Aired 6 May 2006
‘The Girl in the Fireplace’ is a superb story in its own right, easily the best of the Tennant era so far, but its placement following ‘School Reunion’ is a masterstroke in and of itself. Just as ‘School Reunion’ focuses on what it means to love and to lose the Doctor from a companion’s perspective, ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’ flips the scenario and allows the Doctor to experience those emotions himself. Setting the tale in pre-Revolutionary France, writer Steve Moffat realizes that the strength of the extraordinary Reinette, or Madame de Pompadour as she would come to be known, would make a natural love interest for the Doctor.
Moffat had briefly toyed with the aspect of the Doctor’s sexuality in ‘The Doctor Dances,’ but it was quite low-key and Eccleston proved quite adept at playing it off through his cheeky grins. And while Tennant’s Doctor still has some reservations about romanticism, the loneliness his character feels and the instant chemistry he and Reinette share certainly help him to at least entertain the notion. It’s quite telling for the Doctor in general that he seems a little uncomfortable with the whole act of kissing when Reinette goes in for the first kiss and, strangely, he seems much happier and almost prideful when he learns who she really is in historical terms. The Doctor has never been one to shy away from historical figures- and even mentioning them to acquaintances in casual conversation- so it makes sense in a way that the name may be just as attractive to him as anything else. With his centuries of living and experience, he fits in all too well with the Versailles populace, even declaring his Lord of Time status in a seeming moment of jealousy.
The formatting of this story is very clever, though, and although it’s essentially told linearly from the Doctor’s perspective, the Doctor only appears for a few moments at a time at sporadic points throughout Reinette’s life. As such, she has known the Doctor since her childhood whereas he has only known her and watched her grow into a woman over the space of minutes or hours. However, the two do share a very intimate moment when the Doctor must use his telepathic abilities- something Time Lords are well known to have but something which the Doctor rarely uses- to figure out what is happening. The Doctor has always been reticent to share information about his past, but that’s exactly what happens as Reinette passes through the open door in the other direction, verbally giving a glimpse of a very lonely childhood on Gallifrey. He’s incredibly adept at deflecting questions about himself and keeping information secret or shrouded, but the open vulnerability that the open telepathy creates allows Reinette to very quickly know the Doctor better than anyone else, companions included.
The analogy of the Doctor being her lonely angel is spot on; he appears whenever Reinette needs him, never seeming to age or change. She proves curiously adept at understanding the life the Doctor leads, and she’s unafraid to stand up to Rose to prove that her coming from an earlier time does not make her any less intelligent. The most telling moment, though, is when she finds her way onto the spaceship that has been stalking her throughout her life and she is overwhelmed by the sounds of her own voices and of all of Versailles screaming in pain in the future, understanding that the world the Doctor lives in is one that no human should experience. Yet even despite that, she is still willing to give up the slow path and travel with the Doctor when asked. Although the argument could be made that ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’ is not a love story but just the alien Doctor thrust into an emotionally heightened environment, the intentions of the episode seem more clear-cut than most and show that, even if the most unusual and fantastic situation is needed, the Doctor is capable of feeling love as well. Each interpretation has its own ramifications for Rose’s obvious love towards the Doctor going forward.
It’s telling that nothing has been said about the clockwork robots, which are exceptionally creepy and well realized, nor the spaceship- finally revealed to be the SS Madame de Pompadour– that utilises human organs as replacement parts when needed, an interesting concept that could easily merit an entire story on its own even if the punching holes in time to reach their goal doesn’t make the most narrative sense. However, this is the episode that firmly demonstrates just how brilliant David Tennant can be in the role, allowing him to express the greatest range of emotions yet, to deliver some truly heroic and comedic moments, and to give a glimpse of just what lies beneath the manic exterior. Sophia Myles is perhaps the greatest guest star yet in the new run of Doctor Who, and her imperiousness and passion that fit perfectly in line with her eighteenth century setting are a stirring counterpoint for the Doctor, helping to create one of the best and most emotional episodes yet. Her letter at the end sums up everything perfectly but creates one of the most heartbreaking codas in recent memory.