2 May 2016

The Girl in the Fireplace

Series 2006+10
A primer for the Doctor Who that was to come four years later.

Watching this episode after we’ve seen most of Steven Moffat’s tenure as showrunner is interesting because many of his signature ideas are contained within it. We’ve got what came to be known as `timey wimey` stuff in the windows that open into different periods, `monsters` that turn out to be an advanced technology gone wrong, a girl meeting the Doctor when she’s young and then again as an adult, the Doctor having a somewhat romantic interlude and the notion of something underneath the bed. In a sequence where the Doctor reads Reinette’s mind there is even talk of the Time Lord as `a lonely boy`. These concepts and ideas became some of the cornerstones of Moffat’s version of Doctor Who. What is also here, surprisingly, is the brutal slaughter of the crew of the spaceship from which the Clockwork robots come. We don’t see it on screen of course but it is there and, no, they don’t get somehow saved at the end. I single this out because it’s the uncomfortable scenario that gives what would otherwise be a fanciful episode some edge.
Listening to the lengthy exposition scenes that pepper the narrative it sounds like Steven Moffat imagined this as an idea for a book once and then adapted it for television. Not a lot happens physically apart from the kiss and some robot stalking.  Instead the look is more of tableaux rather like a series of paintings into which we – and the Doctor- dip. In that sense it looks beautiful; a rich puffed up evocation of eighteenth century court life with some impressive CGI additions.

Such a story leans strongly on the acting nuances of its principals and in that sense Sophia Miles convinces us utterly when Reinette starts understanding the Doctor’s strange life even though she can’t live it.  The fact that she is the King’s mistress is so casually mentioned that it might have had a few parents having to explain what that actually is. Despite the situation, this monarch seems to be an uncommonly accommodating one who even keeps a letter for someone else from the woman he’s mourning rather than, for example, trying to have his rival executed! 
The episode has been pegged as being one of the first major romantic plots in the series but this is more to do with the tone than anything that happens. There is the one big kiss which Reinette initiates and the even more intimate mind melding scene yet she seems to view the Doctor as more of a knight in shining armour than potential suitor. Her desperation to see him and disappointment when she doesn’t is mostly based on the fear of the clockwork men. 

The story is the first indication that this Doctor has more human attributes than his predecessors.  If he’s not actually in love with Madam de Pompadour- after all he is in love with Rose whether or not he realises the fact- he is fond of her and this feeds into `School Reunion`’s themes as well. This time he experiences exactly what he said he could never face in the previous episode- the death of someone whose life he has shared. We didn’t know at the time of course but separation –either by death or other means- is also an overall arc for the season. There’s even an early primer for Rose’s later separation from the Doctor when the latter finds himself seemingly stranded in eighteenth century France- another Moffat trope being characters enduring century spanning scenarios. Given all this it is a bit odd that Rose seems to warm far more to Reinette than she did to Sarah culminating in a strange scene where she pops up to reassure her. You have to conclude that everyone develops period manners for the week. There’s little else though for Rose and, on his first outer space adventure, Mickey to do.

The clockwork men themselves are a devilishly good idea especially the constant whirring of their machinery and eerie faces but Moffat has little interest in the type of stalking monsters he grew up with on Doctor Who so it feels like we don’t see enough of them. If the final reveal of the spaceship’s name explaining everything without a word being spoken is clever the road to get there sometimes seems a tad contrived especially when you consider how advanced the technology on the ship is. Why would the robots be so lacking in awareness that they would act as they have done, slaughtering the crew to use their body parts? And if it’s Madame de Pompadour they are searching for what makes them think cutting her head off will really sort out the ship’s woes? Oh and how can a horse, presumably having cantered in through one of the time windows, have survived on the ship without so much as a bucket of oats? Even so this is an episode to savour like old wine and a welcome change of pace at this stage of the season.

Tardisode: This feels like it’s from a different episode more in tune with the series’ old days. A really classic spaceship under attack and crew knocked out ends with the shadow of a clockwork man and that ticking noise plus the glass on the mantelpiece clock cracking. It does give the impression of something altogether more terrifying than the episode we see.

Factette: The real Madam de Pompadour was the illegitimate daughter of an exiled financier who was groomed from childhood for her role as the King’s mistress. When she first met King Louis XV it was at a fancy dress ball and she was made up as a shepherdess. She spent huge amounts of money on art but also became involved in foreign policy and her influence has been blamed for starting the Seven Years War which France lost.

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