|Technically more a Time Wyvern than a Time Dragon.|
It’s May 14th, 2005. Akon has finally unseated Tony Christie, giving the new series its second number one hit with “Lonely.” Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Destiny’s Child, Will Smith, and Weezer also chart. In news, Manchester United is bought by Malcolm Glazer, which is by any measure a key event in the transformation of the Premier League into a heavily leveraged playground for the super-rich.
While on television, it’s Doctor Who as only Paul Cornell can write it: intimate and Anglican.
Where The Long Game struggled with the need to fit itself into a single forty-five minute capsule, Father’s Day is one that could only ever have worked as a single, contained episode. Its structure functions in part because of its claustrophobia – because there’s outright no way out of the church. By keeping us in the intimate scene without breaks we get a sense of confinement no six-part base under siege ever managed. Because the base under siege is the model of this story, once you go far enough under the hood. Monsters are closing in from the outside, the Doctor is desperately trying to come up with a plan, and deteriorating political factions within the base eventually endanger everybody. (In this case the slowly boiling fight between Jackie and Pete that eventually results in the two Roses touching.)
But we’ve never seen a base under siege like this quite before. The base is so ostentatiously small, such that we can trivially get wide shots of it to stress just how trapped everyone is. Instead of having three Ice Warriors in one room talking about the terrible things they’re going to do to the base we can see the monsters flying around the church, scraping at the windows, laying siege to it. This is partially a case of Cornell’s choice of settings – a church is rather a more intimate sort of base than, say, a space station. But it’s also down to how the new series works, shooting primarily on location and using CGI monsters such that having a bunch of wide shots of a church with time dragons milling about is, if not trivial, at least no harder than knocking up three monster costumes.
And given that, the forty-five minute structure is great simply because it prevents there from being any release from the pressure. And it does so without any significant rushing of the plot. Because, of course, the plot of this is terribly thin. There’s very little actual concept to this: Rose creates a paradox by saving her father, and only her father’s death can right things. Everything else is just a set of contrivances to keep the plot running – most notably the entire “reforming the TARDIS out of the key and a cell phone battery” thing, which exists virtually entirely to get the plot to forty-five minutes. But it’s not like those forty-five minutes are overly stretched, simply because the sci-fi plot isn’t the point here.
No, the point is the scenes in which Rose, her mother, and her father interact. This isn’t a story about creepy time dragons (apparently officially “reapers,” but let’s go ahead and treat them unofficially. They look like time dragons, so that’s what they are) and paradox resolution. It’s a story about absent fathers and disappointment, and about the real and material world we live in and how it relates to the world of magic. The time dragons are just there to force a couple months of EastPowellStreet to resolve in forty-five minutes. (Really, more soaps should have time dragons. This is the central innovation of Game of Thrones: Adding dragons to a soap opera.)
In that regard, the episode, at least as a Doctor Who episode, positively luxuriates in the space it has. With an a deeply slender plot it has space to be by and large an episode of EastPowellStreet (and note that the setting is 1987, during the period where Doctor Who was on opposite Coronation Street and during EastEnders’s initial heyday), with far more of its scenes dealing with the Tylers than with time paradoxes, which are explained in an extremely sketchy and metaphoric fashion. (Compare to what we’ll be talking about on Wednesday, where the plot is absolutely massive.) This means that the base under siege is intimate not just in the sense of being a particularly small base under a particularly present siege, but in the sense of being a personal and intimate story.
In dealing with the new series I’ve tried to avoid going too far into hinging my interpretations upon the observations I made over the preceding twenty-eight months about the classic series. But it’s impossible to avoid the comparison to the Troughton era here. There’s a generation of fans that are convinced that Season Five of the classic series, airing in 1967-68, was the high point of the series. That season consists of seven stories, six of which follow the format generally described as “base under siege,” in which an isolated location is under continual attack by monsters on the outside. And for a large swath of Doctor Who fans this is the archetypal and best possible sort of Doctor Who story.
When dealing with the Troughton era I was increasingly critical of the base under siege, suggesting that it was increasingly stale and, worse, characterless. Plots hinged on the internal politics of the base, but in the broadest and most superficial way possible. Characters tended not to have “character traits” so much as broad roles generally defined in terms of how much they do or don’t listen to the Doctor. And at the end of the Troughton era the Doctor was exiled to Earth by the Time Lords in a move that I read as being in part a repudiation of the base under siege, its intrinsic xenophobia, and its failure to engage with the mundane world. His charge, in other words, was to engage with people and to be engaged with the earthly and human level.
