieve better understanding of each other. For Rose, it proves to be a defining character moment, all told. She’s different from now on.

The Doctor’s motivations are harder to parse, though. This is a version of the Doctor who is less friendly, a little more righteously paranoid, and more unsure of himself than any other. Christopher Eccleston’s fills his Doctor with unease, and it manifests itself in unexpected ways and short and almost embarrassing outbursts. When he lashes out at Rose and calls her a “stupid ape” shortly after she breaks time, he portrays it as though he’s immediately upset by his own actions. He’s still unable to really reconcile the Doctor he wants to be (and is) with the Doctor he feels like he is. That makes for a fascinating character study, even if the Doctor is a little boxed in by the story itself as it progresses.

The reapers are pretty nasty, vicious creatures, but their presence also stalls the episode. At first the wound in time is portrayed as a series of strange occurrences, like the car driver being stuck in a loop or every phone playing a voicemail of the very first phonecall. That’s pretty fascinating, but the reapers are less so. Their presence feels a bit like a request from producers to ensure there is also a tangible threat in the episode somewhere, as though they have a CGI budget they need to use. You can see the logic in that – the heroes needing something visual to push back against rather than just a series of unnerving abstract worries. But the reapers are too simplistic for the rest of the story, and their characteristics as monsters don’t play into the rest of the narrative in a satisfying manner.

Their main purpose in the story is to hole siege: by forcing all the characters into the church, they force confrontations and conversations which form almost the entirety of the episode. There’s no tension in their presence, and they don’t feel like a real threat even after the apparently kill the Doctor. Instead, their shadows show up behind the stained glass windows, as they uselessly wait for something to happen which will let them cause trouble. There is probably meant to be an element of horror in the story, but the generic appearance of the reapers stops them from being memorable, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that CGI can’t create as authentic a monster as simple costumes are able.

Authenticity is the order of the day here. I’ve said it before, but Russell T. Davies knew how to put together a look at Britain which feels authentic and true. Even looking back over a decade later, the episodes don’t feel dated beyond their specific time – this is what Britain was like in the early 2000s, and Paul Cornell’s script emphasises small but knowing details whenever possible. We’re built up a mythologised version of Rose’s father as the episode starts, only to then see a man who has a small car, buys up plastic bottles of tonic water, and has bowling trophies. In later years Doctor Who would buy into this idea of the iconic for characters like Clara, but these earlier episodes we’re simply shown a real person and asked to empathise with them because we can relate to them.

It helps that there’s such strong chemistry between the three members of the Tyler family. Cornell doesn’t make it easy for any of the three, and the actors pull off the complex work required in impressive fashion. Even as Pete reconciles that Rose is actually a time-travelling, grown up version of his baby girl, the story never allows us to forget how difficult the situation is. Jackie spends the episode being fairly shrill to her husband (to rose’s dismay) but at the same time we’re frequently shown that Pete is a difficult man to live with and love. He’s imperfect in precise and irritating ways, which in turn causes problems for Rose.

All three characters are wrapped up in their own neuroses which don’t play fairly next to each other, and by that I mean they constantly frustrate each other. There’s love there, but the practical realities of love are a very different environment to the idealised, perfect vision of Pete which Jackie makes up as bedtime stories to tell Rose as a child. He gets her name wrong at the altar, he’s late for social events, and she’s immediately expecting the worst from him at every point. That’s where it becomes so wonderful that time travel is a part of this series: Rose sees the past as a story, but the Doctor realises that it was real, it happened, and stories warp over time to favour the most interesting narrative.

Rose’s journey here is one of realisation, and ultimately her father’s sacrifice gives him purpose and her a sense of understanding. Her dad wasn’t the perfect man, but he did the right thing, and that’s what justifies Jackie’s mythologising. Pete doesn’t match up to his stories on the surface, but ultimately his decision at the end of the episodes proves everything Jackie said and Rose believed: he can be her hero, but on his own terms.

Doctor Who Series 1 Episode 8: Father’s Day
Written by Paul Cornell
Directed by Joe Ahearne

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