Friday, December 2, 2011

The Keys to the TARDIS: Christopher Eccleston and "Father's Day"

Doctor Who’s 2005 regeneration (under the watchful eye of executive producer, chief writer, and showrunner Russell T. Davies) is a triumph of pop-cultural storytelling. By turns philosophical, adventurous, emotional, and exciting, Davies’s take on the world’s longest-running science-fiction television series fuses all these elements into a satisfying, gloriously entertaining whole. From the opening moments of Series 1’s premiere “Rose” (1.1)—or Series 27’s premiere, depending upon how one counts—the pace is brisk, the action is explosive, the mood is ominous, the production is handsome, the writing is tight, and the acting is exceptional.

Davies’s undeniable stroke of genius in resurrecting Who is casting Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor. A terrific actor well known in England for starring in Peter Flannery’s 1996 television series Our Friends in the North (alongside future 007 Daniel Craig) and modestly popular in the United States for appearing in such films as David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999) and Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others (2001), Eccleston gives the Doctor such depth, soul, and passion that his performance ranks among the best ever seen on television. Doctor Who has always hired good actors for its lead role, but Eccleston, inheriting the part from Paul McGann (whose noble evocation of the Eighth Doctor amazingly survives Fox Television’s 1996 telefilm, an abortive and misguided attempt to resurrect the then-dormant series), courageously plays the Ninth Doctor as a traumatized war veteran responsible for destroying both the Time Lords and their mortal enemy, the Daleks, in a cosmic battle known as the Time War.

The Ninth Doctor’s ferocity and joviality, as his opening adventures make clear, cloak the marrow-deep sadness he carries for committing genocide on a scale unimaginable to most human beings. Such melancholia shouldn’t be overlooked, for now that we are deep into the Matt Smith era (I write these words just after Series 6 has appeared on DVD), some New and Old Whovians may forget that Eccleston paved the way for David Tennant’s marvelous turn as the Tenth Doctor and Smith’s wonderful embodiment of the Eleventh Doctor. Without Eccleston anchoring Doctor Who’s high-flying adventures in equal measures of regret, sorrow, joy, and wonder, yet investing the protagonist with enough foreignness to convey the Doctor’s prodigious alien intelligence, Tennant and Smith would never have received the opportunity to make the part their own.

By the time we reach “Father’s Day” (1.8), the Ninth Doctor’s relationship with his companion, Billie Piper’s feisty Rose Tyler, has matured to the point that he grants her request to travel back to 1987 England (when she is still a baby) to see her father, Pete Tyler (Shaun Dingwall), before the man is fatally struck by a speeding car while on his way to attend the wedding of his wife Jackie’s (Camille Coduri) friends Sarah Clarke (Natalie Jones) and Stuart Hoskins (Christopher Llewellyn). Jackie has told Rose stories about Pete’s kindness, cleverness, and charity as long as the girl can remember, so the opportunity to see her father’s final day intoxicates Rose to the point that, before agreeing to visit 1987, the Doctor expresses concern for her emotional equilibrium. Rose, of course, claims to be fine, but finds herself unable to comfort Pete after seeing him killed by a car whose driver refuses to stop. Upset by this understandable hesitance, Rose convinces the wary Doctor to travel back through time again, to just before Pete’s death, so that his final moments are not lonely ones. Rose, however, cannot stand idly by as Pete steps into the speeding car’s path a second time. She pushes him out of the way, thereby saving his life.

“Father’s Day,” therefore, becomes the first New Who episode to deal explicitly with the consequences of a time paradox. Earlier entries allude to the difficulties that might ensue if the Doctor “crosses his own time stream,” mostly to explain why he does not travel back to prevent the Time War’s rampant destruction, but “Father’s Day” makes such fears terrifyingly tactile. Enormous flying creatures known as Reapers (that resemble unholy crossings of bats and Komodo dragons) appear to repair the damage that Pete’s survival inflicts on the space-time continuum by destroying everything in sight.