With Father’s Day we get a story that feels almost consciously crafted as a response to this. (It’s telling that one of Cornell’s enduring bugbears throughout his writing on Doctor Who are his issues with the Pertwee era, which he simultaneously despises and is fascinated by the redemption of. In this regard Father’s Day can be read as actively taking up the challenge that the Pertwee era largely failed at.) It’s a base under siege, yes, but it’s one where the entire content of the conflict is personal and human. Even the base – an Anglican church – speaks to the basic humanity of the situation. It’s telling that what allows the handful of survivors to hole up in the church and survive is the fact that the church is an old structure, i.e. that it is something that mulches up from the (here we go) material social history of Britain and, more specifically, of that particular community.
More broadly, it’s a base that is under siege from “improper” family dynamics. The essential nature of the conflict is Rose’s desire for her father’s presence in her life. But it’s also telling that the wedding around which the chaos unfolds is an “improper” one of an already expectant couple. Or, rather, it’s under siege from the rejection of those improper dynamics. Nothing in the story, after all, suggests that Rose is in any way harmed by growing up without a father, or that Stuart and Sarah’s premarital sex is in any way condemnable.
Indeed, Cornell walks a rather wonderful line in these matters. On the one hand he’s completely unwilling to suggest that being raised by a single parent on a council estate is a “bad” life in any way. Rose remains – as she should – largely unimpeachable as a character. Even her big sin, altering history, is ultimately forgiven by everyone, with the Doctor even trying to help her get away with it in the end. But on the other hand the story absolutely validates Rose’s desire for her father. The fact that she had a perfectly good life (indeed, given that she met up with the Doctor, canonically the most wonderful man in the universe, she had the best life possible) does not mean that her sorrow over never knowing her father is invalid in the least.
This is interesting in several regards, as her sin is, in the end, a wholly theoretical one. The inviolate nature of the timelines is not an actual ethical principle, but rather a narrative conceit. In reality nobody has an ethical obligation to maintain the consistency of the timeline. It’s simply not a real ethical concern. But because narratives with inconsistent and self-contradictory timelines are very, very hard to do (since Aristotelean narrative principles depend in part on the assumption that once something has happened it will continue to have happened indefinitely), time travel science fiction tends to insist on an ethical injunction against changing history simply because the alternative is characters who break the narrative.
Part of this hinges on the nature of Rose’s supposed sin. Even though Rose does a bad thing within Doctor Who’s status as a sci-fi narrative, she doesn’t do a bad thing in any context that can be translated to EastPowellStreet. Within that show the idea that saving her father’s life in a way that harms nobody in an identifiable way is meaningless, and the fact that the universe resists it by sending time dragons to slaughter the entire population of Earth is mainly a reflection on the cruelty of the universe. (There’s a sort of odd theistic bent to this – the sense is that if the Time Lords were still around the universe wouldn’t be so hostile, but in the absence of divine protection we’re at the mercy of a deeply callous cosmos.) And so what we get is an odd end-run around the ethical question. The problem the Doctor has with Rose’s actions becomes ultimately one of her not listening to him, not one of her doing something “wrong” as such.
This implicates one of the larger and more difficult to untangle themes of Davies’s tenure, which is the relationship between the Doctor and romance. On the one hand Davies ultimately and unambiguously treats the Doctor and Rose as a love story, albeit one with an odd line in the sand it refuses to cross. (But Journey’s End is months off.) On the other hand, there is a continual hesitation, especially at this stage. The Doctor and Rose both repeatedly reject the label that they’re boyfriend and girlfriend, but on the other hand parts of their relationship are difficult or impossible to read any other way. Their fight early in the episode is coded as a lover’s quarrel, even though the Doctor’s fundamental issue – that Rose didn’t listen to him and blundered into danger – is basically a parental one. The disjunct here is interesting and complex. Rose throws “you’re not the most important man in my life” at the Doctor, accusing him of being romantically jealous, but by all appearances his objection is a paternal one. Note that their reconciliation is much more father-daughter – “just tell me you’re sorry.” And more to the point, the end of the story tacitly equates the Doctor and Pete, with Pete sacrificing himself not only to save everybody but to restore the Doctor.
It’s possible to read this upsettingly, as a messy and problematic entanglement of romance and paternalism that supports a “men are in charge of women” reading of relationships. But much like the xenophobic reading of The Unquiet Dead, that’s obviously not what the story intends. Rather, it seems to be indebted to a socially realist approach. (Another detail worth remarking on – Ahearne’s savvy decision to focus the camera on mundane objects from time to time, often after someone is eaten by the monsters. It’s a decision that grounds the entire plot in the materiality of the world, stressing how these characters exist in a larger social context.) Its message is manifestly not an ethical one so much as a documentary one: relationships are complicated. Things can work out and still be sources of sorrow. And, as with Stuart and Sarah, things can go wrong and still be sources of joy.
