Sunday, June 19, 2016

Review: Doctor Who "Father's Day"

This episode isn’t Doctor Who.

That’s not an insult to this episode, or even to Doctor Who as a whole. Sometimes, TV shows will do an episode far outside of anything you’d expect it to do.

The utterly misnamed Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy Trilogy had a book in the middle where Arthur Dent goes back home to England and spends most of the book on Earth getting a girlfriend while solving the mystery of why Earth suddenly stopped being destroyed, since its demolition was pretty much the start of the series.

Then there's Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “Family,” where the Enterprise was kept in spacedock while Captain Picard went home to France in order to hash out issues with his brother while also recovering from his recent psychological trauma after being assimilated by the Borg.

M*A*S*H had the episode "Dreams" where plot was traded in for a series of dream sequences illustrating the main characters' greatest fears.

Grant Morrison's run on Animal Man had an issue where the titular character is tangental to a plot that focuses on a Wile E. Coyote-like character willingly being exilied to the real world to save his universe from the wanton, senseless violence demanded by a godlike cartoonist.

And that’s what “Father’s Day” is to Doctor Who.

“Father’s Day” is probably the most unique episode of Doctor Who so far, since the sci-fi aspects only exist to fuel the interpersonal drama. This isn’t an episode about stopping shapeshifters, defeating Daleks, or kicking invaders off of Earth. It’s about the last band of survivors in time, where even the Doctor is largely helpless to save them. Honestly, this is something I’d expect from The Twilight Zone.

“Submitted for your approval.”
“A young lady finds herself twenty years in the past, on the day of her father’s death."
“Presented with the opportunity to give him back that precious miracle known as time,
she unwittingly takes it away from the rest of the world.”
“Now, a small band of survivors must wait for the inevitable end of existence… in the Twilight Zone.”
The actual plot to this episode is one of the more high-concept things this show has ever done. Doctor Who asks what would happen if Rose sacrificed the universe to save a single man and then lets the characters interact with each other until the story reaches its conclusion. I was going to say “reaches its logical conclusion,” but there’s quite a bit of illogic going on here, I’m sorry to say. Let’s go point by point.
  1. Why did the past versions of Rose and the Doctor disappear? Their timeline is fine. When Rose ran out to save her dad, she undid the series of events that allowed her to save her dad by changing her own past. So logically, the Rose that actually changed the past should disappear, not the Rose who stood there confused. But… I have a theory about this, which I’ll get to in a second.
  2. If the Reapers show up to “sterilize the wound” with paradoxes like this, then why haven’t they been seen before or since? Again, I have a theory.
  3. There’s a lot of timey-wimeyness that doesn’t quite add up. Sure, having all phones repeat Alexander Graham Bell’s first phone call is a neat idea… but it really doesn’t make sense, since the first phone was never hooked up to any of these modern phone lines. You might as well show telegraph messages in Rose’s incoming texts.
  4. So not only can the Reapers knock the bigger-on-the-inside out of the Doctor’s TARDIS, but the Doctor can power up his key to repower his TARDIS and summon it? Boy, being able to summon the TARDIS would have been very convenient when they were locked inside the cabinet room in Downing Street.
Since the technobabble is taking a backseat to the drama this episode, it makes sense that the science doesn't make much sense, since less effort was put into it. But as I said, I have a theory.

I mentioned that the wrong set of time travelers disappeared, since the Rose who actually changed the past is the one that shouldn’t logically exist. Here’s my theory: She doesn’t.

This version of Rose and the Doctor didn’t disappear.
They stayed in the prime timeline while the world split into an alternate one.
When Rose saved her father in flagrant disregard of what happened the first time she was in the past, Rose created a splinter timeline fueled by a paradox. So while the original timeline sorted itself out, the paradoxical offshoot began breaking down as it failed to logically resolve itself. So as far as I’m concerned, the events of this episode occur in an alternate timeline caused by Rose’s meddling. And as this alternate timeline grew less and less stable, the Reapers came in to attack it. So the reason that the Reapers never showed up before or since is because this is the only episode that takes place inside a paradoxical alternate reality.

I should mention that the little touches in this episode are all perfect. The bit about the weather not matching the day's tragedy is really authentic. That's the sort of thing you think about when a loved one dies. And the "can I try again?" bit is perfect. You can feel the tension; the Doctor's compassion fighting his awareness of the dangers involved.

This episode takes a look at… well, the nastier side of any family dynamic. Arguing. Shouting. Complaining about how someone close to you screwed up. But in the end, the episode comes to the conclusion that anybody can get upset, Jackie Tyler, Rose, even the Doctor; what matters is how you move on from that. Everybody gets mad, and they sometimes say things that they shouldn’t. But the important thing is forgiveness. Or at the very least, understanding. When you have that, you can get through anything, whether it be an ugly public spat or the end of time itself.

But on the other hand, the episode is kind of a warning. A warning that you need to take whatever opportunities you can to let your loved ones know how much they mean to you. Because there’s always a chance that you might not be able to do it later.

Doctor/Rose Tyler
People tend to point out that Adam got kicked out of the TARDIS for attempting to change history, while Rose is allowed to stay after breaking causality. But if you watch the Doctor after Rose first alters time, he’s furious. So furious that he doesn’t even speak to her until later. He admits later that he wasn’t really going to leave her behind in the 80s, but I think he was at least entertaining the idea of taking her back home and dropping her off.

