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May 08, 2006

Firestarter

Tgif3_1There was a time when I would come away from a good episode of Doctor Who feeling thrilled, excited and a little bit terrified. These days I'm much more likely to be left bawling into some (man-sized) tissues or, depending on who's in the room with me at the time, pretending that I've got something in my eye.

And I thought School Reunion was going to be this year's obligatory tearjerker! Ha! That's a light and frothy comedy compared to the heart-wrenching conclusion to TGI Fireplace! If they keep this up then the show will almost certainly be picked up by UK Living, if and when the axe falls.

First things first: if you flew into an incandescent rage when the 8th Doctor played tonsil tennis with Grace Holloway ten years ago ("Heterosexual agenda. Again!") then you probably had a coronary last night. The Doctor danced. Like catching your parents at it, albeit in a santised pre-watershed way (i.e. off-screen and laced with innuendo), the Doctor finally got his leg over after decades, if not centuries, of celibacy. Actually, Hollyoaks goes out 30 minutes before Doctor Who, and if the same production team made this then we'd almost certainly have seen the Doctor in his question-mark boxers and a tasteful shot of a topless Rienette - from the back. Bananas would have featured prominently. Not that I watch it or anything...

Anyway, forget about any back-peddling from Moffat in a podcast commentary (he's probably just worried about a Whovian fatwa), the Doctor did the dirty deed!

Tgif1_1Do I care? Funnily enough, I thought I would. I've always been a card-carrying member of the old-school sector of fandom that believes that the Doctor should be above all that squishing around nonsense. This isn't because I've never danced myself, or because I feel that the Doctor should reflect his quintessential Britishness by repressing his more intimate emotions. No, it's simply because it turns the Doctor into yet another cliched sci-fi hero who saves the day whilst simultaneously bedding the damsel in distress. In short: just another Kirk.

The fact that the Doctor never really responded to any sexual urges ("You are a very beautiful woman. Probably.") was incredibly refreshing to me as a child, especially when Buck Rogers was trying to get into Wilma Deering's pants on a weekly basis. In short, I  didn't want my show to turn into something that featured "girly kissing". Trust me, when you are eight years old the last thing you want to see on the telly is Tom Baker (or worse, Colin) snogging the alien princess of the month. I wonder if any 8 year old olds felt the same way about David last night?

Tgif4_1Because last night the Doctor a) fell head over heels in love with a woman and b) he shagged her. I should have been peeling myself off the ceiling but I was far too busy being moved and captivated by the (shudder) lurve story.

So, how did Steven Moffat get away with it?

Well, Madame de Pompadour is someone special. A genuine one-off. She's the Doctor's perfect match in each and every way: fiercely intelligent, independent, multi-talented, passionate, regal, brave and curious. It just fits. She's quite attractive too. Probably. The unchronological aspect to their whirlwind romance was strangely appropriate, too. But most of all, it's incredibly subtle.

Whether this will ignite the fire in the Doctor's trousers, and he'll pursue a more carnal relationship with Rose as a result of this 'fling', remains to be seen, but I did enjoy the  insinuation that the Doctor represses his sexuality/emotions because of the "secret" glimpsed by Rienette. Is his loneliness self-imposed, I wonder? Does it tie into the reasons why he left Gallifrey and/or blew it up? We've had four oblique references to the destruction of his home planet on the trot now (no Torchwood plug I'm afraid, although there is a wide shot with plenty of burning torches - does that count?) and it must be leading somewhere (or is Russell just making it up on the spot again?).

...the plot is utterly bonkers. Magic doors. Clockwork robots. White horses on spaceships. 18th Century France. How could it possibly all work?

Tgif6_1I was was also happy to see some of the themes from last week's episode surfacing again here. Admitting to Rose that he couldn't bear the thought of watching a companion age and decay in front of his eyes is given extra weight when - just for a moment - I honestly believed that the Doctor would spend years stuck in pre-revolutionary France. In fact, I initially thought the convenient deux ex fireplacea was a cop-out solution that would rob us of the impact of watching the Doctor facing this nightmare head-on at his lover's deathbed, but what we got instead was much more satisfying. The fact that their love remains unrequited and the Doctor's promise to her is left unfulfilled is truly devastating. "I'm always OK" - what a heartbreakingly tragic moment.

