“No hanky-panky in the TARDIS.” That phrase is the most famous articulation of the notion that the Doctor should not engage in human follies like love, romance, or sex, particularly with respect to his companions. Concerns about the appearance of such impropriety go right back to the very beginning of Doctor Who, when “An Unearthly Child” writer Anthony Coburn insisted that the Doctor’s teenage traveling companion Susan be rewritten as his granddaughter, lest viewers think William Hartnell’s Doctor was some dirty old man. Ironically, that very effort to downplay the possibility that the Doctor might ever form relationships with his young companions became a rather awkward bit of continuity in subsequent seasons, as later production teams reinterpreted the Doctor as completely asexual. After all, if that were the case, how did the Doctor ever become a grandfather in the first place? According to Susan actress Carole Anne Ford, the situation had become so ridiculous that, by the time of 1983’s anniversary special “The Five Doctors,” the producers initially insisted that the returning Susan never refer to the Doctor as her grandfather, as that might make people think of the Doctor—not just the elderly original incarnation but also Peter Davison’s young, dashing incumbent—as a sexual being.
The Doctor’s asexuality is something never actually confirmed or even really mentioned at any point in the original series. But there were hints that the Doctor does not understand sex in the same way we humans do. Most notably, the Douglas Adams-cowritten serial “City Of Death” sees Tom Baker’s Doctor address an elegant countess with the following complement: “You’re a beautiful woman… probably.” And yet, that same story is one of several in which Baker and Lalla Ward’s off-screen romance seems to directly affect the onscreen chemistry between the Doctor and his Time Lady companion Romana. Anthony Coburn’s insistence that Susan be the Doctor’s granddaughter had been intended to remove any suspicion that the Doctor was behaving inappropriately with his young companions, but that apparently did not prohibit Hartnell’s Doctor from engaging in a subdued but unmistakable romantic subplot in “The Aztecs.” The Doctor’s romantic inclinations—and certainly any that he might feel towards his companions—were simply a matter that never, ever came up, and so a mere unmentioned topic ossified in the minds of most fans into an unshakeable article of faith. The Doctor didn’t engage in tawdry frivolities like love, romance, or sex. End of discussion.
That’s the most basic reason why the 1996 TV movie was so controversial. Paul McGann’s Doctor engages in a series of relatively chaste kisses with would-be companion Grace Holloway, who spends much of the second half of the film describing the Doctor as perfect boyfriend material. I say “relatively chaste,” because it’s possible to interpret the 8th Doctor’s kisses not as indications of lust or even affection but rather as displays of post-regenerative joy and exuberance. That’s certainly how I tend to read those scenes, but come on: If we were talking about literally any hero other than the Doctor, there would be no debate. Those kisses would be signs of a budding romance, albeit one that ends with the two parting company. For any other protagonist, romantic attraction would be so obvious an interpretation that the possibility of alternatives would not even be broached. But because this is the Doctor we’re talking about, there’s a longstanding tendency among old-school fans—myself very much included—to tie ourselves in logical knots trying to maintain the idea that he is somehow different, that he really is completely asexual. Russell T. Davies’ revival jettisoned some innovations of the TV movie—note the Daleks in “The Parting Of The Ways” declaring the words “half-human” blasphemous—but one thing it kept was the possibility that the Doctor has a romantic side. And that subject is what dominates today’s pair of episodes, “School Reunion” and “The Girl In The Fireplace.”
“School Reunion” (season 2, episode 3; originally aired 4/29/2006)
“No. The universe has to move forward. Pain and loss, they define us as much as happiness or love. Whether it's a world, or a relationship, everything has its time. And everything ends.”
Part of the reason I opened with that lengthy preamble is that I want to place this episode in the right context or, more accurately, right contexts. More than any previous new series episode, “School Reunion” tells at least two distinct stories, depending on the particular fandom of the individual viewer. This isn’t like, say, “Dalek,” where the fundamental story—the Doctor confronts his single deadliest enemy—doesn’t change depending on whether the viewer has seen the Daleks in action before. When I first watched this episode back in 2006, I thought of it as the big reunion episode for the Doctor and beloved classic series companion Sarah Jane Smith (and K9, lest we forget). As much as I understood that this episode wouldn’t simply be an exercise in nostalgia, it never quite occurred to me that Russell T. Davies and episode writer Toby Whithouse would only bring the character back if there was some pressing narrative need for it with respect to the current cast. But for fans only familiar with the modern incarnation of the show, that storytelling reason—Sarah Jane Smith’s positioning as a counterpoint to Rose—was an end in and of itself; indeed, one new-school fan I spoke to while working on this review told me she didn’t know Sarah Jane was a preexisting character when she first watched “School Reunion.”
