"The Girl in the Fireplace" may be the crowning achievement of Doctor Who's second season. I'm often overly critical of these new episodes, but this is one that fires on all cylinders and shows why the new series is ultimately more than just flashy effects, clever one-liners, and sometimes tedious chase scenes.
Writer Steven Moffat provided Season One with the Hugo Award-winning two-parter "The Empty Child", and he returns with this bit of stand-alone glory. Moffat understands Doctor Who in a broader context; he's able to blend sci-fi, horror, romance, humor, and humanity so that they effortlessly complement—rather than needlessly complicate—one another. This is talent no other current Who TV writer, not even showrunner Russell T Davies, possesses to this degree.
The pre-credits sequence: Versailles under attack...but by whom or by what? Mechanical noise and regal music fill the soundtrack. A beautiful woman informs the King that her savior, the man who's watched over her her entire life, is coming. Save for the King, he's the only man she's ever loved. She demands that he must be with his Queen, as she is only his mistress. Leaning down, she looks into the fireplace and pleads: "Are you there? Can you hear me? I need you now. You promised. The clock on the mantle is broken. It is time. Doctor! Doctor!!"
"The Girl in the Fireplace" is Who for the new millennium; fare that could never exist under the banner of the old series. Beginning near the end is an inspired move for this cruel, beautiful Grimm's Fairy Tale/Monster Mash/Period Romance. It's a tale of many twists and turns, of time passing at different speeds. Post credits, the Doctor (David Tennant), Rose (Billie Piper), and Mickey (Noel Clarke) arrive on a spaceship in the distant future. They quickly discover an incongruous fireplace, and a little girl on the other side of the flames. With some jiggery-pokery, the Doc spins the entire structure around and somehow ends up in 1727 Paris. The girl is Reinette (Jessica Atkins) and there's something ticking beneath her bed.
The Doctor [battling a clockwork robot]: "Everyone has nightmares. Even monsters from under the bed have nightmares—don't you monster?"
Reinette: "What do monsters have nightmares about?"
The Doctor: "Me!"
The Doctor soon discovers numerous other gateways on the ship that lead not only to 18th century Paris, but to various stages of Reinette's life. She is being stalked by the ship's clockwork robots, who disguise themselves in sinister period garb. But why? And why is she "not yet complete?" He also discovers she is not just any Parisian girl, but as an adult is the infamous Madame de Pompadour (Sophia Myles of Art School Confidential and Tristan + Isolde). The Doctor falls for this woman of intelligence, charm, beauty, and fame, and his mission to save Reinette from the robots turns seriously madcap, as he dashes back and forth between moments in her life while time onboard the spaceship slowly runs out.
It is worth mentioning the numerous aspects "The Girl in the Fireplace" shares with Moffat's script(s) from last season: "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances" introduced Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), who came from the 51st century, the same time period in which the "Fireplace" spaceship exists. Last year, Rose badgered the Doctor to "show me some Spock." Well, he shows Reinette some major Spock here by going for the old Vulcan mind-meld (a Who first, by the way, and I won't hazard a guess as to its connotations). The banana gag returns, and the Doctor dances (off screen) once more. Most notable are the alien springboards for both stories: they each involve antagonist robots doing what they are programmed to do, which is fixing what is broken without conscience or thought. Last season the nanogenes did their thing, which in turn created the gas mask zombies. "Fireplace" kills both birds with one stone—the fixers and the monsters become one in the form of the clockwork robots. These connections do not strike me as a case of writer rehash, but rather an innovative way of executing similar concepts. If Moffat's two-parter was wonderfully epic, his "Fireplace" is beautifully intimate.
The deepest beauty is in its emotional complexity. Reinette meets the Doctor in tiny, infrequent pockets that exist throughout her lifetime; for him, the entire ordeal occurs over a period of hours. But being a Time Lord, he seems to sense the effect he's having on her. If someone awaits his return every moment of her life, then maybe he too can make the leap. It's all about time invested, you see. The Doctor is in an ideal situation: It's on his terms—he doesn't have to deal with the mundane day-to-day relationship bullshit. This is easy. This is cool. This is heroic. This is romance.
And this is tragic. There's so much here to dissect about the core being of the Doctor and, even with 900 years of time travel under his belt, he finally comes across as a naïve child. We learn a lot about him in this episode—provided we bother to observe. "The Girl in the Fireplace" is about what it means to be a Time Lord and the implications of the near-emotionless finale show why the Time Lords decreed their stuffy non-intervention laws in the first place. What a fool this immortal can be. Yes, he saved Reinette from the robots, but he failed to save her from himself—and it is rare to see him fail on this level.
The final reveal—the discovery of why the robots are stalking Reinette is almost an afterthought. It's there for plot clarification, but it's not there to give purpose to the meat of the story. "The Girl in the Fireplace" is such a thought-provoking piece of fiction that Doctor Who could not afford to do this every week. It would be too taxing on the average viewer's brain; hell, I won't talk down to others...it would be too taxing on my brain. I could write 5 more pages on this episode and still feel I hadn't done it justice. It's writing that is vital to the current mythology of the series, and the day someone in charge says "This kind of stuff doesn't work for the general public" is the day Doctor Who is dead.
Rose: "Are you okay?"
Reinette: "No. I'm very afraid. But you and I both know - don't we Rose?—the Doctor is worth the monsters."
I've bagged on Rose in recent times, but here she proves herself a trooper. Two adventures in a row have shown her that she is not the most important person in the Doctor's life. Last time it was someone from his past; this time it was someone fresh and new—and in both cases she played second fiddle. Yet she treated Reinette with compassion and respect. Is she beginning to grasp the complexities of this alien to whom she is so devoted? Has she been humbled? How does Mickey fit into the equation? What do the past, present and future have in store for Rose Tyler?
NEXT WEEK: A trip to an alternate universe, familial disconnection and The Lion Sleeps Tonight in "Rise of the Cybermen".
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: "Earthshock", starring Peter Davison.
Ross Ruediger is a San Antonio-based critic and columnist, a contributor to The House Next Door, and publisher of The Rued Morgue. For more writing about the series, see "Dr. Who" in the sidebar at right.