Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The Time Traveller's Plank

Doctor Who
The Girl In The Fireplace
Series Two, Episode Four

The Girl In The Fireplace is a love story for the Doctor, and there have hardly been any of those.  Why is that?  Well, School Reunion explained quite eloquently that the Doctor lives longer than anyone else, so he doesn't feel he can ever stay attached.  And that's just his close friends: he's never around anyone else long enough for it to go anywhere.  He's still got a heart two, actually but those are the facts and "close friends" is the best he can do, if that.  It's The Curse Of The Time Lords.  He literally said so last week.

Steven Moffat's brilliant way round this is to ignore it and just have him fall in love anyway.  Uh.  It works for a lot of people, and it won a Hugo Award, but... no.  It doesn't work if you take the previous episode into account.  It doesn't work if you want to actually see any evidence of love on-screen.  It doesn't work if you watch these two characters alone in a room, supposedly being in love.  It's a to-the-point shopping list of Doesn't Work.

What does work is the time travel jiggery-pokery where the Doctor pops in and out of a person's life.  (See The Time Traveler's Wife, as Moffat so obviously has.)  After hearing the Doctor/human relationship put into words last week, here it's enacted on the screen, and it's like a point-by-point account of why he can't fall in love with a human.  Fair enough.  Except, d'oh!  It's inexplicably being used to make the opposite point.  The Doctor doesn't build a bond with this woman, he barely meets her at all.  And okay, there is such a thing as love at first sight, but this first sight happens when she's about seven years old.  Ick.

The main thing wrong with it is summed up by Rose: "Why her?"  Madame de Pompadour is one of the most accomplished women in history, okay, but none of those accomplishments are on the screen.  We're told she's great, but that's not the same as seeing it for ourselves.  What we do get is a stuffy, wooden, rather unremarkable aristo with a bit of a crush on her imaginary friend.  What, exactly, does the Doctor like about her?  He seems glad to have snogged a famous person, but then what?  There's no wit, no soul, no steel about her; all her womanly strength comes from depending on him.  She's not beguiling, she's not interesting, and (aside from being able to invert a mind-meld, just because), no match for him.  Come off it.  This is the woman who makes his hearts beat faster?  He had more chemistry with Queen Victoria.  He had more chemistry with Charles Dickens.

It doesn't help that Madame de Pompadour is played by Sophia Myles, who makes a bunch of clockwork robots look expressive by comparison.  Here is a woman who actually dated David Tennant, and yet their scenes together fizzle miserably.  Tennant, who played Casanova, and one episode ago communicated boundless love and affection for Sarah Jane with a couple of smiles.  It just ain't happening here.

Of course, the Doctor had years to form a bond with Sarah Jane, and so did we along with him.  There was a weight to School Reunion because of it.  You can't cram that kind of thing into 45 minutes.  You know all that not-seeing we're doing, of all Madame Pom-Pom's accomplishments?  The Doctor's not seeing them either.  Apart from a few scenes where we miss the tail-end, he knows this woman about as well as we do.  Oh, there's the I-think-he's-being-euphemistic-it's-too-subtle-to-be-sure "dancing", and more importantly the mind-meld (because apparently there weren't enough shortcuts in Doctor Who), but if their relationship's based on something that's impossible to interpret as an audience, then how the hell's it supposed to work as televised drama?

Nonetheless, Moffat insists in the clumsiest way possible that this is the real deal.  When the Doctor charges to Madame Pot Pourri's rescue, he's marooning Rose and Mickey on a dangerous spaceship in the future.  They're trapped forever, and he doesn't even mention it, presumably because he loves Madame What'shername so much he's willing to abandon his closest friend.  Even after what he said to her last week, about specifically not doing that.  Russell T Davies reportedly never edited Moffat's scripts, and dear God does that backfire here.  What happened to Rose's obvious annoyance that Mickey was joining the TARDIS crew?  Now they're thick as thieves.  Hello?  Is anybody screening this stuff?  Clearly not, as otherwise they'd have thrown out all that ridiculous "So lonely, lonely then and lonelier now, my lonely Doctor" twaddle.  Was there a scriptwriter's bonus if Steven Moffat used the word "lonely" in bulk?  (Besides which, if the Doctor's so lonely, what's with the conveyerbelt of bezzie mates he's had since 1963?  Yeah, they leave or they die in the end, but doesn't everyone who's ever lived have to deal with that as well?  And okay, the Time Lords are gone, but didn't he spend all of Classic Who avoiding them anyway?  I guess you really don't appreciate a thing until it's gone...)

Lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely,
lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely,
lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely,
I sometimes wonder if this even is a love story.  Aside from his foolhardy rescue plan, the Doctor seems utterly blasé on all things Madame Diet Pepsi until the very end, when he receives the Big Letter Of Lonely and looks miserable about it.  He could just as easily be sad because he's lost a new friend a new just-a-friend – who was hoping to see the stars.  Well, couldn't he?  But this does nothing to dislodge the feeling that, no, that's what they're going for, it just isn't working.  (And Wikipedia informs me that Russell T Davies called it "a love story for the Doctor", so that's that, then.  I also now know the episode's working titles included Reinette And The Lonely Angel and Every Tick Of My Heart, and yes, you are supposed to read those without sicking on your lap.)

Okay, okay, enough about the love story.  What of the plot?  Clockwork robots are invading Madame Pompous Orc's history in order to steal her brain.  They want it to use as a computer, because their ship is lacking in parts and it's named after her and they are apparently deeply stupid.  The body-parts-as-spare-parts stuff is intensely creepy, but it's always disappointing meeting a baddie who does what they do because they're an idiot.  (Besides which, Moffat already did it in The Empty Child.)  Rose and Mickey have little to do other than witness the Doctor's tryst and react hardly at all.  Seriously – why isn't Rose crazy-jealous?  But I enjoyed them getting along for once, even if it does totally contradict the last episode.  Billie and Noel are good.  And I liked the horse.

This is one of those episodes that lives or dies by the idea at its heart, and it dies a strange, awkward death because of it.  Does Not Work.  So there.


  1. Uh oh, I sicked on my lap :(

    So he totally reused this idea for Amy, then? (Moffat in REUSING IDEA shocker).

    Also 'We're told she's great, but that's not the same as seeing it for ourselves' - hello River Song.

  2. He re-did the "seeing you at different times in your life" thing with Amy, yes, but mostly without the creepy. She still wanted to sleep with him, disappointingly, but apart from that he has a genuine effect on her life, and there's time to see it play out. And they stuck to "he's an alien" / "they only just met" / "he sees her as a kid" on his side.

    I can see what Reinette likes about the Tenth Doctor. It's the other half of the equation I don't get. (The way he regards her as a cool name from history - "I JUST SNOGGED MADAM DU POMPADOUR!" - robs it of romance and humanness as well. She's really accomplished and did famous things and blah blah blah. What's she like? What do you like about her?)

    The me-you-different-times thing is River Song as well. (Obviously!) Moffat loves him a whole lotta Time Traveller's Wife. It's a good idea; if only he'd invested River with a personality, and hadn't just battered Alex Kingston with the words "Mary Sue" until she whimpered. And oh, the smugness.

  3. Reinette, River Song and Amy are all rehashes of Moffat's original conception of Sally Sparrow from his short story 'What I did in my Holidays by Sally Sparrow' - it's like he was a bit miffed that he didn't get to put his original Sally Sparrow story onscreen in its entirety and has to keep redoing it now that he's in charge.

    I really do get the sense that Moffat is a bit OCD - in addition to being stuck ripping off 'The Time Traveller's Wife' over and over again, he's obsessed with puzzle-box storytelling, and he seems to need to have the last say on other people's stories - hence going back and putting his stamp on the RTD era and a number of previous stories in his 'The X of the Doctor' trilogy.

    1. I agree with all of that. Although I find it odd that, for someone obsessed with puzzle-box storytelling, Moffat's really not that good at it. So many elements and ideas don't stack up. He's got a very short attention span - he once said he tries not to plan too far ahead, in case he gets "bored" - and likes to throw in weird concepts, pretend they've always been there, and then dump them immediately. Remember the psychic conference in Name Of The Doctor? I am not betting on seeing it again.