As an examination of what it means to be the Doctor’s companion and the possible fate that awaits those who step into the TARDIS, “School Reunion” is largely effective. The new series has never shied away from the idea that the Doctor could take on other companions, but Adam and Captain Jack only came aboard the TARDIS at Rose’s request, and Rose wasn’t present when the Doctor extended invitations to Mickey and Lynda. Anyway, these were all secondary companions; Sarah Jane is the first person that Rose meets who once shared a bond with the Doctor every bit as intense as her own. Sarah Jane’s inability to move past the Doctor is troubling, but that isn’t what fazes Rose. She first uses the fact that the Doctor never mentions Sarah Jane as a weapon against her sudden rival, though she later realizes the true significance of that sad reality: If Sarah Jane can be forgotten, then anyone can, and that includes Rose. The Doctor brusquely claims that he won’t abandon Rose like he did so many companions before, but he quickly shifts gears, pointing out that he has no real choice but to leave his friends—assuming his companions are just friends—behind, because the alternative is watching those he most cares about decay and die before his ageless eyes.
Although “School Reunion” only deals with the particular case of Sarah Jane, the episode is able to provide some in-universe justification for the unfortunate fact that the vast, vast majority of companions in classic Doctor Who get lousy departures, so much so that a revisionist fan might think that the Doctor really does push his friends out the door at the first practical opportunity. Sarah Jane’s use of the word “dump” to describe her exit from the TARDIS has an unmistakable romantic connotation—more on that in a moment—but it’s also an accurate enough description of what actually happens at the end of “The Hand Of Fear.” That 1976 serial offers no hint that Sarah Jane might leave until the final couple of minutes, when a frustrated Sarah Jane claims she is tired of life in the TARDIS and demands the Doctor return her to Earth; Tom Baker’s 4th Doctor assents, but only because he just received a summons to return to his home planet. The 10th Doctor is placed in the nearly unprecedented position of excusing the mistakes of a past incarnation. He correctly protests that humans weren’t allowed on his planet in those days, but it’s not as though the Doctor couldn’t have returned to Croydon—or Aberdeen, whichever—to reunite with Sarah Jane once his business there was concluded. That previous Doctor just kept on traveling, found himself a new, more savage companion, and moved on as though he had never even met Sarah Jane. The current Doctor confidently asserts that Sarah Jane was getting on with her life, but how could he possibly know that in any meaningful way? As the Doctor makes abundantly clear throughout this episode, he doesn’t actually understand the human experience.
My main objection to “School Reunion” has always been that Toby Whithouse’s script is forced to retrofit Sarah Jane’s previously established character so that she can serve as a more effective foil for Rose. The frequently repeated suggestion that Sarah Jane never moved on with her life because she was still waiting for the Doctor to return comes dangerously close to cheapening her character, and the words that Sarah Jane uses to describe her relationship with the Doctor carry romantic connotations that more readily describe Rose’s experiences than what was depicted in the classic series. Part of the problem is how coy the entire episode is about just what the Doctor’s relationship with either of his two companions actually is. When discussing the prospect of Rose growing old and dying, the Doctor begins to say, “Imagine watching that happen to someone you…” He never finishes that sentence, and so the viewer is asked to read in his or her preferred interpretation of the Doctor’s character. The most sensible way to end that sentence is probably with the word “love”—“care about” also works, but that seems awfully wishy-washy, given how broken-up David Tennant plays the Doctor in that scene—but the script leaves the matter vague. “School Reunion” probably could have benefited from some greater clarity in these interactions, even if it would have risked alienating one group of fans or another; I might well have disagreed with the ultimate decisions, but at least I would know what I was actually disagreeing with.
