Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Grab Bag Reviews: "Father's Day"

And now for something completely different.... We're spinning into 2005 for the "new" series for this one folks!

In many ways it all began at the end... In 1989 Doctor Who was cancelled just short of 30 years on the air. The show had been floundering for quite some time -- bleeding viewers and being perceived as increasingly insular -- a show that was done by fans for fans... only. In the last season things had begun to make a turn around but it was too little, too late.

Producer Jonathan Nathan-Turner had remained in the role from 1980 until right to the end although he was beginning to tire of things. What kept him around was the knowledge that no one else wanted the position and if he left the BBC would take the opportunity to cancel the show. As it turned out his fears were realized anyway. There were those at the BBC who hated the show and were looking for ways to get rid of it and when the viewing numbers finally dipped too low the axe came down.

Considering how long the series had ingrained itself in the public consciousness, though, the franchise refused to die completely. All of the surviving Doctors and most of the surviving companions were rounded up for a charity special in 1993 called "Dimensions in Time" and there was a joint United States/British TV movie production in 1996 which it had been hoped would revitalize the franchise and bring in American money but it failed. In 2003, for the 40th anniversary of the show, the BBC created a special 'webisode' -- a flash-animated, nearly full-length story with a stellar voice cast which included Derek Jacobi as the Master and Richard E. Grant as the Doctor. It had been hoped that the story, "Scream of the Shalka", might revive interest in a live-action revamp of the series but it, too failed. There was, however, hope on the horizon.

Russell T. Davies was coming off some critically acclaimed successes for the BBC and had garnered enough clout to pitch his next desired project... he wanted to revive Doctor Who. Davies had grown up on the show and missed it's presence and he had an idea for shaking things up and re-introducing the series without completely throwing away everything that had gone before.

One of the biggest changes was to get rid of the serial format. No longer would the show be four half-hour episodes or two 45 minute episodes. Now it would be a standard 45 minute, single story per episodes (except in cases of the occasional two-parter). This change would help to sell the episodes to overseas markets -- particularly America where this was the standard format for sci-fi, action-adventure, and drama series'. Davies also gave the Doctor a new, tragic backstory. No more gabble about the Time Lords on Gallifrey because there had been a war and the Time Lords were all destroyed along with the planet. This now drove a new characterization of the Doctor. Additionally, Davies drove old fans a bit crazy by routinely refusing to tell exactly what had happened during this "Time War". It was mentioned but very little was, and still is, known about it. Davies also made the decision to break with the past and rather than calling this Season Twenty-Seven as if it were picking up where the show left off he instead decided to start over and 2005 became "season 1" of the "new series".

Davies also snagged some well-known faces for the main parts -- Christopher Eccleston was known for dramatic turns in movies like Trainspotting and Billie Piper was a pop star and growing actress. The result was a new smash hit.

And now... "Father's Day"

The Plot: Companion Rose Tyler's father died when she was still a baby -- killed by a hit and run driver, dying alone in the street. Now Rose asks the Doctor for a favor -- to take her back in time and allow her to see her father, to be there when he died and keep him from dying alone.

Hoping to allow Rose to have a little closure, the Doctor agrees but things go wrong when Rose impulsively decides to save her father instead! Now time has been ripped and changed, the Doctor finds that the TARDIS is gone and the mysterious Reapers have appeared -- monstrous creatures who are the universe's clean-up squad. They will destroy whoever and whatever gets in their path until the rip in the universe is sealed. But the rip cannot be sealed except with the life of Rose's father. Can the Doctor find a way of saving reality or will Rose have to face heartbreak again?

My Take: Okay, let's get this out of the way first... For the cult who believes that Rose Tyler was the be-all, end-all of Doctor Who companions; who think that she was the best thing ever... I hate Rose. I really didn't start out that way (unlike some) but as I watched the episodes I found her character thoughtless, lacking empathy, and too big for her own britches. There.

Russell T. Davies' era on the show had a theme of "ordinary people being extraordinary" and that is fully on display here in Paul Cornell's script. When Peter Tyler lives Rose defends her actions by saying her father is an ordinary guy it's not like he's going to be responsible for World War III but the Doctor counters that one ordinary person is living who should not be and that is the most important thing in the world. Later on, huddled in a church with a soon-to-be-wedded couple the Doctor asks them how they met. Upon hearing a rather everyday story of catching a cab after leaving a nightclub at 2:00 AM he enthuses that with all the things he's seen and done he's never had a story like theirs and their relationship is an extraordinary thing. In truth, it would be easy for these "ordinary-extraordinary" moments to overwhelm the story and come off as eye-rollingly cheesy but all of the actors involved here -- particularly Eccleston -- turn in nicely balanced performances.

Cornell's script also beings in a nice theme of "The stories we tell ourselves" as Rose confronts the truth behind the picture she has in her imagination of her father. That Rose's image of her father and mother's relationship has been shaped by the stories her mother told and it never occurred to her that her mother may have idealized that life to comfort herself after the loss. Rose even turns around later and spins her father yet another idealized version of his life to keep him from learning that he should have died. It is the life, the father she dreamed of having but Pete Tyler is a pragmatist who knows what Rose is struggling to learn... that parents are human too.

The story does fall down a bit, though, in that in order to move things alone to the finale it calls for Rose to do something monumentally stupid -- something that she was warned very seriously NOT to do by the Doctor. Also, despite the fact that the CGI monsters in the new series are an improvement over the rubber masks and hand puppets of the old days, the Reapers here have not necessarily aged well even with the passage of only five years.

The story is also a bit of a departure in being one of the few (if any) scripts I can think of where the Doctor not only doesn't save the day, he's not even really remotely involved in saving the day. This episode is a showcase for the character of Rose Tyler. Despite that, I think this is probably one of the best stories for Rose in the first season of the new series. She displays quite a bit more empathy and understanding and she learns some powerful lessons here and Billie Piper does a very nice job at conveying that to the audience.

Overall, "Father's Day" is one of the best stories of the new Season 1 and well worth looking into... even if you hate Rose Tyler.

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