Doctor Who: The RTD Years Vol. 1 - Revisiting THE GIRL IN THE FIREPLACE - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Doctor Who: The RTD Years Vol. 1 - Revisiting THE GIRL IN THE FIREPLACE

Using stupidity as a source of danger is a very risky business in Doctor Who. Usually in the history of the show, villains who are fundamentally stupid or ignorant end up being fairly boring, and leave a taste in the audience’s mouth of a writer who couldn’t think of a clever way to menace the audience, or a properly frightening way, and so resorted to stupid aliens being stupid for four episodes just to generate peril.

Then, just occasionally, you get a genius.

Step forward, for instance, Robert Holmes, who could take the stupidity of a bureaucratic tax office and turn it into The Sunmakers, or take militaristic “Jobsworth” stupidity, and give us the Sontarans.

There’s no doubt that Russell T Davies is a genius writer, but for just a moment, let’s appreciate Steven Moffat, stepping forward with The Girl in the Fireplace.

It’s actually remarkable, on a re-watch some 17 years on, to appreciate quite how much is actually done within The Girl in the Fireplace. And that’s deliberate – it covers an awwwful lot of ground, but you barely notice, because three things are intensely foregrounded. Love, terror and comedy.

Those were the core elements of Moffat’s two-part debut in modern Who, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances. He scared the pants off us with Jamie, the gas-mask boy constantly searching for his Mummy. He charmed (or potentially smarmed) the pants off us with the introduction of Captain Jack Harkness, an intentional three-way hit of sexual tension, and the notion that the Doctor himself had “danced” (insta-code for “been involved in sexual relationships”) many a time, and he made us laugh our pants off with elements like the Tardis chasing a piece of space-flotsam that was “mauve and dangerous!” and the existence of a “squareness-gun.”

Key to that two-parter, acknowledged in-script by Moffat, was that the terrifying problems it charted was the result of pure machine idiocy – the nanites that reprogram human anatomy do it “wrong” because they have insufficient data, and are continually searching for a more advanced pattern, the “Mummy,” by which to put their error right.

There’s also a key Holmes/Moffat element in that two-parter - taking something familiar to children (the game of tag) and weaponizing it into something terrifying.

Imagine doing all that once, and getting it so spot-on right that people barely notice what you’ve actually done, because the storytelling and the emotional journey you’ve taken them on is so sublime they don’t care.

Then imagine coming back a year later and doing almost the exact same thing a second time, with vastly different settings and characters, and still charming an audience into not necessarily noticing what you’re actually doing.

That’s not only a dangerous level of chutzpah – if you pull it off, it’s confirmation of your genius writer status.

And that’s exactly what Steven Moffat does in The Girl in the Fireplace. While also adding new, bold elements into his story structuring and taking an arc forward in ways that will come to define the era of the Doctor for whom he was writing.

Not too shabby, Mr Moffat. Not too shabby at all.

What are we talking about?

The mixture of love and sex, comedy and terror – and the central theme of machine idiocy – are all repeated in The Girl in the Fireplace.

Love and sex? Quite apart from the three-way tension on the Tardis, especially with Mickey revelling in Rose’s discomfort when the Doctor shows a particular kind of intimate interest in other humans, there is the central relationship between the Doctor and Reinette Poisson, Madame de Pompadour.

Now, it’s important we acknowledge the fact that the Doctor is keen to help Reinette from the moment he discovers a time window into her 18th century French bedroom on board a spaceship 3000 years and two and a half galaxies away, with no real emotional (let alone sexual) investment. But from the time the Doctor and the aristocrat mind-meld to let him understand what the ultra-thick-but-gorgeous cosplay stalker robots from outer space want with her, and she turns the tables on his intrusion, reading his mind too, there’s a real connection between the two.

To get metatextual for an annoying moment, the sharing of minds, or histories, of experiences, all while in physical contact with one another, is a fairly intense on-screen metaphor for an intimate or sexual connection, rendered perfectly child-safe by the power of storytelling and the “need” at that moment for the Doctor to understand what the stalker robots are looking for in Reinette’s head. While we wouldn’t be so crass as to say life imitated art, it’s worth briefly noting that David Tennant and Reinette actress Sophia Myles began dating shortly after they appeared together in the story.

It's also joyfully suggestive that Madame Du Pompadour, on the night she’s about to “dance” with the king of France and become his official mistress, says that “first, I will make him jealous” and commands the “lonely little boy” that is the Doctor, to “dance with me.” Given that Moffat himself established dancing as a code for sexual relationships in The Doctor Dances, what actually happens offscreen in The Girl in the Fireplace is rather more open to question than the Doctor’s eventual explanation that he’s just invented the banana daiquiri a few centuries early.

Come to that, Moffat also doubles down on the banana motif from The Doctor Dances. While in that story, he replaces a weapons factory with a banana grove, here he “takes a banana to a party” and “invents a cocktail.” Truly, you can drive yourself mad with symbology here, if you really, really want to – let’s decide we don’t, and move on.

It's true that the sexual tension on board the would probably have been sharper and more pointed had Moffat read the last pages of the script for School Reunion before he wrote The Girl in the Fireplace, because Rose at the end of that story is annoyed and huffy at the addition of Mickey the third wheel, where in The Girl in the Fireplace, that’s all forgotten and she is enthusiastic for her lover/friend to experience trans-temporal space travel, and to “get” what it means to travel with the Doctor.

