New Who in conversation: The girl in the fireplace (S02E04)

Watching New Who – in conversation with David McDonald, Tansy Rayner Roberts and Tehani Wessely
David is coming to New Who for the first time, having loved Classic Who as a kid. Tehani is a recent convert, and ploughed through Seasons 1 to 6 (so far) in just a few weeks after becoming addicted thanks to Matt Smith – she’s rewatching to keep up with David! Tansy is the expert in the team, with a history in Doctor Who fandom that goes WAY back, and a passion for Doctor Who that inspires us all. We’re going to work our way through New Who, using season openers and closers, and Hugo shortlisted episodes, as our blogging points. Just for fun! We have already talked about:
“Rose”, S01E01
“Dalek”, S01E06
“Father’s Day”, S01E08
“The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances”, S01E09/10
“Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways”, S01E12/13
Season One Report Card – DavidTansyTehani
“The Christmas Invasion”, 2005 Christmas Special
“New Earth”, S02E01
“School Reunion”, S02E03
“The girl in the fireplace” – Season two, episode four
The Doctor – David Tennant
Rose Tyler – Billie Piper
Mickey Smith – Noel Clarke
Sophia Myles – Reinette
DAVID:
One of the advantages the episodic format gives shows like Doctor Who is that the writers get a chance to play around with all sorts of concepts, and experiment a little. It’s one of the reasons I enjoyed the later seasons of Smallville so much, for example, because you never knew what you were going to get. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it is never boring and gives great scope for creativity. I can just imagine the writers sitting around and throwing in ideas for this one. Steampunk and clockwork? Why not? Love story? Sure!
TEHANI:
It’s Steampunk In Space!! Awesomely awesome :) I like the longer story arcs we get in New Who, but when the individual episodes are done this well, I love them too. This one is a standout.
DAVID:
This episode has so much to talk about! Given the previous episode, the theme of mortality, and how a, if not immortal, long lived being like the Doctor interacts with short lived humans was very timely. I also enjoyed the way her perceptions of the Doctor changed, which mirrors the differences between how we watch the show as children, and then as adults. And, of course, the idea of the Doctor as the hero, quite literally riding to the rescue, was something that resonated with me.One of the other interesting things about this episode is that you could take someone who has never seen Doctor Who before, and knows nothing more about it than it’s a British sci fi show, and it would stand up completely on its own. It’s so self contained that it works as a stand alone sci fi love story, yet more excellent writing.

TANSY:
This is another of my favourites, and further evidence that Steven Moffat’s (as writer) take on the show was going to be hugely important to New Who. After being supremely cheeky in “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances” by addressing the idea of the Doctor flirting and possibly having a sex life (albeit couched in metaphor!) as well as being very relaxed around different sexual orientations, he follows up with this story which unashamedly gives the Doctor a romance.

However you feel about Rose and whether what’s going on between her and the Doctor is romantic or not (it can certainly be read either way at this point), there is no mistaking what is going on with him and Madame De Pompadour in this story. Kissing!  Mind-reading! White charger! Doom!

DAVID:
The first thing I though when they kissed was, “Finally a real kiss! Tansy must have been thrilled!”

And, how awesome was it when he rides the horse through the mirror? It doesn’t get much better than that.

TEHANI:
Isn’t Sophia Myles just WONDERFUL in this? I already loved her from the far too short-lived Moonlight, but she is absolutely brilliant here, I thought.

TANSY:
She was also Lady Penelope in the otherwise-forgettable live action Thunderbirds movie … and she and David Tennant dated for a couple of years after filming this episode.

DAVID:
It was an outstanding performance, but what an amazing character she was given to work with! Reading about Madame de Pompadour I was absolutely fascinated, and I just thought it was great to see such a complex character presented so well. We get this woman who is completely unapologetic about who she is and what she wants, and despite the fact she is the “damsel in distress” in some ways, that is not what defines her, she is not a mere cipher.

One of the things that has struck me about New Who is the strength of some of the supporting characters (though her and the Doctor are very much the primary characters, of course) and the quality of the acting. There have been some show stealing moments so far.

TANSY:
Madame De Pompadour is a fabulous historical character – Nancy Mitford famously wrote a biography of her. Something New Who has done that I enjoy very much is bringing back the importance of historical stories to the show – and bringing a modern sensibility to that history. Aspects like having multi-racial characters back in Europe’s past (because you know, there WERE, it’s just that we’re accustomed to whitewashed versions of history thanks to 20th century cinema and TV), and acknowledging that in fact most eras of history had different sexual or social mores to what we take for granted. Sometimes it’s just touched on, but I appreciate those moments. I very much like that Madame de Pompadour’s relationship with the King doesn’t preclude her from loving anyone else, and at the end (not to jump ahead or anything) the King knows all about the Doctor and what he means to Reinette.

