On “The Girl in the Fireplace”

The Sophia Myles film festival continues! Now up for discussion, 2006’s Doctor Who episode, “The Girl in the Fireplace,” by Steven Moffat and winner of the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form.

The TARDIS materializes aboard a starship in the 51st century. The ship is abandoned, though there’s a great deal of power being generated somewhere, but to what purpose? It turns out that a series of time windows have been opened up into 18th-century France, specifically into the life of one Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, also known as Reinette or the Madame de Pompedour. The Doctor’s investigations lead him to encounter Reinette at various points in her life, from her childhood to adulthood, as he tries to unlock the mystery of why a series of clockwork droids are waiting for Reinette to reach the age of 37 at which point she will be “complete.”

I forgot how bloody fucking good this episode was.

If there’s one thing the BBC does better than anyone, it’s period costume dramas. The production values in bringing 18th-century France to life are nothing short of amazing. The episode is absolutely convincing, and if there’s anything that slows down the episode it’s the segments aboard the spaceship in the 51st-century. “Get back to the Madame de Pompedour!” I kept shouting. Well, not literally shouting. More like a metaphorical shouting.

This is a love story, and it’s often funny and occasionally painful. The Doctor meets someone he doesn’t expect, only they live their lives at different speeds — he walks in eternity, and she walks the slow path of time. The development of the relationship between Reinette and the Doctor is the heart of the episode, from the first time they meet when she is seven (and she thinks he’s her imaginary friend or her guardian angel) to their last encounter (where she has died and the Doctor reads her deathbed letter). The relationship between them takes on a tragic quality — there comes a point where you want to shout at the Doctor and say, “You idiot! Don’t do that!” but of course, he does, without thinking. And the final scene provokes some genuine anguish. This is Doctor Who as a tear-jerker.

Sophia Myles, of course, is fantastic as the Madame de Pompedour. She just makes period drama work. And it’s odd to re-experience the early David Tennant as the Doctor, because it’s clearly him, but he’s not quite as brash or as manic. I also don’t think that Noel Clarke’s Mickey Smith was ever written as well as he was written here (and I’m slightly miffed that he didn’t get his name in the opening credits for his brief tenure as a TARDIS companion; even John Barrowman got his name in the credits during his tenure).

Also, Murray Gold’s score is perfect. I’ve grown disenchanted with Gold’s work on Doctor Who over the past two years for a variety of reasons, but I have no complaints here. His musical work is gentle and haunting, with the movement of strings, the play of the piano or harpsichord. It’s the right sound for this episode.

The dialogue here is marvelous, and I don’t know that there’s any one moment I could really cite as a standout. Doctor Who is going to be in safe hands with Steven Moffat at the helm, and with an episode like this from his pen I wonder why anyone would doubt that. 😉

One final thought. If I could make any Doctor Who spin-off happen, it would be a Madame de Pompedour story. Do it as a Masterpiece Theatre sort of thing, set firmly in the 18th-century, and set it up around the events of “The Girl in the Fireplace.” That’s what I’d do. I would seriously fucking watch that, especially if it didn’t have any aliens.

Next up in the Sophia Myles film festival? Another costume drama — Dracula.

Published by Allyn

A writer, editor, journalist, sometimes coder, occasional historian, and all-around scholar, Allyn Gibson is the writer for Diamond Comic Distributors' monthly PREVIEWS catalog, used by comic book shops and throughout the comics industry, and the editor for its monthly order forms. In his over ten years in the industry, Allyn has interviewed comics creators and pop culture celebrities, covered conventions, analyzed industry revenue trends, and written copy for comics, toys, and other pop culture merchandise. Allyn is also known for his short fiction (including the Star Trek story "Make-Believe,"the Doctor Who short story "The Spindle of Necessity," and the ReDeus story "The Ginger Kid"). Allyn has been blogging regularly with WordPress since 2004.

5 thoughts on “On “The Girl in the Fireplace”

  1. One of the triumphs of the episode is that it lets the Doctor be in love and make that acceptable and believable. It’s not Myles related but how about that moment when Rose quietly looks upwards into the darkness of space and you can see that just this once she’s not sure if the Doctor will return to save her.

    Then he’s back. When the episode originally went out, I actually expected the Doctor to turn up in a space ship having lived and loved his way through history only to return for Rose at just the right moment. But of course that would have mean he would have been happy. He can never be happy. Not completely. His loneliness is why we love him.

    1. That was a nice moment, and when I first saw the episode I wondered if the Doctor would have to take, if not the slow path, a slower path back to Rose and Mickey. The resolution to the Doctor’s problem makes sense, but it also feels a little too much like magic. And of course, it sets up the tragedy of the final moments.

  2. I agree, this is a great episode. Heartbreaking and wonderful in all the right places. We actually saw this not too longer ago, as I *cough*am horribly behind on the new series*cough*.

    1. I’ve had Lance Parkin’s The Infinity Doctors on my nightstand for I don’t know how long. A few nights ago I picked it up and started reading.

      One passage that stood out for me now was the Doctor talking to Larna about the Zero Room he kept for Patience, and he says that no one remembers her any longer. What struck me was that this would make perfect sense on a reborn Gallifrey in the wake of The Gallifrey Chronicles; the Doctor would be the only Time Lord to still remember her.

      I’m rambling.

      No, the other thing that struck me was that I could so easily envision Sophia Myles as Patience. (She’s described as having long blond hair when the Doctor finds her in Omega’s universe, as I recall.) What if the Doctor was drawn to her because she resembled his long-dead wife and mother of his children?

      The ending is heartrending, because it’s at once completely avoidable — all the Doctor had to do was to leave the fireplace mantel turned halfway so that time on both sides flowed equally — and completely fixed — the Doctor can’t meddle with the flow of time and grant Reinette her final wish, to see him one more time.

      Great episode, fully deserving of all its accolades. 🙂

  3. Completely avoidable: Moffat shows one of the most annoying aspects of love. You can be so swept away by it that you can often find yourself unconsciously doing something which leads to its doom. It could also just be time (which has always been both the Doctor’s friend and foe) giving him a slap on the hand and saying “No! That’s a step too far…”

    Insert here my theory about why it’s ok for Dodo to travel with the Doctor and not mess up the timeline but not a famous person. The more famous you are, the more you mean.

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