21st Century Doctor Who Reviews: The Girl In The Fireplace

The older I get, the more out of step I seem to be with the world.

Public opinion and me have always got on as well as Tom and Jerry, but I continue to wonder what possible appeal the likes of Mr Blobby, Br***t and Strictly Come Dancing (a show that's currently garnering even more viewers thanks to an illicit tryst between a perma-grinning robot in a wig and Rod Hull cosplaying as Mumford and Sons) have. Classic examples of the public having the final word, but I can't get my head around the fact that anyone would regard any of these as a safe punt.

The reverse principle generally holds true for Doctor Who. Name a classic story like Genesis Of The Daleks, City Of Death, and The Caves Of Androzani and inevitably, most of the fans will praise them until they are blue in the face. Now I'm not going to disagree with the superlatives for these three brilliant adventures – but one story's near-universal acclaim that baffles me is The Girl In The Fireplace.

You know, The Girl In The Fireplace. The story in which the Doctor meets Madame De Pompadour, the mistress of King Louis XV, and falls in lurve with her – only for his heart to be broken at the end. The episode has been lauded to the heavens by the fans and won a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation in 2007.

And yet.

I'm just left shrugging my shoulders and going “So what?” Wow, talk about not getting an invite to the party.

So what's my beef with The Girl In The Fireplace? Don't get me wrong, there are aspects of the story that merit applause. It's one of the best looking episodes of the season. The setting of 18th century France is like a gift from the gods to the BBC, since they can recreate historical dramas in their sleep. The Girl In The Fireplace is no exception – the set designs are beautiful and convey that sense of grandeur and luxury perfectly. Not only that, but the costumes and props are just as well realised and just show how much attention to detail has been paid by the cream of creative talent around.

I also like the appearance of the clockwork androids. Immaculately designed, like all memorable Doctor Who monsters, the droids have that blank-faced terror working for them. It's the same sort of deal as the Autons – there's no expression of human emotion. Instead, they give off a permanent fixed harlequin grin, a bit like clowns at a circus. They're a masterpiece of design, so it's a shame that as the monsters of the piece, they're wasted – to be continued...

The story's also a good showcase for Euros Lyn, who's already proving to be one of the most adaptable directors in Doctor Who. Monster menagerie... Christmassy romp... Gothic horror and now this. Lyn directs the story with flair, wit and imagination, and counterpoints the humming spaceship very well with the regal splendour of 18th century France.

The regulars get some good material too. Interestingly, Rose doesn't seem to mind too much that Mickey's come on board the TARDIS. Apparently, Steven Moffat had written the episode without reading the conclusion of School Reunion, when Rose had reacted to Mickey's initiation with a snort of disgust. Luckily, the two work well in this story, and there's a good double act going on between Noel Clarke and Billie Piper. “Now you're getting it!” she grins, as the two disregard the Doctor's orders to stay put. It's also amusing to see Mickey tease Rose with the Doctor's latest conquests (“So that Doctor, eh? Madame De Pompadour... Sarah Jane Smith... Cleopatra...”), only for Rose to start to get a bit huffy. This does lead to a big problem with The Girl In The Fireplace (more on this later), but fortunately, both Clarke and Piper are infectiously enjoyable.

It's also a strong one for David Tennant, despite the somewhat dubious character of the Tenth Doctor in this story. By now, Tennant had got the hang of his Doctor, and manages the right mix of goofy humour, action hero and romantic lead. He's very good with the deadpan humour and makes the most of his witty lines (“Mickey, what's a pre-Revolutionary France doing on board a spaceship? Get a little perspective!”). By contrast, he's also good with the more serious stuff, and adds a lot of poignancy to those last few scenes. His forlorn expression as he tucks Reinette's last letter away tells you everything you need to know about the Doctor's lonely state of mind.

But here's the thing. The character of the Tenth Doctor isn't that sympathetic in The Girl In The Fireplace. Superficially, there's the awful scene in which he pretends to be drunk – yes, he's only pretending, but it's another example of how the production team are seemingly hell-bent on making this incarnation into a squealing hybrid of Timmy Mallett and Joe Pasquale. Kudos to Tennant for actually making the best of this clunky scene, but the infantile goofing is starting to try the patience.

A slightly more worrying issue is the fact that the Doctor's apparently prepared to abandon Rose and Mickey forever while he chinks glasses with Reinette. While he saves Reinette from the clockwork androids, it's at the cost of leaving Rose and Mickey to either mooch about on an abandoned spaceship or in the TARDIS forever. Bet they'll love that when they're out of food, bored with the TARDIS swimming pools and contemplating cannibalism.

When it comes to the whole Doctor 4 Rose arc, The Girl In The Fireplace is like fitting a square peg in a round hole. It seems like yesterday that the Ninth Doctor was telling Rose that she's “Fantastic!” Now, poor old Rose has been shoved aside for Reinette. Granted, Reinette's got a lot more on her CV than Rose – she's an actress, artist, musician, dancer, courtesan and excellent gardener, but this never squares with his feelings for Rose, especially since next season, he'll be lamenting her departure on a seemingly non-stop basis. Abandoning Rose for Reinette makes the Doctor seem like a heartless cad.

