“The Girl In The Fireplace” starts in media res: the palace of Versailles is under attack by an unstoppable alien force, so a French noblewoman, Madam De Pompadour, calls into her fireplace for the Doctor, a man she’s known for most of her life, to come and lend a hand; leaving the audience puzzled as to how all this came to be. Series 2 of Doctor Who has had a pretty solid of run of episodes so far, ranging from average to good, but “The Girl In The Fireplace” is one of the first truly great episodes of the season. Upon rewatch, I’m impressed by how streamlined and efficient the screenplay is. It successfully tells a rousing, insightful and genuinely sad complete story in just forty-five minutes (with a small cast and a limited number of sets), and it does it all by never wasting a moment.
“The Girl In The Fireplace” is Steven Moffat’s second story after his debut two-parter, “The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances“, and it feels like a spiritual successor to that adventure. Like “The Empty Child” (and Moffat’s other two contributions to the RTD era, “Blink” and “Silence In The Library / Forest Of The Dead“), “The Girl In The Fireplace” establishes the template for his own vision of the show when he becomes the series’ showrunner, and foreshadows many of the decisions he would make during that period of the Doctor Who revival. Most of your standard Moffat tropes can be found in this episode: a dark fairy tale tone, a puzzlebox plot, a mystery girl for the Doctor to try to figure out (in more ways than one), cheeky quips, the idea of a time traveler journeying down someone’s timeline, some rumination on the never-ending sands of the time and the dreaded possibility of time running out, Reinette having to face her childhood fears, and of course, emotionless machinery from the future running amuck, terrorizing humanity. By the final coda of the episode, “The Girl In The Fireplaces” proves to be a very haunting and bittersweet standalone story for the Tenth Doctor.
With his second story, Moffat gets to expand on his view of the Doctor being a madman with a box and adds a good deal to the Tenth Doctor’s characterization early on in his tenure. Ten is portrayed as a dashing, debonair hero and a suave, daredevil adventurer; a brilliant and cultured man, if obliviously thick at times, who can easily impress the ladies, even without intending to. Like always, Ten is able to easily command respect from everyone in a room and give the impression that he’s more in control of a bad situation than he actually is, while also being able to deftly leap between emotions in a moment’s notice, becoming giddy with excitement about finding a new, grand mystery. In this case, he finds himself having an unprecedented whirlwind romance with Reinette. Moffat slips in his idea that the Doctor is as good at comforting kids as he is because he had a lonely childhood himself, which we’ll eventually get a glimpse of in “Listen”. And for all his faults, Ten demonstrates that he can be very selfless and self-sacrificial, stranding himself in the past for Reinette’s sake.
The core premise of “The Girl In The Fireplace” is a high concept idea – a wandering, ageless man casually and unwittingly journeying down someone’s timeline – but what makes it a great episode is how Moffat explores the emotional consequences of it for everyone involved. Moffat loves “The Time Traveler’s Wife” and that book was a major influence for both this episode and the Doctor’s relationship with River Song, so as you’d expect, it has a pretty tragic ending. As much as the Tenth Doctor likes to jabber away most of the time, David Tennant conveys all of his most honest and important emotions through his expressions, because he is an excellent facial actor – like when the audience comes to the slow, horrible realization that the Doctor returned to Reinette too late and she’s already long dead. Ten barely says a word during the coda, but you can see his thoughts slowly cycle through horror, guilt, heartbreak and finally grim acceptance.
Reinette has her first encounter with the Doctor as a kid, and he’s a mysterious figure to her, a hero who vanquishes monsters. When she’s an adult and they finally meet again, he’s a mystery for her to figure out, much like she is for him, and she begins to develop a crush on him. Reinette is very sharp and perceptive, taking note of any and all oddities, and she’s able to get a good grasp on ideas that are well beyond her time. She’s very forward, she loves to tease and engage the Doctor with an intellectual debate, and she does not respond well to being patronized.. Most of all though, Reinette is a noble and brave woman, who has a lot of inner strength when it counts and has utmost faith in the Doctor’s abilities. The climax forces her to confront her childhood fears, the monsters that have been targeting her and influencing her whole life, and she does so commendably.