TEHANI:
Mickey and Rose are really falling into the brother/sister role here. Running off to chase the clockwork robots like naughty little kids … it’s very cute.

TANSY:
I like the dynamic of this episode, with Rose demoted (again) to the kids table with Mickey, but it takes some of the tension out of the Rose/Doctor relationship, which is good … apart from it not making sense with some of the more romantic Rose/Doctor episodes. I love the exploration of Mickey’s first space adventure, and he does the physical comedy aspects very well.

DAVID:
Mickey is a great addition, and with him on board it has a much more Classic Who feel. Sometimes more comedic characters can be annoying but I think they get it just right.

TEHANI:
Alright, so I LOVED this episode. But … it is perhaps problematic? The Doctor is somewhat stalkery, no? He identifies it in the spaceship itself – is this intended to be self-referential?

TANSY:
I’m not sure I buy the stalkery aspect – if he is, it’s entirely inadvertent. It’s not like he sets out to seduce her – it’s the problem that fascinates him, and then the romance hits him between the eyes by accident. And it’s still the problem that draws him back to her over and over.

The ship is definitely stalking her, though! I love the whole concept of a spaceship full of windows to the past.

DAVID:
I didn’t see the Doctor as stalkerish, and if there was seduction I thought it went the other way! I may be misremembering, but the moment that things change and the Doctor starts to see her as more than someone to be rescued is when she kisses him. She is not a passive character, which is one of the things I like about her.

The idea of a spaceship cannibalising its crew was both clever and creepy, and the concept of windows being opened along someone’s timeline was done really well. The image of an abandoned spaceship, floating in the middle of deep space, with all these portals looking into 18th century France is one that I won’t forget in a hurry, it was very evocative.

There is a Dean Koontz story (Lightning) which is actually very similar, even down to a mysterious stranger intervening at various stages in a young woman’s life, and her falling in love with this protector that has always been part of her life.

TEHANI:
Ooh, I LOVE that book a lot – read it for the first time when I was about 16 and reread it many times. I still recommend it to people!

And so, when did the Doctor become psychic – I have a mental blank if this is the first time he’s done this reading minds trick?

TANSY:
In Classic Who it happened a few times, the mutual mind sharing, but I think only with other Time Lords. It’s not the last time it will happen, though…

TEHANI:
It’s very interesting how Reinette focuses on one of the elements that is so true about Doctor Who, and the life he leads, when she talks about the monsters and the Doctor: “It seems you can’t have one without the other.” But in all the short time Reinette has spent with him, how does she know that “…the Doctor is worth the monsters”?

TANSY:
Hmm well yes, but it’s a romance, and the rules of romance are pretty much all about falling in love with people before you get to know them. She’s an eighteenth century girl! Also she does get to know a bit more of the inner workings of his head, and he is, after all, David Tennant. I have no problem with her deciding he’s worth the trouble!

TEHANI:
Ha! You’re such a fan girl!

TANSY:
Heh not entirely, I think David Tennant automatically becomes twice as attractive when he’s not the Doctor (plus bonus points for the Scottish accent). Okay, yes, a fangirl, but I was *his* fangirl long before he collided with my Doctor Who fandom.

DAVID:
I think the mind reading part makes the whole falling love thing a lot more believable. It’s not just the time that they spend together, it’s the fact that the get to know one another on such a deep and intimate level that makes their bond so powerful.

TEHANI:
It’s also just a teensy bit future referential to Season Five and Amy! (Sorry David, no spoilers, promise!).

And then he totally chooses her. Over the TARDIS, Rose, and everything he’s ever known. I’m really not sure enough is made of this, not here, not ever. He gives up EVERYTHING for Reinette, even though it doesn’t actually happen, and all we get is a moment of silence at the end of the episode?? He’s a shallow beast sometimes…

TANSY:
It’s obvious that The Time Traveller’s Wife had a bit of an influence on Mr Moffat – this is his first working through of the themes of that novel, which he would later do with greater abandon with River Song AND Amy Pond. I think that it’s interesting that he delves so much into the imbalances of the Doctor’s various relationships, exploring the problematic fact that he is always so much older than everyone he travels with (even his fellow Time Lord Romana in Classic Who, 50-60+ Evelyn in Big Finish and Wilf towards the end of Tennant’s run, are all spring chickens compared to the Doctor, by hundreds and hundreds of years). Somehow that imbalance all becomes a lot starker and more obvious when we see his companions/romantic leads as children, and/or get to see them at different points in their lives.

The best example of this in the Classic series, really, is his ongoing friendship with the Brigadier, where he checked in with him regularly throughout his life, and knew him as a young officer, a military leader, and a retired veteran. And of course there’s the Master, who comes back again and again, and to a lesser extent the Rani, whom we are told has known the Doctor since university days.