Whisper it... The Doctor “dances” with Reinette. Only at his second story for Doctor Who is Moffat self-referencing his previous work of art. Actually, the “dancing” thing doesn't bother me especially, although I can see why some fans might lament the fact that their hero has become your average wise-cracking one-man love machine who's gone from being a timeless alien to an intergalactic James Bond.

Still, as Rose starts blubbing into her fire extinguisher, at least she can console herself with the fact that she can speak properly. Reinette, on the other hand, is saddled with terrible, clunky dialogue that alternates between saccharine and gobbledegook. Take the nonsense when she's talking with Rose about how the days of her life are “pressed together like the chapters of a book” on a vessel, before bleating: “While I, weary traveller, must always take the slower path”. The opening “The clock on the mantel is broken! It is time!” line is also a bit of a howler.

I feel sorry for Sophia Myles actually – she's a fine actress, but she's saddled with so many garbled, cheesy lines that she looks uncomfortable. It's a worthy bid by Moffat to create authentic period dialogue, but it sounds terribly false and wooden. Maybe more naturalistic dialogue would have been the way to go.

Another problem with Moffat's writing is a common issue in that it borders on smug with alarming frequency. Don't get me wrong, there's stacks of brilliantly witty lines abound in The Girl In The Fireplace – too many to mention, but I'll narrow it down to three: “I mean this from the heart – and by the way, count those...”, “I'm not winding you up” or “We do not require your feet”. But even with this startling parade of wit, unfortunately one or two of Moffat's lines are too glib by half – the “I'm The Doctor and I just snogged Madame De Pompadour!” is cringe-inducing, while the “You're Mr Thick Thick Thickety Thick Face from Thicktown, Thickania” is the sort of cut-price Rimmer-speak that Grant and Naylor would have crumpled up and chucked in the nearest waste paper bin.

Let's return to the clockwork soldiers: a classic example of how Moffat attempts to rely on making a monster scary through looks alone. It's the same sort of deal with the Smilers in The Beast Below. They look freaky for the kids, but they don't actually do anything. The clockwork soldiers never accomplish much apart from stomp around slowly while holding up razor blades.

In Moffat's defence, we do get to hear of their handiwork in a deliciously horrible description – the crew of the deserted spaceship have been sliced up, cooked and used for repairs (“Barbecue,” muses the Doctor, grimly). But we never get to see any hint of violence on-screen. Back in the day, the Autons shot people, the Mummies throttled their victims – heck, even the Borad aged his whimpering lackeys to skeletons on strings in the blink of an eye. Moffat, however, never likes to opt for this approach, which is bizarre when you consider that kids actually like being scared.

When it comes down to it, I guess that my whole “Meh” approach to The Girl In The Fireplace is a result of the patchy script. Yes, it has countless good lines, funny moments and a brilliantly wacky (if rather odd) premise. But then you get the less-than-flattering treatment of the Doctor, clunky attempts at 18th century language, frequent incidents of smug mode, and a distinct lack of scares.

Plus the ending. In my last inane burblings about School Reunion, I noted how that story's ending was genuinely moving – The Girl In The Fireplace attempts the same trick, and this time around, I reacted with the emotion of Spock watching Watership Down. On the surface it's sad – Reinette dies. Doctor misses the chance of seeing the stars with his new love. Boo hoo.

The problem however is that The Girl In The Fireplace follows School Reunion. By that I mean, there's a key difference – School Reunion's a tear-jerker because the Doctor's relationship with Sarah Jane covers several years. She's one of his closest companions. By contrast, he's known Reinette for – ooh, what? A couple of hours? While Reinette has invested much of her own adult life with the mysterious fireplace man, the Doctor's been dipping in and out of her life at various intervals like a walking bus. I can't assume that the Doctor's been spending much more time with Reinette: nothing is really made of this in the script, and more to the point, at the end, when Reinette says “It's a pity, I think I would have enjoyed the slow path” it suggests that she's spent only fleeting moments in his company.

As a result, the supposedly teary last scene never grabs me. OK, it does emphasise how the Doctor is this so-called “lonely angel” (ugh), but because he's spent so little time in the company of Reinette, the ending comes across to me as a bit hollow and forced. I can understand why some fans find this final scene moving (and David Tennant really helps sell it) but for me personally, it's too misplaced.

The Girl In The Fireplace wins out for me in its visuals, direction (even Murray Gold delivers a good score here) and performances from the regulars. Moffat's script contains much wit and poetry, but it's hampered by too many problems for my liking. Luckily, he'd return to form with the stellar Blink and the Library two-parter.

As for The Girl In The Fireplace - I like it, but I don't care, I don't love it.

* Classics abound up for discussion in my four ebook guides to the Doctor Who eras from 1970 to 1984!


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