I’ve been immersed in a Doctor Who re-watch lately. Just the Nine and Ten eras. Why? Because I’ve become horribly disenchanted with Moffat’s writing over the years and “The Girl in the Fireplace” fully encompasses all my gripes and complaints. “If you’re gonna keep thinking about this,” said a tiny voice in the back of my head, sounding suspiciously devil-like, “Why not just write it all out? Speak to an actual audience instead of the imaginary one you’ve conjured up. What could go wrong?” What indeed.
So here we are.
First though, the good. Because I’ve rarely watched an episode of a beloved series that doesn’t have at least something I thought worked well and it would be unfair of me to harp on only about the bad. In terms of Season Two’s fifth episode, it has a lot of fantastic things going for it. Moffat is a writer who desperately wants to be clever---just like the Doctor himself---and here, at least, he is. The pacing of the story is excellently done, wherein, for the first half, we’re introduced to one strange thing after another, spaced out every few minutes in a rather satisfying manner. There’s a spaceship long deserted. It appears dead, but is housing enough power to, quote, punch a hole in the universe. There’s a fireplace leading to 18th century France. Mickey and Rose find an eye attached to a camera and a human heart hooked up to machinery. There’s a horse the Doctor names Arthur and that's honestly great.
The point is mysteries abound and, for once, Moffat actually pulls all his questions together under one, satisfying answer. The robots running the ship---who I should also point out are fantastically designed---needed parts to keep everything running and were never programmed to avoid using humans as scrap metal. Innocent details like Mickey commenting that it smells like Sunday roast suddenly take a sinister turn and we begin to understand how all these strange things fit together; commentary on precisely how wrong technology could go. Why do the robots wait to harvest Reinette’s mind? Because their ship is 37 years old, so shouldn’t she be 37 too? A rather horrifying kind of logic. Why target her at all? It looks like the episode might leave us guessing, right up until the very end when the TARDIS’s departure reveals Reinette’s portrait on the wall and a wide shot of the ship shows it has been named after her, thousands of years in her future. It all hangs together and, from a plot perspective, I think “The Girl in the Fireplace” is excellently crafted.
The characterization, however... oh boy. That’s where the episode takes a nosedive.
See, for me characterization is everything. I don’t watch Doctor Who for the plot alone. If I wanted Sci-Fi craziness without emotional substance I’d pick up any $3 paperback filled with cool concepts, but no character whose name I’m going to remember after closing the cover. We watch these stories because we love the people involved in them, so if they’re not written well then we have a pretty big problem. “The Girl in the Fireplace” suffers from the same issue plaguing the entirety of Moffat’s time as show-runner: Everything revolves around the Doctor. Oh sure, he’s always claimed as much----ego the size of a planet, that one----but Moffat’s run made what were once throwaway jokes into a reality. In “Rose” we get this exchange:
Rose: So what you're saying is, the entire world revolves around you.
Doctor: Sort of, yeah.
Rose: You're full of it.
Doctor: Sort of, yeah.
This is in the context of Rose assuming the living plastic is after her when really it’s after the Doctor. Thus, his response is an exaggeration and Rose rightfully calls him out on it. It's the beginning of their teasing. In reality not only is the Doctor another runaway like his companions, but his ego is (mostly) just a front for 900 years of grief and trauma. RTD’s Doctor is, first and foremost, a nobody. A traveler. Just someone passing through. His character is based around rejecting that Time Lord superiority; remembering that he was also an outsider and he is no better or worse than everyone else he encounters. When humans start catching onto the fact that he’s popped up in numerous times and places, he gives Mickey a virus to delete all traces of himself online because he doesn’t want that notoriety. When he acts superior it’s either for show or because he’s legitimately more knowledgeable and needs to put his foot down before someone gets hurt. Or killed. And when the superiority turns into legitimate arrogance? The show takes him down a peg. Time Lord Victorious, anyone?
Not to delve into the entirety of the Moffat era, but suffice to say he takes that arrogance and makes it a permanent aspect, something that we are meant to celebrate about the Doctor rather then roll our eyes at or even despise. He is known throughout the universe now, a legend that makes everyone quake in awe and fear----not just the Daleks. His reputation can call up an army. His name is a mystery woven into the very fabric of time and space. Nowhere is this sentiment more apparent than in how his companions are treated. They cease to be three-dimensional characters and become rather lackluster women that quite literally exist to worship the Doctor. As an experiment, I went back and collected the titles that companions have gathered over the years.
