“Don’t touch the baby!”

One of Russell T Davies’ stated aims, in putting together the ‘format’ for this sparkling new series of DOCTOR WHO, was to put some emotion into this series. It was, we were to learn, to be all about humanity; what it means to be human, an examination of the human spirit in adversity, a study of Mankind’s instinct for survival. Templates for the new series were to be found in high-concept American genre shows – SMALLVILLE, ANGEL and, most importantly, my much-missed BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. It was clear that the new DOCTOR WHO was to be much more grounded in the ‘here’ and the ‘now’ than it had ever been before; it was going to be a show populated by real people – from the nearly-human Doctor to the very Earthly Rose. We were going to get to know these people in ways we’d never really got to know previous Doctors and their travelling companions, however well they were written and portrayed. DOCTOR WHO was an adventure show, it wasn’t a touchy-feely show about people. But not it’s 2005 and you really can’t make a drama about cyphers anymore; the audience need to believe in the characters, it needs to feel they’re real, it needs top feel their joy and suffer their pain.

Episodes one to seven of the new DOCTOR WHO have laid some pretty significant groundwork in several areas. Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper have given extraordinary life to the new Doctor and Rose and appearances by semi-regulars like Rose’s Mum Jackie (Coduri) and boyfriend Mickey Smith (Noel Clarke) have given the show a handy background catalogue of interesting characters. The episodes have generally tried to get under the skin of its cast; from the Doctor’s fascinating new persona, a near-classic study of the guilt of the survivor, a desperately sad, borderline psychotic condemned to spend an eternity alone, his own people long dead. Rose is the ingenue, a sparky, perky modern girl not unlike millions of shopgirls all over the UK who yearn for a bit more than their dead-end existence. Over the season these characters have been cleverly shaded with Rose becoming more confident and ballsy and the Doctor exposing the human side we always knew he had but rarely saw before. Their touching ‘no hanky panky in the TARDIS’ romance is perfectly pitched without ever descending into Mills and Boon territory and always staying on the right side of Saturday teatime acceptability. Even supporting characters have been portrayed as real people – from the sad, disillusioned Charles Dickens to the feisty, nervy Harriet Jones (MP for Flydale North) via gullible, greedy would-be companion Adam Mitchell and egotists like Cassandra. A rich panoply of intriguing characters who are all entirely believable despite the fantasy nature of the narrative they inhabit.

And yet it’s not BUFFY. It’s never been close to being BUFFY. The show has been touching and affecting on more than one occasion and the drive to make it as much like BUFFY as possible has been as fascinating as it’s been ultimately hopeless. BUFFY episodes like ‘The Body’ and ‘Once More With Feeling’, expertly crafted by show creator Joss Whedon, are, for those who love the show, rightly-regarded as modern TV masterpieces. DOCTOR WHO’s not come close – and that’s no criticism. But hold on there!! What’s this??? ‘Father’s Day’ – episode eight of the new DOCTOR WHO series and look – this is me, eating my words even as I’m typing them! In this startling forty-five minute episode DOCTOR WHO has sailed gracefully into the chartered waters of BUFFY and delivered a pulsating, incredible, emotionally-electric piece of television which is everything I could have ever hoped the series would be with quite a bit more on top.

Rose’s Dad Pete died when she was just a babe-in-arms. He was the victim of a hit-and-run. Rose persuades the Doctor to take her back to the moment of his death so she can witness his passing and at least be there for him as he slips away. But, whether by design or on impulse, Rose intervenes and saves Pete’s life. She’s disrupted the flow of Time and there are always consequences for such impetuousness?he Reapers are coming to heal the rift in Time.

