The Long Game
‘The Long Game’ is often brushed aside by the Dr Who crowd as something inconsequential and dull, a cheap filler story written and constructed to give Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper a bit of downtime (in the way the so-called Doctor-lite episodes of later seasons are written to allow one or both of the main characters to spend time on another episode – done to best effect most recently in ‘Midnight’ and ‘Turn Left’ from series four). But this dismissal does ‘The Long Game’ as much of a disservice now as it did back in 2005 when Dr Who was still all shiny and new. Granted, it’s not the best episode of the new series but by the same token, in a series where the standard has remained impeccably high for nearly sixty episodes, it’s also not the worst (step forward ‘Fear Her’, from season two – not a bad story just an uninteresting, drab-looking episode). ‘The Long Game’ is just there, sitting self-consciously been the far more high profile ‘Dalek’ and ‘Father’s Day’ episodes and finding itself a bit lost in the reflected glory of those two landmarks.
In the scheme of the show’s developing new mythology ‘The Long Game’ is actually quite important. The episode serves tow main purposes; firstly, it reminds viewers of the importance of Rose to both the Doctor and the series. Despite the ‘you too could travel with the Doctor’ undercurrent of the series’ reimagining, ‘The Long Game’ seems be saying ‘Actually, perhaps you couldn’t…’ Because here we have young Adam Mitchell (Bruno Langley), rescued from Van Statten’s underground museum in 2012 and suddenly finding himself millions of years into humankind’s future on a satellite suspended high above the Earth. But it takes a very special person to step up alongside the Doctor and, as we (and Adam, to his cost) discover, it takes The Right Stuff – and Adam, being a greedy, self-obsessed little ape, just ain’t got it. That’s why he has to go. Secondly, ‘The Long Game’ sows some subtle seeds which will flower a few weeks later on, when the Doctor and Rose return to Satellite Five, the location for this episode, years in the future to find that the progress of the human race has been fatally retarded by the alien intelligence – a familiar one – which installed the Jagrafess aboard the satellite and used it to hold back the development of Mankind.
The core story of ‘The Long Game’ is traditional stuff indeed. The Doctor arrives at a location where humanity is being subjugated by an evil alien force and then sets out to stop it. Here humanity has been deadened and saturated by non-stop news broadcasts and when the Doctor and Rose left Adam wander off to investigate alone, they encounter journalists Cathica and Suki, only one of whom can win promotion to the mysterious 500th floor and an audience with the mysterious Editor and his own monstrous boss.
Visually ‘The Long Game’ is a striking piece of work. The interior of Satellite Five is as stark and grim as the story requires and the icy interior of the Editor’s ‘suite’ on Floor 500, operated by zombi-fied humans, is uninviting and claustrophobic. But there’s evidence of underfunding here, particularly in the functional, white-walled spike room and the cluttered, tightly-shot reception area where the TARDIS crew encounter the hustle and bustle of humanity. After a string of broad, wide-open adventures swollen with location filming, ‘The Long Game’ suffers by being all cramped interiors and unremarkable studio sets.
But it’s not all bad news. Russell T Davies’ script, as usual, races along full of snappy dialogue, brilliant characterisation and even a bit of the illogical plotting he’s so often pilloried for. The Doctor and Rose are subtly sidelined (they’re not even responsible for the resolution of the situation) as the story focuses on Adam and his inability to resist the lure of a biological augmentation (spiking!) which will give him a bit of a scientific advantage when he finally gets back to his own time. But the Doctor, quite rightly, won’t tolerate this sort of selfishness and he dumps Adam back on Earth at the end of a story, with an info-spike imbedded into his skull which will fly open at the snap of a finger. Looks like it’s a lifetime in baseball caps for young Adam.
‘The Long Game’, in retrospect, is a nice little pause in the high drama and action of the season so far. It’s studded with lovely little moments and performances; Simon Pegg is superb as the oily Editor (although it’s hard not to wish he could gave been ‘kept back’ for a bigger and better role later on) and Anna Maxwell-Martin (who later went on to win a BAFTSA for her performance in ‘Bleak House’) already marked herself out as ‘one to watch’ from her intense performance as the doomed rebel Suki. Tamsin Greig appears in little more as a cameo in the detached sequences where Adam has his little ‘operation’ and if there’s a dodgy performance then we’re looking as Christine Adams who seems a bit underwhelming as Cathica.
