10. The Girl in the Fireplace
Written by Steven Moffat
“Who the hell are you?”
“I’m the Doctor. And I just snogged Madame de Pompadour!”
The first of many Steven Moffat episodes on this list – whatever issues I and other fans have had with some of his recent output, Moffat is undeniably the revived show’s best and most significant writer – “The Girl in the Fireplace” is one of those episodes that solidified and defined my Doctor Who fandom. Years later, the hour still holds up, even if the central narrative conceit – the Doctor forms a deep relationship with a young woman over the course of her entire life, which only takes an hour or two for him as he keeps returning to her at inadvertently long time intervals – would be repurposed and reimagined as the origin story for Eleventh Doctor companion Amy Pond (with scenes from the episode readapted wholesale in Amy’s introduction, “The Eleventh Hour”). You can look at it as Moffat plagiarizing himself if you like, or you can simply recognize, as Moffat likely did, that since “The Girl in the Fireplace” is such a wonderful encapsulated entity, its foundations practically beg to be extended and reapplied in a new and different context. The fact that Moffat built the show’s single best run to date – Series 5 – from a concept introduced here does not suggest creative lethargy, but merely reinforces what a great, if occasionally messy, episode “The Girl in the Fireplace” really is.
To me, it is the ultimate Tenth Doctor story, and the one I always think back to when personally defining David Tennant’s run on the show. The Tenth Doctor was, after all, a hopeless romantic at heart, a horribly lonely, deeply damaged man who longed for emotional connection, and inevitably found himself doomed to isolation in the end. Russell T. Davies and company did not always manifest these ideas in the most graceful contexts – the Doctor/Rose romance never worked for me – but in this episode, Moffat really understood how to fuse the history of the Doctor with the romantic particulars of his tenth incarnation, and combined with Tennant’s spectacular performance, this is the hour where the character truly, definitively clicked into place.
Watching Tennant go through a wide gauntlet of emotional reactions during his short time with Madame du Pompadour – joy, melancholy, fear, humility, and intensely self-aware heroism – speaks not only to the character’s deep and abiding love of culture and history (something that really distinguishes the Tenth Doctor from his modern counterparts), but also his intense desire to be with someone who understands him, who is worldly and damaged and outcast in at least some of the same ways he is. I don’t know if we can call what he and Reinette have a ‘romance,’ but the encounter touches him deeply, and for a Doctor that so often seemed to be bursting with youth (in contrast to Matt Smith, who intentionally underlines the age of the character), the pained longing Tennant displays in his exchanges with Reinette powerfully reinforces how long this extraordinary man has lived.
Beyond all that, “The Girl in the Fireplace” is just a cracking good story, undercooked at times – too many big ideas to comfortably fit in one episode – but obscenely entertaining for the most part, with creative villains, an expert sense of pace, a remarkable guest turn from Sophia Myles, and most importantly, Tennant in absolute top form, touching upon every last strength, tic, or bit of comedic prowess he is remembered for. I don’t believe this is the best Tenth Doctor episode overall, but it is the first one I jump to when thinking about the character; the work Tennant and Moffat do here defines this incarnation for me, and that speaks volumes about what a powerful, lasting impact this episode leaves.
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