It’s hard not to think some elements of the film Virus had a part of inspiring this episode, which unknown to me at the time. Horror would also be an element of staple to Steven Moffat stories, like in The Impossible Astronaut, Blink, and Listen. Although it is a story I rather enjoy (for time being used cleverly, as part of a plot device), there are most assurdly problematic elements (misogyny), as stated in io9‘s, “Why Steven Moffat Isn’t All That” on this episode:
This was a clever story, at the beginning – it’s one of those historical episodes that lets the Doctor Who producers clap themselves on the back for being educational guides to hordes of British schoolchildren (and adults). The Doctor, Rose, and Mickey discover a drifting spaceship in the 51st century (Moffat’s “futuristic era” of choice, apparently – he’s used it before and he’ll use it again) and, as it turns out, the spaceship is attempting to repair itself by harvesting human organs from its visitors. To make matters worse, bits of pre-revolutionary France keep popping through time pockets on the ship, and sucking the Doctor back.
What then develops is a random, thoughtless romance between the Doctor and famous courtesan Madame de Pompadour, who was the most famous mistress of King Louis XV of France. Apparently the Doctor’s always had a crush on her; with the whole universe at his disposal, naturally the most impressive, alluring woman he can think of is a professional sex buddy from the 17th century. And after a short acquaintance, aided by the vagaries of spaceship time pockets, he’s ready to settle down and give up everything for her: not only his life, but Rose’s and Mickey’s as well. It’s pretty jarring, if you’re used to watching a show about a time-travelling maverick who values his companions above all else, who never has sex, and whose one prized possession is his TARDIS. And who, a single episode before, promised his longtime friend Rose that he’d never leave her – especially not to be mutilated alive by robots on a deserted spaceship.
It’s sinister. And it belies far too much of what Steven Moffat really thinks of women like Rose and Madame de Pompadour:
There’s this issue you’re not allowed to discuss: that women are needy. Men can go for longer, more happily, without women. That’s the truth. We don’t, as little boys, play at being married – we try to avoid it for as long as possible. Meanwhile women are out there hunting for husbands.
Whatever your opinion of his none-too-thinly veiled misogyny, it’s clear from that comment that Moffat views people only in terms of vast generalizations (Actually, Steven, what you seem to misunderstand is that not all women are hunting for husbands – some of us are scheming to take over Doctor Who so we can make it cohesive and thoughtful, instead.)
It should come as no surprise, then, that he has more trouble with characterization than any Doctor Who showrunner should.
SciFiUnicorn’s livejournal delves quite deeply into these elements with finese, with “Why I don’t Like “The Girl in the Fireplace” Part 1: Problematic Themes“:
The Girl in the Fireplace. Any Doctor Who fan, even a casual viewer, knows about this episode. It’s often considered the best episode of series 2. Written by Steven Moffat, it received critical acclaim, is a favorite of most Doctor Who fans, and even won a Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation in Short Form. So, what’s the problem? Well, a lot, actually.
It’s classist, sexist, and poorly written. It reduces the female characters to simplistic, sexist stereotypes, it implies that one woman is not deserving of the Doctor’s love because of her working-class background, and it completely disregards the character development from the previous episode.
How is it sexist? Well, in order to explain, I think we need to first remember what exactly sexism is. According to Dictionary.com, sexism is “attitudes or behavior based on traditional stereotypes of sexual roles” or “discrimination or devaluation based on a person’s sex”. Let’s analyze the behavior of the female characters in this episode, and how the Doctor treats these women. Reinette, aka Madame de Pompadour, meets the Doctor when she is a child, and as a result develops a gigantic crush on him because he’s handsome and he saves her life. This is already mind-blowingly creepy, and it’s a theme we see again and again with Steven Moffat. The thing is, the actual Madame de Pompadour was an amazing woman. Originally born into a working-class family, she ended up becoming the official mistress of King Louis XV, and wielding considerable political power in a time when women were subjugated and considered the inferior sex. She basically ran a war for seven years. Yet in this episode, she’s simply a girl who pines and waits for a man she met once in her childhood. While there is one scene where the Doctor lists her accomplishments, we never see her function to that capacity. Instead, she acts accordingly to the men in her life. She’s a victim of the robots, the mistress of the King, a love interest for the Doctor, but never truly “the Uncrowned Queen of France”. I feel like Steven Moffat chose her simply to fetishize her. Throughout the entire episode, she’s portrayed as highly sexual, even though the last ten years of her life she was unable to have sex because of multiple health problems, and ended up just being good friends with the king. In fact, she even organized for other women to come and see him. Clearly, there’s a problem here.
Now, we move on to Rose Tyler. For those unfamiliar with the show, Rose Tyler is a companion of both the Ninth Doctor and the Tenth Doctor. She shares a close romantic relationship with both Doctors. However, what’s even more impressive is how she grows as a character. She starts out as a nineteen-year-old girl with no direction in life, and ends up an agent of Torchwood and Defender of the Earth, she becomes a strong, mature woman who makes her own decisions and pursues what she wants from life. Yet here, she’s reduced to the nagging fishwife. Through most of the episode, she’s portrayed as whiny and fun-hating. Anyone remember the line “No, you can’t keep the horse”? She acts as an obstacle between the Doctor and Reinette’s relationship, and as a result the Doctor is then excused to behave like a complete jerk toward her. There’s the scene where he arrives drunken from a party, and Rose is strapped down to a table about to be cut up by clockwork robots. She reprimands the Doctor for being so careless, and how does the Doctor respond? You sound just like your mother. We’re encouraged to laugh at the way he treats her, even though it’s wrong. This portrayal of Rose is atrocious, and it completely disregards her character and her character development from the previous episode.
