‘Now, Rose you’re not going to bring about the end of the world, are you?’ I suggested that in future years World War Three was the kind of story they might do in The Sarah Jane Adventures. I reckon if it had been 18 months later, Father’s Day would have been a candidate for Torchwood. It’s noticeably heavier than the rest of the first series (this wild variation in pitch is one of the few giveaways that in 2004 no-one was exactly sure who the audience might turn out to be be). It’s dialogue heavy and lacking much in the way of chases or action sequences, and with a script laced with introspection, incest and infidelity.
If The Long Game was a tribute to the DWM comics, this is a nod to the New Adventures novels and their breakout star Bernice Summerfield, a character with her own daddy issues. It’s no accident Paul Cornell was asked to write this; it’s full of the angst and poignancy of his books. The setting at a church wedding echoes Timewyrm: Revelation and Happy Endings, and the theme of Pete Tyler’s conscious sacrifice to atone for Rose’s sin and save humankind will crop up again in Human Nature.
That said, the debt to the New Adventures is generic not specific: this isn’t a straight adaptation. Exploring a companion’s backstory isn’t really something the Old Testament dabbled much in besides Turlough, Ace and (astonishingly) Dodo. Father’s Day goes well beyond that: the whole piece is about Rose’s relationship with her father. The Doctor vanishes for a chunk of the running time (first by choice, then because he’s been eaten), leaving Pete Tyler to take the role of male lead.
It quickly turns out that the stories Jackie told the impossibly cute little Rose were as much fairy stories as Goldilocks: Pete wasn’t a genius entrepreneur, he was always looking to make a quick buck. His marriage to Jackie is clearly on the rocks, and he isn’t the man Rose believes. It’s a devastating moment when he listens to her talk about bedtime stories and picnics and says, ‘That’s not me’. Shaun Dingwall is brilliant as Pete, just the right amount of sleazy, and redeemed by his love for his daughter – even before he knows that that will involve. But better than that, this gives us a different take on Jackie: she clearly never bad-mouthed Rose’s dead father to her daughter, and a lot of her shriller behaviour obviously stems from her insecurities about Pete’s philandering.
Most importantly, there’s a new dimension to the Doctor and Rose’s relationship: for the first time she’s gone against him, and the way he handles it is to have a tantrum: ‘I should’ve known. It’s not about showing you the universe. It never is. It’s about the universe doing something for you.’ I think the script lets him off the hook a bit too easily, after all his smug, emotionally tone-deaf declarations of, ‘I can do anything’, showing off by taking Rose’s to see her parents’ wedding and Pete’s death, he’s at least as guilty as she is. Piper and Eccleston play this all brilliantly; Piper has to spend a lot of it crying in a convincing way (not just dabbing a hanky at one beautifully-applied tear); Eccleston has to play the Doctor’s simmering fury, desperation and understanding without a great deal of dialogue or screen time. Their argument at the Tyler flat is properly hurtful, not some desiccated bafflegab about the course of history.
A lot of this feels like setting out how the show will now work. More than anything to date it draws a direct line between the domestic and the cosmic, with the world’s fate dependent on, ‘An ordinary man. That’s the most important thing in creation. The whole world’s different because he’s alive.’ We’ll see this again in Turn Left and The Waters of Mars. We’re also told that the universe is a more dangerous place without the Time Lords: ‘There used to be laws stopping this kind of thing from happening. My people would have stopped this.’ This is the modern equivalent of The Aztecs: you can’t change history – not necessarily because it’s wrong, but because it will summon eldritch horrors that will eat you. We’re a way off from ‘Time can be rewritten’ (even if The Unquiet Dead has already implied that it can be, perhaps a case of not letting the rules get in the way of the story).
Most of all, although he’s in it, this feel like the precursor to RTD’s annual ‘Doctor lite’ episodes, the ones that have the licence to be untypical because they’re about ordinary people doing their best when the Doctor isn’t there to save the day. This seems to be the answer to Clive and Mickey’s remarks about the Doctor’s name ‘followed by a list of the dead’. Without the Doctor it’s not just Pete or Jabe or Gwyneth who dies: it’s everyone. With him, maybe, one day, everyone might live.
Next Time: The Empty Child