The business with the Krillitanes and the Skasis Paradigm represents what has to be the most dramatically superfluous alien invasion in the show’s history. The production team seems content to simply take Buffy The Vampire Slayer alum Anthony Stewart Head and throw him in the general direction of a plot, hoping his considerable talents for villainy will paper over the story’s underdeveloped elements. As the focus of “School Reunion” should quite rightly remain on the Doctor, Rose, and Sarah Jane, this strategy isn’t a bad one; if anything, the real problem is that Toby Whithouse makes the afterthought of a plot far more serious than it needs to be. There’s a lot of casual carnage here, with Mr. Finch devouring an orphaned schoolgirl as his establishing moment. That’s already one of Doctor Who’s grislier openings, and it’s unsettling to think that the Doctor is already on the scene yet unaware of such horrors unfolding around him. This might tie in with the theme of this Doctor’s tendency to ignore collateral damage, a notion previously kicked around in “The Christmas Invasion” and “Tooth And Claw,” but here that opening death just feels like Whithouse going for an unnecessary shock.
I say “unnecessary,” because Mr. Finch is at his most fascinating when he presents himself as a legitimate, if unsavory, ally to the Doctor, so the story doesn’t particularly benefit from this initial act of violence; the subsequent devouring of the remaining human teachers is also a bit questionable, just because it’s so disconnected from anything else going on, but I suppose the savagery of the Krillitanes has to be demonstrated somehow, so I won’t complain too much. Either way, there’s real logic behind Finch’s tantalizing offer to turn the Skasis Paradigm over to the Doctor; Finch doesn’t hide the Krillitanes’ lust for all-encompassing power, but he recognizes that a mind such as the Doctor’s is necessary to realize the true potential of the God maker. Finch is a conman, but Head pitches his performance with precise ambiguity, undercutting the Doctor’s arrogant threats with claims that they are working to the same ends. This façade doesn’t last, admittedly, but “School Reunion” has the very good sense to have the more openly villainous version of Finch be defeated several times over by a laser-shooting tin dog. He’s only really a threat to the universe when he’s pretending to not be just another alien heavy.
Indeed, while it’s K9 who gets to dispatch the Krillitane threat once and for all, it’s Sarah Jane who enables that ultimate victory with the little speech quoted up top. Delivered beautifully by Elisabeth Sladen, that line recalls the 9th Doctor’s final declaration to Cassandra in “The End Of The World,” only without any of the anger. At last, Sarah Jane understands that she could have traveled in the TARDIS forever, but it never would have meant anything if she had not ultimately returned to Earth and built a meaningful life without the Doctor. Like Rose and so many others who traveled with the Doctor, Sarah Jane was always far more than just a companion. Even if I’m still not convinced that the Sarah Jane Smith I know from the classic series would really need three decades to learn that lesson, that’s a point very much worth making.
- I haven’t even discussed Sarah Jane and Rose’s bickering, mostly because I’m not really sure what I want to say about it. On a gut level, I always cringe when the quarreling kicks off, especially since it starts so damn fast, as though Sarah Jane was already thinking up her first withering one-liner as she was running over to meet the Doctor’s new friends. It really isn’t great that the first time we see two female companions meet they should spend most of their time together fighting over the Doctor, but what does sort of save this particular story thread is that Rose and Sarah Jane patch up their differences without any interference from the Doctor. They fight, yes, but they do at least get to make peace and move on as equals, to the point that they find themselves laughing together at the Doctor when next he shows up. So, yeah, this could have been a lot worse.
- Time And Relative Dimensions In Spoilers (Skip to the next bullet if you haven’t watched the rest of the new series): The Doctor’s line to Sarah Jane about how he’s regenerated a half-dozen times since she last saw him seemed to create a minor continuity error, as Sarah Jane had actually met several Doctors, including his fifth incarnation, in “The Five Doctors.” This was generally explained away by the idea that none of the older Doctors and companions would actually remember what happened in that adventure, which seems to track with the idea of out-of-sync time-streams in “The Day Of The Doctor.” But then, that later anniversary special does rather solve that math problem, as the retroactive insertion of John Hurt’s War Doctor between the canonical 8th and 9th incarnations means the Doctor was absolutely right to say that he had regenerated six times since their last meeting. Lots of ways to interpret that one, basically.
