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such a nasty woman | by maryann johanson

‘Doctor Who’ blogging: “Girl in the Fireplace”

(intro to my Who blogging, please read before commenting / previous: Episode 3: “School Reunion”)

Here it is: this year’s Hugo winner for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form… and rightly so. This is one of the best episodes of Doctor Who ever — old series, new series, whatever — both wildly inventive and poignant in a way that becomes more heartrending the more you think about it.

It’s the Doctor’s tragedy in a nutshell. We saw in the previous episode, “School Reunion,” how tormented he is by his longevity and his relative physical youth, how he shies from long-term relationships with humans because he can’t bear to see them grow old and die… and here that is, laid bare. He meets an extraordinary woman, and in the space of an afternoon, falls in love with her, is challenged by her in a way unlike any human woman we’ve previously seen with her ability to rise to meet his genius and alienness, and then loses her across the unspannable abyss of death (and she wasn’t even old when she died!). What the Doctor told Rose, last episode, about how fast people’s lives slip by from his perspective… It’s all right here for us to get a genuine taste of what he sees. And it’s really the tragedy of us all, how quickly our lives slip away.
And oh, she would have been a formidable companion for the Doctor — “one of the most accomplished women who ever lived,” and one whom he is instantly and completely smitten with, when he meets her as an adult. (The way he looks suddenly grownup Reinette, speechless and agog… wow. But you can’t blame him. Sophia Myles [now starring in the vampire romance Moonlight] is so gorgeous, you can’t help but fall in love with her. Tennant did, too, not just his character… but then he dumped her, the cad.) There’s a whole bunch of we-haven’t-seen-the-Doctor-like-this-before here, not just confirmation that he is, actually, as hormonal as the next guy — that kiss! “I just snogged Madame de Pompadour!” — but also that he likes to party. Or maybe Reinette inspires him to let his hair down. The scene when he stumbles back onto the ship from the 18th century — “Have you met the French? My God they know how to party!” — is a brilliant example of Tennant’s wonderfully physical acting. And I’ve always suspected that the Doctor had lots of control over his body in ways that we mere mortal humans would envy — I have no doubt that he was roaring drunk but was able to sober himself up quickly when the situation called for it. (It’s always been fun imagining scenarios for my fanfic in which the Doctor could party hearty but still deal with whatever ugly beasties popped up immediately after… or during…)

But this episode makes me think that maybe I was wrong in thinking that just before “Tooth and Claw” the Doctor and Rose had had some very naughty fun together. Because he is very quick to latch onto Reinette when I thought he’d been feeling the same way about Rose, and she is all over Mickey in a way that I don’t think she’d be if she were fixated on the Doctor. Perhaps the intimacy we saw between Rose and the Doctor in “Tooth and Claw” hadn’t yet been consummated… and that’s why he invited Mickey along, to act as an obstacle to an actual consummation. Perhaps the encounter with Sarah Jane reminded the Doctor that it’s best to stay away from human women (though then why another fascination for another human?). Rose is certainly acutely aware of what’s happening between the Doctor and Reinette, and she’s jealous of it… yet not in the possessive way I’d expect her to be had she, ahem, laid a claim.

“There comes a time, Time Lord,” Reinette tells his coquettishly, “when every lonely little boy must learn how to dance.” And ho boy, we know the Doctor dances, right?

Oh, the possibilities for filling in the in-betweens with the Doctor and Rose — and the Doctor and Reinette — are so tantalizing…

But apart from that — apart from the Doctor’s tragedy and Rose’s sudden cast-aside-ness and all the wonderful soapiness of this episode — there’s wonderful stuff here. The gearpunk robots are lovely — “Space-age clockwork? I’ve got chills!” the Doctor exclaims, and you believe him; he’s not being the facetious cynic he often is in the face of a potent adversary. And it’s sad when the clockwork robot winds down in the end: it was beautiful, and the ship was just doing what it was supposed to do, and it’s easy to imagine that the Doctor might have found an alternate solution for it, might have whipped together some sort of Reinette-brain-substitute for them, had he not been otherwise distracted. (In fact, it’s easy to see how the old Who, which would never have given us an obviously smitten Doctor, could have pushed his besottedness down into the subtext under a mad endeavor to save Reinette by sublimating his emotions into the building of some Macgyver-esque doodad that would have satisfied the ship.) The ship’s story reminds me of that classic SF short story “The Cold Equations,” and even more of the literary response of many years later, “The Cold Solution.” I doubt that’s an accident: I love that the writers of the new Who are as devoted to crafting genuinely speculative scenarios as they to indulging our desire to see the Doctor as a real person with real feelings.