Rose - The Bad Wolf
Donna - The Most Important Woman in the Universe
Martha - The Girl Who Walked the Earth
Amy - The Girl Who Waited
Rory: The Last Centurion
Clara - The Impossible Girl
River - The Woman Who Killed/Married the Doctor
Bill - None (to my knowledge)
There’s a notable difference between the two eras with the exception of Rory who, to be frank, is a man. All of RTD’s companions are active. Moffat’s are passive, and their passiveness is tied irrevocably to the Doctor. Rose is the Bad Wolf who willfully absorbs the time vortex to not just save the Doctor, but all of humanity as well; Donna realizes how significant she is because she’s the best temp in Chiswick, not in spite of it; Martha is a doctor in her own right who also walked the Earth to save it. All of them are normal people who discover that they can do extraordinary things when given the chance. Meanwhile, Moffat’s companions are already extraordinary. I don't know about the rest of you, but I can’t relate to impossible girls and women who are singled out because there’s a super scary crack in their wall. More importantly, they’re only extraordinary because of how they relate back to the Doctor. River is famous for marrying and killing the most important man in the universe; Clara is impossible from the start----literally a woman enigma----who is impossible because she’s scattered herself across the Doctor’s timeline; Amy is the one who waits for him. Whereas before we were given ordinary humans who have the capacity to do amazing things (and luckily we’re getting that again under Chibnall’s direction), Moffat gave us flashy puzzles that exist to remind us of how important the Doctor is. Not the other way around. RTD’s thesis for Doctor Who is summed up perfectly in “Father’s Day”:
Doctor: Rose, there's a man alive in the world who wasn't alive before. An ordinary man. That's the most important thing in creation. The whole world's different because he's alive.
Sarah: I don't know what this is all about, and I know we're not important.
Doctor: Who said you're not important? I've traveled to all sorts of places, done things you couldn't even imagine, but you two. Street corner, two in the morning, getting a taxi home. I've never had a life like that. Yes. I'll try save you.
We lose that emphasis on the human with Moffat.
I went on this rather long-winded tangent because all of this is seen quite clearly in “The Girl in the Fireplace.” Unlike “The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances,” two episodes I think are excellent all around, here we see Moffat taking a strong turn towards his own thesis, one that will come to dominant during his time as show-runner. The Doctor takes center stage to a disappointing degree and that focus is amplified by Reinette’s incredibly creepy fascination with him. She meets him when she’s just a child (like Amy) and once she reaches adulthood assumes he was just an imaginary friend (like Amy), yet the moment she realizes he’s real Reinette is head over heels for the Doctor. I cannot express how uncomfortable it makes me that Moffat so strongly associates childhood heroes with automatic love interests: my only memory of you is from when I was seven and I was terrified, yet my instinct now is to automatically kiss you. Because that’s what Reinette does. Having known the Doctor for just a handful of minutes across both her childhood and now, she gives him a passionate kiss and all but declares her undying love for him. Why? Because he’s the Doctor. No other justification is needed, let alone actual interaction between these two. From Moffat's perspective just being the Doctor is enough.
And indeed, like with so many of Moffat’s women we’re told how amazing Reinette is, but we don’t actually see it. The Doctor lists off all her accomplishments, but we only see her acting passively throughout the episode, reaching out to him for help. Our climatic moments are of Reinette begging the Doctor to come save her. She speaks confidently to her captors, but only because the Doctor told her to stall. One of her last moments alive is spent writing a letter again begging the Doctor to visit her before it’s too late. Because remember, having seen him just a few times across 37 years means that he is now the focal point of her existence. “Hurry, my love,” she writes and I have to wonder where exactly this all came from. Because it’s not the natural, ‘Oh, you’re nice...’ that we see from RTD’s characters, women like Jabe and Lynda who have moments where it’s clear they’re interested in the Doctor----he's handsome, he's charming, he's almost unfailingly kind----but then set that interest aside in the name of doing something spectacular. Like helping to save everyone on board your satellite, or holding off a Dalek invasion. They are not defined by their infatuation. Not by a long-shot.
