The Girl in the Fireplace is the 4th episode of Season Two of the Doctor Who revival, featuring David Tennant and Billie Piper, as well as Noel Clarke as Mickey Smith in his first episode as a member of the Tardis crew.
Story: The Doctor, Rose and Mickey arrive on a deserted ship in the 51st century that mysteriously has portals to various moments in the life of Reinette, aka Madame de Pompadour, mistress to King Henry XV of France. The Doctor develops a friendship and romance with Reinette, whom he first meets as a child, and then encounters at different points in her adult life. Clockwork Soldiers from the ship are traveling through time to watch Madame de Pompadour, awaiting a moment when she will be “complete”. These clockwork soldiers were originally servant robots on the ship, who cannibalized the body parts of crew members when the ship was damaged. They now believe they need Madame de Pompadour’s brain to complete their repairs, and are searching for the moment when she will be of sufficient age to serve them. The Clockwork Soldiers capture Mickey and Rose in order to use their body parts to continue to service the ship, but the Doctor rescues them.
Comments: The Girl in the Fireplace is an odd episode for me. It was very popular when it came out, and for a time came to vie with Blink (also by Steven Moffat) for the best episode of the revival. However, when I first viewed it I didn’t like it very much. I was put off primarily because I was annoyed with the conceit that the Doctor couldn’t just go to France with the Tardis and interact with Reinette whenever he wanted to. He claimed that he was not able to now that he was part of events, but this didn’t seem to be consistent with anything he ever did before or after this, ever.
I think I was also not so sure what I thought about the Doctor romancing it up with Reinette. Aside from hints of an interest in Rose, and a kiss with Grace Holloway in the 1996 TV movie, this was pretty much the first time the Doctor was treated as a romantic hero, and I found it a little jarring. In retrospect, it’s consistent with the Doctor’s character and how he’s been played since then.
In fact, on rewatching the episode, I find that I quite enjoy it and that it contains many of the hallmarks that we’ve come to associate with Steven Moffat. First, it actively plays with time travel as a concept, stretching the ways that it is used as a plot device on the series (although in this case, it borrows heavily and openly from the book The Time Traveler’s Wife). Second, it shows incredible deftness and economy in its storytelling – taking us through a tremendous amount of plot (indeed showing us glimpses of Reinette’s entire life) very smoothly in a way that does not feel rushed or too quick. Indeed, no other writer has managed to deliver this kind of densely packed storytelling in the history of Doctor Who.
There are also a number of plot devices that Moffat uses here that we’ll see again in the future. We’ve got a young girl meeting the Doctor and being impacted for the rest of her life, liked Amy Pond. Also similar to Amy, the Doctor promises to be right back for Reinette for Amy, but fails to keep that promise. The future part of the story occurs in the 51st century, where Jack Harkness is from, amongst other things. We’ve got the little quirk of the Doctor casually pointing out apparently innocuous background elements that really indicate great danger (in this case, the ticking of the clockwork soldiers). You’ve also got the general illogic of the proceedings that require you to squint a bit to keep from noticing, but along with that the sense of fun that makes you want to do so.
Finally, it’s got some cracking good dialogue to keep things lively. For example, when they first arrive, Rose asks them if there is anyone around. The Doctor replies
Doctor: Nah, nothing here. Well, nothing dangerous. Well, not that dangerous. Know what, I’ll just have a quick scan, in case there’s anything dangerous.
• When the Doctor first visits 18th Century France, he talks about the passageway to the past
Doctor: Must be a spatio-temporal hyperlink.
Mickey: What’s that?
Doctor: No idea. Just made it up. Didn’t want to say, “Magic door.”
• When the Doctor is first fighting the Clockwork soldiers
Young Reinette: What do monsters have nightmares about?
• And then when he meets the adult Reinette for the first time
Reinette: It is customary, I think, to have an imaginary friend only during one’s childhood. You are to be congratulated on your persistence.
Doctor: Reinette, well…goodness how you’ve grown.
Reinette: And you do not appear to have aged a single day. That is tremendously impolite of you.
• It is interesting to see this episode in light of Moffat’s later (and current) era as lead producer of the show. Similar to Silence in the Library, the story inserts hints about the Doctor that will be followed up on in the 11th Doctor’s era of the show. In this case, it’s Reinette’s insights into the Doctor after their “mind meld.” She says…
Reinette: Doctor. Doctor Who? It’s more than just a secret, isn’t it?
• In a moment that anticipates the way Moffat wrote Sally Sparrow in Blink, we get this nifty exchange between Reinette and Rose.
Rose: I’m sorry, it’s hard to explain. The Doctor does this better.
Reinette: Than be exact, and I will be attentive.
Rose: There isn’t time.
Reinette: There are five years.
Rose: For you. I haven’t got five minutes.
Reinette: Than also be concise.
Reinette: There is a vessel in your world where the days of my life are pressed together like the chapters of a book so that he may step from one to the other without increase of age, while I, weary traveler, must always take the slower path.
• A great exchange between Reinette and the clockwork soldiers which highlights just how awesome this character is written by Moffat and performed by Sophia Myles.
Reinette: I have made a decision. And my decision is “no.” I shall not be going with you today. I have seen your world, and I have no desire to set foot there again.
Soldier: We do not require your feet.
Reinette: You think I fear you, but I do not fear you even now. You are merely the nightmare of my childhood, the monster from under my bed. And if my nightmare can return to plague me, then rest assured, so will yours.
A few final points: This is a pretty good story for Rose, who doesn’t have heaps to do but comes across well. The story goes a way to lay the groundwork for the deep emotional connection between her and the Doctor, but it’s in the background (where it belongs, really). Mickey is a fine addition to the crew, with only a minimum amount of accompanying goofiness.
Finally, since I’m not watching these episodes in order, I don’t know if this has happened in every story or not, but watch for the 10th Doctor’s signature move here…wandering amongst his enemies, babbling like an idiot, while they stare at him and do nothing until he does something to disable or defeat them.
Things to watch out for (Warning: includes vague hints of things to come):
We still don’t know really what it means, I guess, but Reinette’s comments (as stated above) about the Doctor’s name hint at some developments in Season Six.
Last Word: Logically unsatisfying, but emotionally engaging and very cool. Emotions and coolness wins.