It’s the 51st century and, for some reason, a seemingly abandoned spaceship is drilling holes through the fabric of time and its robotic occupants are observing the life of Madame de Pompadour in 18th century France. Also Mickey has come with them finally. Yay, Mickey!
Steven Moffat’s second Doctor Who story has a lot in common with his first. Certain themes and ideas are carried over, like the AI / robots that serve a purpose without fully understanding it (just like the nanogenes), spooky ‘creatures’ that are masked by something earthly but uncommon (clown masks / gas masks), and another instance of the Doctor ominously pointing out a noise that you didn’t realise you were hearing (the ticking clock, like the typewriter). It also has an intriguing mystery that unravels over the course of the story, some very clever writing, and a touching conclusion.
Looking ahead, some of Moffat’s other themes begin here. He has a tendency to write female characters as “special things” first, personalities second – magic artefacts dressed as humans, if you like. Whether that be the “impossible girl”, the “girl who waited” or, here, the girl on the other side of the fireplace (who can read minds). Reinette is the mystery, the Doctor’s “project”, the thing he must protect until it can be solved, and this makes the love story angle a little difficult to swallow. This is a very unconventional love story anyway, but there isn’t enough time to earn those emotions. It may be thirty years of Reinette’s life, but she meets the Doctor only a handful of times for barely a few minutes. I guess that’s why the mind-reading thing was written in, as a way to enforce that connection between them as quickly as possible, something that Doctor hasn’t shown to be able to do before.
There’s also the first reference to the Doctor’s name being some terrible secret that no-one must know, which crops up again and again towards the end of the most recent series, and has yet to resolve itself. I could do without all of this “the Doctor is an angel / nightmare” stuff – it gets ridiculously overdone – but it’s a suitable theme for this particular story. You wouldn’t want every Doctor Who episode to be like this, but that’s what makes it special.
The script is filled with brilliant comic moments just as much as it is with heartstring-tugging emotion, and more quotes than I can even recall now. “I didn’t want to call it a Magic Door”, a couple involving Mickey and the horse, which were pretty funny, “always take a banana to a party”, and the Doctor pretending to be drunk, which turned out to be a ruse. This humour and maverick bravado are contrasted against a story with dark and disturbing concepts – the spaceship that has been repaired with human body parts (ick!), the clockwork robots hiding under the little girl’s bed. Some of it doesn’t make much sense if you analyse it too closely (how would a heart function in machinery? Why are robots from the 51st century made with clockwork?), but it’s a story that wins you over with love and ingenuity, and it reminds me how good Doctor Who can be when it’s trying really hard.