The worst part of it is, that the portrayal of both these women sets up yet another disturbing theme– adultery. While no adultery actually takes place within the episode, the dynamic between Reinette, Rose, and the Doctor mimics that of an extramarital affair. The Doctor is the poor, suffering husband, Rose is the irritating wife, and Reinette is the beautiful mistress. To make things worse, the Doctor suffers no consequences for the things he does, including leaving not only his companions, but the TARDIS, and as a result adultery is portrayed as something that’s not only natural but even positive. In reality, adultery has serious consequences, and is not something to be taken lightly.
Now, we move on to the classism. I think that we should also remember what exactly classism is. Classism is prejudice or discrimination on the basis of social class. This includes stereotyping people by their class. According to Classism.Org, it is “the systematic assignment of characteristics of worth and ability based on social class”. In the episode, we see a comparison between Rose and Reinette. While it’s not explicitly stated within the episode, it’s definitely still there. There’s automatically going to be a comparison between Rose and Reinette, because Rose was already a romantic interest for the Doctor, so viewers are instinctively going to compare and contrast the two women and try to decide which one is better for the Doctor. If you analyze the episode, Reinette, the high-class, cultured courtesan donning fine dresses and sparkling jewelry, is portrayed as inherently better-suited for the Doctor because of her education and social class, whereas Rose, a working-class woman, is portrayed as crass, obnoxious, and insensitive. I’m sorry, but that’s not okay. It bases the worth of these women off their social classes, rather than who they are as people.
Finally, the last problematic element I would like to touch upon is not something that really can be classified as classist or sexist, but is nonetheless problematic. There is one scene in the episode where the Doctor looks into Reinette’s mind, and in the process Reinette, who apparently harbors latent psychic powers, looks into his memories. The scene is portrayed as romantic, when, in reality, it has disturbing implications. The problem with this scene is that she does it without his permission. While I don’t think it’s the equivalent of rape, it’s definitely not consensual, which is wrong. To look into someone’s memories without their permission is a serious invasion of privacy, and the Doctor is a very private person. He keeps his name a secret from every person he meets, and he’s been traumatized by the Time War and the genocide of his species. It’s not okay that some woman he barely knows can just barge into his mind like that and look through his memories, and it’s portrayed as romantic.
You may say, why do these things matter? It’s just one episode. Yes, it may just be one episode, but what we see on television has a gigantic influence over how we view other people. If we allow episodes like this to win awards and receive such high amounts of critical acclaim, without it’s problematic themes being questioned, then we are therefore propagating harmful classist and sexist stereotypes. A person’s worth and the way they deserve to be treated does not hinge on their sex or class, it depends on how they treat other people, what they do with their life. It has nothing to do with things like education, or wealth, or any other pretentious reason.
Certainly, I like several Sci-Fi elements within this episode, like the use of time, and many aspects relative to the futuristic setting, but depictions of class and gender are hardly anything to applaud. According to the IGN review:
Once more, the Doctor encounters a famous historical character. This week the Doctor travels to 18th century France through a derelict spaceship which had time portals meant to monitor the life of a young Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson. Poisson was eventually better known as Madame de Pompadour, mistress of King Louis XV, and beautifully portrayed by Sophia Myles.
One could dwell on the time travel logic flaws present in this episode. “The Girl in the Fireplace” certainly would not stand up well against the scrutiny of Trekkies and midi-chlorian haters around the world, but if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief, the dramatic impact of the episode is quite memorable. Time travel logic flaws aside, this is a wonderfully crafted and poignant episode about Poisson’s life-long obsession with the Doctor, who appears in intermittent moments throughout her life.
This episode succeeds because of the strength of the romance between the Doctor and Madame de Pompadour. Myles and Tennant have fantastic chemistry and their connection feels extremely powerful. Tennant, once again, delivers an extremely effective performance and he sells the “being in love” part really well. The bitter moment at the end where the Doctor comes back in time to find that she had already passed away was extremely moving.
If the writers had only given a more precise explanation about why the Doctor couldn’t use the TARDIS to go and see Madame Pompadour before she died, the episode would have worked a lot better. There is a brief moment in the episode where Rose asks about using the TARDIS. The Doctor frantically replies “We can’t use the TARDIS. We’re part of events now!” It’s an all-too brief explanation that’s easy to miss. Even after multiple viewings, it’s not easily apparent that this line was meant to serve as the reasoning why the Doctor could not go back to see the woman he falls in love with.
This episode is missing a one sentence explanation for things to make sense logically, and it’s a shame that the writers didn’t think to add it.
The addition of Rose’s boyfriend Mickey to the TARDIS crew adds a new sense of discovery to the show, as the audience can easily relate to his sense of awe and his infectious excitement about being onboard a spaceship.
The robotic stalkers from the future are consistent Doctor Who creations by being frightening but at the same time quite absurd in design. Their motivations for being so obsessed with Madame de Pompadour are revealed in the final scene of the episode as the camera pans away to an outside view of the derelict ship. It’s certainly a clever revelation, but not as mind-blowing as it could have been.
Overall “The Girl in the Fireplace” has enough positive elements that they can overcome the obvious logic flaws presented in this episode. The tragic love story works remarkably well, thanks to the fantastic acting by Tennant and Myles. The pacing was excellent and the story was extremely touching. It’s all the more unfortunate because with a little more attention to temporal details, this episode would have been considered as one of the series’ greatest moments.