The core romance of this episode could easily have come off as skeevy, but instead David Tennant and Sophia Myles have plenty of playful chemistry. Initially, they simply have cheeky flirting, but Moffat takes things to a whole other level when Reinette reads the Doctor’s mind to get some info on him, allowing her to sweep him off his feet as easily he does her, and another level still when she finally gets a look at the Doctor’s world and her own future. The core conflict of this episode is that as a time traveler, the Doctor can step in and out of Reinette’s life whenever he chooses, while she travels linearly and ages like every ordinary human. Any relationship she could ever hope to have with him could never be a satisfying one of equals. After the Doctor makes a great personal sacrifice for her, stranding himself in her time, she returns the favor and helps him get back to his world, forsaking any life she could have had with him. The Doctor offers to take her on as a companion, but he returns several years too late, after she’s already dead and gone, and she spent the rest of her life waiting for him, which is one hell of a gut-punch ending.
Notably, there’s a bit of a disconnect between “The Girl In The Fireplace” and the two episodes surrounding it, in regards to how the Doctor and his companions are written. Ten and Rose are nicer and more attentive when it comes to Mickey than they were in “School Reunion“, where Rose hated the idea of her ex-boyfriend tagging along and making things weird, or “Rise Of The Cybermen“, where Ten and Rose are so wrapped up in themselves that they keep forgetting Mickey is even with them. Ten also seems pretty quick to repeatedly blow Rose off to spend time with Reinette, compared to most episodes, where he is all about Rose. Apparently, Steven Moffat hadn’t had a chance to read the final script for “School Reunion” yet when he sat down to start working on this episode.
In any case, Rose has warmed up to the idea of Mickey tagging along, and much like she did with Adam, she’s taken it upon herself to tutor him and ease him into a companion’s way of life. Even if she feels a bit awkward, Rose shows Reinette plenty of sympathy and compassion for her troubles, and there’s a great stealth arc for her between “School Reunion” and this episode. Last week, the Doctor told Rose he never looked back on his past because it always hurt him to outlive his friends. She didn’t think much of it at the time, because she was still upset about Sarah Jane, but in this episode, she and her friends traverse Reinette’s entire life in the span of a day. When Reinette dies, the Doctor lies and says he’s alright, but you can see Rose staring at him silently and sympathetically from the TARDIS console, and you know it’s finally hit home for her that this is what it’s like being an immortal time traveler; she’s gained a greater understanding of the Doctor’s life. We don’t know what Rose is thinking exactly: perhaps she’s thinking the Doctor will have to experience this pain all over again someday, when she’s dead and gone as well.
At this point in his character arc, Mickey Smith (Noel Clarke) has grown from being a cowardly and pitiable wet blanket to a lovable and excitable yet streetwise goof. Having decided to try out touring the universe in the previous episode, Mickey has gotten into the spirit of adventure like Rose has, and he takes the time to savor the sights of the future. Mickey does his best to pitch in and he likes the idea of seeing cool sci-fi stuff, but that doesn’t stop him from thoroughly freaking out when things start to go very, very wrong. This is still Mickey after all. His character started out a poser, someone who always pretended to be tougher than he actually was when faced with the unknown, but these days he tends to have actual bravery to fall back on. Like Captain Jack in Series 1, I almost find myself wishing Mickey’s short tenure as a companion had lasted a bit longer than it did, because he’s a fun guy to have around.
The villains in this episode are the Clockwork droids, a unique and macabre creation from Steven Moffat who hit many of the same beats as the nanogenes in “The Doctor Dances”. This episode has the same theme of amoral, emotionless technology from the future malfunctioning, with horrific consequences for the past. The clockwork droids were built to keep a spaceship running smoothly, but when the ship died and they ran out of parts to repair it, they used the human crew’s body parts to keep it running: lacking the basic intelligence to grasp how contradictory, pointless and evil that move would be. At one point, the Doctor and his friends even discover the scent of human flesh cooking in the wiring. The clockwork droids have an obsession with Reinette and have targeted her specifically to be harvested, keeping tabs on her throughout her life. Eventually, the audience discovers the reason for this convoluted scheme, while the Doctor and his friends never do: the ship was named after Madame De Pompadour, and the droids were very literal-minded – there could be no other ideal pilot.