I’ve given ‘Father’s Day’ a five-star rating because of the audacity of its story rather than because of its production or its script. Long-time fan Paul Cornell, one of the supporters of the show who very kindly kept the flame burning when the BBC had happily tried to extinguish it, has created an episode which tugs at the heart-strings and presents some very real, very raw emotions for its audience. This is what earns it the rating I’ve given it – a story about grief and its consequences is something most so-called adult dramas wouldn’t be able to handle, and to see it done in a corny, ‘camp’ science-fiction series is almost as daring as the very decision to bring back the series in the first place. Cornell’s script, set in 1987, is captivating stuff from the off, taking us back to the Tyler household in the early 1990s as Jackie sadly reminisces to young Rose about her late, largely-unlamented father. In the TARDIS nineteen year-old 2005 Rose is also remembering her father and a chain of events is set into motion which, whilst following a familiar and probably predictable path, is never less than compelling television.

There are so many things which make ‘Father’s Day’ work. Cornell’s script is slick and confidant, full of comfortable dialogue, real people communicating the way real people do. It’s a much more adult episode, too – years away from the silly alien names of a Davies episode and power-mugging of the likes of ‘End of the World’ or ‘The Long Game’. Over forty-five minutes we see the Doctor apparently craving the normality of the life of a couple marrying for the sake of an unexpected pregnancy, we see Pete clumsily discussing his past infidelity, we even see Rose’s horror when she realises her father, unaware who she is, thinks she fancies him. Incest?n DOCTOR WHO?? Saturday night at 7pm?? That sound you hear is Mary Whitehouse revolving underground?he was always so much happier with obscene vegetable matter?n

Joe Ahearne, who so recently gave us the incredible five-star ‘Dalek’ episode, is on top form here, handling the drab domesticity of a cheap suburban wedding and all its attendant mundanities as well as he deals with the FX heavy set-pieces involving the Reapers, scythe-tailed gargoyle creatures which materialise out of thin air and slaughter humanity as they try to salve the wound in Time caused by Rose’s interference. Curiously the Reapers aren’t one of the episode’s strengths; some of the CGI is a bit perfunctory, particularly in long shots and their inclusion in the episode, although it adds some excitement, seems like an after-thought. ‘Father’s Day’ would have worked just as well with some other less-apocalyptic consequences of Rose’s meddling with Time. The episode tries to convince us that the whole world has been ravaged by the Reapers – of course we don’t see any of this and some general dialogue by the Doctor about a handful of survivors doesn’t really get the message across. There are a couple of other narrative problems – I’ve seen the episode three times now and I still don’t really get all the stuff about the TARDIS key and the vaguely-reconstituted time machine. Some nice ideas are thrown in – the time-drift effect of modern music blaring from the radio in Pete’s car and the clunky mobile phone picking up Alexander Graham Bell’s first telephone call – but they’re not really developed and are likely to have either passed most of the audience by or puzzled them. There are some problems with the time paradox itself, too – there always are in time paradox stories – none of which are helped by the fact that we all know that Pete is going to make the ultimate sacrifice as soon as he realises that Rose has travelled through Time. Murray Gold’s incidental music veers towards the over-mawkish in places, as if the story isn’t confident enough of itself to allow the audience to pick up the emotional cues and requires weeping strings to point out that “this is where you feel sad”.

And, ultimately, you will feel sad. That’s why ‘Father’s Day’ works so well and transcends its criticisms. It’s not really about the monsters, it’s about the emotion. It’s about Rose coming to terms with something which has meant so much to her in the past. Outstanding guest performances from Coduri and Tingwall, brilliant as proto-Del Boy Pete, give the episode the dramatic gravitas it richly deserves. There are some in the fan community who don’t want the show to become a “soap opera” and mistakenly believe that just because the series is finally making its characters real and four-square, it’s just one step away from Albert Square. This is nonsense, of course. DOCTOR WHO is growing up fast – and like everyone growing up, it has to deal with some pretty difficult subject matter. The show really couldn’t survive today as a cheap runaround in Space – the audience is more sophisticated now and so, thankfully, are the storytellers. If DOCTOR WHO can continue growing up in public as well as ‘Father’s Day’ then bring on the next human drama. Let’s face it, DOCTOR WHO has never been this good before.

Oh, and that trailer for ‘The Empty Child’ next week? DOCTOR WHO as Hollywood blockbuster at last?? Mr Davies and co, you spoil us; let me sharpen up another ‘five out of five’ ratingU]]>

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