“The Girl in the Fireplace”

Paul R. Potts

This episode of Doctor Who, one of the rare episodes I actually enjoyed enough to write about, won the 2007 Hugo award in the category Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form. “Blink” was to win the following year. The last few years have been less successful.

Last Friday night we watched an episode of Doctor Who entitled “The Girl in the Fireplace.” There are a lot of things wrong with this episode; it is maddeningly inconsistent. But it is also wonderful.

The Doctor can supposedly read minds by performing a mind meld like Spock, a new ability. “Time windows” behave in bizarre and inconsistent ways; they’re open, or closed, or disabled but still usable once if something hits them hard enough (but then they break), or they shut down at on end but can still be opened from one end; basically, they provide whatever the plot calls for at a given time. Time moves at different rates on different sides of these time windows, but without any consistency whatsoever; time does whatever the plot finds useful.

There’s a weird sub-plot involving clockwork repair androids deciding that the best way to repair a disabled spaceship is to kill the crew and use their organs to repair a spaceship. And there’s a very weird scene in which Rose and Mickey discover a human heart beating inside one of the ship’s systems. I was reminded of the lyrics of a Donald Fagen song, “Snowbound,” from the wonderful album Kamakiriad:

Something new
From Charlie Tokyo
It’s a kind of pyramid
With a human heart
Beating in an ion grid

This makes very little sense, especially because the heat of the spaceship systems tends to cook the organs, and so the ship smells like roasting meat, but it sure is an arresting image. But ultimately, none of this inconsistency or weirdness matters. The episode is great because it is beautifully shot and beautifully acted. The costumes and sets are drop-dead gorgeous. Sophia Myles is fantastic and so is David Tenant. The Doctor is smitten with this brilliant and beautiful historic figure; she looks into his lonely soul and loves what she sees there. It is a timeless story of the semi-immortal Doctor confronted again with his helpless love of fleeting human life.

And so, accidentally, we have the meaning of that strange, strange scene. Though he is not human, it’s the Doctor’s heart in the middle of the whole crazy Doctor Who apparatus, burning with loss. And so a cheesy, semi-immortal TV show still, when written and produced well, has the power to move us.

Ann Arbor, Michigan
November 20, 2007

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