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The Girl in the Fireplace ★★★★

David Tennant's Time Lord romances Madame de Pompadour in Steven Moffat's sumptuous mini-epic

Published: Tuesday, 15th October 2013 at 1:48 pm

Story 171


Series 2 – Episode 4

“A spaceship from the 51st century stalking a woman from the 18th. Why?” – the Doctor

The Doctor, Rose and Mickey arrive on a derelict spaceship, which is generating enough power to “punch a hole in the universe”. They find a number of portals to 18th-century Versailles, through which the Doctor visits Reinette Poisson at different points in her life. But why is Reinette – who is destined to become Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of Louis XV – being shadowed by clockwork repair androids from the future?

First UK transmission
Saturday 6 May 2006

October 2005. Main locations: Tredegar House and Park, Newport; Dyffryn Gardens, Vale of Glamorgan; Ragley Hall, Alcester, Warwickshire. Studios: Unit Q2, Newport; HTV Studios.

The Doctor – David Tennant
Rose Tyler – Billie Piper
Mickey Smith – Noel Clarke
Reinette – Sophia Myles
King Louis XV – Ben Turner
Young Reinette – Jessica Atkins
Katherine – Angel Coulby
Manservant – Gareth Wyn Griffiths
Clockwork man – Paul Kasey
Clockwork woman – Ellen Thomas
Alien voices – Jonathan Hart, Emily Joyce

Writer – Steven Moffat
Director – Euros Lyn
Designer – Edward Thomas
Incidental music – Murray Gold
Producer – Phil Collinson
Executive producers – Russell T Davies, Julie Gardner

RT review by Mark Braxton
(filed 6 May 2016)
With his evocative story title, Steven Moffat’s majestic mash-up has the air of a Grimm or a Hans Andersen, calling to mind Ashiepattle or The Little Match-Seller. And like so many fairy tales, the ending is tragic.

The Girl in the Fireplace is when I knew that “emo-Who” was here to stay, and that Father’s Day was no flash in the pan. A historical-romance-cum-time-enigma, it engages the emotions – and fractures the narrative – with sparkling virtuosity.

Not that it’s all plain sailing for this Hugo Award winner, which does have a few moments of awkwardness. To me it feels a bit like Moffat got lumbered with Mickey. Even Rose is relegated to peripheral duties, but we’ll come to that later.

Moffat is also saddled with having to explain the Tardis translation circuit once again. It’s not his fault, but who actually buys this convenient fix-all? Regeneration, two hearts, relative dimensions.... I’ve no problem with any of them. But this? I could understand it if the Tardis were simply enabling its passengers to understand everything spoken via an instant translation device – like the Babel Fish in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But the ship can also make every alien or foreigner physically mouth English words, too!

Perennial bugbears aside, Fireplace is elegance itself, an ornate Neoclassical if you will, from the duo-temporal structure to its costume-drama poise – and all framed by Edward Thomas’s ingenious sets. The scene where Reinette steps through an arras into the spaceship is the quintessence of Who, as magical as the camera following William Hartnell and co out of the Tardis in The Sensorites way back in 1964.

The clockwork robots are a masterstroke of design, too (“Oh, you are beautiful!”), even if their creepy masks are a bit V for Vendetta. Their introduction is another peerless piece of writing from Moffat, who can change an atmosphere in a heartbeat: “If this clock’s broken, and it’s the only clock in the room...”

Having exploited the intrinsically sinister form of a WW2 gas mask in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, Moffat now taps into childhood fears of nasty things lurking under beds. And that’s not the only link (advert?) to his 2005 debut story, with the Doctor taking to the dancefloor once again. The reason for this temporary madness is the same one that renders the companions superfluous for large spells…

… because The Girl in the Fireplace is all about the Doctor falling in love. And this being a young Doctor, Moffat makes him like a giddy teen – to the point where we believe him to be drunk (“And still have begged for moooorrrrrre”). I can’t say it’s a great look for the Doctor; nor am I smitten with lines like “I’m the Doctor, and I just snogged Madame de Pompadour”.

But once we’ve got past all that nonsense, Tennant and Sophia Myles do make a comely couple. And the actors must have agreed – for a time they were an item off screen, too. Myles succeeds in making Reinette knowing without being annoying. And very few guest characters have been honoured with such insights as “The monsters and the Doctor... it seems you cannot have one without the other”.

The classic series tended to shy away from Time Lordly love, although the first Doctor did coo over cocoa with Cameca in The Aztecs. The 1996 TV movie was a sign of things to come, but the tenth Doctor’s infatuation is the first of its kind – a big, grown-up, complicated affair. Moffat says he was inspired by Audrey Niffenegger’s book The Time-Traveler’s Wife, but for me the dynamics are closer to the 1986 film Highlander in which we see Heather growing older as her immortal husband Connor stays the same.

It’s a big responsibility for Moffat to win over the diehards, and he handles the occasion with sensitivity. Such subtlety wreathes an especially gorgeous moment after the Doctor has had his heart broken by Reinette’s demise. “Are you all right?” asks the compassionate Rose. “I’m always all right,” replies the Doctor, who we know is devastated. Rose knows it, too, as her lingering close-up reveals. It shows commendable restraint from both Piper and director Euros Lyn.

It’s a sumptuous mini-epic. Within its own mad narrative (robots killing crew to harvest their organs?), The Girl in the Fireplace prolongs its mystery for as long as possible. It only makes logical sense in the dying seconds, as the disappearing Tardis reveals a portrait of Reinette, and the camera pans back from the ship’s exterior to reveal its name. I wonder if Steven Moffat smiled with satisfaction as he wrote that last line. Who wouldn’t allow him that?


Radio Times Archive

In 2006, writer Steven Moffat introduced the episode for RT's Doctor Who Watch.


Explore the Radio Times Doctor Who Story Guide


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