Monday, February 21, 2011

Doctor Who: Season 1, Episode 8 -- Father's Day

Reviews of Doctor Who -- the classic series, Big Finish audio dramas, and the latest episodes from the current show. Written and posted in their proper order: out of order.

I push my unabashed love for New Who onto as many people as possible (for the sake of good taste, I won't use the word "indoctrinate"). During their first or second Doctor Who episode, when an alien menace almost conquers the Earth or a clock ticks down the seconds to doomsday, my latest convert/victim will invariably turn to me and ask, "If he has a time machine, why can't he go back and stop this from ever happening?"

Usually, my reply is "Shut up and enjoy the story." Drama needs conflict, and there's no conflict in an all-powerful being saying, "So... I see you have a giant death-ray pointed at Brazil. I'm just going to nip off for a bit and make sure you were never born. Then as a topper, I'm going to go a little farther back in time and have sex with both your grandmothers. Maybe at the same time! Bye-bye!"

Sometimes, I raise my geek flag and explain the whole "timey wimey" thing: the Doctor rarely changes the course of history -- he's simply experiencing events in a different order than most. A perfect example: in one episode the Doctor realizes he is responsible -- or, more accurately, about to be responsible -- for the eruption of Pompeii and its resulting deaths.

Doctor Who plays fast and loose with its continuity, but it's been established again and again that actually changing the past can have terrible repercussions. That's why I choose to kick off my New Who reviews with Father's Day, with you potential converts/victims out there in mind, to save someone like me telling someone like you to "shut up and enjoy the story."

That's not only reason I picked it. When this show is really cooking, it can pack one hell of an emotional punch. Underneath all the monsters and jokes, most New Who -- especially under original show-runner Russell T Davies -- is about loss, grief, and the simple, sad fact that life goes on for the survivors. And on this front, Father's Day is absolutely devastating.

Writer Paul Cornell keeps the story tight and simple, giving the drama a chance to breath in one location for most of the episode. Rose, the Doctor's companion, wants to meet her father, who died in a hit-and-run accident when she was a baby. The Doctor takes Rose to the day of her father's death, giving her a chance to comfort him in his final moments. Instead, Rose impulsively (well, maybe impulsively -- that's a question raised but never answered) saves his life and changes the past, which, of course, almost leads to the end of existence as we know it.

Good stories make us reexamine those truths we already know, and Father's Day does just that. We never get enough time with the people we love, nor do we ever truly get over their absence. Given the chance, anyone of us would make Rose's decision to save her father, no matter the cost. And any father would make Pete's final decision. This is sci-fi at its best.

Paul Cornell wrings every tear he can from the script. It's poignant, funny, and bittersweet. He also nails Eccleston's Ninth Doctor, with all his rough edges and guarded nobility. Watching it again reminds me how much Eccleston gave to the role, and it's a shame audiences never saw his Doctor's emotional journey completed.

Father's Day also has one of the first series' best monsters of the week, which I won't reveal here, except to say they're a welcome change of pace. At some point every Doctor Who fan will throw up their arms in exasperation as Earth -- namely, London -- is invaded yet again by some alien menace. This episode gets around that hurdle with economy and style. The Doctor and Rose never left Earth during the first series, which makes this episode a very refreshing -- and emotional -- change of pace.

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