...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Day 3198: DOCTOR WHO: Father's Day


Today you find me strapped to Daddy's tummy and ready to be deployed as an AIR-BAG. That Moomin is consorting with REAPERS and I'm not having some time-looping Cortina run down MY Daddy, even if he HAS just confessed a habit of wandering into traffic!
Paul Cornell was a key figure in defining the Doctor Who New Adventures. Treating sci-fi backdrops as emotional landscapes rather than mere technical manuals (predating – just – Buffy the Vampire Slayer's similar use of fantasy) added vivid colour to the early books and changed the whole direction of the range. For the better.

So, even if it was his writing for other television (Coronation Street, Springhill, Children's Ward, Casualty) which officially got him the gig, it was completely right that he should be invited to be one of the writers of the revived series.

Frankly, "Father's Day" is so beautiful and sad that it moves both Alex and myself to tears, even watching it again after this time, and both Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper have referred to it as their favourite episode of the first season. Yet, it doesn't seem to have impressed the BBC's team of young Fear Forecasters at the time, and this ambivalence seems reflected in the story barely scraping into the top quartile of DWM's recent "Mighty 200" poll.

I think it's fair to say that this is because this is one of Doctor Who's most grown up episodes since it returned. And by that I mean it's one that resonates with the grown-ups more than the children, concentrating on some rather complicated – even alienating – emotional issues at the expense of an idea-gripping plot. The smartly recreated Eighties – and how brilliant to treat the Nineteen Eighties as "History" in what is the new series' very nearly pure historical – seems much more geared for fantasy-flashback appeal to mum and dad than never-heard-of-it interest to the under-fifteens. And this week's monsters, the Reapers (cough cough Chronovores), while brilliantly realised don't have a heck of a lot of conversation, or – more importantly – a catchy catch-phrase (just wait till next week, though). The threat of "time-bacteria" is at least as much conceptual as it is visceral, for all that they eat most of the cast up to and including Mr Eccleston himself.

(This one really deserves extra points for definitively killing the Doctor; even the Grand Moff hasn't managed that. Though he did kill him over and over and over and over again in his first Who TV story, it didn't take.)

It's important to say that Paul is not exploring the sci-fi consequences of meddling with time. In that sense it isn't a "boy's" story. This isn't "Turn Left", following the escalating cascade of differences the physical existence (or otherwise) of one person makes to time and events; Pete being alive is treated almost as a metaphysical wrong: he wounds Time just by being alive when he's not supposed to and by accepting his death he puts things right.

This really only makes sense if Time is in some way a "sentient" entity that can "accept" Pete's sacrifice and then set things straight.

In "physical" terms, Pete being followed around by the car that's "supposed" to have killed him makes no proper sense at all. And even if Pete's death at the end does banish the Reapers by resolving the major paradox, why does that restore all the people that they've eaten?

But this is a fairy story, flagged up at the start by Jackie telling the story to Rose in fairy-tale fashion and by the Doctor's "be careful what you wish for" remark, and so fairy story logic applies.

The heroine takes something from Time that she shouldn't have and only a sacrifice can put it back and make things right again.

The same archetypes can be read as a Christian parable: Rose's "original sin" is redeemed by Pete's sacrifice. Those Reapers are a bit "angel of death"-ish. Perhaps the events centring around a Church is a great big clue, although to be honest Churches and Weddings are a recurring theme in Paul's Doctor Who canon.

What is important is how people are affected emotionally, how they are changed. Rose begins the story with an essentially child-like view of her father – literally recalling her child-self being told about Pete Tyler, her lovely dad, by mum Jackie. As the events unfold she learns disillusionment, finding that not only was her father rather less than the image her mum painted, but that the perfect bliss of their relationship was equally an illusion. And then that view too is overturned as she discovers that Pete isn't stupid and a failure, but a good man, and actually quite bright enough to work out what is going on. So Rose finishes the story as a grown woman, with a clearer view of her dad and able to accept her loss.

And other people get better too, even though this is very much Rose's story. Pete is a better man by the end of the story, for recognising his shortcomings; Jackie too seem to have had some of her bitterness eased away by the changed history of Pete's death. And even the Doctor seems more compassionate by the end, as though his anger with Rose – misguidedly thinking badly of her, assuming that she has used him and his time machine just as Adam did last episode – leads to him realising he can forgive her, needs to forgive her, and perhaps helps him forgive himself a bit more too.

So in a real sense, it's a story where the hair-dos are more important than the sonic screwdriver. And you can see how that might be brilliant for all the mums (and dads) watching with the family, and yet somehow not quite connect to the core audience when it comes to remembering the highs and lows of the Doctor's adventures.

It's also a tale about the specialness of the ordinary. The Doctor explicitly describes Pete as the most important thing in the universe, "an ordinary man", and tells the young couple Stuart Hoskins and Sarah Clark, whose wedding Rose has inadvertently annihilated, that for all the sights he's seen, they are the lucky ones meeting on a street corner.

