Doctor Who #729: The Girl in the Fireplace

"What do monsters have nightmares about?" "Me!"
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired May 6 2006.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor meets Madame de Pompadour at different points in her life to save her from clockwork men.

REVIEW: Finally a hit, a palpable hit, for Series 2, even after you know the punchline, and even though Rose gets sidelined AGAIN, even as a romantic interest. While she scampers around the 51st-century ship with Mickey, like they're kids with toys (even their clothes have a bratty feel to them), the Doctor has this grand romance with one of the most famous courtesans that ever lived, just intermittently. In retrospect, it's Moffat's most used plot, and under his pen, he'll have relationships that skip over the years with other women he knew as little girls, see if you can name which ones. At this point though, it makes the point the Doctor awkwardly made in the previous episode about the so-called "curse of the Time Lords". In the span of a single episode, he sees someone he cares about, someone with enough companion potential that he actually tied to bring her on board, grow old and die before his eyes, while he doesn't age a tick. It's what being immortal might always feel like, the idea in fast forward.

It wouldn't work if Madame de Pompadour wasn't a convincing match for the Doctor, so thankfully, Sophia Myles has all the necessary grace and beauty, and her character a Wildean wit coupled with a sharp logical mind. She's as bold as she is precise and so insightful she can see into the Doctor's mind when he access her memories. (Oh my Lord, Moffat laid in stuff about the secrets behind his name wayyyy back!) My feeling is that the "cowboys" she's has up in her brain have somehow prepared her for it being turned into a supercomputer, which is why she can surprise the Doctor with telepathic tricks. But it's more than that. The speeded-up relationship has a pressure cooker intensity that quickly goes from "I'm a fan of this historical celebrity" to joking about snogging her to a willingness to take what she calls the slow path as her companion. If she intrigues him so much, it's because she's a complex woman, a product of the Age of Reason who nevertheless accepts the monsters under her bed and the strange affair she believes she's having with her childhood imaginary friend. She's taken "don't listen to reason" (one of early Tennant's most successful puns, along with "I'm not winding you up" in this same episode) to heart. Can the Doctor fall in love? The show has been asking this for a while, and though it's obvious he can, it's acting on it with mere mortals that's difficult. Notably, it's Reinette who's the aggressor, trotting out Moffat's dance metaphor and kissing the Doctor without asking. She calls him "my love", but it's not clear how far he's ready to go beyond some blokey competitive zingers thrown at King Louis. It might be that it's in the waiting that Rose's hopes are dashed. Going from strength to strength, the episode's climax isn't the face-off with the clockwork men, but the moment where the Doctor happily finds a way back set against Reinette's despair as his hopes are rewarded, refusing to wish him luck.

It's a beautifully designed piece too, using gorgeous locations and clothes, but also some really neat clockwork robots and a spaceship that looks like a turning wind-up key. Using the starry sky to connect the past and future is a good trick, almost lyrical. The horse is a nice touch, and though absurd, the moment where it bursts through a mirror is pretty epic. Between the look, the cleverness and the emotion, it's easy to ignore the more ridiculous aspects of the story, like the idea this ship (and thus any ship of the era) can punch holes in the universe WHILE DISABLED. Or that it be programmed to turn on the crew and cannibalize it for parts. Historical scholars would probably take exception at the historical "facts" depicted in the story as well. How many bananas does the Doctor carry exactly? And anti-oil? The problems pop up more readily on subsequent viewings, like Reinette's voice from the teaser being heard at a point when the fireplace is meant to be off-line. But we forgive the nits we can pick when the rest of the production is so strong.

VERSIONS: A deleted scene on the DVD reveals that Arthur the horse was being abused by the stablemaster.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: The TARDISode shows the ion storm that caused the damage to the ship happening, and the crew (not at all dressed in anything remotely like their robots) getting attacked.

REWATCHABILITY: High - It's lost some of its luster with familiarity, but its high notes continue to resonate. Rose fans will continue to be disappointed with her Series 2 presence, however.


Anonymous said...

I don't have a problem at all with the "disabled" ship being able to punch holes in the universe; the ship is lacking a main processor and some of its subsystems are still functioning, but haphazardly and not entirely sensibly. Malfunctioning software. Additionally, you can't reason with malfunctioning software, which makes it scary in ways that the Borg were (initially anyway).

Anonymous said...

I'm not a New Series guy, but I liked this episode for some of the same reasons you did. I despise the 'Doctor as romantic lead' angle, but if I squint and pretend this is a different show also called "Doctor Who" (which is pretty much how I think of the New Series), I have to admit it's a beautiful story.

Now I haven't seen it in years, but it always bothered me how the Doctor maroons not only himself, but also Rose and Mickey, and them in far, far more dire circumstances. Although they're characters I can't stand (well, Mickey's OK), it doesn't seem like the kind of thing the Doctor would do to show off to a pretty girl.

Couldn't he have sent Rose and Mickey through the mirror and followed in the TARDIS? It really seemed like it would have been that easy, unless I missed something, which is possible.

- Jason

Craig Oxbrow said...

The Girl In The Fireplace remains close to my heart, despite the remakes since. The romance, the style, the audacity of the plotting, the bit where he crashes through the mirror on a horse...

Pedro Cabezuelo said...

I love this episode. And though Moffat comes back to this well plenty of times (too many I think) this remains the best and I think part of that is, as you mention, Sophia Myles' excellent portrayal of Reinette. The chemistry with her and Tennant is real (apparently, since they dated in real life) but more importantly she's a well-written character. Unlike later Moffat creations/potential love interests, she doesn't speak in one liners or constantly utter catch-phrases - she feels and reacts like someone in her situation would (probably) and keeps the episode grounded despite the craziness.

Also, Murray Gold's music is excellent - by far one of his best scores.

jdh417 said...

I remember watching this episode the first time back to back with Old School. Wow!

Funky technology and time travel twists aside, the emotional content of this episode is what makes it so totally work, not just for the characters, but for the audience. Especially, that heartbreaking moment when audience figures out that the Doctor and Reinette are going to be separated forever, before the Doctor does.

LiamKav said...

It's been a while so I might be misrememebering, but at the end when the Doctor goes into the fireplace and telles Reinnette to pack a bag and that he'll come back and get her, I seem to remember shouting at the TV "no! Have you not been paying attention? When you come back years will have passed!"

Siskoid said...

Jason: I think the fake-out is when Rose looks out the window into the starry sky (the sky that ties together the two locations). In a world where the Doctor took the slow path, he would have arrived in a space ship soon after that moment, perhaps with some story about putting himself in cold storage so he's not actually 4000 years old. But that's the timey-wimey solution.

jdh: Do you mean School Reunion? I think I like your title for it better!

Liam: You don't remember it incorrectly. Sometimes he just doesn't THINK.

jdh417 said...

Pardon, how could I remember the episode so well, and forget the title... especially after reading it yesterday!

Just opens the door for the Doctor to do an actual episode called "Old School."


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