This premise soars for four principal reasons: Paul Cornell’s emotionally nuanced script, Joe Ahearne’s assured direction, Dingwall and Piper’s affecting chemistry as father and daughter, and Eccleston’s indomitable performance. Cornell, introducing his teleplay in Doctor Who: The Shooting Scripts (the invaluable 2005 book that collects all thirteen Series 1 teleplays into a nicely illustrated volume), writes that the story came to him in a dream about his own father offering to sacrifice his life for Cornell’s when, in the dream, Britain reinstates the military draft. “I woke up crying,” Cornell reveals, “feeling that I’d been told something true about him that he would never have told me himself” (278). This notion of truth, particularly the truth that hides behind the stories we hear about our loved ones, informs Cornell’s crackerjack script for “Father’s Day,” the episode that Billie Piper, in her DVD audio commentary, confesses is her favorite Series 1 outing. And for good reason. Rose, the Doctor, and Pete Tyler discover an inescapable lesson about truth: It is rarely easy.

Cornell begins his script with a photo of Pete Tyler, who “looks great: capable and strong” (280), before alternating scenes in Jackie Tyler’s bedroom (where she extols Pete’s virtues to the six-year-old Rose) and in the TARDIS (where the Doctor agrees to visit 1987 after telling grown-up Rose, “Your wish is my command. But be careful what you wish for”). This line notifies the script’s careful reader and the episode’s attentive viewer that the Doctor suspects Rose will make a dangerous decision, but he takes her to see Pete anyway. Just as important, however, is the fact that the story begins with a photograph of Pete Tyler, not an actual shot of him going about his day. The picture, as a constructed representation, allows young Rose to believe Jackie’s stories about her father because Jackie weaves a tale of martial bliss validated by the many happy stills displayed in the family photo album.

Grown Rose, however, discovers that her father is not so impressive. She and the Doctor first visit a registry office to watch Pete and Jackie’s wedding. Pete stumbles through the ceremony, delighting the Doctor but disappointing Rose, who comments, “I thought he’d be taller.” After saving Pete’s life, Rose goes with him to the Tyler flat, which Cornell describes as full of “bowling trophies on the mantelpiece; half-made DIY projects; piles of unsold health drinks; detergent in boxes” (285) to suggest that Pete’s dreams have never taken flight. Rose realizes the extent of Jackie’s mythmaking about her father when, after an argument about Rose’s decision to change history ends with the Doctor storming off, Pete and Rose drive to the church for Sarah and Stuart’s wedding. Jackie, done up in “an extraordinary perm” (291) that the episode realizes in spectacular fashion, immediately suspects Rose of being an extramarital paramour before demeaning Pete as “a failure—born failure, that one!” Rose cannot stand her parents’ bickering, eventually blurting out, “Stop it! You’re not like this. You love each other.” Piper’s delivery of these lines is plaintive, wistful, and crestfallen as Rose realizes that her parents are an ordinary couple besieged by money problems, broken dreams, and marital strife. Ahearne captures this moment in medium and close-up shots that record how well Piper, Dingwall, and Coduri play a fractured family.

Once the Reapers arrive on scene, having consumed several adults and children in the church’s neighborhood (but not, in one of the episode’s best details, the younger version of Rose’s eventual boyfriend Mickey Smith, who races toward the safety of the wedding party), the Doctor discovers that the TARDIS is nothing more than an empty phone box. Realizing that Pete’s survival has produced “a wound in time,” the Doctor theorizes that the Reapers are cosmic “bacteria, taking advantage, streaming in from outside” that attempt to sterilize the wound by destroying the time paradox created by Rose. He and the wedding party’s survivors take refuge in the church, whose old walls temporarily repel the Reapers, but, in a disturbing moment, the Doctor confesses to Rose, “Between you and me, I haven’t got a plan. No idea. No way out.”