I mentioned back in “Tooth And Claw” that Euros Lynn was one of the best directors Doctor Who had back in the RTD era, and he gets to prove it when he helms “The Girl In The Fireplace”, depicting the episode’s events with style and confidence. Notably, there are a lot of low angles in this episode, accentuating the characters in comparison to backgrounds, which either makes the Doctor seem more like a grand figure when he springs into action, or makes the Clockwork droids feel more imposing when they stalk around an anachronistic setting. “The Girl In The Fireplace” is one of those episodes that benefits from having excellent lighting as well, with the softer scenes shared between Ten and Reinette having a warm, inviting ambiance to them, contrasting sharply with the cold harshness of the Clockword droids’ ship, the robots’ first introduction in Reinette’s bedroom at night, or the second to last scene where Reinette has died and all the life has gone out of Versailles.
The special effects for the episode are pretty good, partly because the story doesn’t require a lot of CGI, and partly because CGI is much more capable of creating and rendering big science fiction concepts like spaceships or supernovas in space than flesh and blood creatures like the Krillatines. I haven’t mentioned the show’s costume department since “The Unquiet Dead”, but the period dress in the episode, evoking pre-revolutionary France, is some very impressive and convincing work from behind the scenes. Murray Gold’s lite, innocent, playful, ominous and comparatively reserved score contributes a lot to the dark fairy tale tone Moffat was aiming for, always ticking away throughout the hour and notably standing on it’s own in isolation without reprising any of his previous themes for the Doctor or Rose. Murray writes a soft, inquisitive, whimsical piano theme for Reinette that has numerous variations throughout the episode and finally takes a tragic turn in “Madame De Pompadour“.
As one of several great episodes in Series 2, “The Girl In The Fireplace” is an unexpected masterpiece that I’ve grown fonder of over the years, and another early example of how grand Steven Moffat’s writing style can be when he’s firing on all cylinders.
* Years down the line, Steven Moffat would expand on his core concept for Reinette’s character with Amelia Pond, the girl who waited, the first companion from his tenure as showrunner.
* Between Queen Victoria in “Tooth And Claw” and Madame De Pompadour in “The Girl In The Fireplace”, we got two celebrity historicals for the price of one in Series 2. Sweet.
* “Can you tell me what year it is?” “Of course I can. 1727” “Seventeen hundred and twenty seven” “Right, lovely. One of my favorites. August is rubbish though. Stay indoors”.
* “Just a nightmare, Reinette, don’t worry about it. Everybody has nightmares. Even monsters under the bed have nightmares, don’t you monster?” “What do monsters have nightmares about?” “Me!”
* “Listen, seriously, I mean this from the heart, and, by the way, count those, it would be a crime, it would be an act of vandalism to disassemble you. But that won’t stop me”.
* For a short while, the Doctor had a horse named Arthur accompanying him, and he was adorable.
* “Oh, here’s trouble. What have you been up to?” “Oh, this and that. Became the imaginary friend of a future French aristocrat, picked a fight with a clockwork man. Oh, and I met a horse” “What’s a horse doing on a spaceship?” “Mickey, what’s pre-Revolutionary France doing on a spaceship? Get a little perspective”.
* “The queen must have loved her” “Oh, she did. They get on very well” “The king’s wife and the king’s girlfriend?” “France. It’s a different planet”.
* “Doctor, no! You’re not keeping the horse!” “Hey, I let you keep Mickey!”
* “Oh, Doctor. So lonely. So very, very alone” “What do you mean, alone? You’ve never been alone in your life. Wait, when did you start calling me Doctor?” “Such a lonely little boy. Lonely then and lonelier now. How can you bear it?”.
* If there’s one scene in this episode I would describe as ‘cringeworthy’, it’s Ten pretending to be drunk with an exaggerated drawl. Clearly, he’s playing the buffoon to fool the Clockwork droids, but um, please don’t do that again anytime soon, Doc.
* “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 traveller, must always take the slower path?” “He was right about you, you’re good”.
* “He’ll be there when you need him. That’s the way it’s got to be” “It’s the way it’s always been. The monsters and the Doctor. It seems you cannot have one without the other”.
* “Are you okay?” “No, I’m very afraid. But you and I both know, don’t we, Rose? The Doctor is worth the monsters”.
* “Madame de Pompadour. You look younger every day” “What the hell is going on?” “Oh. This is my lover, the King of France” “Yeah? Well, I’m the Lord of Time, and I’m here to fix the clock”.