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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

‘Doctor Who’ thing of the day: the Doctor’s cameo in ‘Her Fearful Symmetry’

I just finished reading Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.], a lovely novel that is part ghost story, part love story — not just of the romantic kind but of the sibling kind, too — and a teeny bit horror story. It’s a tale of Londoner Elspeth, who dies too young, and leaves her flat near Highgate Cemetery in North London to her two young American nieces, who move in and soon discover that their aunt is haunting the place.

Before the nieces realize this, however, Elspeth spends some time trying to figure out how to make her presence known: this is not as easy as it might seem, since she cannot, at first, interact with the physical world in any way. She’s also bored, and pounces on any opportunity to read a book the girls might leave lying around (she’d do so herself if she could turn pages) or watch TV over their shoulders, so to speak. Which is where this scene comes in, when the nieces settle in for some telly:

It turned out to be Doctor Who.

Elspeth hovered above them, lying on her stomach, chin resting on folded arms. Isn’t there anything else on TV? She was a snob about science fiction and hadn’t seen an episode of Doctor Who since the early eighties. Eh, I suppose it’s better than nothing. She watched Julia and Valentina watching the television. They ate their soup slowly from mugs and looked keen. Elspeth happened to glance at the screen in time to see the Doctor walk out of the TARDIS and into a defunct spaceship.

That’s David Tennant! Elspeth zoomed over to the television and sat herself a foot away from it. The Doctor and his companions had discovered an eighteenth-century French fireplace on the spaceship. A fire burned in the hearth. I want a fire, Elspeth thought. She had been experimenting with warming herself over the flames of the stove on the rare occasions that the twins cooked anything. The Doctor had crouched down by the fire and was conversing with a little girl in Paris in 1727 who seemed to be on the other side of the fireplace. Is it sad to fancy David Tennant when you’re dead? This is a very strange programme. The little girl turned out to be the future Madame de Pompadour. Clockwork androids from the spaceship were trying to steal her brain.

“Cyber-steampunk, or steam-cyberpunk?” asked Julia. Elspeth had no idea what she meant. Valentina said, “Look at her hair. Do you think we could do that?”

“It’s a wig,” said Julia. The Doctor was reading Madame de Pompadour’s mind. He put his hands on her head, palms enclosing her face, fingers delicately splayed around her ears. Such long fingers, Elspeth marvelled. She placed her small hand on top of David Tennant’s. The screen was deliciously warm. Elspeth sunk her hand into it, just an inch or so.

“God, that’s weird,” said Valentina. There was a dark silhouette of a woman’s hand superimposed over the Doctor’s. He let go of Madame de Pompadour’s face, but the black hand remained where it was. Elspeth took her hand away; the screen hand stayed black. “How did you do that?” said the Doctor. Elspeth thought he was speaking to her, then realised that Madame de Pompadour was answering him. I must have burned out the screen. What if I could do that with my face? She tucked her entire self into the TV and found herself looking out through the screen. It was wonderful inside the television, quite warm and pleasantly confining. Elspeth had only been in there for a second or two when the twins saw the screen go black. The TV died.

Ha! I assumed once I’d read Niffenegger’s first book, The Time Traveler’s Wife (my review of the film is here) that she was a Doctor Who fan and that her novel was inspired by the show. But I think this cements it.

(If you stumble across a cool Doctor Who thing, feel free to email me with a link.)

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