Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Euros Lyn
I tried. I really tried to make it un-obvious what the top of the list would be. I tried putting this one at the top. I tried putting “The Eleventh Hour” at the top. I couldn’t do it. You all know what’s going to be first, but you all know it for a reason–it is the best.
This episode was the episode that made it clear that Steven Moffat was the best asset the series had–a talent capable of writing a deep and complex Doctor who had all of the lightness he needed for comedy but all of the darkness he needed to have deep moments and all of the emotional complexity he needed to be explorable and capable of both exploring the storytelling possibilities of the show’s premise and making jokes with a knowing wink about its silliness.
Even in Moffat’s run in the show, during which he has shown a stronger recognition of the Doctor being a storytelling device more than he is a star, we have rarely seen the effects of his transience on the passersby with whom he only makes brief contact. But that is the entire premise of “The Girl in the Fireplace.” The episode is not about the Doctor, Rose, or even the clockwork robot monsters they find. It’s about Madame de Pompadour, an independent rich woman in 18th century France who is being haunted by those clockwork androids throughout her life, protected intermittently by the arrival of the Doctor as her savior.
An unpredictable repeated savior like the Doctor has to cause issues, and he does. For all of her independence, intelligence, and power, Madame de Pompadour responds to catastrophe by shouting into her fireplace for the Doctor, not knowing that he cannot hear her because a few times he actually arrives and saves her, a dashing hero answering her call.
And of course, not only does she see the Doctor as a savior from the monsters, but as a savior from the impossible bores who surround her–the eventual adventure that will take her away from a drudging life and the handsome, dashing hero who will take her away from her dully-socially-acceptable husband. She spends her life expecting to get away from it all because of her discovery of the Doctor but never knowing how to do so. She may not know how or when she will get away, but she thinks she can, so she can survive anything but because it’s all short term.
“The Girl in the Fireplace” is great because it’s not just more emotionally thoughtful than the typical Doctor Who episode. It’s by far the most emotionally deep episode in the series’ history. Add in a good monster, some great humor, and some of David Tennant’s best performance, and it makes for one hell of a ride.
And keeping Rose off screen more didn’t hurt, either.