I have to admit that I enjoyed this episode more than I thought I would. On the surface, it’s a mix of absurd story ideas. A love story for the Doctor is going to struggle against long odds just to be acceptable or believable, especially with the limited development time available in the 45 minute format.
And “a spaceship from the 51st century stalking a woman from the 18th” is certainly an inventive idea, but any attempt to explain why that is happening is going to strain credulity, even in a Doctor Who context.
Let’s start with the Doctor/Madame du Pompadour romance. I’ll be the first to admit that Sophia Myles is stunningly beautiful, and would no doubt turn the head of just about any red-blooded man who noticed her. She’s also playing a character that was quite accomplished and intelligent in real life, and her performance brings that out fairly well in the limited time available. That being said, the Doctor isn’t normally given to noticing anyone, and indeed it’s possible to argue that the attraction in this story is one-sided. The advances and flirting certainly all come from Reinette, and the lengths that the Doctor is willing to go to in order to save her life and protect history (since history tells us that Madame du Pompadour did not die at the hands of clockwork robots) are perhaps no more than he would have done for anyone else.
The time needed for a genuine relationship to develop is the crucial missing element in the story, both for the Doctor and Reinette. At best she enjoys either flirting or toying with the Doctor, and he lets himself be pulled along perhaps by the sheer novelty of it all. Certainly he seems to treat her kiss as something to be proud of because of who it was that kissed him. “I’ve just snogged Madame du Pompadour!” he says exultantly, after first listing her accomplishments. As for her motives for kissing the Doctor when she’d only met him twice as a child, who can say? It certainly doesn’t make much sense in the context of the story. To be honest, it makes her look rather easy. That’s not a character trait to admire. At least when she becomes involved with the King she’s sleeping her way to the top, though that too is hardly admirable.
In essence what we have is not so much a love story as it is the story of Reinette perhaps trying to hold on to the mystery of this man who keeps appearing in her life. I’m just trying to explain what’s on screen. We’re told it’s a love story, but the events that are acted out for us don’t support that description. There’s no time for love to develop, and there’s no depth to the relationship. Perhaps Reinette hopes that a good kiss and some flirtation will entice the “Fireplace Man” to remain longer so that she can learn more about him. After all it’s worked on other men in her life. This theory holds at least until the point the Doctor suddenly gains the ability to read minds and has his read in return. There certainly appears to be a bit more genuine affection in the final scenes where Reinette tells the Doctor about the one remaining link back to the spacecraft. The two seem very relaxed and happy in each others company, and the Doctor’s sadness at Reinette’s death is certainly heartfelt. Once he opened the letter and knew that she had never seen him again, going back to visit her in the TARDIS became impossible.
So where did this ability to read minds come from? We’ve never seen it before, though I admit it’s plausible given the Doctor’s limited use of telepathy in the past. Susan displayed some talent for telepathy, the Master was able to hypnotize rather easily, and Time Lords are supposed to enjoy telepathy among themselves, so it’s not inconceivable that the Doctor suddenly has the ability to mind-meld with a human. It’s just highly convenient as a plot device.
It’s so highly convenient that I’m tempted to be really irritated at the sudden appearance of the Doctor’s new ability, but I’ll let it go. Convenient or not, it’s certainly a shortcut around the time limitations of the episode and suddenly the Doctor and Reinette are intimately acquainted. Just how intimately acquainted depends on whether the ‘dance’ metaphor from last season still refers to sex and whether the Doctor went along for the ride. You can read it either way. If you like the Doctor as a cosmic Casanova who beds attractive women he barely knows while he’s supposed to be in love with Rose, you can read events one way. If you prefer a more virtuous Time Lord, you can go that route, despite the obvious intent of the author.
During the final encounter with the robots, the dramatic entrance of the Doctor as a heroic ‘knight on a white stallion” is entirely in keeping with the self-sacrificial nature of the character, though his abandonment of Mickey and Rose is hard to explain. He saves Reinette’s life, but (as far as he knows) strands himself in 17th century France, and strands his traveling companions in a 51st century spaceship with no means of returning home. When he asks Rose, “how long did you wait?” it doesn’t really make sense. Neither she nor Mickey can fly the TARDIS, and the Doctor is surely aware of that. What else could they do but wait? Perhaps it’s just a case of the Doctor trying to save face and mend hurt feelings.
Moving right along, there’s a lot less to say about the clockwork robots, proving yet again that this series of Doctor Who frequently puts character above plot, which is detrimental to the story far too often. Plot holes are papered over with sentiment while the writer hopes the audience won’t notice or won’t care. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. I think that the attempt is successful in “The Girl in the Fireplace”, though in all honestly I must confess that the story is crazy. As a means of tying the spacecraft and France together, we have repair robots who create time windows and travel back in time to find the person their ship is named after, so that they can use her brain to repair the main computer, but only when she’s the same age as the spaceship. It’s so off-the-wall and creative that I’m willing to enjoy the idea tremendously and buy right into the premise.
The robots themselves are inventive, from their mannequin-like period dress and masks, to the clockwork-filled clear heads underneath. Having the first one that we encounter hiding under a child’s bed is just a wonderful conceit.
I have to address the issue of ‘self-awareness’ in the new series of Doctor Who. I would define this as actions or dialog which pulls me out of the story and reminds me that yes, I am watching a TV program. This is frequently a failing of Russel Davies scripts, but it crops up here as well. “The Doctor and the monsters,” Reinette says at one point. “It seems you cannot have one without the other.” And with that meta-textual line my suspension of disbelief is shattered and I’m thinking about Doctor Who the program rather than remaining engaged in the story. Any time that someone says “Doctor Who?” it does the same thing. And it’s very annoying.
There are other things to like about this story apart from the Doctor/Reinette relationship and the robots. It’s Mickey’s first trip in the TARDIS, and his enthusiasm is wonderful to watch. The fact that he and Rose get along with no hint of Rose’s usual jealous streak is a breath of fresh air. I’m sick of Rose’s jealously and tired of the character for that matter. It just seems like her story was told last year, and there’s not really anything new to say about her. It’s a lot like Charley Pollard, whose story came to a good conclusion in “Neverland” and then the character seemed to stagnate. Rose has been irritating in “New Earth”, “Tooth and Claw”, and especially in “School Reunion” where the claws came out with Sarah Jane. She’s much better here, and I hope continues to do well in future. As of this writing I haven’t seen any stories beyond “The Girl in the Fireplace”, so I don’t know how the character develops over the remainder of the season.
Some of the dialog is almost poetic. References to “The slow path” to describe linear time, or Reinette’s phrase “In your world there are rooms where the days of my life are pressed together like the pages of a book” are wonderful to hear.
Overall, the story has an appeal that transcends the crazy premise, but it never lives up to the billing as ‘a love story for the Doctor’. But it is inventive, it’s different and it’s sincere, which sets it apart and elevates it above much of the new series. It’s well worth the time to watch it.