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18 January 2015

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 748: The Girl in the Fireplace

Dear diary,

Ah, now this episode I have seen since watching it on first broadcast, and more than once. I’ve a distinct memory of seeing it the first time around, and then texting a friend to admit that, nope, Doctor Who simply wasn’t doing it for me this season, and that I couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong. I can’t remember why I felt that way so strongly after watching this particular episode, but I must have re-evaluated the decision pretty quickly, because only a few months later when preparing my final project for A Level, I used extracts of this script to illustrate a photography project about the passing of time (incidentally, I unearthed the final piece when I was visiting home last Christmas, and it was terrible. Maybe my opinion of the episode hadn’t changed, and I was simply venting my dislike through what I could only very loosely describe as being ‘art’!)

What’s struck me strongly today - so strongly that I’m going to have to discuss it before I get on to anything else - is just how much this story feels like an audition piece for the Eleventh Doctor’s era. I don’t know if I’ve seen this one since Matt Smith took over the role, but looking at it now it seems ridiculously obvious. Of course, it’s written by Steven Moffat, who will go on to spearhead the Eleventh Doctor years, but there’s just so much about this one that feels entirely in keeping with the Doctor we’d get a few years down the line. It’s most noticeable in the characterisation of the Doctor, and the lines that he’s given to speak. Take almost any of the lines David Tennant spouts here, and just spend a moment imagining them in Matt Smith’s mouth - they fit perfectly! I can very much imagine him dancing his way through the ‘drunk’ Doctor scene, which seems almost tailor-made for him! There’s something of a trend at conventions of getting various incarnations of the Doctor to read speeches from other incarnation’s eras - someone get Matt to read out this scene, please?

Perhaps what surprises me the most about this episode today is just how much I’ve connected to the story of the Doctor and Madame De Pompadour. I’ve never thought of the Tenth Doctor’s romantic streak as being the heresy some other people see it as, but I don’t think I’d really latched on to just how deeply the emotions run in this one, especially during the ‘mind reading’ scene. Again, we’re tugging on strings that will go on to make the Eleventh Doctor’s bow - the Doctor’s lonely childhood, and the fact that his name is more than just a secret (again, I’m tempted to think that Steven Moffat really likes Silver Nemesis) - and having now been through the show under Moffat’s stewardship, these scenes have picked up a bit more feeling for me. Reinette is painted as being so very much the perfect companion for the Doctor - intelligent, resourceful, flirty, and able to see and understand the Doctor’s great heartache (it was touched on in School Reunion, too, with the Doctor actively explaining to Rose the curse that being a Time Lord can bring).

I mentioned yesterday how much I disliked Rose’s reaction to Mickey going the TARDIS crew full-time, and said that I was pleased they dropped that thread without another word, but actually watching this episode I’m a little sorry that it doesn’t continue throughout. Rose and Mickey spend a large amount of this story on their own, with the Doctor off ‘dancing’ in France, and it does feel a little bit like a wasted opportunity to explore further the idea that Mickey is trying to move in on Rose’s special life with the Doctor. Especially given that he’ll be leaving us in the next story, I sort of wonder if it may have been more dramatically appealing to have the pair of them bickering more in this episode - he doesn’t fit in at home anymore (there’s shades of that at the end of The Christmas Invasion, where his heart is broken by Rose’s declaration that there’s ‘nothing’ for her back home), and he doesn’t fit in with Rose’s new life, either. Settling down in a parallel world would therefore be an entirely viable option, and it would carry all that extra weight if we’d seen the pair less happy with each other’s company here. It may also work as a nice counter-balance to the relationship blossoming on the other side of the time windows.

But who am I to complain, because it’s not as if The Girl in the Fireplace is exactly short of things to love. I think, if I had to choose my favourite element of the story, then it’s the idea that the Doctor and his friends never find out why they wanted Reinette, above any other person. Those final shots, with the TARDIS fading away to reveal the portrait, and then the words on the side of the ship are so masterfully done - as, while I’m on the subject, is the opening shot of the episode, where we see the vastness of space, with galaxies and stars, expecting to pan onto a spaceship… before actually panning down to reveal the palace of Versailles! It’s such a brilliant, and very Doctor Who, bait-and-switch, and it even had me fooled again watching today. It’s the perfect way to introduce a story which so clever blends the past and the future.

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