The one thing Reinette actually does in the episode is the most heinous. When the Doctor needs to find out why these robots are coming after her he asks Reinette's permission to look into her mind and she grants it. Notably the Doctor then goes onto explain that he won’t look at anything Reinette doesn’t want him to. Just imagine a closed door and I won’t touch it.
So how does Reinette repay that respect? By invading the Doctor’s mind and learning all his secrets, from how lonely his childhood was all the way up through his travels as the last Time Lord. What’s horrific here isn’t just the act-----which could have been a rather fascinating mistake for a human to make with him----but the fact that Moffat doesn’t see this as a mistake. We get no anger from the Doctor, nothing that fits into who we know him as: a traumatized man who guards his secrets fiercely, even from those like Rose and Jack who he’s traveled and built trust with. No, we’re meant to brush this off because it’s supposedly clever: Reinette makes a throwaway comment about how once a door is opened you can step through it in either direction. Look how smart she is! We’re meant to be impressed because the Doctor is uncharacteristically impressed: how in the world did you manage to do that? We’re meant to find it tragic because Reinette bypassed anything like trust and just took everything there was to know about the Doctor: isn’t it just awful that someone who knew him so well is now dead? So many have labeled this episode the most romantic, yet all this moment does is make my skin crawl. Moffat has always cared more about his characters than the established ones he’s supposed to work with as a television writer and this act condenses that mindset down to its basics. Look how clever and special my OC is. She reaches a place emotionally with the Doctor that everyone else needs months or years to achieve. My Doctor is the most important being in the universe, so he needs someone equally important to hold his attention. In another creepy moment played for laughs, the Doctor----who rarely ever cares about keeping a low profile-----stalks Reinette and watches her from behind a bunch of shrubbery, needing to hide multiple times when she senses he’s watching her. Because she is, apparently, just that fascinating, another mystery that the Doctor needs to solve. This is a woman with a laundry list of talents who is also “clever” enough to unearth all his secrets. Ordinary shop girl with only a junior gymnastics bronze to her name? Her equally ordinary ex-boyfriend? No. They’re nowhere near good enough for him.
Which brings us back to Rose and Mickey. The characters we identify with and who, when writing goes well, are meant to be the real heart of the series. This is, notably, Mickey’s first adventure with the Doctor. The first real adventure anyway. I’m not counting the few times he’s been unwillingly chucked into danger. “School Reunion,” the episode proceeding this one (and one that I love) made room for a lot of growth on Mickey’s part. He’s a character who is... human. Maybe more-so than the traditional companion because he reacts to everything in a hyper-realistic manner. He’s terrified of the strange things happening around him, rightfully so since he was initially eaten by plastic and kidnapped by aliens without any explanation. Seriously. Go re-watch "Rose" from his perspective and see how well you’d take all that. Rose and the audience get to gradually adapt to these happenings; Mickey is chucked into the deep end and then insulted for not grinning at his near death experiences like Rose does. He watched her run off with this alien man she just met, was accused of her murder, and spends the next couple of months grappling with the fact that he’ll come running whenever Rose calls, but she won’t stick around for him. I adore Rose, but I adore her in part because she makes huge mistakes, just like the Doctor does. One of those is stringing Mickey along and joining the Doctor in cruelly criticizing him for his very rational anger and fear.
“School Reunion” begins to change all that. For once it’s Mickey calling on the Doctor, having noticed something wrong with this school and realizing that he needs help. He swallows his pride to call on his romantic rival in the name of the greater good. Over the course of the episode we watch him realize that he’s just “the tin dog,” the member of the team who acts as the mascot, cheering all the real heroes on. No one challenges this assumption and his fears are confirmed when, instead of allowing him to help in the mission, they make him the lookout, a job Mickey recognizes as code for “stay out of our way.” The kicker is, he doesn’t. Mickey decides to be active for once. He sees a kid in trouble and figures out a way to help him. He follows his new order to get the rest of the children out of the school and succeeds. He then takes the brave acts he did today and uses them to bolster his courage, asking the Doctor to let him travel with them. And the Doctor says yes. It’s a huge step forward for both of them, consolidating in Mickey speaking up for himself in "The Age of Steel" and the Doctor finally acknowledging his worth/providing an implied apology with that "Good luck."
