|In this image, Clara is cleverly disguised as a candle.
It’s May 6th, 2006. Gnarls Barkley remains at number one, with Dirty Pretty Things, Snow Patrol, and Rihanna also charting. And that Mary J Blige/U2 thing is still about too. Albums include Bruce Springsteen’s album of Pete Seeger covers and a Massive Attack greatest hits. In the last week one of those remarkably half-assed steps to maybe sort of do something about the genocide in Darfur took place, accomplishing, as you’d expect, nothing. The government of China claimed to have perfected weather control and got into a row with the Catholic Church, though not about the weather. And the Labour Party under Tony Blair lost more than 200 council seats, coming in behind both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in local elections, resulting in a heavy cabinet reshuffle.
This latter thing is actually seemingly just a thing that happens when Moffat is around, as four years later he’ll see Gordon Brown brought down in the 2010 elections just weeks after his run on Doctor Who starts. So there’s a proper reason for everyone to hate Moffat: he makes Tories win things. Actually, hating Moffat for the future is a bit of an issue with this story, as so many tropes familiar from his later Doctor Who career make their first appearances here. What’s interesting, then, is that this once again doesn’t seem to have originally been conceived as a Moffat story in the sense that we now understand that phrase.
The brief given to Moffat was apparently one of Davies’s kitchen sink ones – he wanted clockwork aliens after reading about the mechanical Turk, and he wanted the Madame du Pompadour after encountering the character researching Casanova. So it went to Moffat. This makes sense – he’d had good luck with gas masks last time, so clocks seemed up his alley. And Madame du Pompadour was set up for more sex comedy, which was, after all, the brief he’d originally been given with The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances.
For the second time, however, Moffat defied expectations. Impressed with what Davies had done in the first season, Moffat apparently decided he wanted to do something like that and, instead of writing a sex comedy, wrote a fairy tale romance. Note how outside of the cold open the story is framed by the shot of the spaceship, winding silently in the night, the chimes of the music box whose key it physically resembles echoing through the silence as the final bit of the story’s riddle is revealed. Even the cold open starts with a variation of this shot – a matching shot of stars accompanied by a jaunty harpsichord that pans down to Versailles instead of up to the space station, making the boxy palace of Versailles just another magic box in a story jam-packed with them.
This is in many ways the story’s most vaultedly ambitious aspect: the way in which the story is structured like a puzzle box and contains so many such structures within it, but how all of this puzzle box contains what is, at its heart, a fairy story. I use that term in a fairly precise sense as well – the interplay between Reinette’s life and the space ship is that of the human world and the world of faerie, such that travel into one causes years to pass in the other. This is a very good way of handling the Doctor, and Moffat tips his head fittingly to Paul Cornell, who originated it, in proper Doctor Who style, namely by nicking the “I’m what monsters have nightmares about” bit from Love and War.
But underlying this is the idea that the Doctor is larger than we can get a handle on – which is what Moffat is getting at with his “there’s a secret in the Doctor’s name” idea, but is perhaps more importantly what he’s getting at by showing us this fleeting but epic love affair for the Doctor that plays out in the middle of the extended Rose plot. A case can be made that The Girl in the Fireplace somehow cheapens Rose, but that case requires a commitment to monogamy that we’ve already seen rejected by the polymorphous sexuality of The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances. The Doctor’s romance with Madame du Pompadour is nowhere presented as conflicting with his feelings towards Rose – they are allowed to exist in juxtaposed parallel, an easy enough concept in a show where pre-revolutionary France can abut a 51st century space ship. The possibility is opened, especially when this episode is put next to School Reunion, that the Doctor has countless loves and heartbreaks scattered throughout the history of the program.
The result, which is not entirely to its benefit, is that the Moffat era arrives fully formed here, all of its tropes and techniques in place and reasonably developed. Moffat will come back to most of these ideas over and over again. This is not a problem as such – “I really wish Robert Holmes hadn’t written so many stories about evil bureaucrats,” said no one ever. But it does mean that there are many things within this story better picked up later. For now it’s sufficient to say that all of these ideas worked quite well at the time, resulting in an episode widely regarded as a classic. Certainly for my part it struck impressively when I came upon it – the first two episodes of Series Two were adequate, the third quite good, but it was the fourth that cemented the series for me, and perhaps more to the point cemented the entire comeback. I watched Series One, but a rough breakup resulting in an unexpected move got me distracted after Dalek, and I didn’t finish the series until late fall, and Series Two was the first one that I watched faithfully as it came out. And this one blew me away. It blew me away in an enduring way that softened the relative disappointment of everything from here to Army of Ghosts, although this should not be taken to say that I’m going to take a negative tone for the next few episodes. This was the episode where “Steven Moffat episode” became a big deal.
We should also probably talk at some point about the Hugos. These are orthodox science fiction awards – ones whose history stretch back to the golden age. Their taste has evolved – it’s not like they’re a bunch of nutcases who think literature died with Isaac Asimov, but they’re terribly, terribly establishment within the sci-fi community. And Doctor Who has been cleaning up there, largely on the strength of Steven Moffat, who has won four of the series’ six Hugos, and was the executive producer for another one. (Davies, of course, can claim the inverse). The first one, awarded in August of 2006 after Series Two had wrapped, was the only really surprising one.
