Rose’s father died in 1987, hit by a car, with no-one to offer him comfort in his final minutes. Rose asks the Doctor to take her back there so that she could be with her dad as he died. Witnessing the accident, she can’t bring herself to go near. The Doctor takes her back again, at which point she decides to run into the road to save her dad’s life.
The Doctor gets angry and storms off, only to find that the interior of the TARDIS has disappeared. Rose befriends her father. Rose struggles to befriend her mother (who has recently given birth to the baby Rose). Rose’s mother thinks that her father is cheating on her with Rose. The car that hit Rose’s dad keeps appearing and disappearing on the road. Some enormous flying monsters begin snatching people from playparks. The Doctor gets everyone to seek refuge in a church. Rose touches her baby-self, allowing the monsters into the church. Rose’s dad throws himself under the car, causing the monsters to disappear and everyone who had been killed to reappear. Rose comforts her father as he dies in the middle of the road. The Doctor and Rose make up.
This is what the world expects from a time-travelling sci-fi show. Here are busybody meddlers from the future going back in time to rearrange things how they want them to be, leaving destruction in their wake. For good measure we even get to enjoy the old “make sure the other version of you doesn’t see this version of you” trope. Not great ingredients to cook with.
Mercifully, what this episode lacks by way of original plot is more than made up for in its theological subplot, which gives an original perspective on the value of life and what it means to die well.
Another stupid ape
Rose gets the chance to play bad cop in this episode. She cooks up a plan to go back in time to see her father’s death so she can be at his side as he breathes his last. It’s a noble wish, but a totally foolish one: the temptation to save his life is too great to resist.
The Doctor is angry about it. He had wanted to believe that Rose was benignly interested in time-travel, but this episode brings a crushing realisation that Rose is no different to everyone else he has ever met: she wants to get something more out of it. He goes as far as to suggest that she had plotted to save her dad’s life all along.
The Doctor: When we met, I said travel with me in space. You said no. Then I said time machine.
Rose: It wasn’t some big plan. I just saw it happening and I thought, I can stop it.
So Rose is an opportunist saviour. But the Doctor still isn’t impressed. Opportunism or premeditation aside, Rose has still acted selfishly to solve her personal angst without any regard for the consequences. He is scathing.
I did it again. I picked another stupid ape. I should’ve known. It’s not about showing you the universe. It never is. It’s about the universe doing something for you.
So what is symptomatic behaviour of “another stupid ape” is to act selfishly. To try to manipulate circumstances to bring personal happiness. To make impulsive decisions, regardless of what might happen as a result.
The most important thing in creation
In the circumstances, the Doctor’s regard for Rose’s father is remarkably high. This guy is a cheat, a liar and (by the time the squawking monsters appear) an inconvenience. Yet the Doctor has high praise for him.
Rose: But it’s not like I’ve changed history…
The Doctor: Rose, there’s a man alive in the world who wasn’t alive before. An ordinary man. That’s the most important thing in creation. The whole world’s different because he’s alive.
In the mind of the Doctor, Rose is a “stupid ape” because she saved her father. Her father is “the most important thing in creation” because he simply happens to exist.
A similar exchange with Stuart and Sarah (whose wedding the winged creatures have gatecrashed) reinforces this baseline assumption that the normalness of humanity is what makes it special. The happy couple explain how they got together, in a banal anecdote involving a nightclub and a late-night taxi.
Sarah: I don’t know what this is all about, and I know we’re not important.
The Doctor: Who said you’re not important? I’ve travelled to all sorts of places, done things you couldn’t imagine, but you two? Street corner, two in the morning, getting a taxi home? I’ve never had a life like that. Yes, I’ll try to save you.
This tells us a couple of things. The first is that human beings are special. Just as in Christian theology, humans are viewed as the high-point of creation. (According to Genesis, creation was ‘good;’ creation with humans was ‘very good.’)
The second is that humans lose their value and respectability in the Doctor’s eyes as they make poor choices. Rose’s default position was “the most important thing in creation” but she became “another stupid ape” when she ran across the road to save her father from a speeding car.
The most wonderful man in the world
After the allotted amount of suspense has built, Rose’s dad figures out what must happen to make the scary monsters go away. He must be hit by the car that should have killed him the first time. Only this time, Rose is able to be by his side and to hold his hand while he dies. Thus the narrative tension is resolved: Rose gets what she came for, and the world is put back to rights.
Pete: I never read you those bedtime stories. I never took you on those picnics. I was never there for you.
Rose: You would have been.
Pete: But I can do this for you. I can be a proper dad to you now.
Being a “proper dad” is about self-sacrifice. In one sense, Pete is only doing what he was meant to have done all along. Yet his active decision to give his life instead of to attempt to save it, as Rose had done on his behalf, marks him out as a hero. He acts responsibly. “Normal” Pete does something extraordinary (even if it was meant to happen anyway).
Before Rose interfered, the story of Pete’s death was one of sadness. He had died “badly” – he was alone and unloved. After Rose messes around with her own timeline, the story of Pete’s death becomes one of happiness. He dies “well” – he has his daughter at his side, and he dies in order to save others. The same main event, but given a whole new meaning because of the choices that he is able to make.
Rose: Peter Alan Tyler, my dad. The most wonderful man in the world. Died the 7th of November, 1987.
By default, humans are the most important things in creation. Selfishness marks Rose out as being a “stupid ape.” Selflessness marks Pete out as being “the most wonderful man.”
Works-righteousness and true righteousness
So in the world of Doctor Who, the value of a person is determined by their responses to moral-ethical questions. These things are in flux: make a bad choice and the Doctor will downgrade you; make a good one and he will value you more highly.
Christian theologians would describe this moral order as a form of works-righteousness. All men can be OK before God on their own merit, but some are more OK than others. There are orders to how right we stand before God, which are based on the things we have done either to please or to upset him. Like Rose and her dad, our choices will determine our value. We might become a “stupid ape” or “the most wonderful man” depending on our life choices.
That model is a fairly risky one to follow if you’re a fan of getting to sleep at night. It forces me to rely upon my efforts to stand before God. And I know for myself that my efforts aren’t worth standing on. Biblical Christianity opposes that model wholesale. Instead, it teaches a true righteousness that comes from God without any contribution from man whatsoever.
No matter what bad choices we make, God doesn’t love us any less. Whatever good choices we make, God doesn’t love us any more. In the terms of the Doctor, human beings are the most important things in creation – because God made us that way. Our righteous actions won’t do us any good; our unrighteous actions won’t do us any harm. We are called simply to turn to him in repentance and faith, relying upon his free offer of the grace we need and cannot procure for ourselves.
There is a moral dimension to the universe of Doctor Who, and of human beings in that universe in particular. But it is one based on works, and is therefore antithetical to the moral order of the universe itself. If the Doctor sometimes seems a bit like the God of his universe, this is just one of the ways in which he is a poor substitute.
Doctor Who Doctrines
- The value of a person is determined by their responses to moral-ethical questions.