Problem is, that growth is stalled in "The Girl in the Fireplace." It's Mickey's first trip, so what does Moffat have him do during his first adventure among the stars?
Bear with me. As another little experiment, I went back and took a look at all the times the Doctor and Rose are separated up until “The Girl in the Fireplace.” Overall there are four main categories:
Rose Asks to be Left Alone
Example: “The End of the World” where she’s shaken by her first adventure, the inevitable demise of her planet, and tells the Doctor to go off with Jabe while she sits in the observation deck. Notably this never happens again up through our fourth episode of season two.
It’s a Mutual Separation
Example: “Aliens of London” where Rose wants quality time with her mom. She heads back to the apartment while the Doctor waits by the TARDIS, both of them planning to come back together at a designated time; “Dalek” where they silently agree to split up to cover more ground, Rose interrogating Adam and the Doctor interrogating van Statten/his living specimen; “Boom Town” where Rose spends time with Mickey and the Doctor takes Margaret out on a ‘date.’
They are Forcibly Separated
Example: “The Unquiet Dead” where Rose is kidnapped; “The Empty Child” when Rose gets carried off by balloon; “Bad Wolf” where the Doctor, Rose, and Jack are all sent to different games via the teleport; “The Christmas Invasion” where the Doctor is ill from his regeneration and Rose has to face the Sycorax alone; “New Earth” wherein Cassandra takes control of Rose’s elevator; “Tooth and Claw” when the Doctor is lied to and told that Rose is still changing her clothes, although she’s really been locked up in the basement.
There’s a Known Reason For Them to Separate
Example: “Father’s Day” where the Doctor and Rose get into a fight and decide (momentarily) that they’re through; “The Parting of Ways” where the Doctor sends Rose home to make sure she and the TARDIS survive the upcoming battle.
What's important is that we can understand the logic behind all these separations. Nine times out of ten the Doctor and Rose have no desire to part. Why would they? The point is to adventure together. “The Girl in the Fireplace” is the only time where the Doctor acts as if he wants to solve this mystery on his own-----and then proceeds to do so. This isn’t a domestic fight, or a battle that can only end in death, or the two of them forced to separate due to someone else’s actions (in which case the Doctor always does what he can to get back to her). Rather, the Doctor checks out 18th century France on his own and then he proceeds to go back by himself, each and every time. This divergence is glaringly obvious when the Doctor takes our robot back to the ship, disposes of it, and then literally tells his companions to just wait around while he continues the story. Don’t follow me and don’t run off, stay right here until I get back. This is Moffat removing Rose and Mickey from the narrative because he doesn’t want to deal with them. They get in the way of this supposed romance with Reinette. Yet since when is that Doctor Who? In any other episode the Doctor would have grabbed Rose’s hand, yelled for Mickey, and they all would have gone through the fireplace together. The only thing Rose gets to do in this episode is relay the Doctor’s message to Reinette, a scene that quickly becomes another reminder of why Reinette is so much more superior than this shop girl. If the 18th century royal garb next to jeans and a t-shirt doesn’t do it, pay attention to how condescending Reinette is during the conversation. Rose is the one with the knowledge and experience here, yet when she rightfully points out that history isn’t supposed to go this way, what with Reinette being beheaded by aliens and all, she’s chastised and called a child for saying so. Reinette is characterized as a wise woman here; Rose the foolish little girl. Who then is the Doctor meant to fall for? This scene is particularly grating next to “School Reunion” wherein we already saw a love triangle brewing between the Doctor, Rose, and Sarah Jane. The difference between Sarah Jane and Reinette is that Sarah Jane is a former companion, a full-fledged character with many years beside the Doctor to her name. It makes perfect sense that she would grow to love him. The difference between that love triangle and this one is that Rose and Sarah Jane realize how stupid it is. What are we doing fighting over a guy when we could be friends instead? I’d much rather make fun of him with you. Any other episode and Rose would have been there from the start, bonding with Reinette like she did with Gwyneth and Sarah Jane.
For Moffat though, Rose remains a threat to Reinette's relationship and thus they never move past that cold indifference. Reinette is done with Rose after announcing she wants no part of her world-----a world the Doctor also rejects when he abandons it to stay in 18th century France with her. Rose is done with Reinette when Mickey drags her away, yet she’s clearly still wondering why the Doctor is so captivated by her when by all logic he doesn't even know her. Me too, Rose. Me too.
