The Girl in the Fireplace
Tony Fyler learns to dance.
Broadcast 6th May 2006
When Steven Moffat wrote The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances in Series 1 of 21st century Who, it’s fair to say he gave us some breathtaking scares spun from the idea of technology gone wrong. When he returned for a one-shot episode in Series 2, his themes were broadly similar – again, the whole situation in The Girl in the Fireplace unravels because technology is failing to act as it should. But if there was ever a more perfect fit of writer and Doctor than Moffat and the Tenth, we’d love to know who else thinks they’re in contention. The Tenth Doctor perfectly suited Moffat’s complex storytelling and hip, flip style of dialogue, making The Girl in the Fireplace, as an episode of Who, something as beautiful as the masks of the clockwork robots themselves.
The story’s ‘elevator pitch’ is delivered in a single line within the episode – ‘Robots from the 51st century, stalking a woman from the 18th.’ The idea of secret passageways between the time zones is perfectly in keeping with the era of court intrigue and dangerous liaisons. And even the central plot element has a joyful satirical edge – the forces of bureaucracy, rather than darkness, wanting to decapitate a French aristocrat just a few decades early. While Moffat as a writer only rarely turns in a duff script, the connection between Moffat and Tennant makes The Girl in The Fireplace feel like its complexity slides effortlessly from page to screen and from screen to viewer’s brain, even ten years on.
As a celebrity historical, it’s a slightly challenging one, most viewers’ knowledge of Madame Du Pompadour being significantly less that their knowledge of, say, Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, William Shakespeare or Agatha Christie, but Moffat’s script puts handy vignettes of backstory in the mouth of the admiring Tenth Doctor, and writes the character of Madame Du Pompadour with enough modernity to make her seem extraordinary given the time in which she lived. It’s a neat trick, and it can go horribly wrong if your historical character comes across as too knowing, too flippant about the future, but Moffat’s Madame never goes there, Sophia Myles crafting a performance that makes Reinette always veer on the side of likeability, despite – or possibly because of - her knowing, forthright attitude. The Girl In The Fireplace also begins a Moffat mini-obsession with temporal displacement – the ‘faulty wire’ in the fireplace that advances time much more on one side of the divide than the other foreshadowing the idea of the angels and their temporal shifting of their victims, allowing them to ‘live to death,’ but far more blatantly giving us a taste of the life of the Eleventh Doctor and the young Amelia Pond – five minutes in the time traveller’s life equating to twelve years in the girl’s.
While stopping short of bringing back Captain Jack, The Girl In The Fireplace also has callbacks to their banana discussion from The Doctor Dances, and of course, in the arms of Reinette, the metaphor of ‘the Doctor dancing’ is expressed far more explicitly here – in all these ways and more, The Girl in the Fireplace is an episode brimming over with Moffat tells and traditions, but the storytelling and the pace allow them all to be delivered with a lightness of touch, so unless you’re looking at it ten years down the line, they don’t feel like Moffat tells and traditions, they feel like merely great lines, or knowing references, or solid moments of laughter.
The storytelling itself takes a bold stab at non-linearity, setting its pre-credits sequence at the moment of the story’s greatest crisis, informed as the scene is with creepy clockwork sounds. Post-credits, it picks up three thousand years later on board the spaceship and Moffat immediately junks Rose’s sullenness at Mickey’s travelling with them – there’s a lot of tactile action between the two, and she grins and laughs at Mickey’s reactions to space – ‘it’s so realistic!’ – and his embracing of the traditional companion mindset of absolutely ignoring what the Doctor tells them – ‘Now you’re getting it!’ This makes for a story that could be slotted anywhere in their dynamic once Mickey’s joined the Tardis, and allows it to be rewatched a decade later without any special knowledge of their backstory baggage, which helps the speed and pace of the story along.
The clockwork robots themselves are an odd mixture of beauty and ‘thickness’ – when the reality of their scheme is revealed, there’s no getting away from the scrambling of logic it takes to make it work, but it’s worth remembering a thing that one of Who’s greatest writers, Robert Holmes knew. Villains can be as fundamentally stupid as the day is long, and still be terrifyingly dangerous – the Sontarans were always written as a satire on the rigid mindsets of self-important macho commissionaires or authority figures, and they worked on that level, but they would still kill you stone dead if you got in the way of their plans. If for a moment we imagine being one the crew of the SS Madame Du Pompadour, it becomes apparent that what we’ve missed even before the story of The Girl In The Fireplace starts is a whole Robots of Death tale, the beautifully clock-punk service robots harvesting the lives and bodies of the crewmembers merely to fulfil their function and repair the vessel, before turning their attention to the barmy idea of punching time windows into the universe to collect the final spare part they believe they need.
Visually and philosophically, it’s to Robots of Death that The Girl in the Fireplace owes perhaps most of its dues – the gorgeously painted, gruesomely smiling masks of the clockwork robots giving more than a head-nod to the Vocs and SuperVocs of one of Tom Baker’s finest hours, both sets of beautiful robots simply carrying out the orders they understand, irrespective of the consequences on the organic creatures around them – technology gone wrong, either by design, as in Robots of Death, or presumably by accident, as in The Girl in the Fireplace.
But it’s really in the synthesis of all the ideas from which he draws, and most particularly in the modern Robert Holmes vein of his characterisation and dialogue, that Moffat shows his own particular genius, and stamps it on the Tenth Doctor’s tenure – the same is true of Blink, with its ‘wibbly wobbly time wimey stuff’ and it’s ‘sadness is happiness for deep people.’ The mark of a Moffat script before he became the showrunner was a great, scary ‘monster,’ a connection to the primal fears or playground games of children, a fantastically memorable secondary character, and dialogue that lodged itself forever in the mind. Whatever one’s views on his tenure in the showrunner’s seat, there can be no real disputing the fact that with The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances, (which gave us Captain Jack), with The Girl in The Fireplace (which gave us Reinette), Blink (which gave us Sally Sparrow), and Silence in The Library and Forest of the Dead (which gave us River Song), Moffat earned his place as the second writer to steer the development of Who in the 21st century. People often overlook The Girl in the Fireplace as part of his overall legacy, but to do so is insane – there are scary monsters, there’s a classic Moffat quiet moment where the chills are heightened and the inspiration for the monster becomes clear (in this case, monsters hiding underneath a child’s bed), there are some great Classic riffs, and there’s dialogue to set the heart of fans and casual viewers alike thrilling, along with some classic laughs (the ‘Drunken Doctor’ scene, to this day, is a thing of pure beauty). It takes a primal childhood fear and writes it large on the screen, while also delivering a temporally complex chunk of science fiction storytelling and a beautiful, sensitively written and performed characterisation in a historical celebrity story with a time-twisting difference. Drama, laughs, tears and romance, and also a bit with a horse – it’s practically Shakespearean in construction, and Moffat won a well-deserved Hugo Award for it. Ten years on, The Girl in The Fireplace is still a thoroughly enjoyable hour of Doctor Who that will feel like significantly less because it moves so fluidly along from A to B.
Learn to dance all over again – give The Girl in the Fireplace a rewatch today.