Thursday, February 14, 2008

Doctor Who: 'Father's Day' (1x08)

The new Doctor Who kicked up its game quite a bit with the fantastic eighth episode “Father’s Day.” I really liked the show from the first episode, but this was the first one that succeeded on every level, raising some interesting philosophical questions and telling a really emotional, powerful story.

To date, the show Who reminds me most of is Buffy. It’s got that same light tone and spunky heroine against the backdrop of crazy sci-fi tales. There’s not many shows where you can be on the verge of apocalypse and it’s not even the season finale, but this is one. And, like the best of Buffy, this one used the genre conceit to get at some really powerful emotions. It’s a story you couldn’t tell outside of a sci-fi setting, and yet, it’s totally grounded in reality, starting with a very basic, relatable premise and playing it in an at first funny, then really sad and touching way.

Time travel always opens up some troubling questions. How can your story have any real stakes when you could just go back in time and undo it should things go badly? I like the idea that the Tardis has a kind of will of its own, the Doctor can’t take them exactly where they want to go, he puts in an approximate date and the Tardis guides them to the place they need to be. This episode also gives us the notion that there is a ‘right’ timestream, that messing with things too much will bring those dragon things out to fix everything up.

I’m not sure how this time philosophy fits with the old episodes of the series, maybe it’s a fanwank, but it works for me. The Doctor is a kind of extratemporal agent working to ensure that the timestream proceeds as it should. He’s there to liberate humanity from their media oppression in the previous episode, and here we see the danger in trying to change things for selfish reasons. Would saving Rose’s dad really make a difference in the overall direction of the universe? I don’t know, apparently. For one, if we’re looking at a 4-D time system, it would mean the Rose we know would never exist.

I’m not exactly sure what the time structure of the series is. Is the Doctor actually changing history, or is he just fulfilling a role, doing what he’d already done at the time, only now he’s perceiving it from a different angle? It hasn’t really been explored yet. I think it makes more sense that way, because having a ton of alternate universes opens too many dangerous storytelling possibilities. It’s possible we’ve got a version of Grant Morrison’s hypertime, where there can be a number of divergent timelines branching off the main ‘time river,’ however the key events that need to happen always proceed as planned.

Ultimately, this doesn’t really matter. What the episode is about is Rose getting the chance to meet her dad. I love the opening voiceover, where she says her dad is the most wonderful man in the world. There’s this total affection for a man she never knew, she’s in love with the idea of her dad, and when we see the young Rose, there’s such sadness knowing that she never got to meet him.

When she does meet him, predictably, he’s not the noble knight she expected, but a flawed man. One of the emotional beats I love most in the episode is Rose’s sadness when she sees her mom berating her dad. It’s hard to go down to reality after existing in a mythic realm, and the reality of her dad doesn’t quite match up to what she imagined.

But, as the episode goes along, she gets to know him and realizes that he does have a lot going for him, and even though he might not be exactly what she imagined, she still loves him. It’s really touching to see her finally get the chance to have a dad after not having one her entire life.

The range of knowledge in the episode is really interesting. Rose tells Pete that he was a great dad, makes up a story about everything he’s done, which he knows is false. She’s breaking inside, unable to tell him that he was dead, but he knows and he takes the pain of telling him off her. He says that’s what dads do, and in the end, he’s willing to sacrifice his life so that the Rose we know can live.

There’s a lot of beats here that could have been cheesy, but the acting is so good, you totally buy their relationship, and I was really moved by Pete’s sacrifice. There’s something about this show that just really hits me on an emotional level. I think it’s the overwhelming totality of it all, the universe itself on the line, all of reality hinging on this single relationship.

I’d argue one of the best things about sci-fi is that it turns character’s problems into earth shaking events. Grant Morrison said that he relates to Superman more than a guy in an everyday drama because to him, his personal problems are as big as Solaris the Tyrant Sun attacking the Earth. Like it or not, we are all the center of our own universes, and our personal crises are as big as a Crisis on Infinite Earths from our own perspective. If I die, the entire universe I live in dies, and if someone close to me dies, a piece of me is lost as well.

This series tells stories on a huge scale, but Rose is such a great anchor character that we are able to relate to them emotionally. In a lot of Morrison’s work, there are moments where the characters are just totally overwhelmed by encountering some other intelligence and they’re reduced to tears. Think King Mob in Dulce in Vol 2.4, or Zatanna in the fourth issue of her series. That’s the place this series hits, I remember in “The End of the World,” Rose is overwhelmed by what’s going on, and that emotion hit me, I was really feeling awed and moved. It happened again here, the show just hits this place I love, a place of wonder and awe.

The episode ends with a reprise of the opening voiceover, only this time we know that Rose means it. It’s not the idea of her dad she loves, it’s the man himself. It’s a really touching, beautiful moment. I loved this episode, and I’m really loving the show. Not every episode hits, I thought the previous episode with Satellite 5 was a bit talky and slow paced, but I really love watching a show that’s as diverse and varied from week to week. I love the big ideas they’re tackling and the relationship between Rose and the Doctor provides a wonderful anchor for everything. The combo of new Doctor and new Battlestar in April is going to make for some incredible science fiction.


David Golding said...

The writer, Paul Cornell, re-invented Doctor Who as a series of novels in the '90s (which Russell T Davies wrote a novel for). He has done amazing things.

When I started watching this episode, I was on guard though: before this ep, Paul's most recent work on Doctor Who (an animation, an audio play, a novel) had been pretty poor. The episode started out looking like a tired run at an old trope. Like Star Trek's 'City on the Edge of Forever', the guest star would have to be made to die. Divorced of clear historical importance, this seemed somewhat sick. But I really loved how it turned into an illustration of Nietzsche's eternal return. The Doctor doesn't engineer Pete's death or convince him he must die. Pete himself learns to deny the accident of his death, and love his fate. In the end his actions show that he wouldn't have lived any way other than he did. It's beautiful stuff.

Regarding time travel, there is no overarching philosophy in the old series---there is no "Doctor Who Universe". The Doctor takes on trouble as he finds it, and each story has its own concerns. While the novels and the new series have created a Doctor Who Universe, it still inherits the story-telling possibilities of the old series: the model of time is not strictly consistent from story to story.

Patrick said...

I guess the lack of clear rules is better in the long run, they've got so much time travel any attempt to create a coherent cosmology is inevitably going to be contradicted later on. But, I still get the feeling that hypertime is the basic guide, there's some events that have to happen, and the universe will move to ensure that they occur, like Rose's dad dying. But, who knows, maybe that idea will be contradicted later on as well.