Following its recent watchalong on its fourteenth anniversary, we look back at Doctor Who episode The Girl in the Fireplace. Does this Tenth Doctor story feature hints of Steven Moffat’s later era as showrunner?
Almost four years before Steven Moffat became showrunner for Doctor Who, he wrote The Girl in the Fireplace. This is only his second story for the New Series and yet – like his first, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances – this is easily a standout episode. Not only did it feature many of Moffat’s tropes that would heavily feature during his own era as showrunner. But in some ways, it also helped to shape the Tenth Doctor, too.
One thing that instantly leaps out about this episode is how unashamedly romantic it is. Steven Moffat said he had been inspired by the novel The Time Traveller’s Wife, and its influence is certainly clear, particularly with the Doctor popping in and out of Reinette’s life. Of course, this wouldn’t be the last time that Moffat would use the novel as a key influence: only two years later, he would introduce us to River Song, arguably one of the biggest recurring characters of his era.
It’s interesting looking back on this episode on re-watch and comparing Reinette’s and River’s stories – while River would constantly meet the Doctor in the wrong order, Reinette’s and the Doctor’s relationship is considerably more linear by comparison. Still, the roots of River’s story are clear with Reinette.
The Doctor and romance
It’s easy to forget now, but in some ways, The Girl in the Fireplace was a major episode for the series. While many stories have explored the Doctor’s more romantic side since this one, at the time, this was the most we had ever seen of it. There had been hints of it in his relationship with Rose, but the love isn’t as open as it is with Reinette. Even with the Doctor never stating that he loves Reinette, his reaction to her death at the end of the episode says far more than words.
Sophia Myles is perfectly cast as Reinette. Not only does she bring a wonderfully classy and dignified performance to the role, but she shares brilliant chemistry with David Tennant in this story. Combined with Moffat’s writing, it all helps to sell the romantic nature of their relationship.
Time travel and romance aren’t the only Moffat tropes that feature in this episode, though. After joining the Doctor and Rose at the end of School Reunion, Mickey finally gets to be a companion at last. Moffat’s take on the character is fantastic – wonderfully geeky and incredibly enthusiastic, it’s a far cry from who Mickey was when he met the Doctor. Considering Mickey’s arc in Series 2, it’s also a natural development, too.
Moffat clearly has a lot of fun writing for two companions, giving a lot of banter to Rose and Mickey over the course of the episode. In some ways, Rose is almost pushed to one side in this story, with Reinette being considerably more focused on, but with Mickey there, it works. While not romantic like the Ponds, they’re still a great pairing, and it’s another clear hint of Moffat’s future run as showrunner.
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Horror and monsters
There is one other key Moffat trope I need to mention, one that he established back in his first story: horror. While it’s easy to forget – especially when compared to his next story, Blink – there is a considerable amount of horror in The Girl in the Fireplace.
What particularly leaps out is how surprisingly grim it is at times. Not only is the fate of the ship’s crew horrifying, but actually seeing a human heart wired into the ship itself is gloriously grotesque.
But it’s not just the gory aspect that makes this episode so scary. Moffat is very good at turning the everyday into something terrifying, and he does that with clocks in this one. Or at least, the sound a clock makes. The Doctor realizing that a broken clock isn’t making a ticking noise is a great moment of suspense.
It’s fascinating to look back on The Girl in the Fireplace all these years later, more than two years after Steven Moffat had finished his own era on the show. With its distinct mix of romance, horror, time travel, and some great dialogue, (the “magic door” line particularly stands out), the story is a clear template of what was to come. More than that: it’s still a fantastic story in its own right.
Are you a fan of The Girl in the Fireplace? Do you think it’s a strong story from David Tennant’s first series? Do you think it provided a template for later Moffat stories? Let us know in the comments below.