Father's Day had some of that 'the 80s were a funny decade' business (those clothes! that hair! that terrible Thatcher!), but nostalgia tends to bring a bit of mockery. What Father's Day has at its core is an extremely gentle and heartbreaking story that puts the Companion as the focus of the story, and which makes her one of us in a way that few Companions ever have been so relateable.
Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) never got to know her father. Peter Tyler (Shawn Dingwall) died in a hit-and-run accident when she was a baby. Her mother Jackie (Camille Corduri) waxes rhapsodic about what a great man Pete was to her daughter. Jackie tells her that when he died, they never found the driver and that he died alone; now Rose has asked The Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) if she can see him on the day he died, so that he would not die alone. The Doctor, albeit reluctantly, agrees.
They go to November 7, 1987, and Rose sees her father run over while getting out of his car on his way to a wedding. She is too torn to go to Pete, and asks to try again. The Doctor gives in but warns her of the dangers of having an earlier version of themselves at the same place. This time, as the car comes towards her father, her impulse takes over and she rushes to pull Pete out of the way. The Doctor is furious at her interference with a point in history, they fight, and he walks out on her. Pete, thinking the Doctor is her boyfriend, tells her not to worry, and Rose tells him she is also going to the same wedding. When the Doctor gets to the TARDIS, he discovers to his horror that it is only an empty box.
When Pete and Rose get to the church, Jackie is extremely unhappy. She thinks Rose is a girl Pete is having an affair with (something he may have done before, though he protests his innocence about when he was found underneath a pile of coats with a hatcheck girl). In the meantime, strange creatures are taking people out by devouring them. A child runs toward the church, screaming about monsters, and soon, everyone in the wedding party sees said monsters. The Doctor, having rushed to the church, tells everyone to get inside to take shelter within the old building.
Soon, the Doctor tells everyone what is going on. There has been a wound in time (though he doesn't tell them it's because Pete did not die as he was suppose to). Now these creatures are taking advantage of the wound by removing every living thing in sight: the younger the more vulnerable. Rose realizes that by saving her father she has brought these monsters, and soon, Pete realizes the girl who saved him (and at one point called him "Dad" is the infant Rose all grown up). The Doctor comes up with a plan to save them, and thanks to the fact that the TARDIS itself was thrown out of the time wound, it still exists and can be brought back.
Jackie is still suspicious of this pretty young thing Pete has been talking to, and refuses to believe his story that it's their own daughter. In the midsts of their fight, Jackie hands baby Rose over to adult Rose, inadvertedly does the one thing Rose was told not to do: touch the infant version of herself. When she does so, the creature manages to enter the church and devours the Doctor as well as the TARDIS. Pete has been observing that a car has been circling the church, disappearing and appearing at intervals. Pete realizes that with the Doctor gone, the only thing left to do is to make history take its proper course by putting himself in front of the car and allowing himself to die as he was suppose to do. Rose is torn at having to lose her father again, but Pete tells her that the few hours he had that he didn't before have allowed him to know the daughter he would never see grown. Pete rushes outside, avoids the creatures and is run over.
The story concludes with Jackie telling the young Rose the story of how her father died...but with a few differences. Now, the young man who accidently ran over Pete stayed. It was not his fault since Pete had just darted out in front of him before he had a chance to stop. More importantly, a young woman had stayed with Pete in his last few moments and then left, with no one knew who she was.
Paul Cornell's script for Father's Day is one where the science-fiction is secondary to the human story within it. The story is centered around not an external alien threat or even around the Reapers (the name given to the monsters thought I don't think they were ever referred to as that on-air). Instead, it deals with a far more complex situation: the human desire to change history for the better (at least to the one doing the changing) and the impulse to save a loved one, to have them stay longer. This wish to have more time with those who are no longer with us is a universal one, and that central point is what makes Father's Day an extremely personal story that touches the emotions. Having gotten to know Rose, we know that her father's absence left a great hole in her heart. Now, in a moment of impulse, she does what as an infant she could never have done: saved her father's life and more importantly, gotten to know him.
