Recently I joined a gym, which, otherwise being apropos of nothing, has allowed me to start listening to Verity Podcast again. The ladies are always great fun, disagreeing with each other in the best way possible, full of nerdery and love for Doctor Who. This season, each Verity gets an episode to gush about her favorite story, and the first of these was “The Girl in the Fireplace.”
“Fireplace” is one of a finite set: written by Stephen Moffat during the Russell T. Davies era of Doctor Who, and as a result, one of the best of the modern series. It’s a beautifully made historical, with monsters and silliness and a smart, courageous woman who just happens to have been a real person. It features one of my favorite TARDIS trios: Ten, Rose, and Mickey Smith. It’s the midpoint of Mickey’s travels with the Doctor, a last hurrah before the peak of his character arc. It’s a brief stop on Rose’s slide out of the Doctor’s life.
For most fans, one of the key peaks and pitfalls of this episode is the romance. Many adore it; many others, feeling differently about how the Doctor should relate to his companions, despise it. When I first watched it, on my whirlwind pass through S2-4, I barely noticed.
I am not a romance fan. I don’t read bodice-rippers. I don’t watch rom-coms. Generally I feel there is too much emphasis in our society on romantic love and marriage as an end goal, as if happily-ever-after were really a thing. I dislike romantic tropes, such as people who hate each other and treat each other poorly discovering they’re really in love. I’m not interested in other people’s sex lives. As a result, I didn’t even notice the romantic arc of Rose’s story until it was over – and then I was so invested, so engaged – and it was handled so well – that I loved it anyway.
With Reinette, I see much that could be interpreted as romantic that doesn’t actually have to be. I accept that she’s probably in love with him – or, in love with the idea of him, as she doesn’t really know him at all. And of course the Doctor loves the kind of person she is: courageous, adventurous, intelligent, pushing at the boundaries of her world. But what breaks his heart in the end is not losing her, but failing yet another fragile being who counted on him. This Doctor takes every failure personally to heart. In addition, the reason he failed her was that he couldn’t wait to get back to Rose. He couldn’t wait for Reinette to pack a bag and go with him; he had to see that Rose was okay, even though he had to know that leaving Reinette’s world for a moment risked leaving it forever. He took a gamble for Rose, and Reinette lost. Of course he feels shattered and guilty.
But not because he was in love with her.
Another question raised in the Verities’ podcast is the recurring Moffat-ism of the Doctor meeting companions in childhood. One of the ladies asked if those who have a problem with River Song’s lifelong entanglement with the Doctor have the same problem with Reinette. However, I see Reinette’s situation as more similar to Amy’s than River’s: each has an impactful experience with the Doctor at a very young age, and builds him up in her mind as a heroic figure he can never live up to it real life. Each develops something of an obsession with him. I don’t feel that the Doctor’s meeting with young River is impactful in the same way: the little girl stuck in a spacesuit already has too much going on to be impressed by the Doctor. My problem with River isn’t as much that she met the Doctor young, as that her entire life was bent and designed around him. Reinette and Amy developed common pre-adolescent feelings for him, some of which were later shattered. River’s problem is on another level entirely.
In addition, Moffat is not alone in having the Doctor cross paths with someone at multiple points in their lives. On Davies’ watch, Nine meets Rose and Mickey as children, though his impact on them at that time is minimal. Ten meets young Elton Pope, whose resulting lifelong obsession gets him in trouble in the end. I’ve said before on this blog that Davies is obsessed with romance: Rose, Martha, Astrid, and it’s rumored he had romance planned for S4 before Catherine Tate agreed to come back. (Which is sort of a two way problem: does he limit romance to a certain age and body type, or did he change direction because of the character Tate established in “The Runaway Bride?”) Moffat appears to be obsessed with sex: vampy Amy, River, Marilyn Monroe, and Queen Elizabeth mostly happen on his watch.
Still, we can’t blame Moffat (entirely) for that.
I have probably written plenty on this topic by now, but in case I missed anything I meant to say, here’s the comment I left for the Verities:
I despise romance as a genre, and I still love this episode. Partly it’s just so well done: I got caught up in the adventure story, and didn’t really notice the love story until later. Also, I don’t see it as necessarily a love story in the romantic sense. I think the Doctor saw in Reinette what he sees in any of his companions, and he was heartbroken in the end because he failed her. Just as he has (in his view anyway) failed so many of them.
I’m not sure I saw it on the first pass but over time I definitely see this as a story about faith. The Doctor always jumps in feet first when there’s someone to save, and to hell with the consequences – and somehow it always turns out. He knows when he plunges through the mirror that there’s no way back, and yet he does it believing that he will make it back anyway. (This gets spelled out even bigger in “The Satan Pit,” where the Doctor destroys the safety net only to come up against the TARDIS in the shadows.) Rose too has faith – and her own desire to save the day. If he had asked her whether he should save Reinette or stay behind with her, I feel quite confident she would have told him to get on that horse – and come back in the end too. Which of course he does, because he’s the Doctor. I think this episode showcases Rose’s compassion and faith as well as the Doctor’s, as well as the strength of their friendship. And I don’t think he abandoned her, in any case: the TARDIS took Rose home once, and I’m sure she’d have done it again if called on. As if Rose would ever have left the Doctor behind. (again, see “The Satan Pit.”)
Madame de Pompadour was quite an interesting person historically. She was married, and was mistress to the King, and was the first of that King’s mistresses to befriend the Queen. (The Doctor’s comment about this being France was dead on.) She was interested in science and art and politics and brought the most intelligent and well educated people together in her house to talk about things. I think the Doctor would definitely have admired her. I really enjoy the way she’s portrayed in the story: smart, fearless, fiery, and also feminine. As in the show, she died of tuberculosis slowly and quite young, leaving behind a grieving King. She’s an excellent choice of character for an episode of Doctor Who. I’d love to see more fascinating women from history on the show.
I could probably go on – the Verities present a whole polyamory angle I would never have thought of before – but for now I think enough is enough.