That said, from the point where the nominations were announced it looked weird – and that was back in March. Doctor Who had three of seven slots, with two more taken up by dead-in-the-water presentations from the previous year’s WorldCon – a phenomenon that seems to have been the bizarre consequence of the equally bizarre 2004 victory of Gollum’s acceptance speech at the MTV Movie Awards over the series finale of Buffy and two Firefly episodes. The remainder were an episode of 2005 winner Battlestar Galactica and a Pixar short. Lost, nominated last year, was out. No Stargate, which was nominated last year. Angel was over and Joss Whedon was suddenly off the air and making movies. But Star Trek: Enterprise was snubbed, admittedly in part because it was crap and had caused Star Trek to go off the air again, and suddenly the new king and frontrunner was obviously Doctor Who, which wasn’t even on in the US yet when it swept the nominations. This was a very different sort of arrival and success – Doctor Who was suddenly the top dog in geek culture, and with a new generation of geeks.
And so once they’d settled on Steven Moffat as their favorite writer in August of 2006 it was dead obvious that The Girl in the Fireplace was going to make it two for two. Having beaten Battlestar Galactica once already, there was nothing else on television that looked prone to taking down the new king, and if they’d liked The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances then this was a shoo-in. But there’s an odd divide implied here as well. Yes, Doctor Who was the darling of the sci-fi establishment, but Russell T Davies wasn’t. He was shut out on his own program, and not for the last time. In Britain it was Russell T Davies’s Doctor Who, but in fandom it was already Steven Moffat’s.
Instead of tracing the consequences of that now, though, let’s instead look back and remember that this episode was consciously given to the sex comedy writer. Which is to say, how is it that Steven Moffat became the hit Doctor Who writer in the first place? What about the career of a sitcom writer made him capable of this?
What’s interesting is that once you take out the thing that’s Russell T Davies’s idea – pre-Revolutionary France – all of this is actually the most predictable story possible from Steven Moffat. It’s the Doctor discovering girls. What Moffat’s done is written a story that is in part sex comedy, but framed it in the fairy tale structure that Moffat’s clockwork robots and period setting seem to evoke. Moffatt clearly prefers history’s iconography to its content, and thus writes for the movie version of history. Given a terribly idiosyncratic moment of history with no obvious movie version, Moffat improvised his tone, or, rather, nicked it from Paul Cornell, who, it should be reiterated, is a good friend of Moffat’s. And he gave it a really sad ending because it’s not a sitcom and people love tragedy – note that the three most beloved episodes of the season are the ones that are written in part as tragedies, though School Reunion obviously averts it at the last second.
But the underlying story is the story Moffat has been telling since Press Gang – the story of how the not entirely good guy learns to be one. In Press Gang it was the story of Linda taming Spike, but in both Joking Apart and Coupling it’s an obvious stand-in for Moffat himself engaging in self-redemption. Joking Apart is him learning that he’s been a bad husband, Coupling is him learning to be a good one. And in both cases he writes himself, in a real stretch, as a wisecracking comedy writer. Which is basically what he writes the Doctor as – and, for that matter, Sherlock Holmes: terribly clever people who can be kind of dicks to the people around them. This is Moffat’s default story over the bulk of his career, and it’s one that he’s developed in new ways each time he tells it.
But notably, the clever person is not usually the hero of the story, at least not straightforwardly. Joking Apart is the story of a man losing his marriage. Coupling is the story of a man learning to be responsible enough to have kids. Why we should suddenly expect “the clever person learns to deal with girls” to be a celebration of the clever person because it’s being done in Doctor Who isn’t clear. And sure enough, this is a tragedy caused by the Doctor in the end – his giddy enthusiasm at the possibility of getting back to the TARDIS leads him to fail to actually take Reinette with him. Within Moffat’s career, this is clearly the point. Let’s take for granted, in fact, that Moffat’s quoting Love and War means that this is the exact point he’s making – that the Doctor’s vastness makes him terrible as well as wonderful.
But that’s not really how Tennant plays it. Tennant is more interested in acting the consequences of the tragic fall than he is in the tragic flaw itself. Which is fine, as he’s terribly good at acting the consequences. But Moffat writes the inadequacies better, and he just doesn’t have the Doctor for what he wants to do here. He wrote for Eccleston, who would play this sort of material with an alienating blankness, clearly not understanding the consequences of what he’s doing. He’ll eventually rewrite it all for Smith, who plays this stuff with a manic bumbling that similarly communicates its alienness. But Tennant doesn’t give him that. Moffat writes the Doctor discovering girls, but Tennant plays the Doctor getting laid.
Crucial and rarely mentioned in discussions of why this works are Rose and Mickey, who anchor it with some phenomenal moments, most notably Noel Clarke’s brilliant handling of escorting Rose out of the console room, which he plays as Mickey realizing what’s happened to the Doctor better than the Doctor does. (Tennant’s shaky “I’m always OK” is also brilliant in this regard.) And the scene that Moffat and Clarke describe on the commentary track as “Madame du Pompadour with a couple of chavs on a spaceship” is similarly gorgeous – putting Rose in the plot and highlighting what the Doctor can’t do within it.
But the result is still a story that’s told at a distance. It’s not so big a miss as to make the episode not work, but the effect is odd. You’ve got a lackluster setting (Madame du Pompadour didn’t even make anyone but Russell T Davies’s list of the top ten historical figures they’d like the Doctor to meet) and a lackluster central conflict (Tennant’s Doctor discovering girls), but everything around them is so completely spot-on that it can step in. So instead you get a story that’s about the consequences of romance with a man such as the Doctor and about the basic surface glamour of its world, wrapped in a gorgeous puzzle box/fairy tale structure that makes the whole thing come off gorgeously. But it’s clear that the idea is in no way finished. Even at the time, this felt like the beginning of a line of thought about Doctor Who.