The Russell T Davies era of Doctor Who could be akin to a soap opera at times, and that was undoubtedly a big part of its success. There is no criticism implied in that statement. Steven Moffatt takes that approach here and runs with it, but this is also the start of his children’s fantasy fiction approach to Doctor Who, so The Girl in the Fireplace is a fascinating merging of those two worlds.
This is the closest Doctor Who has ever got to a full-blown romance. The Doctor has rarely developed any romantic attachments himself. During the original series we only had hints – subtle closeness with other characters, such as Cameca and Todd (although the latter is so subtle that you’d miss it if you blinked), flirting with Romana and finally a kiss with Grace in the Movie. But of course we know the Doctor has a granddaughter, so he does ‘dance’ as Steven Moffat’s previous story hinted with a rather clunky metaphor, referenced again here with ‘dance with me’ … ‘I can’t’.
Here the Doctor becomes romantically involved with Madame de Pompadour, played by Sophia Myles. Filming this episode was the beginning of a real life romance between David Tennant and Sophia Myles, so the chemistry between the two characters is very real. This isn’t all quite as anti-establishment (Doctor Who establishment, that is) as it sounds but, like the best of New Doctor Who, treads unfamiliar ground, and in doing so reveals more about the Doctor. We have never seen him reading somebody’s mind like he does here and Reinette’s look into the Doctor’s mind gives her a knowledge of him that nobody else possesses. This leads to reflection on his loneliness, something that has been a running theme recently, and a part of the “lonely god” aspect of the Doctor that the Face of Boe mentioned in New Earth and has been picked up thematically in every story. The Doctor is Reinette’s ‘lonely angel’, beautifully illustrated by the final shot of the Doctor alone in the centre of the huge TARDIS console room.
Moffat’s script is a clever but unusual blend of sci-fi and fantasy ideas, many of which have been borrowed from the best. The fireplace idea is pure Harry Potter if you want a recent parallel, or Narnia if you want an older and truer one, and there is more than a touch of Lewis Carroll as well. The different ways time pass in the two locations is inconsistent in the way in which they are linked together, which is not a fault (although the fault may be not making this explicit in the script). It all works in a similar way to Narnia, where the amount of time passing in Narnia is unrelated to the amount of time passing in the real world, although always greater. There is no consistency to that rule, and neither is there any here, and that is a useful way to add an extra level of difficulty for the Doctor, and is ultimately a factor in his failure to save Reinette. The episode also hits at the core of childhood fears, with a monster literally under the bed (the human eye as a camera is pretty scary too).
David Tennant is relaxing into the role more and more as the series progresses, and he has some great dialogue to help him here. His response to Rose’s “you’re not keeping the horse” is “I let you keep Mickey!” and his unfamiliarity with normality is brilliantly illustrated with the question “where do you get money?” Moffat also pulls some clever tricks on the viewers. Just when you think he has thrown the whole rule book out of the window and the Doctor has rolled in drunken and dishevelled, it all turns out to be a clever ploy to disable the robots. No wonder monsters have nightmares about the Doctor.
Some bonus observations:
- This is one of the best uses of the pre-credits so far, showing us a moment from later in the story. This draws us in because we want to find out how things will get to that point.
- The scene with Mickey and the eye must qualify as one of the funniest moments ever in Doctor Who: the distorted lens, Mickey’s bravery and then that involuntary little scream – hilarious!
- The Doctor is able to look inside Reinette’s mind and see her past. There is really no precedent for this (and it is uncomfortably close to a Star Trek mind meld), although he has hypnotised people in the past (e.g. Sarah in Terror of the Zygons). Reinette is able to see into the Doctor’s mind during the meld thing, and she sees ‘a lonely little boy – lonely then and lonelier now.’ This is a rare mention of the Doctor’s childhood and the first time we learn that he had ‘a lonely childhood’. This theme will be picked up on again… eventually.
- “Doctor. Doctor Who? It’s more than just a secret, isn’t it.” Another vague clue about his name, one of several over the years that bring us no closer whatsoever to discovering the truth! Again, this will be something Steven Moffat will return to.
- “Always take a banana to a party Rose.” This links in with Moffat’s previous script, The Doctor Dances, in which the Ninth Doctor produced a banana from his pocket.