- K9! I didn’t mention the Doctor’s favorite tin dog—whom Russell T. Davies apparently considered bringing back as a companion when he first started thinking about reviving Doctor Who—but K9 proves himself just as heroic here as he always was. (Technically, neither K9 model seen here is one that the Doctor ever actually traveled with, at least not onscreen; the original K9 in this episode was left by the Doctor for Sarah Jane in anticipation of her failed 1982 spin-off, “K9 And Company.” But I, as ever, digress.) Voice actor John Leeson clearly has a lot of fun playing the tin dog with his trademark mix of adorableness and smug superiority; K9 is just going to keep repeating that “We are in a car” until Mickey figures out what the heck he’s talking about.
- I appreciate the fact that “School Reunion” momentarily acts as though the schoolboy Kenny is going to be an important character, but then it makes sure that he plays as minor a role as possible in the actual resolution. It’s still a nice touch for him to get credit for blowing up the school, though.
- Whatever my own qualms with how this episode handles Sarah Jane’s story, it’s worth pointing out that Elisabeth Sladen really liked it; indeed, she only agreed to appear in the episode because the production team’s vision of how Sarah Jane evolved after leaving the Doctor matched her own ideas for the character. Sladen is marvelous in this episode, making the absolute most of lines that have rather more emotional heft to them than what she typically got when traveling with Jon Pertwee’s and Tom Baker’s Doctors. Sladen would parlay her work here into the title role on the charming, kids-focused spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures. She continued playing the role right up to her death in 2011 at the far too young age of 65. Sarah Jane Smith was only the most public aspect of Sladen’s remarkable legacy, but it seems fitting that she was able to add so much to her most iconic character in her final years.
“The Girl In The Fireplace” (season 2, episode 4; originally aired 5/6/2006)
“Arthur?” “Good name for a horse.” “No, you’re not keeping the horse.” “I let you keep Mickey!”
If “School Reunion” is about what it means to love and lose the Doctor, then the brilliant if elusive “The Girl In The Fireplace” reveals just what it would take for the Doctor to experience those emotions himself. This story has its origins in research that Russell T. Davies conducted for Casanova, his David Tennant-starring 2004 miniseries about the legendary lothario. It was then that Davies discovered the story of Madame de Pompadour, one of the most remarkable women of pre-revolutionary France. She was so extraordinary, in fact, that Steven Moffat—who was assigned to write the pseudo-historical story featuring Reinette—quickly came to see her as a potential romantic match for the Doctor. Moffat had already explored at some length the matter of the Doctor’s sexuality in the previous season’s “The Doctor Dances,” albeit always cloaked in his script’s sly metaphors and Christopher Eccleston’s mischievous grins. This story, on the other hand, places the Doctor precisely where one would expect to find a great romantic hero, and the Time Lord is now played by an actor who cuts a suitably debonair figure; David Tennant was Casanova, after all.
Even so, “The Girl In The Fireplace” maintains the customary coyness about the Doctor’s true feelings. He appears suitably shocked when the adult Reinette goes in for an extended kiss; his body language suggests that this is not an activity he’s particularly comfortable with. When he does learn the historical identity of his kissing companion, he indulges in a downright encyclopedic recitation of her greatest accomplishments before smugly declaring, “I’m the Doctor, and I just snogged Madame de Pompadour.” There’s an odd undercurrent in this episode that the Doctor is attracted not so much person but to the personage, as though he’s primarily interested in Reinette because she’s so damn impressive. The Doctor may not be attracted to Madame de Pompadour in a physical or perhaps even an emotional sense, but it would seem well within the Time Lord’s remit to find her historical significance sexy. In that sense, this is the Doctor’s longstanding penchant for name-dropping expanded into an episode-length story. His dismissal of Louis XV with the announcement that he is the Lord of Time suggests a certain preoccupation with high status; we might not be talking exactly about high social or political status, but the Doctor does fit in all too easily at Versailles. His anachronistic invention of the banana daiquiri is proof enough of that.
The Doctor is an alien, after all, and the relationship he forges with Madame de Pompadour, in which he drops in for minutes at a time at all the key points of her life, is totally outside the most basic parameters of the human experience. With the exception of a pair of unseen cutaways, most notably the Doctor’s drunken good times at the party, this story unfolds nearly in real time from the Doctor’s perspective, so the time he spends with her likely only totals a few hours at most. As Reinette observes, she has known the Doctor since childhood, yet he is still an interloper, someone who—with the possible exception of his off-screen, drunken reverie at the party—never sticks around long enough to forge a human connection. The pair share their most private moment when the Doctor is forced to enter Reinette’s mind, as he dusts off the latent telepathic abilities that he has technically always had but barely ever uses. Indeed, as the Doctor admits here, he consciously doesn’t make a habit of such incomprehensibly intimate encounters. Perhaps that’s not because he fears invading others’ privacy but because he fears revealing his own innermost secrets, which is precisely what happens here.