Central to this is the character of Pete. Tellingly, Pete is not a great father or a great man. In fact, he’s a deeply flawed man who ends up admitting openly that he would not have been a great father, and that he certainly isn’t the object of hero worship that Rose built him up to be. His marriage to Jackie was strained and probably doomed, even if it was based on genuine love. He was a slightly dodgy salesman – a sort of loveable n’er-do-well. His restoration to Rose’s life would not have been some massive utopian moment. And yet his absence is still allowed to hurt, even in the face of the disappointing revelation that he was just an ordinary man with all the foibles and faults that implies.
And the Doctor, of course, remains at an odd point at the margins of this. On the one hand he’s a magical figure who can give Rose the closure she needs over the death of her father, allowing everybody to have a moment of reconciliation Pete’s arbitrary death denied them. (Though equally, it’s his death that enables it.) On the other, he’s limited in his power, forced to the sidelines, and ultimately left out of the real resolution of the plot. His magic comes at a price, and, as with any magic, is as limited as it is potent.
All of which, it must be said, derives heavily from Cornell’s past involvement in Doctor Who, most notably in the Virgin New Adventures. Those unfamiliar with the wilderness years can track down the entries in the blog’s archives, but suffice it to say that Cornell was, for a period in the mid-90s, more or less the most regarded writer in Doctor Who. And his central idea was the collision between the Doctor’s epic grandeur and the everyday, with a particular focus on the human level of stories. This was the history Davies was drawing on when he tapped Cornell to be one of the additional writers for the first series, and Cornell’s brief was explicitly to do something with the tone of his Virgin material.
The result is at an odd midpoint for Cornell. Again, detailed readers of the blog will recall that I’ve not been entirely enamored with parts of Cornell’s work past Human Nature. He went through a comedic period that was largely entertaining, but that lacked the heft of his older “serious” material, and then had a stretch where his Doctor Who work often felt a bit frustratingly like trying to recapture lightning in a bottle as Cornell hit the familiar problem of trying to satisfy fans of his older material while growing past it himself.
But with Father’s Day he finds himself in an almost perfect milieu for his take on Doctor Who. More than any other writer, Davies included, Cornell is capable of writing Doctor Who inside a soap opera. The slight remove of time (this is only the second time of five that Doctor Who has set a story in the past and also within Doctor Who’s transmission history, taking place while Delta and the Bannermen was showing) is a clever trick here, because it renders EastPowellStreet at just enough of a remove to be conspicuous instead of seamless. In Aliens of London/World War III it’s possible to miss the soap elements for all the other content, but here it’s unmistakable. The 1980s setting also suits Cornell’s aesthetics, which are very much out of the anti-Thatcher counterculture of the time. Cornell stands out from other wilderness years writers in part for being more indebted to the Sylvester McCoy era than any other era of Doctor Who, that era in turn having been steeped in the anti-Thatcher counterculture. Virtually all of the wilderness years writers were fans, but Cornell was a fan of the program that had just gone off the air, thus providing the greatest sense of thematic and conceptual continuity. This pokes through in odd places in the story, in fact – one can easily imagine the opening scene, particularly the Doctor’s “be careful what you wish for,” coming out of McCoy’s mouth, albeit with a very different staging.
But Cornell also benefits from one of Davies’s major innovations within Doctor Who: the decision to have the Doctor continually involved in the life of a perfectly ordinary family, and to have that involvement recur in multiple stories. For all Cornell’s innovations and advances in the humanity of Doctor Who, the Tylers are very much a Davies idea, not a Cornell idea, and they end up providing the secret sauce that makes Cornell’s already very clever and successful take on Doctor Who jump to the next level. The result is a story that feels wondrously mature, and, more to the point, like Doctor Who that has grown up and developed. It’s packed with real emotional content and relationships that feel human. More than any other story this is the one that fulfills Cartmel’s note to Davies on The Long Game – a story about a man who’s worried about his marriage, mortgage, and dog. Coming after the half-successes of The Long Game it feels like a needed correction – a story set in the 80s that fixes the problems of one indebted to them, symbolically stitching the wound of the series’ cancellation from yet another angle.
And, of course, continuing the process of initiating the public into Doctor Who, staking out new territory that it can cover. With this story it properly, fully subsumes human drama into its wheelhouse. With only one gloriously Marmite exception, the series never goes quite this mundane and small-scale again. But having done so it acquires a weight and presence that shaped and reshaped the direction of the program every bit as much as Rose or Dalek. We get to add another thing to the list of what Doctor Who can be: an intimate story about broken families and ordinary lives. With monsters.