There is, admittedly, one moment of hope when Rose and Mickey decide to go off anyway, a moment when upon first viewing I had hoped they'd get their own side adventure while the Doctor does his thing. But all that happens is that they get kidnapped. Do they figure out a way to escape on their own? No, they’re left waiting until the Doctor feels like coming back.
And I do emphasize “feels like” because if there’s one aspect of characterization that’s the most egregious here, it’s the Doctor’s lack of care towards his charges. There is a massive difference between the Doctor taking all of them into dangerous situations like normal-----adventure they are all willingly seeking out-----and the callous way that he treats them here. He knows perfectly well that there’s a robot on the ship, that Mickey and Rose are in danger there while he’s gone, that all his companions have a tendency to run off despite his instructions... yet we find out later that he’s been partying for who knows how long while they’ve been held hostage. Is the “bananas are good” scene excellent in its dialogue? You bet, but when Rose goes, “Look what the cat dragged in” that anger is warranted. It’s not the “Where have you been?” from “Tooth and Claw” where the audience knows, even if Rose doesn’t yet, that the Doctor had no idea she was in danger and came running the moment he realized she was. This is the Doctor knowing she was potentially in danger there and deciding to hang out with Reinette instead. Just chill with that knife on your throat a little longer, I have banana daiquiris to drink.
It is, perhaps, something I could overlook as a fluke (he does, after all, still arrive just in time) if not for the finale. We overhear the Doctor explaining that all the doors to Reinette’s past are now closed and if they try to go through one they’ll never get back. What do we see in the very next scene? The Doctor charging through the mirror on his new horse, saving her but ensuring that he is forever stuck there. It’s far from the first time that the Doctor has made a personal sacrifice to help someone, only problem is, this time he did it without his companions. This isn’t “World War Three” where the Doctor and Rose unanimously decide to (potentially) die together if it takes out the Slitheen. This is the Doctor deciding on his own that he’s going to give up his life as a traveler to keep Reinette from harm, something that would have been truly noble if Rose and Mickey had come with him. Can you imagine the impact of that? Mickey Smith on his very first mission, being the deciding voice that says, “Yes. We should give up our lives to save this woman-----a woman I haven’t even officially met.” It would have said so much about his character! And dealt with the problem we end up with. Namely that the Doctor strands them there. Mickey says it himself: he can’t come back and they can’t fly the TARDIS. They’re stuck on that ship for the rest of their lives, not worth even a quick, “Here’s an autopilot back to Earth!” like the Doctor did in “Bad Wolf.” We don't even know if they have basic supplies like food and water on the TARDIS to make the ship a permanent home. The point is the Doctor abandoned them at best to an isolated life in space, at worst to death. He doesn’t care about his companions in this episode, doesn’t even mention them while bemoaning the fact that he can’t leave. Reinette becomes the Doctor’s entire world and Mickey and Rose are left behind. This is the man who once agonized over, “I could save the world but lose you” reduced to laughing about how he has to earn money now while Rose is left hoping he'll come back.
“How long did you wait,” the Doctor asks her when he miraculously does get home. “Five and a half hours,” Rose says. “Always wait five and a half hours!” the Doctor agrees. That’s the message Moffat’s writing sends: the ordinary people will never be good enough for the Doctor, to be worth his notice, but they should still wait for him regardless. Why? Because he's the Doctor.
And that, quite frankly, is why I can’t stomach the episode. Genuinely good mystery elements? Quirky one-liners? It can’t make up for losing the core of what Doctor Who is meant to be. The show might be named after him, but it’s never really about the Doctor. It’s about us, humanity, discovering who we are through adventuring with him. So if you have a writer who doesn’t care about the human element, doesn't care about people who aren’t gorgeous, or outrageously clever, or talented in any conventional manner, then why do we care about the show? That’s not us on screen. The Roses and the Donnas and even the Marthas don’t have a place in Moffat’s writing, only the perfect Reinettes. Which is really too bad because if he’d managed to combine that talent for plot with anything resembling compelling characterization, then seasons five through ten could have been really phenomenal.
As could “The Girl in the Fireplace.”