In that fleeting little moment when Reinette experiences the memory of the Doctor’s lonely childhood, she comes to know him better than anyone, Rose included. After all, Rose has gotten to know the Doctor in the way any human would get to know any other human. She has spent time with him, sharing experiences both good and bad. He has learned from her, and she has learned from him. But the unspoken agreement that Rose has had with the Doctor—both of them—is that there are certain topics that just will never be discussed. The Doctor’s life is so vast that he could never tell a human about all of it even he wanted to, and the Doctor clearly doesn’t want to. It’s not just that he won’t go into detail about the Time War or that he never bothers to mention regeneration until 30 seconds before he’s about to go through it. Regardless of whether he is the terse, plainspoken man in the leather jacket or the lovable, babbling goofball in the cool suit, the Doctor is not prepared to discuss his more human emotions, and he won’t even confirm that such feelings exist in the first place. On the rare occasion that Rose forces him into it, as in “The Doctor Dances” or “School Reunion,” the Doctor leaves key sentences unfinished, often because he’s found some new crisis to divert his attention. He’s had several centuries’ practice in deflecting unwanted topics of conversation.
The Doctor can’t do that with Reinette, because he never really talks to her at all. Their bond is shaped by their telepathic encounter, yes, but it’s also defined by the Doctor’s deeds, rather than his words. Every single time Reinette needs him, he appears. She thinks of him as a lonely angel, which is as good an analogy as any other I’ve heard, but Madame de Pompadour proves her true potential when she attempts to grasp the Doctor’s true nature. She betrays a certain imperiousness when she snaps at Rose, but it’s understandable; Reinette is smart enough to realize that Rose has mistaken her limited, 18th century worldview for a lack of intellect. Reinette leans upon some poetic metaphors to articulate the Doctor’s time-traveling existence, but the accuracy of her descriptions is undeniable. Her talk of the slow path to describe a normal human life takes on its greatest power when she wanders onto the starship, only to be greeted by the sounds of her future self and all of Versailles screaming five years hence. In that moment, she realizes the Doctor’s path is no place for her and, implicitly, no place for humans in general. What that says about Rose (and Mickey) is a topic best left for another day. Even then, she still gladly accepts the Doctor’s later offer to come traveling with him. After all, the Doctor is worth the monsters, and so are the stars.
Is “The Girl In The Fireplace” a love story? This story is clearer about its intentions than “School Reunion” is, but it’s still necessary to grapple with some hidden meanings. The Doctor and Reinette’s telepathic union could be understood as a stand-in for the kind of interpersonal intimacy that couples forge over the course of months or years together. The question then is just how such a metaphor should be understood. Is it that the doctor makes such psychic contact instead of its more mundane but no less meaningful human equivalent? In other words, are we witnessing the Doctor’s fundamentally alien take on what we would understand as love? In that reading, Reinette and Rose might see romance in the Doctor’s actions, but that’s just an imperfect human approximation of what the Doctor actually experiences, which is something we can’t hope to comprehend. The other possibility is that everything that happens in “The Girl In The Fireplace” is proof that the Doctor is capable of love, perhaps even romantic love; he just needed the most extraordinary of circumstances to demonstrate that capability over the course of a single episode, but he could theoretically profess such intense feelings in more familiar, human terms. In terms of Rose, the former interpretation suggests the Doctor cannot love her as she appears to love him, whereas the latter interpretation indicates at least the possibility that reciprocated love might exist between the pair.
