The Girl in the Fireplace
Mickey: What’s a horse doing on a spaceship?
The Doctor: Mickey, what’s pre-revolutionary France doing on a spaceship? Get a little perspective!
Production Code: 2.4.
Doctor Who Season: S28 (Ep4).
Story Number: 171.
Moffat’s first contribution to televisual Doctor Who “proper” – The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances – scored extremely highly in any general survey of fans’ thoughts of the Ninth Doctor’s “Series One”…
The idea of him being the ideal “next showrunner” should RTD ever decide to handover his Whopremo robes had its origin in that modern classic, and this 2006-broadcast story only made the idea more obvious. Indeed, the way Neil Gaiman tells the story of the long period of pre-production of the 2011 story The Doctor’s Wife, in 2007 it was an open secret Moffat was going to take over as showrunner when the need arose.
The idea of Moffat-as-showrunner – this story The Girl in the Fireplace gave a glimpse in 2006 of the era to come, moreso than The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances. That Eccleston-starring story seems like a distillation of all that was “Classic” about “Classic Doctor Who” – the hordes of monsters sieging the “base” (the hospital or the fenced area), an evocation of just the one setting and time period (WWII). This story, with its focus on the complexities of time-travel and different time-frames in the one story is much more the template for what we would think of later of the “Moffat story” then, later, the “Moffat era”.
One motif of Moffat’s though that began with that WWII story was the idea of the Doctor as a sexual being – which was never quite explored in the Classic series though there were the “romances” of The Aztecs and The Green Death. Whereas with that earlier Moffat story, the Doctor introduces some ambiguity into the situation – “Nine hundred years old, me. I’ve been around a bit. I think you can assume at some point I’ve danced” – this takes it to the next level, with the Doctor being led away for some “dancing” offscreen, and some onscreen snogging for the Doctor. (Which is not really anything like the chaste kiss of The 1996 TV Movie.) After the snog, there’s a proud boast, though almost in the manner of the Doctor collecting a particularly obscure stamp for his stamp collection “I just snogged Madame de Pompadour!”
Moffat’s Doctor Who before televisual Doctor Who “proper” – Continuity Errors and The Curse of Fatal Death – are equally Timey-Wimey as The Girl in The Fireplace, though this story introduces specific motifs which Moffat would reuse in his later stories. These being: the Doctor meeting a person in their childhood, being effectively an “imaginary friend” before they met him again in adulthood (The Eleventh Hour, A Christmas Carol); clockwork robots (The Beast Below).
A lot of people mention The Time Traveler’s Wife (a 2003 novel) in the context of this story and Moffat’s motifs although he himself gave equal mention to the time-leaping of the novel Tom’s Midnight Garden of 1958 as an additional inspiration (on Twitter).
Though what are now generally seen as the hallmarks of Moffat style, timey-wimey, intricate plotting, a certain amount of “darkness” are all present and correct, there is a steady and almost constant procession of finely-turned comic lines which are seem almost to be taken for granted by fandom though Doctor Who is rarely as packed with rapid jokes as this.
“Oh look at what the cat dragged in, the oncoming storm.”
There are also the elaborate curlicules of Reinette’s speech (meant to convey the language of another era, chosen over French accent which lesser shows might have used) but even these lines have a certain elegant comedy to them.
The story has one of the most intriguing in media res beginnings in all of Doctor Who to it, a start which highlights the fairytale nature of it – this story is all broken clocks and mirrors and imps from the fireplace.
Reinette calling into the fireplace for the Doctor as the clock is broken is startling and certainly gets our attention – how would that even make sense in the Science Fiction-y world of Doctor Who? What at first seems fairytale logic does have some SF logic to it – and actually makes a fair bit of sense once we’re halfway through the story. The clocks are smashed by the robots as an extra camoflage, and if there are the robots there’s a door to the spaceship for the Doctor to travel through.
One of the curious – perhaps unresolved – tensions of the story is that the Doctor effectively abandons Mickey and Rose when he leaps to save Reinette on the horse through the one-way door. Maybe Emergency Programme One would take them back to Earth (and indeed that’s what Moffat chats about on a commentary to the story). What is motivating the Doctor, though, is it love? The desire to save the day?
For Reinette it is love and she’s been dazzled by the Doctor in same way River describes in The Impossible Astronaut. The Doctor’s motivations seem more opaque, and maybe the audience shouldn’t be fully asked to imagine stepping into this alien being’s shoes, but there’s a certain lack to the intentionally emotional moments. We can understand the Doctor’s magnetic attraction to River more perhaps as there’s been more detail over several stories, but these 45 minutes are still a Doctor Who story par excellence.