[Review written for Gallifrey One: Spring 2006]
Steven Moffat, writer of the wonderful Series One story “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances”, returns with a new tale for Series Two. Once again we have a story woven together with the finest elements of history, time and future concepts. This episode however, is quite different from Moffat’s previous tale and in fact, from past Doctor Who altogether.
If “School Reunion” was played out to indulge the fans, “The Girl in the Fireplace” will challenge them. This is a pity really, as it shouldn’t have to. For this is a Doctor focused romance and as some fans will tell you, it was proven by the 1996 Paul McGann movie that you simply don’t attempt such blasphemy.
Well, unless it’s done very well - like “The Girl in the Fireplace”.
“The Girl in the Fireplace” continues Series Two’s central character evolution. This story offers a very different crew dynamic to previous outings in this season. This is not just because we have a new TARDIS crew member, Rose’s beau Mickey Smith, but because we are seeing a radically different relationship between the Doctor and Rose herself. Compared to the earlier episode, “New Earth”, the Doctor and Rose’s relationship is decidedly different. Viewers who were put off by their sachrine sweet friendship in the season premiere will probably be pleased to see such a dynamic shift. Whether those same people will be thrilled by the Doctor falling in love with a famous historical figure.. well, that is another matter.
The story is fairly complex: Upon landing on a spaceship in the far future, the Doctor is caught in a technological intrigue which sends back and forth through 18th Century France. While Rose and Mickey battle to escape the clutches of the spaceship’s robotic occupants, the Doctor must stop the same robots from taking one of France’s greatest women; Madame de Pompadour.
The production values remain consistent with the season so far. A lot of care has gone into contrasting the two centuries in which this story is set. The plot jumps between time zones thick and fast and both zones have their own unique aesthetic.
Fans of Moffat’s Series One contribution will see some similar themes popping up. Beyond the aforementioned plot elements, we have some more Moffatesque references; the Doctor dances once more; we have more references to companions off on a wander and this time; more future technology running amok and most importantly, the flirtatious interplay of Rose and Captain Jack has been replaced by The Doctor’s romantic intrigue with a certain Madame de Pompadour.
As with Queen Victoria in “Tooth And Claw”, I cannot attest to historical accuracy, but the character is certainly well scripted and well acted - she feels real even if she is for the most part, ficticious. She is delivered as a character with integrity, depth and oddles of colour. Such rich interpretations of history can only make the subject more interesting for the kids. I’m sure there are children - who are as I type - are doing some background reading on Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson. Actress Sophia Myles plays her with grace and presence. She’s a perfect bit of casting and her chemistry with Tennant sparkles.
Once again, Tennant takes centre stage in this adventure which is very welcome. Rose is a wonderfully crafted character, but she does lack that ability to regenerate her character. So while Rose remains Rose, the ninth Doctor has become the tenth and I’m sure all the audience - new and old - are still very keen to see some exploration of this new man. As with “School Reunion”, Tennant is flawless. Certainly, Tennant’s Doctor is a little more eccentric than Eccleston's and almost definitely more human, nevertheless, that lonely man is still present.
“The Girl in the Fireplace” takes us through a relationship touched with gentle beauty that resolves a romance before it can even begin. Following the Doctor’s remarks in “School Reunion” about not wanting to watch those he loves wither and die, this seems even more pertinent when put alongside this episode.
While the Doctor engages in his attempts to unravel the mysterious clockwork plot to take Madame de Pompadour, Mickey and Rose work together to find more pieces to the puzzle in the far future. The companion story is fairly muted and for this episode it has good reason to be so as this is very much the Doctor’s story. The companion role is this episode is fairly Old School Doctor Who; they hunt for clues, get captured and ask “what’s happening Doctor?” on more than one occasion. Despite over thirty years of similar Doctor/companion formula, this actually feels rather refreshing. This is probably because the new series has had some very companion intense stories. Mickey Smith makes a solid third companion to the TARDIS crew and helps give Rose’s character some decent interaction while the Doctor plays Romeo. He adds a little comic value to the team without being too contrived. He and the Doctor play off some refreshing and glib dialogue in regards to some of the more technological story plot points.
