Reinette: But this is absurd. Reason tells me you cannot be real.
Doctor: Oh, you never want to listen to reason.
The Evil Wizard of Terror Moffat has returned.
This time, the horror of horrors is an army of homicidal clocks. Because clocks are scary, right?
Well, they are now.
The villains of Girl in the Fireplace are a truly ingenious invention. Moffat deserves a lot of credit for this, but so do director Euros Lyn and designer Neill Gorton. It's a terrific monster, well-used by Moffat, and brilliantly delivered by Lyn. We first and most often see them with their masks on, which are quite creepy, but the clockwork robots underneath are a masterwork. Lyn pulls off a remarkable achievement here, managing to make them scary even unmasked in full light, a rare talent reminiscent of the better works of Wes Craven. They're more than just frightening, though; they're fascinating and even, as the Doctor says, a beautiful piece of craftsmanship.
The Doctor's first meeting with them is beautifully done - starting with just the sound of a ticking clock in a room where the clock is broken. Then the Doctor finds the monster under the little girl's bed. And then, the next moment the Doctor looks, the creature is standing on the other side of the bed. It's a brilliant little sequence, which the rest of their appearances more than live up to.
But this story isn't about the monsters - they drive the story, yes, but the focus on the episode is on the titular girl, who turns out to be Madame du Pompadour, and the story really a love story between her and the Doctor.
... which is something we probably need to really deal with now, because the idea of the Doctor being in love isn't exactly a straightforward subject. Many old-school fans are abjectly against it, for understandable reasons. Certainly a sexualized romance with a 20-ish human would be unnerving, given that the Doctor is a thousand years old and a different species. But seen as a more innocent romance, it's something that has always been a part of the show in some way. All the way back in The Aztecs, in the very first season in 1964, the Doctor stumbled into an engagement with Cameca, which he characteristically ran away from, but it's clear from his dialogue with her and especially the closing of the story that he does have much deeper affections for her.
There are also several companions he seems to have fallen in love with - Jo Grant, Sarah Jane, and Romana most obviously. He clearly loves a woman who can challenge him, whether in the gentle teasing of Jo or Romana's wit and intellectualism, and is certainly smitten by many of his companions. Which is not to say there's anything sexual about these romances; after all, he's a Time Lord, and love for him wouldn't be expressed in ways that humans do. But there are definitely hints throughout the old series that he does have romantic feelings for some of his traveling companions, even if they remain buried inside him.
So they're really romances more in the Remains of the Day style - a reserved man who will not and cannot fully admit his feelings, but who clearly has them nonetheless. The revived series brings these much more front-and-center, though, particularly during David Tennant's reign. Eventually, it gets to be a bit of an annoyance, but it's also worth noting that the best stories of the Tenth Doctor tend to be those with strong romantic undertones - School Reunion, Girl in the Fireplace, Doomsday, Human Nature, Silence In the Library.
Thankfully, though, there's still (usually) a certain reservation in their presentation. Like in School Reunion, when he stops before actually saying he loves Rose, leaving the sentence unfinished. This refusal to commit to a love is expanded on later, but it also shows up here. For all his affections, he never tells Reinette that he loves her. The final scenes bear this out superbly, when he runs the moment he gets the chance. Yes, he wants to take her with him and show her the Universe, but he doesn't want to stay with her. His home is the TARDIS because he must always be running, and the idea of another home is inconceivable to him.
Whatever the issues with a Doctor/human romance, though, it's hard to deny how beautifully Girl tells it. Sophia Myles is simply luminous, and her intelligent, charming character a wonderful match for the Time Lord. The affections between them are sweepingly romantic. They're also fun; this is a couple that it's a real joy to watch together, even in their brief encounters.
Myles' performance really is something special. I doubt the story would have had half the impact it does without her at the center of it. It's a great part, but she raises it to stunning heights.
Of course, this begs the question of where this leaves Rose in all this. She's obviously infatuated with the Doctor, and he certainly loves her in his way. Her reaction to his relationship to Reinette is intriguing - she seems to accept it as what it is, accepting her Doctor as who he is, now that she's known Sarah Jane. Piper gives a lovely, subtle performance here.
Moffat also does the brilliant trick of actually using time travel in the story, which is strangely rare on a time travel show. It adds immensely to the romance, making it feel more like a mythical fairy tale than a standard love story. Both that and the interwoven tale on the spaceship, with the truly insane concept of the ship's mechanics being supplemented by human organs makes this a unique science fiction tale.
The entire episode is a blast, full of action, heroism, and Moffat's typically brilliant dialogue. Mickey and Rose take a backseat to the main story, but they have plenty of stuff to do and lots of great banter both with each other and with the Doctor. The Doctor himself is just brilliant throughout; everything awesome about him shows up here.
The episode's sense of fun and adventure ultimately serves, though, to make its ending far, far more devastating. This romance is a tragedy, delivered in a masterful finale that's heartbreaking not only on a first watch, but holds up its incredible power even on several viewings. It's played so carefully, so beautifully... Murray Gold's lyrical, understated music and Tennant's perfectly underplayed performance make it truly shattering.
That final note of tragedy in a story filled in every frame and sound with adventure, horror, heroism, and humor makes this an extraordinary piece of drama. Fully emotional in every chord, both happy and sad, engaging on every level that matters.
* * * *
- This episode is gorgeous. The new series has most tended to look very attractive and often quite stylish, but this is amongst the best-looking Television I've ever seen.
- The pairing of the Doctor, Rose, and Mickey is terrific, and it's really too bad they don't keep it as a threesome for longer.
- There's lots of funny moments in this story, but my favorite is probably the Doctor exclaiming that anything could be on the spaceship, and then seeing this, which I think pretty much sums up in a single image why this show is so awesome:
- Although the exchange about the horse between the Doctor and Mickey is pretty brilliant, too:
"What's a horse doing on a spaceship?!"
"Mickey, what's pre-Revolutionary France doing on a spaceship? Get a little perspective."
- Also, this about Madame du Pompadour:
Doctor: She's got plans of being his mistress.
Rose: Oh, I get it. Camilla.
Doctor: ... In no time flat, she gets herself established as his official mistress, her own rooms at the palace, even her own title - Madame du Pompadour.
Rose: Queen must have loved her.
Doctor: Oh, she did. They got on very well.
Mickey: King's wife and the king's girlfriend?
Doctor: France. Different planet.
- I'm just going to stop now before I quote the whole script.