- The effects shot of the Doctor riding the horse through the mirror is not entirely convincing and was perhaps over-ambitious. It is a rare example of a special effect during the Tenth Doctor era that doesn’t really work. Apparently Steven Moffat insisted on it although he was told it couldn’t be done.
- The horse being on the ship doesn’t make a lot of sense. If he can just wander in by accident so easily then surely somebody would have stumbled upon one of the ‘magic doors’ at some point over the course of 30 years. But it’s Chekhov’s horse – a seemingly incidental part of the plot that takes on an unexpected importance in the story.
- The Doctor is pretty ruthless in abandoning Rose and Mickey in order to help Reinette. He has no idea about the fireplace, so is basically leaving them to their fate. Unable to fly the TARDIS, they would presumably have been stranded on the spaceship for the rest of their lives.
- Reinette is an interesting parallel for Rose. If you read up about her you will realise just how important her relationship with the King was to her, and she juggles that with her love for the Doctor without difficulty. Contrast this with Rose who also loves two men but is unable to find a way to make the love triangle work and ultimately Mickey becomes a third wheel and will have to make a different life for himself.
- The Doctor refers to the windows as “spatio-temporal hyperlinks”. When Mickey (who is functioning fabulously as the audience identification figure) challenges him about this he says “No idea, just made it up. Didn’t want to say magic door”. This is another indication of what Steven Moffat’s approach as showrunner is going to be. Doctor Who has always been fantasy with a sci-fi veil, but he makes the fantasy stronger and the veil thinner than ever before.
The view from across the pond:
When reviewing Tennant’s first season in hindsight, season 2 began with a fairly lackluster story. By the time of The Girl in the Fireplace however, things were hitting a high note. Stephen Moffat pulled off the same tour de force as the previous season’s The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances. And he did it in style. The Girl in the Fireplace is one of the best episodes of the entire run of new Who.
The story opens with a mystery. There’s a girl who knows the Doctor and is calling for him in a fireplace. It sets the stage. From then on, this episode delivers. I consider this story a treat for the senses. Visually it’s beautiful. The costumes are incredible. The masks are stunning too. Then there’s the music; this was one of the first of the deeply moving pieces that would become a trademark in Doctor Who.
The acting is also perfect. Whether afraid of broken clocks (chilling) or rescuing damsels in distress (awesome) or just plain crushed emotionally at another lost love (terribly sad), Tennant portrays the Doctor in a way that has never quite been done before. He’s approachable yet unknowable. I may be a Tom Baker fan forever, but I said it before: he gave Baker a run for his money.
Sophia Myles is a class act. She is beautiful, intelligent and understanding. She is willing to accept her fate upon hearing her own voice calling from her future further illustrating that she is a shining star in the Doctor’s universe. She is also willing to sacrifice her own feelings to save the angel who saved her. Madame De Pompadour is a match for the Doctor and he knows it. And he loves her for it though whether that’s from sharing a piece of his past via mind-meld or not, I’m not about to say. As supporting cast goes, she steals the show, hands down.
My only real complaint here is: how does moving a fireplace “exact in every detail” maintain its link to a spaceship? Having watched this episode several times now, it still does not make sense to me. Yes, he needed a way back, so we accept the solution, but that doesn’t make really sense. So when the house is remodeled in 100 years or burned down in a thousand, there’s still a link to that ship??? Does… not … compute!! That being said, this is fiction and it’s deeply moving fiction at that so I’ll accept it, but I wish it made a bit more sense contextually.
I am not sure what to make of the mind-meld, but we know the Doctor is telepathic to a degree, but this is the first time it’s used outside of “Contact” with his own people and so blatantly. The fact that Madame De Pompadour is able to walk in his memories is wonderful though and we are left to wonder what it is she sees in his past. Another mystery left hidden from us… while it drives me crazy, it has to be. The WHO must always be a mystery! And so is the reason behind the repair droids needing Madame De Pompedour, as far as the Doctor is concerned. But as the audience, when it is revealed, there’s that moment when we all say “wow! So that’s it!” So, overall, another tour de force for Moffat. This is what lead to the motto, “In Moffat we trust”. But like the gold rush, there is a question of just how much gold can be mined from a vein before it taps out… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Rise of the Cybermen