Random thoughts on “Girl in the Fireplace”:

• This one also makes me think of Monsters, Inc., for some strange reason…

• Old Who would never have touched on the idea of a king’s mistress — anyone’s mistress — and yet here she’s center stage. Sex? People having sex on Doctor Who… and everyone knows about it? Oh my…

• The 51st century again? We’re in Captain Jack Harkness’s home time. Is this one of those crux eras, like (we’ve been constantly told by Doctor Who) our own is? Or does the number “51” have a nice ring to it?

• August 1727 is “rubbish”? “Stay indoors,” the Doctor tells Reinette. Why? A quick Google of “August 1727” didn’t enlighten me. I think the writers throw this stuff in to drive us crazy.

• The horse likes the Doctor? Or perhaps it’s just scared and lonely?

• Great quotes:

“What do monsters have nightmares about?”–young Reinette
“Me!”–the Doctor

“You’re not keeping the horse!”–Rose
“I let you keep Mickey!”–the Doctor

“The monsters and the Doctor. It seems you cannot have one without the other.”–Reinette

“The Doctor is worth the monsters.”–Reinette

“I’m gonna need money. I’ve always been a bit vague about money. How do you get money?”–the Doctor

(next: Episodes 5 & 6: “Rise of the Cybermen” and “The Age of Steel”)

MPAA: not rated

viewed at home on a small screen

official site | IMDb
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  • I LOVED The Girl in the Fireplace. It was wonderful to use the historical figure of Madame de Pompadour as they did in this episode. It was my favorite episode from last year (and had my Hugo vote!).

  • jakob1978

    “What do monsters have nightmares about?”–young Reinette
    “Me!”–the Doctor

    although credit for that line should go to Paul Cornell (writer of Human Nature), who wrote it in his novel ‘Love and War’ in 1992. The Doctor is talking about the TARDIS looking like a police box

    I could have changed it ages ago, but I like the shape. And the motto. Call here for help. That’s what I do. I let little children sleep safely at night, because I’ve searched through all the shadows and chased the baddies away. I’m what monsters have nightmares about.

  • This is indeed a lovely episode and one of the best ever – along with “Blink” Moffat has crafted two wonderful standalones that I can suggest to people who aren’t necessarily fans.

    This also cemented my problems with the idea of Rose as love interest – and it sounds like it at least gave you food for thought. I am in no way opposed to the Doctor having a love interest, but only if it makes sense within the confines of his very particular character. He would fall in love with Reinette, it is believable, just as it was believable to me that he would fall in love with Joan Redfern. These made sense – as did, say, the possibility that he might have fallen for Romana. I tend to think he did.

    But Rose? I don’t see it. All through the first season, Eccleston was more of a father figure (cemented in the episode about her dead father). I certainly thought he loved her, was affectionate to her, and she was his best friend who he could really have an amazing time with. It seemed mostly like a more intense version of Ace, actually.

    When Tennant came along, they started building this very awkward sexual tension that just made no sense to me and could very obstructive – I know of far too many people who felt that way about it. It also cheapened the relationship, to me – there are so many kinds of love and levels to those that to boil it all down to your basic TV will they or won’t they romance . . . come on. Surely the Who team is more creative than that!

    Equally, Reinette cemented for me that the Doctor would not ever in a million years fall for Martha and, apparently – thankfully – RTD agreed.

    Because of all this stuff, Rose’s character could be irritating in various episodes in the season where the writers were falling back on the romantic love. If they wanted to explore that, I would have preferred Reinette in that role, so it would at least be believable.

  • PaulW

    Searching for info on August 1727… only thing I can find related to France in August 1727 is that two branches of the House of Bourbon reconciled…

  • MaryAnn

    But Rose? I don’t see it.

    I wouldn’t have seen him with someone like her, either. I think only his extreme loneliness and distress explains it.

  • Joanne

    I think probably he was suggesting the weather was awful in August 1727, rather than Reinette should avoid some horrific historical event!

    I love this episode too. It’s pretty much perfect. I especially like the Rose/Reinette scene, where you see how the Doctor unites these two very different women from very different times.

