Doctor Who at 15: Episode 8 – Father’s Day

Why Pete Tyler is a tragic hero

father' day

Rose, there’s a man alive in the world who wasn’t alive before. An ordinary man. That’s the most important thing in creation. The whole world’s different because he’s alive.

Father’s Day is my favourite episode of season one, and definitely in my top five episodes of all New Who. Bouncing straight to it after The Long Game is definitely a palate cleanser, but I think the thing I love most about this episode is the very real human drama of it. I’m a big fan of tragedy, the slow but inevitable build to the ending that you just hope might not be the one you can see coming. The story that you watch again thinking that the second time round it might be different.

And Father’s Day is a tragedy. From the moment Rose saves Pete from the car, and we see London through that ominous red glow of the Reaper’s eye view, we know that things are not going to end well. I live for that stuff. The Doctor knows too how it will have to end and I think that is why he’s removed from the episode just as the action begins to build. The humans have to muddle through on their own and figure it all out, and we get to see it unfold. Billie Piper and Shaun Dingwell (as Pete) commit one hundred percent to the drama of the whole thing, and Camille Coduri as Jackie also turns in her strongest performance of the series. With the greyish colour palette and the small scale family drama playing out in the church, it’s like a sci-fi Jimmy McGovern story.

I am not saying that I think the episode is perfect. The Reapers are a very handy storytelling device here, but I’m certain that there have been many other occasions in Doctor Who when they should have shown up in the same way that they do here. They’re a very powerful invention, a very real consequence to messing with time, that seems to be forgotten straight after this episode – probably because they are too powerful. No one would ever get anything done if they rocked up every other episode.

I also feel like the Doctor isn’t at his best here. He probably shouldn’t have agreed to take Rose to see her father die, and he definitely shouldn’t have let her try for a second time. This seems particularly obvious to me coming off the back of The Long Game when Adam has just reminded him that humans can and do act in very human ways, and if the Doctor doesn’t like it, he should probably make sure not to put them in situations where they can just do what humans do. I know he apologises to Rose for being harsh with her, and I’m glad that he did. He’s the one who needs to take ultimate responsibility, because he’s the one who knows what can happen.

But really, those are quite small gripes in the grand scheme of things. The Reapers function perfectly well as an external force to push the real drama forwards, a visible reminder of what will happen if Pete tries to ignore his fate. And the Doctor, who is also too powerful for this story, exits for the entire third act, to give the stage to Pete.

Pete Tyler is not a perfect man. He’s very flawed, with his wandering eye, his seeming inability to stick at anything, and his quick, sharp temper. But he’s also kind, very intelligent and – in the end – impossibly brave. His tragic flaw is that he is destined to die, and he eventually realises, quietly and without fanfare, that he will not ever amount to anything more than who he is right there and then. For some reason, it always gets me that he makes sure to pick up the vase on the way out to meet his fate. He was holding it when he was supposed to be killed, and the fact that he takes it with him suggests to me that he really understands completely what has happened, who he is, and how he has to fix it. It is a subtle and really clever way to show there is no doubt in his mind.

Pete is not the first character to sacrifice himself for the greater good – there’s been at least three already in the first series before him – but the claustrophobia of that church and the kitchen sink drama feel to the story really make him stand out. It is these very small human stories that really stick out in Russell T Davies’ time as the showrunner, and Pete’s tragic tale is one of the very best.

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