Doctor Who’s Father’s Day Behind-the-Scenes Look Back

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“I became a TV screenwriter to be ready in case Doctor Who returns”, Paul Cornell tell RadioTimes.com – and dreams come true. Cornell, the author of numerous Doctor Who novels as well as episodes of television shows like Casualty, got lucky in 2005 when Doctor Who did come back, after a nine-year hiatus.

Leading the new iteration was Russell T Davies, who had written dramas like Queer as Folk and The Second Coming; Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper would play the Doctor and his assistant Rose; and Cornell would be given the responsibility of writing an episode. This episode was Father’s Day, a story still cherished in Doctor Who circles due to the particularly moving emotional drama at its heart – and this actual Father’s Day, we look back at how it got to screens.

When assigning episodes to writers at the start of the first season, before casting decisions were announced, Davies picked Cornell for Father’s Day because of the emotional work he put into his novels. Cornell, 38 at the time, used the 1967 episode of Star Trek City at the Edge of Forever as a point of reference. This holiday and Father’s Day involve temporal paradoxes. In the latter, Rose convinces the Doctor to bring her back to 1987 when her father Pete (Shaun Dingwall) was killed in a hit and run.

Unable to help prevent it, Rose causes a temporal paradox that attracts monsters determined to consume everyone. Pete then realizes that he must sacrifice himself to return to the status quo.

Cornell’s instruction was not to include any monsters in the episode. But he remembers thinking “I’m not going to have my only shot against Doctor Who and not have any monsters,” and managed to convince Davies of their worth. Initially, they were human figures in cloaks, and the episode’s main action took place in a pub, not a church. There were 18 months between script and filming, so Cornell reviewed a “huge” number of drafts.

Christopher Eccleston, Billie Piper, Shaun Dingwall and other Doctor Who (BBC) actors

When director Joe Ahearne read the script on his couch in his Archway apartment, he cried. “I’m not a crybaby at all, and it’s quite a responsibility when a script has that kind of emotional impact,” he says. “It was a much more moving story than I think Doctor Who had been known about until then.”

Cornell wrote several drafts before finding out that Eccleston would be playing the Doctor, but when he read the pilot’s script, he pointed out to Davies that the character’s voice sounded like Eccleston. In table readings, he says, Piper was “absolutely delicious” and knew the names of the entire crew; Eccleston vowed to play his lines, prompting Piper to do so as well. “He was immediately the doctor at this table, which encouraged her a lot.”

Tonally, the series and the episode had to walk a thin line. Ahearne remembers Davies saying it was a teatime drama; it would air when Ant and Dec were on the other channel. But Cornell says the team went too far in that direction to begin with, and decided to correct that, aspiring to be “Heartland Doctor Who” first and “Saturday Night Family Drama” second.

The shoot presented a number of challenges, including working in Cardiff in November meant the skies were darkening by 4 p.m. and the crew had to erect a huge lighting rig. A baby was also on the set, playing a young Rose; babies always wreak havoc with planning, says Ahearne, because they are available for such a short window of time.

But there was also the fact that the monsters – the first in Doctor Who to be entirely computer-generated – always changed in appearance. The actors were reacting to creatures that would only reveal themselves in post-production. Davies wanted them to have “a big bastard mouth,” Ahearne says. One design was rejected because Davies thought it looked too much like a flying part of the female anatomy. Ultimately, they take on the role of second violin, almost becoming incidental to Rose’s story and picking up a bit of criticism in the press for this reason.

When the episode aired, Cornell was elated. There was no instant reaction on Twitter, but the press loved it. Cornell had based Pete Tyler on his own father, who is now deceased. His father didn’t recognize himself in the character, despite the fact that they both did a series of odd jobs, including insurance.

Ahearne recalls that fans noticed this was an unusual episode because, while it deals with time travel, it does so in a way that prioritizes the emotional family component: a not in a different direction for the series. It may have gone under the radar for the all-action Dalek Invasions, but it seems to have set a precedent that has allowed the series to become less beholden to sci-fi monsters and more able to explore issues like those from an episode like Vincent and the Doctor years later.

To this day, the episode is extremely popular in the world of Doctor Who and was Piper’s favorite episode as well as one of Eccleston’s favorites. Cornell says he’s hearing from people – on Twitter, at conventions – who have lost their dads and are huge fans of the episode. It pulled off the rare feat of feeling like a Doctor Who episode while still working great for people who weren’t invested in the show.

“I had been practicing writing Doctor Who on television since I was a little boy,” says Cornell. “It was the absolute fulfillment of a dream for me.”

Doctor Who returns to BBC One later this year. To find out more, check out our science fiction page or our full TV guide.

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