“I became a TV writer to be ready in case Doctor Who came back,” Paul Cornell tells RadioTimes.com – and dreams do come true. Cornell, the author of numerous Doctor Who novels as well as episodes of TV shows like Casualty, got lucky in 2005 when Doctor Who did come back, after a break of nine years.


At the helm of 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 one episode. That episode was Father's Day, a story still cherished in Doctor Who circles because of the particularly moving emotional drama at its core – and this real-life Father's Day, we're taking a look back at how it came to screens.

When assigning episodes to writers at the beginning of season one, before any casting decisions had been announced, Davies chose Cornell for Father's Day because of the emotional work he had pulled off in his novels. Cornell, 38 at the time, used Star Trek's 1967 episode City at the Edge of Forever as his reference point. Both this and Father's Day involve time paradoxes. In the latter, Rose convinces the Doctor to take her back to 1987 to the moment at which her father Pete (Shaun Dingwall) was killed in a hit-and-run.

Unable to stop herself preventing it, Rose causes a time paradox that attracts monsters intent on consuming everyone. Pete then realises that he must sacrifice himself in order 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 one shot at Doctor Who and not have monsters”, and managed to convince Davies of their value. Initially these were human figures in cloaks, and the main action of the episode took place in a pub, not a church. There were 18 months between script and filming, so Cornell went though “immense” numbers of drafts.

More like this
Doctor Who 2005 cast
Christopher Eccleston, Billie Piper, Shaun Dingwall and other cast in Doctor Who (BBC)

When director Joe Ahearne read the script on his sofa in his Archway flat, he cried. “I'm not a cry-baby at all, and it's quite a responsibility when a script has that kind of emotional impact,” he says. “It was a much more emotional story than I think Doctor Who had been known for up to that point.”

Cornell wrote several drafts before he found out that Eccleston would play the Doctor, but when he read the pilot script he had remarked to Davies that the character's voice sounded like Eccleston. In table readthroughs, he says, Piper was “absolutely delightful” and knew the name of all of the crew; Eccleston committed to acting his lines, prompting Piper to do so as well. “He was the Doctor at that table immediately, which encouraged her a lot.”

Tonally, the show and the episode needed to tread a thin line. Ahearne remembers Davies saying that it was a tea-time drama; it would be airing when Ant and Dec would be on the other channel. But Cornell says that the team went too far in this direction to begin with, and that they decided to correct for this, aspiring to be “heartland Doctor Who” first, and “Saturday night family drama” second.

Filming presented a number of challenges, not least of which was that working in Cardiff in November meant the sky getting dark at 4pm and the crew needing to erect a huge lighting rig. A baby was also on set, playing a younger Rose; babies always play havoc with scheduling, says Ahearne, because they are available for such a short window of time.

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

When the episode aired, Cornell was overjoyed. There was no instant Twitter reaction but the press loved it. Cornell had based Pete Tyler on his own father, who has now passed away. His father didn't recognise himself in the character, despite the fact that they both did a swathe of odd jobs including insurance.

Ahearne remembers that fans remarked that it was an unusual episode because, although it deals with time travel, it does so in a way that prioritises the emotional family component: a move in a different direction for the show. It may have gone under the radar in comparison with all-action Dalek invasions, but it seems to have set a precedent that allowed the show to become less beholden to sci-fi monsters and more able to explore issues like those in an episode like Vincent and the Doctor years later.

To this day, the episode is extremely highly regarded in the Doctor Who world and was Piper's favourite episode as well as one of Eccleston's favourites. Cornell says he hears from people – on Twitter, at conventions – who have lost their fathers and are huge fans of the episode. It pulled off the rare feat of feeling like a Doctor Who episode while working perfectly for people who were not invested in the show.

“I'd been training to write Doctor Who on television since I was a small boy,” Cornell says. “It was the absolute fulfilment of a dream for me.”

Doctor Who is available to stream on BBC iPlayer with episodes of the classic series also available on BritBox – you can sign up for a 7-day free trial here.

For more, check out our dedicated Sci-Fi page or our full TV Guide and Streaming Guide.

Take part in the Screen Test, a project from Radio Times and the Universities of Sussex and Brighton, to explore the role of television and audio in our lives.


Try Radio Times magazine today and get 12 issues for only £1 with delivery to your home – subscribe now. For more from the biggest stars in TV, listen to The Radio Times Podcast.