Steven Moffat is a genius. More than that, he's a genius who is perfectly suited to writing for Doctor Who (you have to love his gratuitous continuity references!). OK, so he occasionally slides into pure farce (let's have a moratorium on the 'Doctor Who' joke please), and sometimes if it feels like we've entered a sitcom where every other line is a clever punchline (even the robots get in on the act with the brilliant "We don't need your feet" comeback) but when it comes to the plot, and understanding what makes our show so goddamn special, Mr. Moffat shines.

At first glance the plot appears to be utterly bonkers. Magic doors. Clockwork robots. White horses on spaceships. 18th Century France. How could it possibly work? However, even though the plot is certainly complex it's never complicated. Better still, it actually makes sense under closer scrutiny! In fact, it screams out for further viewings (if your tear ducts can stand it) and what should have remained baffling (erratic time corridors are notoriously difficult to keep track of) actually makes perfect sense by the end. Well, as far as these things can make perfect sense.

Tgif2_1And just when you think you're going to be left with a plot hole so big it took all the warp engines to create it, there's that wonderful final shot that ties up everything in a nice, neat bow. Brilliant!

One criticism that I've seen levelled at this episode is the fact that Mickey and Rose are sidelined. Well, that's nonsense: they discover the organic repair work, Rose tries to prepare Rienette for the inevitable (which also reveals the gulf that exists between the pair's intellects and provides further evidence that Rose isn't "the one") and Mickey shows once again that not everyone is built to handle the Doctor's lifestyle; they even get to fulfill the traditional companion role of asking pertinent questions like "What the hell is going on?" And boy, does this episode need it!

Tgif7_1Mickey's reactions to the situation are perfectly natural: awe, sprinkled liberally with mild panic and fear - a lovely counterpoint to Rose and Capt Jack's smug cockiness. Noel really went up in my estimations when he admitted in a recent DWM interview that his performance in both Rose and AoL/WIII was, shall we say, a little misjudged, and while he sailed perilously close to repeating the same mistakes (what was the deal with that roll?) he's rapidly becoming one of my favourite characters. And was anyone here struck by the similarity between Mickey's reaction to being tied up on an alien spaceship and Arthur Dent meeting the Vogons? Intentional?

Something that isn't picked up from last week is Rose's simmering resentment now that Mickey has decided to tag along with them like a sick, tin puppy dog. In fact, she seems to enjoy hanging out with her ex, especially when it gives her a chance to brag and show off to him. Then there's Rose's underplayed reaction to the fact that the Doctor is falling in love with someone else, right under her nose! Is Rose just pretending that it's not really happening (like many old-school DW fans who might be desperately interpreting Tennant's marvellous underplaying as evidence that he didn't really care that much?). I think she knows. I think it's becoming more and more obvious to her that a) she's not that special and b) nothing lasts forever.

Tgif5_1Sophia Miles gives a stunning performance which is rendered even more impressive when you remember that's she's consistently playing slightly different versions of herself; the gaps in time are far too small for the make-up dept to be any use, and so it's all down to the subtlety of her acting to pull it off. Tennant is incredible too - is there an emotion that he doesn't manage to pull off in these 45 minutes? Quite incredible. Even the faux drunkenness (very McCoy) worked in context.

Then there's Euro Lynn's epic, swooping camera work, the fantastic (and strangely sad) design of the Clockwork robots and their key-shaped ship, the stunning set design, the exquisite costumes and the evocative lighting. Pure gold.

And speaking of which, another unlikely hero features in this episode: Murray Gold. Anyone who's been following my reviews on this blog will know that I've never been a fan of Mr Gold; he's either too loud, too one-note or too twee for my taste. Tonight he finally nailed it. His clockwork inspired 'music box' motif was achingly beautiful and the final five minutes, which are carried almost entirely by the music, doesn't just tug on the heartstrings, it swings on them. Note to BBC: please include an isolated score option on the next DVD boxset.

Tgif8The Girl in the Fireplace has it all: comedy, romance, surrealism, mystery, action, scares, tears, a smattering of historical education, and killer robots. And only Doctor Who could have got away with half of that.

9.5 out of 10. This'll be a hard one to beat...

The Bumper Book of Made-Up Doctor Who Facts has this to say about 'The Girl in the Fireplace': Nicholas Briggs castrated himself in order to provide the voices of the clockwork robots.

