One may tolerate a world of demons for the sake of an angel.
With a degree of hindsight, this episode is in fact rather fascinating – the lens of history gives it a whole new meaning, in a manner not entirely dissimilar from the time windows of The Girl in the Fireplace.
Steven Moffat, who wrote this episode, is something of a big deal. You may have heard of him? He’s been the head writer of Doctor Who since 2010, and is now preparing to embark on what will no doubt be his final victory lap, with the 2017 series being his last in the role of showrunner. Moffat has been an undeniably controversial figure, and while I’ve not enjoyed every aspect of his tenure, I’d be one of the first to attest that he is an undeniably talented writer as well.
Looking back, a lot of the key themes that he was interested in are on display here – you can almost consider this as something of a trial run. The first episode of the Moffat era, right here in 2006! True, some of it is pretty surface level (for example, the three person TARDIS team is an idea he returned to), however I would argue that there’s a lot more to it than this.
Take Moffat’s attitude towards the Doctor. I’ve often seen it stated that where Davies was interested primarily in the Doctor’s impact on other people, Moffat was fascinated by the Doctor himself, in terms of his character and his reputation. It’s certainly an oversimplification, which disregards a lot of the nuance in their respective approaches, but you can certainly see the echoes of Moffat’s developing vision of the Doctor.
To Moffat, the Doctor has always been the coolest person in the room – you can see that in the way Tennant effortlessly commands the ballroom in Versailles, with everyone focused on him. He’s charming and charismatic and the centre of everything that goes on around him. The Doctor is also the fairytale hero and imaginary friend – but he’s not left behind with childhood, not at all. The Doctor can and will remain a part of your life, always there when you need him. (One wonders if there’s a personal level to that!)
It remains more nuanced, though. Because the Doctor is wonderful – after all, one may tolerate a world of demons for the sake of an angel. And that’s what’s at the heart of Moffat’s vision of the Doctor, I think; the idea that he is a wonderful, wonderful man.
There’s a lot of other trademark Moffatisms, to coin a phrase, across the course of this script. It is, obviously, extremely funny; any instance involving Arthur the Horse is more or less guaranteed to be gold, and Mickey gets some pretty great lines too. The dialogue throughout is inspired, of course, it’s not just limited to the jokes. Something that stood out to me was the Doctor saying to the Clockwork Man “I’m not winding you up”’; it’s the sort of thing that’d be overlooked, given that it’s not the funniest or the most quotable lines, but I thought it was a really clever piece of writing in terms of how the language was structured, and the general implications of it. (This is the English student in me talking.)
You’ve also got an effective villain with a suitably creepy motif (how clever was that scene with the broken clock?) and a subtle puzzle box structure threaded throughout, with a wonderfully clever reveal about Madame De Pompadour. It’s classic, classic Moffat.
And speaking of Madame De Pompadour…
The backbone of this script is the relationship between Reinette and the Doctor – and this, of course, is what The Girl in the Fireplace is best remembered for. Russell T Davies always liked to talk about this one as having really pushed the boundaries of the Doctor’s character, and providing David Tennant with the opportunity to really demonstrate his range as an actor.
It is, generally, quite well handled. Obviously, 45 minutes is in fact not a lot of time, which can make it quite difficult to effectively write a convincing love plot – particularly when you’ve got to include subplots and spaceships and horses and monsters – but I think that The Girl in the Fireplace does a very good job of it. The time windows aspect helps; in exploring Reinette’s character across different stages of her life, there was a greater level of depth to her character.
Admittedly, it’s not perfect; for all that the Doctor talks of her being a wonderful actress or artist and suchlike, we don’t get the opportunity to actually see her talents in play. Unlike Dickens or Queen Victoria, you can’t really rely on the knowledge the audience already has of this figure, given that Madame de Pompadour is in fact a relatively obscure figure. More focus is placed on her position as mistress to the King than her own skills and attributes, to the extent that at times it feels like she’s being framed as important in terms of her relationship with him, rather than herself. (Even then, there’s limited explanation of the social context, and why this is important. There’s a funny joke about French people though, so we’ll call it a wash.)
Sophia Myles does a fantastic job of drawing it all together, though, and her performance is what really makes this work. There are a lot of fantastic scenes, all intended to endear us to her character; one of Myles’ best, I think, is during the ‘mind meld’ scene, as she gives a brief insight into the Doctor as a “lonely little boy, lonely then and lonelier now”. It’s rare that anyone gains such an insight into the Doctor, and you can understand why their relationship develops from this. That, and the fact that Reinette is a very elegant, and at times commanding figure; Myles gives a very mannered and complex performance, which suits the story very well!
In the end, though, the story is marked by tragedy. And it is a tragedy that the slow path robbed Reinette of another final meeting with the Doctor – but more than that, it’s simply a tragedy that this woman died so young. Everything has it’s time, and everything ends, but this should not have been her time. Her final letter to the Doctor is a poignant scene; it’s certainly one of Moffat’s most moving moments, with a real and genuine sense of pathos to it.
It’s not just Moffat’s writing and Myles’ acting that makes this episode work, though; a concerted effort from all parties involved really makes it work.
Pre-revolutionary France is genuinely beautiful here – Ed Thomas did a stunning job on the design, and Euros Lyn did a similarly wonderful job with the direction. (The washed out, dull colours during the Doctor’s final trip to France are a particularly nice touch, in contrast to the warm yellows and oranges of his previous jaunts.) It’s a really well made piece of television, with an effective juxtaposition of the 51st Century spaceship and the 18th Century French palace. Really reminds you of the scope of Doctor Who; I think this is probably a wonderful episode to show someone if you want them to start to get involved with the programme.
Murray Gold has written some of his best music for this particular episode as well; certainly, it’s amongst his best scores during the RTD era. The Madame de Pompadour motif is a very moving melody, which really heightens the emotions of the scenes. Don’t take my word for it, though; the piece is here on YouTube. Excellent stuff – I’ve been playing it on a loop ever since I finished watching the episode a couple of hours ago.
There’s further advancement of Mickey and Rose; both Noel Clarke and Billie Piper do a fantastic job here. I’ve sort of neglected to mention them in previous weeks, largely because the focus has been on the new Doctor. That’s unfair, of course – both of them are very good at what they do, and they’re a huge part of the reason why Rose and Mickey are such compelling characters.
Ultimately, then, this is a particularly strong episode; it’s one of the highlights of the second series so far, and I think it’s one of Moffat’s strongest episodes to date. (I include the later aspects of his oeuvre in that statement – this is up there with other masterpieces like Heaven Sent!)
There is one word I keep coming back to, though, in describing this episode. Exquisite. Every aspect, every tiny detail – it’s exquisite.