TEHANI:
Oh Tansy, that makes the end of Season Six even SADDER, knowing that. (NO SPOILERS, SORRY DAVID! I really need to stop doing that.)

TANSY:
Shhhhhhhhh, Tehani, behave yourself.

I think “The Girl in the Fireplace” shows how romance and even friendship with the Doctor is problematic in all kinds of ways, because of how difficult it is for him to find anyone remotely equal – it’s not that he’s better than everybody, but he’s so alien, even to his own people (and of course the big theme of New Who is that his people are gone anyway). Reinette is one of a whole bunch of great companions-who-never-were (Moffat makes such a habit of creating these) and I think she would have been fascinating to travel with in the TARDIS, but ultimately, she’s no better suited to Ten than is Rose.

The Doctor may be getting younger, but I think the actors chosen for New Who have done a bang up job of portraying the Doctor’s alienness (in different ways) and his age despite their appearances. Of course, all the Doctors have done this to greater or lesser effect, but there’s something very effective about that combination of a modern looking young man who acts like he has the whole universe in his back pocket, and all of time and space jumbling around inside his skull.

DAVID:
I think we have seen more than once now that the Doctor has very short mourning periods. Perhaps it is a sign of how broken he is by the trauma of losing his people, or a defense mechanism against the constant cycle of goodbyes he goes through, but he seems very capable of compartmentalising his grief.

I don’t think that means it is any less real to him, but a mark of how, as Tansy says, ALIEN he is. Because he looks human we do tend to forget that, I think.

TANSY:
Yes and of course it’s a feature of the show’s production choices – we don’t want to see the Doctor constantly moping. The universe (and the TARDIS herself) drag him from adventure to adventure so he doesn’t quite have time to mourn but also so that we don’t have to see the bits where he’s just staring into space, twitching.

TEHANI:
That’s a fair point. I must also keep in mind that it is, after all, a TV SHOW! Things must happen! There must be more ACTION and more LOVEY BITS! Else we’d all get bored :)

TANSY:
Which of course is why there is so much of the Doctor’s life (and TARDIS) we don’t get to see. It’s just a coincidence that the bits we don’t see are mostly the bits that would be hugely expensive to design and film.

TEHANI:
In all this, we haven’t yet mentioned the fact that this episode actually won the Hugo for the year. What do we think it is that made this one stand above the others nominated? (We haven’t talked about “Army of Ghosts/Doomsday” yet, I know, so perhaps in relation just to “School Reunion”?).

TANSY:
Whatever it was, Moffat was doing a lot of it. I suspect partly the reason that it works so very well is because it’s the kind of story you can single out from the season – it’s a standalone, it has a deep emotional core to it, it is a brilliant showcase for the protagonist of the show. It has certainly become one of those episodes people reach for first when trying to introduce newbies to the show.

After all it has SF, history, intellect, romance, speccy costumes AND some of the best banter in the business.  The banter gets the Hugo voters every time…

DAVID:
Well, what Tansy said! It really does have a bit of everything. There are some truly remarkable performances (Myles and Tennant), it is accessible to fans and non-fans alike, the writing is top notch, the dialogue sparkles – there really isn’t anything not to like.

Was this around the time steampunk was REALLY big? Because it does have that feel about it, and perhaps that helped, too.

TANSY:
I think it possibly preceded the Extreme Hotness of Steampunk by a year or so but not much more than that.

TEHANI:
So basically, it’s the broadness of the appeal? It’s an episode that can be enjoyed and embraced by more than just the hardcore fans, and with the steampunk-ish element, grabs a few more votes!

TANSY:
I did want to talk a bit about the design of the episode – this is the first time we get to walk around inside a really real spaceship in New Who (as opposed to the same space station painted three different ways) and I think it’s very nicely realised. But of course it’s the 18th century design that really leaps off the screen – Reinette’s frocks particularly but the clockwork robots in their courtier garb have become an iconic Doctor Who villain, and I think the design has a lot to do with that.

DAVID:
The design is gorgeous, isn’t it? It captures the luxury and decadence of that period perfectly, like a well done period piece. It would make a great theme for a masquerade at a convention!

TANSY:
I agree with you about the Masquerade – it would be lovely to see Madame De Pompadour and Clockwork Robot cosplay (and did anyone spot the cameo appearance of Angel Coulby, Guinevere from Merlin, as Reinette’s gal pal?).  Hard on the heels of Anthony Head last episode (Uther).

TEHANI:
I clearly need to watch more Merlin! And we’ll keep that theme in mind for a future convention, shall we Tansy? :)

TANSY:
Ha! No comment.

25 Comments

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