There’s not much more to say about ‘The Long Game’. It’s a nice, marking-time episode and it does what it needs to do smartly and efficiently. It’s not one you’ll necessarily go back to time and again – my viewing for this column is probably only the third time I’ve sat through it from beginning to end, the last being three years ago – but it’s certainly a polished and slick production, in many ways the sort of run-of-the-mill story the old series used to churn out with regularity. But ultimately the episode will be remembered for its swift disposal of Adam and for laying the foundations for the return of the Daleks, en masse, a few weeks later…
The new series of Dr Who had already flashed its emotional credentials in sequences in episodes like ‘Aliens of London’, ‘World War Three’, ‘Dalek’ and ‘End of the World’ where I swear there was something in my eye in the final sequence where the Doctor tells Rose about the Time War and death of is people. But here, in episode eight, in ‘Father’s Day’, is where the series made quite clear that this was a very different and very real sort of Dr Who, a series which was going to tug at the heartstrings with some regularity. Even now, over three years later, ‘Father’s Day’ still packs one emotional mule punch. It’s astonishing.
It’s a simple premise. Rose asks the Doctor to take her back to the cold November day in 1987 when her father, the man she barely remembers, was killed in a road traffic accident. The Doctor duly obliges but Rose changes history by dashing into the road and saving her father Pete from being run over. But history is not changed without consequences…and before long monstrous creatures are circling, ready to cauterise the wound in Time caused by Rose’s interference.
‘Father’s Day’ is a scintillating character piece, with series-best performances from Billie Piper (if not career-best) and Chris Eccleston (who tends to look a bit glazed in the more straight-forward SF yarns but literally crackles here). Piper is extraordinary as a young girl ripped out of her own time and suddenly finding herself, nearly twenty years earlier, establishing a loving father-daughter relationship with a man who’s until now been dead to her. It’s done with humour (the scene where Rose realises that her ‘Dad’ is flirting with her) and enormous pathos (so many of the scenes in the church where Pete slowly realises who Rose is, even if he can’t understand how she comes to be there).
A bit like ‘The Long Game’, ‘Father’s Day’ handles consequences. Rose has got her own way – her sometimes-dead Dad’s alive and well – but at a terrible cost as the whole human race faces extinction as the wound in time is healed by savage, batlike Rippers (a CGI masterpiece courtesy of the Mill). Writer Paul Cornell excels in the beautiful moments between Rose and Peter (Shaun Dingwall, astonishingly real as the baffled and very ordinary Pete) and later Jackie and Rose (even BBC Wales’ best make-up bods can’t take twenty years off Camille Coduri so she has to make so with a curly wig and our imaginations). Director Joe A’Hearne creates some wonderful images, from the cold, bleak church-under-seige and some marvellous stuff in the church itself, especially one memorable scene where Rose is right up in the foreground and Pete emerges in the background and walks towards her. The episode is directed with genuine style and A’Hearne never lets the material tumble into mawkish sentimentality.
If there are any faults in ‘Father’s Day’ then they’re really in some creative elements of the script. I can’t help thinking the episode would have been even stronger without The Reapers, if the story had just been told of a girl who has changed Time and the paradoxes and consequences which would come with it. But I suppose that would have led to a fairly visually-uninteresting, thrill-free forty five minutes and if here’s one thing Dr Who thrives on, it’s a good monster. Perhaps the threat didn’t need to be quite so worldwide – talk of the whole world being consumed is a bit empty when all we can see is one street and four Reapers; the story wouldn’t have been done a disservice if the Reapers had just placed the church and its environs in a sterile ‘bubble of time’ and sealed the wound from within. And even now the narrative loses me a bit when the Doctor salvages the ‘hot’ TARDIS key and uses it to recreate the ship inside the church. I’m not sure what that was supposed to achieve or when. But it looked nice though…
‘Father’s Day’ is an episode defined by its performances and its script. It hits all the right emotional bases and, towards the end, when Pete realises what he has to do to put things right – and Rose realises it too – the episode just about pulls out your heart. The coda – Jackie recounting the slightly-altered version of Pete’s death to Rose the toddler, and the Doctor and Rose sadly walking back to the TARDIS – is really about as tragic as modern Dr Who really ought to get.
In the end ‘Father’s Day’ is just a beautiful and affecting piece of television. It’s powerful, involving, dramatic and utterly, utterly heart-breaking. Watching it now reminds me of how stunning it seemed at the time, when Dr Who had never told stories like this, had never presented people like this, raw and real and scared and confused. The show has moved onwards and upwards in the three series and years since ‘Father’s Day’ but when the book of 21st Century Dr Who is written, this is an episode which really deserves and demands to be recognised and acknowledged as right up there with the very best of the new series. If, like me, you’ve not seen the episode for some time…go and watch it right now. Go on. Make sure you’ve got at least a hanky handy...
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