The Big Picture
- “Father’s Day” is regarded as one of the best episodes of Doctor Who, but its monster-of-the-week, the Reapers, doesn’t fit into the show’s canon.
- The Reapers serve a metaphorical purpose, symbolizing the destruction of Rose’s world if her father survives the accident, but their existence contradicts the Doctor’s ability to change past events.
- The Reapers’ absence from any other episodes of Doctor Who is necessary to maintain the possibility of the Doctor saving people from past events, making them an unfit match for the show.
If you ask anyone with even the slightest knowledge of Doctor Who what the hit BBC series is about, they’ll probably respond that it tells the story of an alien that time travels, saving people wherever they go. No matter which iteration of the Doctor we’re talking about here, that’s pretty much what they do: they travel to the past and future, stopping people and fellow aliens from meeting terrible fates. The long-term consequences for their actions are usually minimal, though the wrath of their many enemies has served as the catalyst for more than just one end-of-season story arc, from “Journey’s End” to “The Pandorica Opens”. However, there’s this one episode from the first season of the rebooted series that brings forth very immediate consequences for the Doctor’s (and his companion’s) actions. It’s an episode that is often regarded as one of the series’ best, but that, when we look at it from up close, doesn’t exactly make much sense precisely because of how its approach to time travel differs from the rest of the show.
Written by Paul Cornell, “Father’s Day” is the eighth episode of the 2005 Doctor Who series. Starring Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor and Billie Piper as companion Rose Tyler, it tells a beautiful, heartbreaking story about death, love, and the hard choices we have to make to protect the people we care about. It is, without a doubt, a true masterpiece, some of the best 45 minutes in the history of the Who-niverse. However, its monster of the week, though essential to the episode’s storytelling, is absolutely out of place in the Doctor Who canon. Said to be creatures that sterilize time wounds whenever a fracture opens, the aliens known as Reapers never appear again in any episode of the series. And neither could they, for their sheer existence would be enough to render 99% of the Doctor’s shenanigans basically impossible.
‘Doctor Who’s “Father’s Day” Is a Beautiful Story About Love and Death
“Father’s Day” begins with Rose asking the Doctor to take her to the day her father died, all the way back in 1987, when she was just a baby. Having heard throughout her entire life that her dad, Peter (Shaun Dingwall), died alone as the result of a hit-and-run, she wishes to be by his side in his final moments. However, when it’s time to go to him, Rose is just too shocked to move. She asks the Doctor for a do-over, but ends up doing something completely unexpected: she runs in front of her past self and pushes her father away from the car that was supposed to hit him.
This series of events — three Roses existing at the exact same point in time and space, a man surviving the accident that was supposed to kill him — opens Earth’s doors to an attack by a group of pterodactyl-like beasts the Doctor refers to as Reapers. According to the Time Lord, they appear whenever there is a particularly nasty wound in time in order to cauterize it. And they do so by killing and devouring everyone that stands in their way. Little by little, the people that were supposed to attend the wedding Peter was going to when he crossed paths with Rose begin to disappear, and it doesn’t take long for the Reapers to attack the church in which the event is taking place.
The Doctor, of course, does everything in his power to keep the bride, the groom, and the guests from harm. First, he locks them all inside the church, as the old brick walls pose a barrier to the creatures. Then, he tries to call over the TARDIS to take everyone away, but his plan goes downhill when Rose accidentally comes in contact with her baby self, causing a Reaper to materialize inside the church. Trying to use himself as a shield for the others, the Doctor is devoured, and it’s up to the humans to figure out how to save their own lives. Peter Tyler is the one that cracks the code. After noticing that the car that was supposed to hit him is trapped in a loop outside the church, he remembers a conversation he had with Rose in which she was unable to respond whether he was a good dad. Realizing that he was supposed to have died, he kisses his daughter and his wife, Jackie (Camille Coduri), goodbye, and marches to his death.
As soon as Peter is gone, the Reapers disappear, and the Doctor returns. Rose is unable to stop her father from dying, but she still manages to be by his side for his last breath. It’s a touching, heartbreaking conclusion for an extremely sensitive story about the things people are willing to do for those they love. In order to save her father’s life, Rose risks the very fabric of time and space. In order to allow Rose to spend time with her father, the Doctor doesn’t tell her that Peter has to die, instead opting to find other ways out of the Reaper situation. In order to allow his wife and daughter to have a life, Peter accepts his own death. And, finally, in order to give her father a hand to squeeze as he draws his last breath, Rose drowns her own pain and fear, now knowing for sure that there is no way to save him. There are certain moments in time that cannot be changed, Doctor Who often tells us, even if they are terrible. However, at least according to “Father’s Day”, that doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to make them a little less horrifying.
‘Doctor Who’s Reapers Make Absolutely No Sense as Part of the Show’s Canon
The Reapers are an integral part of the story “Father’s Day” wants to tell. Physically speaking, as a sci-fi monster-of-the-week, they pose a threat to humanity as a whole and must be destroyed so that life on Earth can continue to exist. On a metaphorical level, however, they stand for the destruction of the world as Rose knows it due to the drastic alteration of an event integral to her life. With Peter alive and well, Rose’s life would’ve played out completely differently. The people she knew wouldn’t have been the same, and maybe she wouldn’t even get to know the Doctor. For all intents and purposes, the world that the Rose Tyler who travels with the Doctor knows would cease to exist if her father survived the accident that was supposed to kill him.
Looking at it from this angle, the Reapers are indeed a perfect fit for “Father’s Day”. But when we look at the grand scheme of things, their existence in the Doctor Who universe just isn’t possible. The Doctor and his companions save people they know and don’t know from past events all the time. A classic example is when the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) and Donna (Catherine Tate) save Caecilius (Peter Capaldi, yes, that Peter Capaldi) and his family from dying in the volcanic eruption in Season 4’s “The Fires of Pompeii”. Such actions would be impossible in a universe in which creatures like the Reapers exist. One could argue, of course, that it is not the fact that they stop Peter’s death that draws the Reapers’ attention, but the coexistence of multiple versions of Rose and the Doctor at the same time. However, the Doctor and his companions have run into previous and future versions of themselves many times in both the classic and the new series. In Season 7’s “Journey to the Center of the TARDIS”, for instance, the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) has to tell a previous version of himself how to stop his ship from blowing up, not to mention all the anniversary specials in which the beloved Time Lord interacted with past and future incarnations of themselves.
The Reapers never made any other appearances in Doctor Who, and that’s to be expected: if their presence was a constant danger, many of the adventures that fans have come to love would simply not be possible. Can you imagine the Doctor trying to save someone from a completely different monster just to have the Reapers wreak havoc every other episode? It would be simply chaotic. But, if that’s the case, then why were the Reapers allowed to appear on “Father’s Day”? Well, for starters, Cornell’s story is just too good not to be told. “Father’s Day” is such a wonderful episode that it is more than worth a break from established canon.
Secondly, the episode originally aired back when the show was just starting its new run after more than a decade away from TV. Showrunner Russell T. Davies was still working out the details of his universe. It only makes sense for writers to try strange new things at this stage of a show. And we are sure glad they do: after all, we wouldn’t have gotten “Father’s Day” if not for it. But, at the same time, let’s just hope that the Reapers will never rear their ugly, pterodactyl-like heads again. They’re definitely not a good match for Doctor Who.