Doctor Who

Saturday, May 6, 2006 by

After the inauspicious opening episode, David Tennant’s tenure in the TARDIS is developing into a rather rewarding series, in many ways superior to the show’s debut run last year. “The Girl in the Fireplace” is further proof that this revival of Doctor Who is attempting to bring a character-driven edge to proceedings, whilst also retaining the essential fun adventure element.

First the bad news. This is yet another episode set on Earth, established with a pre-credits 18th century set-up. But scriptwriter Steven Moffat (“The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances”) gives it a unique spin with the Doctor, Rose and new companion Mickey finding themselves on an apparently abandoned spaceship in the 51st century. But what on Earth is an 18th century French fireplace doing on board? And what do a gang of clockwork robots find so important about Louis XV’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour?

Following on from last week’s events, this episode was somewhat of a thematic companion piece. The very real emotional dilemma for the Doctor, namely that his companions will age and die while he will live on, is given explicit example in his relationship with Reinette, the future Madame de Pompadour and prey of the mechanical crew of a vessel 3000 years hence. Echoing the central conceit of Audrey Niffenegger’s novel, The Time Traveller’s Wife, Moffat portrays an accelerated example of what life is like for the Doctor. The viewer gets the chance to see things from his perspective as Reinette ages from girl to adulthood before our eyes. But unlike “School Reunion”, which had a rather thin bog-standard plot that was marginalised in favour of character interaction, “The Girl in the Fireplace” blends a reassuringly mysterious narrative with a more poignant personal journey for both the Doctor and Reinette.

Both Tennant and Sophia Myles, in the role of Reinette, bring a realism to their very on/off relationship. Even if the Doctor is shaping up to be a space stud of Captain Kirk-like proportions, there is a more touching element to this duo’s romance. A romance that doesn’t have the viewer reaching for the sick bucket as they do whenever the Doctor and Rose engage in what appears to be a mutual appreciation society meeting. Myles invests Reinette with both intelligence and a playful flirtatious wit. It’s not hard to see why the time traveller is attracted to her. Indeed, he appears to forget all about Rose, happy to face the possibility of being trapped in 18th century France if it means saving Reinette’s life.

But there is also, amidst this doomed love affair, time for creepy clockwork robots to tick and tock ominously in their quest for the brain of Reinette. These clockwork contraptions, while maybe not as scary as they could be, are a decent enough villain with a macabre modus operandi that is uncovered by Rose and Mickey aboard the ship.

With so much of the plot refreshingly centring on the Doctor, it’s inevitable the duo get slightly sidelined. But when the plot does focus on them, it adds a new dimension to the series, a welcome respite from the Rose and Doctor relationship which has made for slightly uncomfortable viewing. Mickey, who has been somewhat ill-treated by the scripts so far, comes across as far more likeable here and gives Rose someone to go exploring with while the Doctor does some of his own. Ahem. It also allows for a bit of good old-fashioned companions-in-peril-business, as the Time Lord arrives in the traditional nick-of-time to save the day, with a playful, eccentric edge that is fast developing into a trademark of Tennant’s performance. It is to his credit he can balance both the serious and humorous elements of the Doctor’s character in a far less forced way than his predecessor, and he’s shaping up to be the best since Peter Davison.

Of course, as Auntie Beeb is a dab hand at period dramas, everything looks suitably sumptuous, with the elegance of mid 1700s French aristocracy a feast for the eye. What could be a rather confusing and jarring switch between the centuries is well-realised, thanks to Euros Lyn’s direction. As in “Tooth and Claw”, he gives proceedings a dynamic edge, able to handle the adventure elements as well as quieter character moments.

For a tale which focuses on time, the sense that time is against our heroes is ever-present. Although, as with most episodes, a longer episode length may have allowed for greater tension and plot depth, things don’t feel as rushed here as they have done before. Everything is neatly tied up in the finale which gives the Doctor a rare moment for quiet reflection. And there is a fun final beat which reveals the reason why Reinette was so important to the clockwork robots’ plans.

While it would be nice for the Doctor to travel a bit further a field, “The Girl in the Fireplace” is a well-balanced episode, bringing together strong emotional character moments for the Doctor, and an entertaining mystery to create a wholly enjoyable adventure. Even those who find the idea of the character as a romantic figure somewhat unpalatable would fail to be drawn in by this episode. You even get to see him come to the rescue on a white steed.

But if you didn’t enjoy it, well, the Cybermen are back next week.


Comments are closed.