Comments

Excellent review Neil. You've said everything I was going to say. Bugger. I might have to resort to a review based entirely on nitpicking...

Nick Briggs is the new "That guy that did the voice of Starscream/Cobra Commander/Soundwave/Doctor Claw/etc" isn't he? He's voiced everything by now, including an entire empire in his own little mini-series. The man's a maniac. I bet he hears Dalek voices in his head 24-7.

But the Doctor didn't fall in love! He never made any sort of advances to her, never indicated in any way that he felt anything for her. When he found out who she was, he was impressed that she had fallen in love with him, and impressed that he'd "just snogged Madame La Pompadore". But he was never in love with her. After all, he's travelling with Mickey, he travelled with Jack, he brought Adam along, how is that different to Rennette? Okay, Rose invited Adam, but does that mean that she was in love with him?

So they're Just Good Friends, then?

It was love. Plain and simple. It was also love in Human Nature. Then there was Grace in the movie. And while we're at it he was making goo-goo eyes at Nerys Hughes too.

The militant Who right wing have probably disowned the entire RTD revival on account of this single episode, and you know what? Good! The Girl in the Fireplace made perfect sense as a part of this Doctor's (and the series') journey and we should embrace it for what it is: good television, and good Doctor Who.

On the subject of emotions, has anyone ever scanned the CBBC message boards? It seems the kids are really down with the soppy stuff, and a good deal of the girls apparently want to give Dave a big hug. Bless.

Excellent review by the way, and absolutely right in every respect.

Great review Neil.

Looks like fandom's grown up without realizing one important thing. Kids have grown up too. They like things with a touch more depth these days, and you can't tell me the 8-10 set weren't bawling at Rose and the TARDIS charging back to Platform One to rescue the Doctor(cripes i just got chills thinking about that scene..).

Oh, and Nerys Hughes, she was in Kinda, right? Anything Fifth Doctor I can see him making goo-goo eyes. Had Black Orchid lasted a few more episodes, you'd have seen him flirting with a young girl somewhere along the lines(much to Adric's chagrin).

Must admit that - somehow - I didn't get the spaceship reference right at the end (thinking that the reason the robots hunted Ronnette was for something a little more, how shall we say, unresolved).

But then I may have missed the resolution first time round because a cetain fellow blogger kept texting me every five minutes, performing an impromptu mobile-podcast... :-)

So if Reinette is the Doctor's equal then what is Rose? Isn't Rose always being touted as the Doctor's equal? I'm surprised RTD let Moffat suggest anyone but his precious Rose is the Doctor's equal! And why does the Doctor have to bed someone who's his equal anyway?

To be honest all this relationship stuff is getting on my nerves. Whatever happened to materialising up on a new planet each week and finding a way to save it from destruction? And how many times do we have to go back to the Powell Estate? Who'd have thought the new series could find a more dull and depressing place than the old Welsh quarries they used to use!

Coleberg and Photoboy - it's open to interpretation. If you can't handle the fact that the Doctor can fall in love (or have nookie) then you can skirt around it if you like. Moffat has cleverly given you a way out and I suggest that you take it.

Rose may be the Doctor's equal in terms of audience identification but she isn't his equal in any other way. The thought of Rose and the Doctor having carnal knowledge of each other would be a step too far, IMHO. She's Pygmallion. It'll be like a teacher having it away with a pupil.

Sean - sorry, mate. It won't happen again!

"First things first: if you flew into an incandescent rage when the 8th Doctor played tonsil tennis with Grace Holloway ten years ago ("Heterosexual agenda. Again!") then you probably had a coronary last night."

No, no and a thousand times no. The problem with the Grace Holloway kiss is that it made no sense. Now half human eyes is easy to explain away as a result of the regeneration to Pertwee. The Daleks terminating The Master made no sense unless you twist the Human Factor into bizarre pretzels of logic. Then he goes and snogs Grace. It would be like him kissing an amoeba.

Now, the good Doctor falling in love with Madame du Pompadour makes perfect sense. She is definately as equal to him as a human could be.

The only problem now is that it has set a precedent. I hope it doesn't turn into the Doctor falling in love every season or worse multiple times per season. Shows like Star Trek turn into romance of the week which you know will never go anywhere so they get very boring.

I must say this was my favourite episode so far of both the new seasons.

Somehow, Saturday Night Who just wouldn't be the same if it DIDN'T!

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