Doctor Who – The Girl in the Fireplace Review (or “One Of The Greatest Episodes Of Anything, Ever”)

There are times when I review a Doctor Who story and find myself with almost nothing nice to say. A story will be so dull that to look for a positive I’ll say “Well he had a nice hat” or something like that.

Very rarely, if ever, is it the other way around where I find myself barely able to find a negative.

But we’ve arrived at that now, with a story that I was genuinely excited to sit down and watch again.

It’s one of my favourites, it’s The Girl In The Fireplace

Doctor Who – The Girl In The Fireplace Review: What’s This One About?

A famous French socialite from the 18th Century France is being stalked by a spaceship from the 51st.

And The Doctor can’t work out why.

Oh, and he falls in love.

Thoughts – Perfect Pacing

The first thing to point out about The Girl In The Fireplace is the pacing.

What beautifully designed Clockwork droids they are

What beautifully designed Clockwork droids they are

While I like the use of the 45 minute format of Modern Doctor Who, sometimes the episodes can feel a bit rushed, while other times there isn’t quite enough plot to justify the length. This isn’t anywhere near as bad as the thrombosis-like Season 22, but it’s just the way of it.

Dalek, for example, was one of the finest stories of the last season, but I felt it could have done with more time. Tooth & Claw and New Earth meanwhile had weak main plots which seemed to struggle to fill the time slot.

Even School Reunion, as good as it was, had a story that had already started by the time we joined in.

But Girl in the Fireplace is bang on.

It’s a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, paced briskly for 45 minutes without a moment’s rest.

It spends those 45 minutes operating at an optimal cruising speed.

And because it’s so slick and well timed, the whole thing feels like it’s over in a matter of moments. You try watching parts two and three of Survival – which run for pretty much the same accumulated time – and they will seem like they take days to finish.

Not Girl in the Fireplace though.

It’s So Clever

And it’s not just the pacing.

The Girl in the Fireplace is also one of the cleverest and best executed ideas the series has ever seen.

A spaceship stalking Madame de Pompadour? What sort of mind even comes up with that?

But as wacky an idea as it is, with the time windows, clockwork droids and horses wandering the corridors, it all makes perfect sense.

The moment where you just have to sit up and applaud. Terrific writing

The moment where you just have to sit up and applaud. Terrific writing

Everyone can follow it, even my mum, who struggles with Back to the Future.

And so you’ve got to give Steven Moffat all the credit in the world for coming up with something that works as a science fiction story that is remarkably complex and clever, but so easy to follow.

Best of all though is the ending.

After an entire story where it just seems to be a bizarre set of events that the Doctor, Mickey and Rose never manage to fully understand, the kicker is when the TARDIS departs and we see a painting of Renette. And then, as the picture fades out, we see the name of the spaceship – the spaceship that we’ve been shown the outside of so often in transition scenes – as the S.S. Madame De Pompadour.

That to me is “Stand Up And Applaud The Brilliance” level stuff.

It’s not often drama is written quite so cleverly that it finishes with everything just coming together so perfectly like that.

In televised Doctor Who, I don’t think that’s happened before for me. Off the top of my head – and I could be wrong – the only other time I’ve felt so enthused by a twist was at the end of the Big Finish Audio, Creatures of Beauty. That was sensational.

The Love Story

There’s more to The Girl in the Fireplace than just the cleverness of the science fiction; it’s also got a touching and genuinely well-written love story in it too.

The love-story between The Doctor & Renette is believable because of the chemistry between the actors

The love-story between The Doctor & Renette is believable because of the chemistry between the actors

The past six or seven episodes have focused on the supposed romantic relationship between Rose and the Doctor, but it just never seems to ring true to me.

Not only is the Doctor essentially ignoring Rose’s feelings, or at the very least placating her, they are still positioned as Doctor and Companion. He even talks about how Mickey is her boyfriend, and has no qualms in inviting him and Sarah on board the TARDIS, much to her annoyance.

What’s more, I just don’t think the actors have that level of chemistry between them to make such a relationship seem like anything but forced.

The relationship between The Doctor and Renette is different.

For a start, the actors themselves clearly have a chemistry, as demonstrated by them becoming a real life couple as they filmed this story. That sort of thing translates to the screen, so with the best will and writing in the world, two actors without romantic chemistry just won’t seem as genuine as two who do.

But the thing about the Girl in the Fireplace is that it is a well written love story, in a delightfully understated way.

Even though the Doctor only knows Renette for what must amount to an afternoon of his life, David Tennant sells it so well. He’s got the right mannerisms, expressions, and feelings.

And best of all is his reaction to her death. You feel that he’s gutted; that he finally met someone he would genuinely be happy to settle down with, even though he knows that he’ll outlive her and all that, and just when he was about to welcome her on board – whether Rose liked it or not – she died.

The way he just tucks the letter into his coat when the King asks what she had to say was superb, as was his false “I’m always alright” when he got back to the TARDIS.

Equally well written were the reactions of Rose and Mickey in that scene.

Snappy Dialogue And Great Design

Continuing with the high praise, The Girl in the Fireplace also has some snappy dialogue that genuinely makes me chuckle every time.

