Blightyvision: “Single Father”

Directed by Sam Miller
Written by Mick Ford
Starring David Tennant, Suranne Jones, Warren Brown, and Rupert Graves

When I first covered this for the now-defunct Watchlist column, I recall saying rather vehemently that the main thing I wanted to see in this show was David Tennant directed with a firm hand.  After his Lonely God explosion as his run on “Doctor Who” finished and his complete (but appropriate) madman act in last year’s Hamlet, I was looking forward to seeing a bit more discipline forced on him.  He is a powerful actor, but that power has the ability to be either a tool for good or a giant theatrical steamroller.

“Single Father,” I could tell from the first descriptions of it, would be an excellent vehicle to show us a more restrained, controlled Tennie — if, in fact, that turned out to be possible.  Here he plays Dave, a Scottish photographer coupled with the lovely Rita (Laura Fraser, who was also his main love interest in RTD’s “Casanova”), and father of four children.  Or, rather, five.  One from a previous marriage lives on her own with her little son, three are his and Rita’s, and the fifth — Lucy — is the daughter of Rita and an unnamed man she knew prior to Dave, though Dave has adopted her all but legally.

All is well until Rita’s untimely death, which shatters the family along biological lines.  Dave and Rita’s three children get far less tolerant of Lucy, who is suddenly adrift and essentially orphaned, but Dave’s desire to adopt her is thwarted by a variety of factors (one of which is for the viewer to discover on their own).  As the kids are coming to terms in their own way — be it via attention-getting schemes, bickering, or running away — Dave finds himself falling unnervingly quickly for their friend Sarah (Suranne Jones, soon to be the mysterious Idris in the next series of “Doctor Who”).  As he deals with his relationship with her, especially that whole thing of it probably not being good for anyone else to know, he takes it upon himself to find Lucy’s father, which leads to him finding out things about Rita’s past that he’d sooner not.

First and foremost, I will say this: “Single Father” gave me what I wanted re: a performance from Tennant.  Though Dave goes through a proper deluge of bad times and emotional trauma, he isn’t given free rein the majority of the time.  Dave as a character is, for much of the series, essentially powerless, his emotions only let out insofar as he’ll snap at his kids to go to their rooms and do their homework.  It’s only at select times — surrounding moments of proper distress and mourning — that he’s allowed to go full-throttle.  At these times, it’s appropriate and well-played, and this level of control shows just how good an actor he can really be.

And because of that control, we get to watch the rest of the cast shine, as well.  Jones as Sarah is a beautifully complex character where she could easily have been a complete ditz or cookie-cutter type.  The same is true of her own significant other, Matt (Warren Brown, recently of “Luther”), who doesn’t get much screen time but makes good use of what he does have.  Rupert Graves (Inspector Lestrade of The Moff’s “Sherlock”) had a daunting role, playing as close to an antagonist as Dave could have, but a combination of strong acting from himself and restraint from Tennant made his own sparse screen time truly memorable.  Even his time in conversation but offscreen, with his character established that well, was interesting in and of itself.

I have a feeling reviewers other than myself might miss out on a major part of the ensemble cast: the kids.  And I don’t mean Lucy and Tanya (Dave’s child with his ex-wife), though they were fantastic as well.  Dave and Rita’s three young kids, rather than being some sort of single entity or set dressing, have well-developed characters themselves.  The child actors in the series are all very natural and believable, neither overly weak nor overly aggressive.  Newcomer Millie Innes is especially good as Evie, who may or may not be privy to Dave and Sarah’s secret.

I have only one complaint about this show, and I’m not sure if it’s a properly good one or a personal statement.  That is, I’m single and childless.  (Shush, that’s not the complaint.)  Many times when watching movies or TV shows with married friends — whether or not they’re parents — I’ll find that said show touches on things that only spouses or couples can associate with deeply, and that will make them sob and hold hands, leaving singletons in the room feeling possibly passingly weepy but mainly awkward.  This is one of those shows.  From the first five minutes, it grabs family men and women by the heartstrings and spends all four hours making cat’s cradles with them.  This is not to say that someone not of the family persuasion can’t appreciate it — I certainly did — but if you are a mother or father who loses it when a fictional child declares their hatred of their fictional father, or a spouse or SO who looks at a couple separated by death and immediately goes “That could be us,” this either isn’t a good show for you, or it’s a really good show for you.  I suppose it depends how much you enjoy having your emotions yanked around.

Regardless of personal situation, this show is extremely painful emotionally as we watch the variety of things Dave goes through in the wake of Rita’s death.  It’s something of a study in just how much misfortune one character can endure before he snaps.  And Tennant was a perfect choice for this sort of role, coupled with the style of direction he was given that allowed us to see many facets of the character rather than just extremes of emotions.  It’s self-contained, though the ending does feel a bit rushed, to the point that I was watching the remaining time and wondering if maybe my video was broken or incomplete as we moved toward the last minute or so.  The music, composed by Murray Gold, was surprisingly good, especially for a “mainstream” series — they should put out a soundtrack but you just know they won’t.

Despite what I said before, this is a show that you can enjoy even if you’re not in any sort of family situation.  It’s well-written, heartbreaking (occasionally too heartbreaking, I’ll admit), and well-acted both by names and unknowns.  And at four one-hour episodes, it’s shorter even than most British series, rendering the three-episode rule a bit pointless.  Not that it matters; one episode should grab you.

“Single Father” will likely be available soon on R2 and possibly never on R1 DVD.  Though, you know, it does have the Doctor in it, so maybe the Beeb will try to appeal to the fangirl market eventually.