But before all is lost, Rose apologizes. And that's the difference between her and Adam. Adam made excuses and seemed to regret getting caught more than anything else. Rose actually seems to harbor genuine remorse for what she’s done. And unlike Adam, it wasn’t some grand scheme; it was just an emotional reaction in the heat of the moment. And to use Adam’s excuse, it actually was the Doctor’s fault here. He’s the one who not only took her there for the sole purpose of slightly altering the past, but did it twice despite the risks to the timeline.

On a more minor note, Christopher Eccleston had a cold while filming this. Add it to the list of his bad Doctor Who experiences.

Pete Tyler (Shaun Dingwall)
Pete Tyler is a bum. But despite his scheming nature, brilliant-but-lazy attitude, and possible tendency to cheat on his wife, he’s a decent human being who cares about his family. He’s not the piece of crap that 80s Jackie thinks of him as, and he’s not the genius inventor that 90s Jackie thinks of him as. Pete Tyler is just a human being like everybody else. (Save for the Doctor and some Zygons.) But that doesn’t stop him from making the ultimate sacrifice for not just the world, but his family. Hence the church imagery. Pete Tyler is Jesus.

Now, Pete Tyler is a much more important character than the Editor, and you might think that this would be the role they’d want Simon Pegg to play. Well, you’d be right. If not for some scheduling conflicts, Simon Pegg would have played the brilliant-and-lazy-but-good-hearted Pete Tyler, which seems more along Pegg’s style than a generic villain. But Dingwall does a very good job and manages to paint a picture of a decent human being who just wants to be a good husband and father, despite his numerous flaws.

Jackie Tyler
Jackie is hateful and sometimes verbally cruel to her husband. I get that it's supposed to provide a counterpoint to how she speaks so highly of her husband in the present, but she just seems like such a nasty person.

Look, as I said, Jackie has some legitimate complaints about her husband. But the way she goes about dealing with him is to belittle him, insult him, yell at him, and make wild accusations that he’s cheating on her with Rose just because he gave her a ride to a wedding they were both going to. Pretty much everything Jackie does in this episode can be summed up as follows:

Jackie shows up, gets angry at somebody who understands what’s going on more than she does, and calls her husband names.

It really doesn’t help that Camille Coduri is kind of doing too good of a job acting. She’s pouring some very-real-looking annoyance and desperation into her lines… which kind of makes the whole thing a bit too real for my liking. It’s kind of uncomfortable to watch, like I’m actually watching a couple argue in public.

Wedding Guests
Hit and miss, though none of them are particularly terrible. The bride and groom have a nice little backstory that provides fuel for the Doctor’s spiel on how precious normal moments are, complete with one of the greatest Ninth Doctor moments.

Doctor: "Who said you're not important?”

That is the Doctor in a nutshell. But the groom’s dad seems to be playing to the cheap seats, and little Mickey barely emotes while he screams in terror. It’s a weird disconnect.

Monster of the Week: Reapers
So, while actually going over the credits of this episode, I discovered the name of British comic book artist Bryan Hitch in there. As it turns out, he did some concept art for this season of Doctor Who, which I’d imagine includes the design of the Reapers, since he’s credited for this episode in particular. Pretty cool.

Certainly does look like something out of a comic.
Unfortunately, I’m not a fan of the Reapers.

The Reapers were a last-minute addition to the episode, which explains why you could replace them with cracks in time sucking people in and nothing would really have to change. Apparently, the BBC mandates some kind of monster in every episode, which is why drama episodes like “Father’s Day” and “Vincent and the Doctor” have a monster crammed in there, despite there really being no need for one. But the Reapers have a pretty terrible design, too. They seem more like a Final Fantasy monster than an eldritch abomination.

And they don't seem quite finished. They just... I don't know, something's missing. I get the feeling that Bryan Hitch redesigned them over and over before giving up and saying "Good enough."

Originally, they started with a straight-up Grim Reaper before adapting it into a more monstrous design, with the scythe tails being the last remnant of the inspiration. If these things looked a bit more… otherworldly, then I wouldn’t have as much of a problem with them. They never really feel like beings from beyond this dimension, just another generic monster of the week. With their fangs, brown coloration, and the eating-time shtick, they seem more like the Langoliers from the Stephen King novella/miniseries of the same name than a Doctor Who monster.

At least the Langoliers actually look like otherworldly creatures.
This is a very special effects-lite episode.

I mean, this was achieved by taking away a special effect.
So really, the Reapers are the only visual effect. And they look like bad CGI, while their monster-vision looks like a cheap filter. Not exactly the most awe-inspiring of episodes, though that helps it feel much more claustrophobic and helpless.

Final Thoughts
Thank goodness I don’t use any sort of actual rating system. This episode would utterly break the scale. Don’t get me wrong, the story is a well-written, compelling, and utterly heartbreaking account of a man given the gift of life, only to sacrifice it for the greater good.

But raw drama is not why I tune in to watch the show every week.

I know there are a lot of people who hold this up as one of Doctor Who’s finest episodes, but I don’t. Not because the episode isn’t good, but because it’s just… not want I come to Doctor Who to see.

And that's why I can't really give a concrete final verdict. It's good, but it's just not for me.

But next time, I'll be taking a look at something that I do consider to be the zenith of the Ninth Doctor's run. See you then!

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