Here Eccleston's driven, haunted Doctor genuinely sells you the idea that this is something he feels deeply, even yearns for, avoiding the faintly patronising whiff of the tenth Doctor's "living your life one day at a time; the only adventure I can never have" shtick. (The tenth Doctor is settled enough that he just needs to park the TARDIS for a while if he really wants to live his life one day at a time, and it smacks of excuses for getting rid of companions; you get the impression that the ninth Doctor really couldn't manage it, needs to keep on moving or he'll implode.)

The conclusion isn't really that Pete Tyler is special because he saves the World; it's that he saves the World for Rose. And everyone's dad saves the World for their kids too.

But now, having said all that, if we want to look at "how might time work" under these circumstances, we are going to have to mention the Blinovitch Limitation Effect and I'm afraid I'm going to have to appeal to cod Quantum Mechanics. You're not surprised, are you?

But remember: this exercise is pointless – I am devising "operating rules" for (Doctor Who universe) Time based on a fable, not a documentary. Rose herself has a voiceover bookending the episode (unusual and brilliant to have a narration in Who, too), so if you want, you can read this as her remembered point of view of what happened, rather than an accurate account.

The major paradox here is that if Pete doesn't die on this date then Rose has no reason to come back here; but if she doesn't come back here he won't be saved.

It's not a proper Grandfather Paradox because it doesn't definitively prevent itself from occurring – Rose could still arrive in 1987 by genuine coincidence. You would have to argue that it is only the death of her father, and Jackie's subsequent revisionist retelling of family history, that makes Rose into the person she is, just the right person to be when she meets the Doctor, and without that formative trauma she'd never have travelled with him.

There's also a secondary paradox in the moment where she runs in front of herself and the Doctor's earlier selves, which is not what they saw happen.

Let's look at that secondary one first, though. What happens is that as soon as Rose runs past them, the earlier iterations disappear with as sort of fiery disintegration – although that is the same effect that we see as the runaway Cortina keeps popping in and out of existence so it's probably not an actual disintegration.

What we have been told about the Blinovitch Limitation Effect is that when two versions of the same person from two different time zones meet then there is a huge release of energy (and that this energy actually comes from the TARDIS – and we do see the TARDIS damaged by this, its interior "disappearing" along with the earlier Rose and Doctor).

So let's float a hypothesis: when Rose runs towards her earlier self, this huge energy release creates a rip in the fabric of Time: ultimately, when Pete dies this energy is going to be used to slightly rewrite history, but for the duration of events seen in Father's Day it creates a temporary, aberrant time line, a kind of cul-de-sac or loose thread flailing around off the side of the "real" History.

To extend that metaphor a little, Rose's actions "unpick" some threads from the Web of Time; Pete's death reattaches them.

While the threads are "loose", they attract the Reapers and so long as they are open ended the Reapers can get in; once they are reconnected to "proper" History, the Reapers are sealed out again.

So Rose, followed by the Doctor, runs through her "rip" into an alternative Universe. Her earlier self does not see her, because her earlier self is in the original time line – it's like Rose has stepped sideways in a five-dimensional direction. The "disappearing" Rose and Doctor are actually Rose's point of view back through the rip to the proper time until it is cut off.

And – and this is the clever bit – the appearing/disappearing car-of-death are the points where the flailing threads of Rose's alternate time line intersect with the original time line again. As the original source of the major paradox that point both attracts the rogue time line and, when it proves inconsistent again, repels it. Thus when Pete sacrifices himself at that intersection point, resolving the paradox, it allows the "time force" to bind the loose threads back into the timeline, and absorbing their energy and the changes that they effect.

In a "quantum" sense, if we assume that the episode is all from Rose's point of view and what we get is Rose observing some rather rare superposition states. Essentially, she is in the Schrodinger's-cat-is-alive Universe while everyone else is in the Schrodinger's-cat-is-dead one.

And that's where the people all "come back" from: they haven't "gone" anywhere; rather it's Rose's observation returning to the "main" timeline (or at least one consistent with everyone else's) leaving the Reapers to consume all the remaining energy released by that "Blinovitch zap".

(This might also explain a point about the third paradox: when Rose touches baby Rose and it doesn't blow the church to Dæmons-like flinders. If baby Rose is only an "echo", a thin quantum shadow of the "real" baby Rose then the second Blinovitch energy release is correspondingly much much smaller.)

So everyone – except possibly Rose – loses a "thin slice" of their superposition states. I say "possibly" because it appears that Rose herself is left with a different set of memories, remembering Jackie telling the story differently, so she herself is now, possibly, observing a subtly different quantum slice of the multiverse.

Next Time…Enter two of the series' most popular recurring characters, John Barrowman and Steven Moffat, as Flag-Girl and U-Boat Captain ask if anything is falling on London and discover instead that it's Volcano Day. Are you my mummy? Are you my mummy? Are you my mummy? Are you my mummy? Are you my mummy? Are you my mummy… "The Empty Child"

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