Of course, Father's Day adds some humor by showing that things between Pete and Jackie were not how The Widow Tyler presented them to her daughter. If truth be told, I think all of us suspect that the stories our parents told about each other and themselves had a bit of shading. For those who have children, the stories told might be exagerrated to make the parents look better or smarter. This isn't always the case, but especially for those who have no memories of parents who are gone, presenting the dead in a more positive light appears to be better: to show the missing parent as good is a very human thing to do. It may also be that the stories Jackie told the young Rose about Peter may have been how she wanted him to be remembered. It should be noted that, despite having a husband who may have cheated on her and who was failing in all his financial ventures, Jackie never remarried and always stayed true to Pete's memory. In short, Father's Day is the cry of the heart of the Tyler women: for Jackie, a chance to keep Pete alive and realize that she did truly love him (warts and all), and for Rose, a chance to bond with a man who was always a shadow in her life.
These are the moments that make Father's Day so brilliant. Piper is given an opportunity to be the center of the story, and moreover, a wonderful chance to actually act. She communicates the conflicts within this simple girl: love for her absent father, confusion as to how the reality of her parent's situation was different to how it was presented, and finally acceptance that she had to let go of her own desires for the complete unit. Her joy at finally getting to know her father, and then her heartbreak at having to lose him, is done so beautifully that the scenes between Piper and Dingwall are truly some of the best in Doctor Who.
Dingwall and Coduri are also wonderful as the troubled Tylers, people who have genuine flaws but who at heart love each other and especially their daughter. Coduri maintains Jackie's combative nature but as in previous episodes never makes her a harpy or shrew. She's just a woman who doesn't suffer fools gladly, and that includes her husband's philandering. The credit should go to Joe Ahearne's sharp direction of people. He brings all the conflicting human emotions and draws wonderful performances from Piper, Dingwall, and Coduri.
Ahearne also manages to keep the story going smoothly. Never in Father's Day does anything seem to drag or conversely appear rushed, and it's a credit to him as a director that he kept a steady pace throughout the story.
It's a curious thing that Eccleston for once is the secondary character. Granted, he's the one looked at to sort the dangerous situation out, but again, the Doctor isn't the one who can ultimately fix this. He's got hints of the manic Doctor, but he can rage like the best of them.
Another curiosity in Father's Day is, oddly, how uninteresting the danger from the Reapers was. Truth be told, I wasn't interested in how these creatures were devouring people in some effort to heal this wound in time. It's a rare Doctor Who where the alien aspects of the story are not the things that keep me riveted. In this case, it was the intereaction between Rose and Pete that was teh far more interesting thing. The Reapers as monsters weren't terryfing or interesting, but in this case I think it was because we needed some consequence of what could happen when history is altered, even ever so slightly. It appears that by saving Pete Tyler, history is getting jumbled (Alexander Graham Bell's first message keeps getting crossed over into the wedding party's cell phones--curious that they had cell phones in the late 80s).
Also, I didn't quite believe the idea that the TARDIS got thrown out of the time wound and how the Doctor was going to fix things. In this case, I hold that the emotional story was more important than the scientific one. Therefore, one won't be too harsh on it.
Father's Day really is about accepting death, of knowing that we all have to let go of those we can't hold anymore, and of sacrifice. It's a remarkably human story that would easily fit outside the realms of Doctor Who, which is what makes it so brilliant. I'll grant that the Reapers aren't interesting, and in an odd way seeing the Doctor himself devoured by the Reapers wasn't as shocking as one thinks it should have been (seeing the TARDIS be empty was more shocking). Still, on the whole Father's Day is a simply tender and beautiful and sad story, one that is deeper than most stories have been. This is because it reaches you at the emotional level, not with supernatural threats but with ordinary human flaws and emotions.
Father's Day allows us to get to know Rose far more than we have: both her heart and how she may think she's doing good when she really isn't. We get to see what she is willing to do for Pete's sake...