The Science of Doctor Who: s01e08, “Father’s Day”

The Doctor takes Rose Tyler back to the day when her father died, an event she was too young to witness and understand. In an impulse, Rose interferes with the death, and Time starts to unravel with fatal consequences to everyone nearby.

There aren’t many scientific concepts explored or mentioned in this episode, though Alexander Graham Bell is misquoted when cell phones start repeating “Watson, come here, I need you.” The proper quote is supposedly, “Watson, come here, I want you.” But on the other hand, Time’s damaged, so maybe it’s an alternate Bell speaking? As nitpicks go, that’s easily addressed.

I’m more interested in the way this episode treads in dangerous waters by discussing the way time travelers may interact with the world in their past and future. It’s a question that rarely bears serious examination, because things quickly don’t make sense. The show has contradicted itself many times over the decades, and will continue to do so as the seasons progress.

The Doctor tells Rose they can’t change something they’ve witnessed themselves, which fits the general tone of the show and prevents tension-killing easy answers to the many plot problems the characters have faced. But just what can we say is “witnessing”? Is a transmission over closed-circuit TV something one may change, but physical line-of-sight is not? What’s the range? If Rose looks at a star 1,000 light years away in the night sky, then visits a planet around that star 1,001 years ago, can she be certain that the supervillain won’t be able to blow the star up because she saw it perfectly healthy a “year” later?

Once again, you can figure out that there’s no way to answer these questions fairly and rationally because it makes the TV show impossible. And we don’t want that, so in the immortal words of the MST3K theme, “Just repeat to yourself, ‘It’s just a show, I should really just relax.'” But that doesn’t mean we aren’t allowed to think about the problem. We can set it aside for the duration of an episode, but entertainment doesn’t have to reflect reality perfectly. And I feel perfectly comfortable gently poking my favorite universes this way – it’s done with love, and I’m hardly going to stop watching.

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