This admission contrasts the Doctor’s earlier comment to Sarah and Stuart that he will try to save them because, despite all his travels, he has never lived a life as important as theirs. The Doctor’s kindness masks his doubt, which he cannot hide from Rose. Eccleston is so good in these scenes, moving from surprise to resoluteness to comfort to uncertainty, that the Doctor’s emotional transitions are seamless. The Doctor even hides from Pete the odd fact that the car that ran Pete down in the original timeline keeps appearing for brief moments outside the church, indicating the time paradox’s solution: Pete must sacrifice himself to restore the universe to its original state.

Pete, however, works out this final detail on his own, without having to be told. He proves more insightful than Jackie, Rose, or the Doctor expect, piecing together clues such as Rose inadvertently calling him “Dad,” his instinctive trust of Rose, and the lethal car’s repeated appearances outside the church. The emotional honesty of the scene in which Pete convinces Jackie that grown Rose is, indeed, the future version of their baby daughter is both humble and moving, while Pete’s determination to right the paradox’s wrongs becomes inescapable when the Doctor surrenders himself to a Reaper that finds its way inside the church. Although the remaining wedding-party members remain safe thanks to the Doctor’s death, Pete knows that they will not last long once the Reapers breach the church’s old walls.

Pete’s final dialogue, beautifully delivered by Dingwall, summarizes the episode’s major themes: “I had all these extra hours. No one else in the world ever had that. On top of that, I get to see you [Rose]. And you’re beautiful. How lucky am I? So come on. Do as your Dad says.” Pete then leaves the church, runs into the car’s path, and dies with Rose cradling him. Another sign of Cornell’s, Ahearne’s, and Davies’s dramatic maturity is that Pete offers no parting words to his daughter. He gazes at her, a slight expression of recognition overtaking Pete’s face as he dies. Dingwall, in a measure of his talent, plays this scene precisely as Cornell writes it: “PETE looks up at Rose, just for a second, with what looks like recognition in his eyes. She takes his hand. A hint of a smile from him. Then he’s gone” (311).

All is restored, but “Father’s Day” is not a reset-button episode in which all characters and events return to the exact status they inhabited before time went awry. Flashbacks reveal that Jackie tells six-year-old Rose that the car’s driver stopped because the crash wasn’t his fault. “For some reason, Pete just ran out,” Jackie says, adding that no one could identify the blonde woman who held Pete’s hand and kissed his forehead while he lay dying. Rose and the Doctor, however, know the truth. Pete’s death is meaningful because they remember it.

This conclusion isn’t schmaltzy, but bittersweet thanks to Piper and Eccleston’s sadness, as well as Murray Gold’s mournful score. The episode’s largest drawback—the absence of blood or even torn clothing on Pete’s dying body—was a deliberate decision by the production team, according to producer Phil Collinson’s audio commentary. Perhaps it’s ungallant to expect realism from an episode in which giant, flying dragon-bats attempt to reverse a time paradox, but Doctor Who’s nominal status as children’s television shouldn’t prevent creases and smudges on Pete’s jacket. Plus, the Reapers’ point-of-view shots—Cornell’s audio commentary says that these aerial views were quickly christened “Reapervision”—aren’t terribly inspiring: simple red waves overlay the footage in images that look as if the optical-effects people used an early, beta-tested version of Photoshop.

These quirks are forgivable because “Father’s Day,” among its many benefits, suggests that, up until this point in Series 1, Rose has unconsciously searched for a father figure to replace the deceased Pete. This idea, subtly made rather than hammered home, explains Rose’s impulsive choice at the conclusion of the first episode to leave behind her mother, her boyfriend, and her life to travel with the Doctor, who initially stands in for Rose’s absent father, although he becomes friend, confidante, sparring partner, and romantic interest. The love that blossoms between Rose and the Tenth Doctor, “Father’s Day” reminds us, is not simply due to David Tennant’s handsome face and great acting (my sister, for one, thinks Eccleston is just as attractive and talented), but because the Ninth Doctor forges a relationship that respects, appreciates, and excites Rose. Had Eccleston continued into Series 2, Rose may well have confessed her love to the Ninth Doctor while standing on the shores of Bad Wolf Bay in “Doomsday” (2.13).