Rose realised her tea's oot, as a Dundonian would say

Rose realised her tea’s oot, as a Dundonian would say

The little things at the start, like Mickey being impressed that the TARDIS even manages to translate French, or that space looks “So realistic” are excellent, while the line about “What’s a horse doing on a spaceship?” “Mickey, what’s Pre-Revolutionary France doing on a Spaceship; get a little perspective” is brilliantly humorous without being played for laughs.

Meanwhile, the design of the whole thing, from the spaceship, the human body parts in the equipment, the absolutely fantastic clockwork droid designs and of course all the stuff in France are sensational (I’m beginning to run out of superlatives I think).

Criticisms

Have I got any criticisms? Well, I suppose there are one or two issues worth commenting upon.

The convenient “We can’t use the TARDIS” stuff is mildly disappointing, and the Doctor should have known fine that when he told Renette he’d be back in a minute, he wouldn’t be.

Also – and this is not something that can be helped – Renette comments on how the Doctor never ages, but she doesn’t either.

That really is about it though.

Random Observations

  • It’s a Steven Moffat story, so naturally there’s something creepy in there to scare the kids. In this case it’s the stuff with the clock being broken so that the clockwork droids can lie in wait without people noticing. Lovely.
  • The bit with the horse stalking the Doctor reminds me of that random moment on WWE Raw with Triple H, Ric Flair and a Forklift. Now there’s something for you to look up.
  • The Incidental Music is spot on here. Everything from the lullaby jingle to the sharp springy clock sting is spot on.
  • Beyond her obvious chemistry with David Tennant, Sophia Myles is also excellent in her role as Renette. One of my favourite guest stars in any Doctor Who story.
  • I think that an episode like this sums up how great a show Doctor Who can be. I mean, in terms of theme, style and mood, it’s about as far away from something like the Daleks’ Master Plan as you can get, and yet they are both brilliant in their own ways.
  • It’s also amazing to think that 42 years and 171 stories in, Doctor Who is still capable of doing something new, fresh and exciting.
  • “You’re not keeping the horse”. Awww.
  • I should point out as well that the more basic Doctor/Companion dynamic of on display here is far better than the usual one between the Doctor and Rose.
  • Steven Moffat once again brings up the notion of “Dancing” to presumably mean – as Sheldon would say – coitus. Something must have happened to him in his childhood.
  • 1,500 words in and I haven’t mentioned the drunk scene yet, which is superb.
  • Also, as much as I don’t regard it as key to my enjoyment of the story, for a lot of people – the average viewer maybe – the scene where the Doctor rides out of the painting on a horse to save the day while winking to Renette was the defining moment. It certainly helped to establish him as the leading man.
  • Going back to my comment about Creatures of Beauty; I didn’t realise it was written by regular Stuart Reviews Stuff punchbag, Nick Briggs. I must therefore give him credit.
  • DWM Mighty 200 Ranking: #11. Too low for my liking.

Doctor Who – The Girl in the Fireplace Review: Final Thoughts

The Girl in the Fireplace isn’t just one of the best Doctor Who stories I’ve ever seen; it’s genuinely one of the best 45 minutes of television I’ve ever seen.

It really is that good.

Sometimes you’ll look at the highest rated episodes and think “Nah, I don’t see why it’s so highly thought of”, and somewhere out there someone might say the same about this. But I just don’t understand how that could be possible.

I’ve talked a lot about some of the best stories there have been, whether they be Caves of Androzani, Talons of Weng Chiang or – looking further ahead – Blink, but I have to say that the Girl in the Fireplace is up there. It really is.

Maybe it’s that it’s so clever, maybe it’s that it’s multidimensional or maybe it’s the acting and dialogue.

No, this isn’t as exciting or action packed as some episodes, but it doesn’t need to be.

I just think it’s superb – beautiful even – and I could happily watch it again right now.

 

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4 Responses to Doctor Who – The Girl in the Fireplace Review (or “One Of The Greatest Episodes Of Anything, Ever”)

  1. Zaphod says:

    You haven’t heard from me for some time have you.
    I agree with your review.
    A superb episode and definitely one of my favourites.
    Certainly better than many David Tennant episodes.

  2. fromcouchtomoon says:

    It’s been so long since I’ve seen this episode, but I remember enjoying it at the time. I’ll have to go watch it again.

  3. Bob says:

    This episode is absolutely stunning and certainly one of the best in the entire series. Except for one thing: it is completely and utterly jarring with the rest of this series. It won’t matter much if you’re not a big Rose/Doctor shipper, but if you are it completely ruins the whole story arc, making it impossible to take seriously. But regardless of whether or not you care about that, surely the Doctor wouldn’t just abandon Rose and Mickey like that with no hope of escape or the slightest scent of a rescue plan? I think it was a mistake to air this episode this series and that they should have held onto it for another time. But apart from that it is exceptional.

  4. Mart says:

    Yay I agree with you whole-heartedly on a review. Peak Moffat and having the sublime Sophia Myles certainly helped matters.

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