While it’s a shame that there’s no continuation of the animosity from the end of School Reunion, it’s fair to say there’s history in the hot-and-cold nature of their relationship – in Series 1 they go from the seeming end of their romantic relationship in Boom Town to Mickey dedicatedly helping Rose to get back to the Doctor (and conceivably her death!) in The Parting of the Ways.

The comedy in The Girl in the Fireplace is scattergun, to be sure – “France – it’s a different planet” and references to “Camilla” are throwaway lines, for instance. But there’s also some of the best comedy in the Tenth Doctor’s era in here too. The Doctor playing drunk as a preamble to rescuing Rose and Mickey from the robots is hysterical, with hints of Blackadder and Red Dwarf’s “Drunken Rimmer” in lines like “You’re Mr Thick Thick Thickety Thick-Face from Thick-Town, Thickania. And so’s your dad!” and the T-shirt-worthy “Always take a banana to a party.”

And of course, the repair droids from the 51st century spaceship follow an old pattern, established at least as long ago as Chris Boucher’s 1977 classic, Robots of Death (script edited by that other genius, Robert Holmes): Robots with beautiful or immobile faces are absolutely stone cold creepy. Creepier by far than standard rampaging killer robots. Russell T Davies was to try the trick himself in his Christmas special, Voyage of the Damned, and Peter McTighe would even have a go in the Chris Chibnall era with Kerblam!

But the overdressed style of the pre-revolutionary French aristocrats with masks fit for a masquerade ball make for an extra creepy duality – and when the masks are removed, to reveal something even more beautiful – space age clockwork! – it doubles down again on the cocktail of creepiness, beauty, and the ultimate redundant stupidity of their homicidal quest, making them superbly effective villains.

In terms of taking childhood elements and making them extra scary, Moffat is more explicit here than he was in The Empty Chid/The Doctor Dances – there are literal monsters hiding under Reinette’s bed, and the purpose of imaginary friends, like the Doctor, is frequently to make the frightened child feel safe. There’s also the creepiness of a ticking clock in a room. Particularly when you’re young and don’t feel you have the power to, for instance, muffle it or stop it in any way, it’s a potentially remorseless sound, and when that sonic fear is first introduced in The Girl in the Fireplace, the Doctor’s explanation of why it’s scary is highly effective, bringing the sense of invasion right into a child’s bedroom.

Too real to do in the 2020s? Probably not; Doctor Who lives and thrives on the fear of children. Nevertheless, when you sit back and analyse it, very deeply creepy.

And of course, where Robert Holmes frequently made systems and people who obeyed them unthinkingly into villains, Steven Moffat here notches up a second story where the drama and the danger all comes down to smart machine systems being really, really dumb.

From nanites that don’t know how humans function despite infecting several of them in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances to repair robots that cross the line of Asimov’s principles of robotics and see what are apparently their human crewmembers as simply spare parts (a neat if chilling precursor to the next two episodes broadcast), Moffat has a knack of turning malfunctioning machine systems into a source of distinctly thick threat.

Again, technically, this is nothing new in Doctor Who – The Face of Evil, The Green Death, The War Machines and many other classic stories centered on “machines go mad” as a source of villainy.

But there’s a difference between “mad” and “stupid” and the latter really shouldn’t work – but in Moffat’s hands, under the showrunning of Russell T Davies, it works brilliantly in The Girl in the Fireplace.

The episode is important in two other ways, too. Firstly, it’s the first real flowering of Moffat’s “timey-wimey” storytelling style – the entire pre-credits sequence is a glorious con, a slice carved from the middle of the story and dropped ahead of the start, just to throw us off and throw us into the action and the mystery.

And secondly, following its mention in School Reunion, this is the first real look at the implications of the Doctor’s incredibly long life. He is forced – at least briefly – to contemplate taking the “slow path” of a normal “human” life, and in a couple of heartbeats, he chooses to do it, to keep his word to Reinette and abandon Rose and Mickey on a spaceship in the 51st century.

It’s the real beginning of a prospect that will dog the Tenth Doctor to the end of his days – from his potential life with Rose in The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit, through his alter ego, John Smith and his life with Joan Redfern in Human Nature/The Family of Blood, through his ageing to decrepitude by the Master in The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords, all the way to the creation of the Metacrisis Doctor who can grow old and die alongside Rose Tyler in Journey’s End.

While it’s right in a sense that Moffat and Davies cheat us out of a fun and happy ending where Madame de Pompadour travels the stars, giving us instead a more sombre and emotionally hard-hitting thought to ponder – don’t waste time before doing the important things, and fix things that will end up as drag anchors on your enjoyment of life before they overwhelm you - it’s particularly gorgeous that we only find out in the final frames exactly why the robot thickos from the future have such a head-harvesting obsession with Madame de Pompadour, and that the Tardis team themselves never get an explanation for it.

When people say, as they sometimes do, that Steven Moffat was a better writer than he was a showrunner, it’s stories like The Girl in the Fireplace they point to, to prove their case.

Really, The Girl in the Fireplace is a stone cold classic piece of New Who, harnessing the talents of both Moffat and Russell T Davies. The initial idea of a Madame de Pompadour story was Davies’. But you could have given the same brief to a million writers and not ended up with anything halfway as mad and wonderful as what Steven Moffat delivered.

But it’s very much Moffat under constraint, under control, under the guidance of a showrunner who needs things to make sense on several levels. If Steven Moffat is a bottler of lightning, it’s Russell T Davies here that stops the wheels coming off such a bold creation and makes sure that Moffat’s genius delivers in a one-episode story that blows the doors off all your expectations, without ever becoming the sprawling, demented, unfocused epic it could so easily have become.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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