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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

‘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

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