I suspect it’s not difficult at this point to guess to which of those two interpretations I subscribe, but it doesn’t really matter in assessing the merits of the episode itself. “The Girl In The Fireplace” is a fantastic episode of Doctor Who, and it’s a definite contender for the best single-episode standalone of David Tennant’s tenure. Steven Moffat brings the same knack for one-liners that he brought to “The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances,” and his endlessly quotable script proves a perfect match for Tennant’s Doctor. After some uncertain moments in his first four episodes, Tennant really clicks as the Doctor here, showing off his remarkable range while revealing some of the clearest insights into just who the 10th Doctor is underneath all the crazed energy. “The Girl In The Fireplace” stands proudly alongside some of the other great genre-breaking experiments of the new series, a list that includes “Father’s Day,” “Boom Town,” and, yes, “School Reunion.” This one rivals and perhaps surpasses “Father’s Day” because, for all Moffat’s experimentation and deconstruction of the Doctor’s much overstated asexuality, this episode works just as well as 45 minutes of stylish, rollicking fun. This is new Doctor Who at its most madly confident. The individual viewer is left to decide exactly what the episode has to say, but the way the story makes its points—whatever they might precisely be—is nothing short of marvelous.
- One criticism of this episode I have heard is that the Doctor appears to abandon Rose (and Mickey) on board the ship so that he can save Madame de Pompadour. Admittedly, everything happens so fast there that it’s hard to say for certain, but my interpretation has always been that the Doctor fully intends to return to that ship and rescue his friends, even if he has to live through 3,000 years to get back there—hence why he describes the broken mirror as 3,000 years’ bad luck. In that reading, he isn’t choose Reinette over Rose as much as he’s simply recognizing that he has only one option left to save Reinette, whereas Rose is in no immediate danger. That fits with the Doctor’s well-established tendency to make whatever short-term decision will save the greatest number of lives, on the assumption that there will always be time later to save others.
- I can’t finish off this review without noting how terrific Sophia Myles is as Madame de Pompadour. She never betrays Reinette’s 18th century origins, yet she plays the character with such passion that she transcends the character’s potentially stuffy historical origins. It’s instantly plausible that the Doctor would be so intrigued by the woman that Myles creates. Also, Ben Turner does some nice work as Louis XV; the way he plays the final scene with the Doctor provides some much-needed emotional context to the Time Lord’s typically unreadable reactions to Madame de Pompadour’s death.
- Fine, it should probably be acknowledged that the plot doesn’t really make much sense. I mean, the final reveal that the starship is named the S.S. Madame de Pompadour is a clever twist, and it provides some justification to the clockwork robots’ demented logic, but that doesn’t really alter the fundamental insanity of the robots’ plan. The Doctor does raise a valid point when he asks, if the robots can punch holes in the universe to reach 18th century France, why they can’t just jump to their repair yard. Still, this is all in keeping with Moffat’s theme of technology being stupid that he first explored in “The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances,” albeit on an even grander scale. Really, if there’s any story that earns the right to step outside the normal confines of narrative logic, I’d say it’s “The Girl In The Fireplace.” Again, stylishness can count for a whole hell of a lot, and, in this case, it’s usually enough to make me ignore some of the ludicrous leaps this script asks viewers to make. Speaking of the script, let’s close out with a whole heap of choice quotes from the episode…
- “I also said this ship was generating enough power to punch a hole in the universe. I think we just found the hole. Must be a spatio-temporal hyperlink.” “What’s that?” “No idea. Just made it up. Didn’t want to say magic door.”
- “Even monsters from under the bed have nightmares, don’t you, monster?” “What do monsters have nightmares about?” “Me!”
- “The Queen must have loved her.” “Oh, she did. They get on very well.” “The King’s wife and the King’s girlfriend?” “France. It’s a different planet.”
- “Madame de Pompadour. Sarah Jane Smith. Cleopatra.” “Cleopatra. He mentioned her once.” “Yeah, but he called her Cleo.”
- “Have you met the French? My god, they know how to party.” “Oh, look at what the cat dragged in. The Oncoming Storm.”
- Special thanks for this week’s review must go to my friends and fellow Doctor Who diehards (albeit of the new-school variety) Caroline Seide and Weslie Turner. It was invaluable to get their perspectives on such complex episodes, and their feedback on my own thinking was hugely appreciated.
Next week: It’s another heavy-duty week, as we tackle not only the Cybermen’s return in “Rise of The Cybermen” and “The Age Of Steel” but also the coronation wackiness of “The Idiot’s Lantern.”
“No, I’m very afraid. But you and I both know, don’t we, Rose, the Doctor is worth the monsters.”