Rose’s father search, I must note, is no mere exercise in Freudian yammer. “Father’s Day” dovetails with another of New Who’s most significant episodes, Robert Shearman’s groundbreaking and masterful “Dalek” (1.6), to demonstrate how reciprocal the Doctor and Rose’s relationship is. When the Ninth Doctor loses control in “Dalek,” his war trauma manifests in contempt for the once-powerful species’ lone survivor. The Doctor torments the creature with condescending stories of the Daleks’ destruction before threatening to exterminate it with a large gun, but Rose’s human sympathy forces the Doctor to recognize just how merciless a man he has become. Rose rights the Doctor’s emotional equilibrium to help begin healing his extraordinary guilt over the Time War, a debt he starts to repay in “Father’s Day” by helping Rose confront one of her great traumas: the death of a father she cannot remember. This storyline culminates in “Journey’s End” (4.13) when the Tenth Doctor reminds Rose that she saved him, a man literally born from blood and battle who would have been far more sinister without her presence. But Cornell and “Father’s Day” were there at the beginning, refining these adult themes into emotionally complex drama.

“Father’s Day” is also crucial to New Who because it mounts a sustained argument for why, although many fans consider the Tenth Doctor to be their favorite and many others call the Eleventh Doctor “my guy,” the Ninth Doctor is, as he himself might exclaim, “Fantastic!” The same can be said (despite a few false moments) for Series 1, although some viewers seem to have forgotten its existence. Steven Moffat thankfully has not, as Charles Dickens’s brief appearance in “The Wedding of River Song” (6.13)—played once again by Simon Callow—attests.

Russell T. Davies has described Eccleston’s performance as the Ninth Doctor as superb in numerous press interviews, audio commentaries, behind-the-scenes documentaries, and podcasts despite enduring questions about how cozy their relationship was during Series 1’s production. In his Shooting Scripts introduction to “Bad Wolf” (1.12) and “The Parting of the Ways” (1.13), Davies writes, “My real job was to give Christopher Eccleston’s magnificent Doctor the best possible ending; to make him Rose’s saviour” (431). I agree: Eccleston and the Ninth Doctor were (and are, thanks to DVDs, DVRs, and Netflix) splendid. This judgment, I hasten to add, takes nothing away from Mr. Tennant and Mr. Smith. I love them both, just as I love the television series that they have helped bring to life since 2005. I just don’t want to forget Mr. Eccleston, the man whose brilliant portrayal of the 900-year-old Doctor made this role work—dare I say it?—better than it had before.

For people such as myself, who lost their dads at a young age, but even for people who didn’t, “Father’s Day” hits all the right notes. It begins as wish fulfillment, becomes pensive, turns pessimistic, but ends with honor and dignity and death. Paul Cornell, in the end, is his story’s most adept critic, writing in the teleplay’s introduction that his own father (the man whose sacrifice in Cornell’s dream inspired the episode’s premise) called after watching the initial broadcast. Cornell’s dad “said he could see that the episode had the same basic plot as all my work, which I hadn’t realised until then. I’d say that goes something like this: grace gets written into the world, in such a way that it turns out it’s always been there” (278). That’s a lovely and appealing thought, not a cloying or trite one. I wish I’d come up with it myself.

But I have no regrets. Thankfully, I have “Father’s Day” to experience, to ponder, and to enjoy. It still moves me after all these years. So watch this entry again: it may do the same for you.

Work Cited
Doctor Who: The Shooting Scripts. Foreword by Russell T. Davies. London: BBC Books, 2005.

Contributor’s Bio
Jason P. Vest, associate professor in the University of Guam’s Division of English and Applied Linguistics, loves Doctor Who so much that his USB hub is a small TARDIS, complete with sound effects and blinking light. This confession should embarrass him. Should, but doesn’t.