Something I found particularly interesting in regards to character interaction, was an element the story made no actual narrative reference to: the Doctor’s lack of interest in Rose. It’s curious how quickly the Doctor forgets Rose, being how important she is to him. While this isn’t directly mentioned, there are some nice beats within the tale where it’s evident that Rose is noticing the lack of intensity as well. The Doctor truely is in love with Madame de Pompadour and if the relationship between himself and Rose felt deep before this, it will be interesting to see how his deep affections for Jeanne-Antoinette will challenge the Rose/Doctor interplay in later episodes. As with Series One, there is a clear character arc going on throughout Series Two and it helps keep the show from feeling stale or formulaic.
In regards to the episode construction, we are seeing a different narrative approach to “The Girl in the Fireplace” compared to the past three stories. The teaser is set in the 18th Century, the first act opens in the far future. We leap from time zone to time zone faster than Alice can make it through the looking glass and my crass analogy certainly pertinent; watch out for one of Doctor Who’s most ambitious effect shots later in the story. The scene is very non-Doctor Who and satisfyingly welcome.
With a thirty year old series, boundaries have to be pushed. To stop a show going stale it has to evolve. Not just to fit in with a new generation of viewers, but to give the concept itself momentum. The Doctor/Madame de Pompadour romance will irritate some fans as there is no ambiguity here; Tennant plays a Doctor in love. It took me a second to get into gear for this concept, but it makes sense. The Doctor can love. Time Lords can love. That has been established within the Doctor Who universe - no matter how much it irks some fans. As each regeneration conveys different facets of the Doctor’s character, it seems totally rational that some facets may be more affectionate than others. On top of that, the Doctor is now a great deal older and as the last of his kind, company will be far more attractive. So there you go, I’ve given some reasons as to why enraged fans should simply embrace this move within the show. You can either go with the flow and enjoy the show or fester in a corner. I would hope you’ll all find the former more rewarding.
As a romantic interest, Madame de Pompadour. is certainly more the kind of lady I’d expect the Doctor to fall for. Even at the end, when she knows she could keep the Doctor in her time, she gives him an outlet. Far less self absorbed than Rose. Madame certainly comes across as an enchanting lady that even a Time Lord would be hard pressed not to adore.
Should the Doctor be a romantic character? He already is to some extent. The lonely wanderer. The champion of time. The homeless man with a bucket of mystery. I think as with all shows, romance can be a story danger. If the chemistry, writing and pacing isn’t there, romance can seem forced resulting in disaster. There is no fear in this episode of that happening and of course, as with all the best love stories, “The Girl in the Fireplace“ is tainted with tragedy. The last ten minutes are some of the most touching and evocative moments I’ve seen in Doctor Who. Yes, more than “School Reunion”. Well, maybe.
Any quibbles? Those against the 45 minute format may have a reason to grumble, It does feel uncomfortably mixed on occasions with there being so much to do in so little time. We race from time zone to time zone and sometimes it feels as if those periods want to breathe a little more than they do.
The Clockwork robots were wonderfully designed and their introduction is a wonderful “behind the sofa” moment. However, they do lose their menace fairly quick which is a pity and drift too far into the plot to really stand out.
Perhaps my only other quibble would be the music which was a little thick and intrusive in some of the comedy moments.
Overall a very different type of Doctor Who. You’ll leave it feeling you know the Doctor slightly better than you did when you started. Older fans may need to give it a couple of watches to appreciate the formula and character dynamics. It certainly is a romance, but it is beautifully handled, and if you find THE kiss a little too much at the start, keep watching because I’m sure the end will certainly move you.
I wondered if this episode could top “School Reunion”, and yes, maybe it has. So again I must pose the question for a second week running: Next episode - can you top this?