  • MaryAnn

    But why would the Doctor be so concerned about bad weather? Seems beneath his interest…

  • PaulW

    The Doctor probably caused the bad weather in August 1727…

    DOCTOR: Oh dear. I seem to have dumped 50 tons of snow on top of Normandy in the middle of 1727. Think anyone will notice?

    NYSSA: Depends. Who lives in Normandy?

    DOCTOR: The French.

    NYSSA: (Dramatic pause) I didn’t see a thing.

  • MaryAnn

    Hee hee.

  • swanberg

    Steven Moffet said that he wasn’t aware of the look Rose gave when Mickey asked to join the crew at the end of “School Reunion.” Alas, I think we can write off the relationship between Rose and Mickey in this ep. to simple discontinuity between the writers.

    1727 had a major volcanic eruption. That tends to mess up the global weather…

  • Hmm, I didn’t care for this episode. Couldn’t tell you why, though…

  • I also think this episode is one of the best of Doctor Who. It really brings it to the forefront how fleeting the lives of everyone are that he meets while his life just goes on and on. “School Reunion” touched on this subject, but this episode gets to the heart of the matter. It makes me feel so sorry for the Doctor.

    Oh, THAT KISS!!! That’s the best kiss I’ve ever seen in any movie or TV show. That had to be more than just acting. I don’t know how Sophia Myles could leave him in the UK and go to the US when he kisses like that.

    Did you notice how wonderfully long David’s fingers are when he’s holding her head and reading her thoughts? (I have a thing for long fingers.) I’m just mesmerized by his hands!!!

  • Sonia

    Haha, Sharon I have the same “thing” for his hands…just wonderful. And I’m glad you said so, because I feel less weird for it now! Cheers

  • Why would a grown Time Lord (well grown–over 900 years old) be so astounded by a simple “snog”? This is what I’m wondering! OK, so it was a great snog, but he acts like a schoolboy who’s just gotten his first.

    I suggest that he is just beginning to understand what human sexuality is all about–that Gallifreyan sexuality is something entirely alien to us and that’s why he’s always treated his companions as platonic friends (that and Mrs. Whitehouse of course but let’s pretend she’s fiction and the Doctor’s not as that would be a better scenario). But now that the hope of a Gallifreyan mate is entirely gone, he’s starting to experiment with human expressions of sexuality.

    Maybe his long association with humans and his extraordinarily (for a Time Lord) rapid series of regenerations has altered his physiology and is making him susceptible to human-style hormones at last?

    One can only hope!

  • the “snogging” came out of nowhere as far as the Doctor could see… and his delight, i think, was for the fact of *who* was snogging him! a really talented, fantastically fascinating, grown up woman — Madame duPompador… writer, gardner, politician, etc.

    i wish more men were delighted to be snogged unexpectedly by accomplished women.

  • Weimlady

    One other very brief scene from this episode that keeps replaying in my mind–when Rose says, “You alright?” at the end, and he says, “Me? I’m always alright.”

    Oh wrench. Great line.

  • k

    He has a time machine. Why can’t he just go back to a time before Reinette died and take her as a companion?

  • MaryAnn

    You must be new to *Doctor Who,* k. Once the Doctor is involved in a timeline, he can’t simply jump back and change things.

    You can argue all you want about the physics of that, but the truth is, if the Doctor could always fix things that went wrong, there’d be little dramatic impetus to any story told in this universe.

  • Why can’t he just go back to a time before Reinette died and take her as a companion?


    Because then the Reapers would come and kill everyone and the Doctor would not be able to take any action until after he had had a long, long conversation with a cute couple about how they met and by then, of course, it would be too late to do anything and Rose Tyler would have to sacrifice another relative all over again.

    Or it could just be what MaryAnn said…

  • Pat

    No one ever talks about the Doctor leaving Mickey and Rose to starve to death on that spaceship. I mean, they can’t fly the Tardis, as Mickey points out. Without the Doctor, they’re doomed. If Rose were Donna, when he returned 5 1/2 hours later she’d have given him such a slap. Well, okay, Rose may believe the Doctor knew all along how to get back. But how does this fit into any idea of “romance” between them? The Doctor is impossibly alien. And fickle. He really forgot all about the two of them, wasn’t tormented at all about them, when he thought he’d be staying forever in the past.

    Have I misunderstood something?

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