‘There comes a time, Time Lord, when every lonely little boy must learn how to dance.’ This one won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation – fittingly enough the same prize as the very similar Star Trek episode The City at the Edge of Forever. Both feature the hero jumping through a time window and falling in love with the woman they save on the other side, only to tragically lose them. I can certainly see why this episode might be very popular, although your mileage may vary depending on whether you think Captain Kirk is a good analogue for the Doctor.
Cards on the table. Personally, I disliked this at the time and, if anything I like it even less now. It feels like a betrayal of the Doctor’s relationship with Rose, the central through line of the revival, for him to chuck her for a girl he meets as a child, stalks for a bit when she’s all grown up, and spends a couple of hours with. The ending, the Doctor merrily dumping Rose and accepting a life on ‘the slow path’ because he gets to bonk a famous French courtesan, baffles me. It’s not like I’m super prudish about the Doctor “dancing” (I’m sold on his relationship with Rose, and although I find her vaguely annoying, I think this whole Time Traveller’s Wife idea works with River Song), but this one leaves me entirely cold. Still, clearly everyone in Cardiff thought this was fine, and in the wider scheme of things it’s back to business as usual, the Doctor and Rose Tyler in the TARDIS, next week, so it doesn’t do any permanent harm.
Cosmetically it’s beautiful: the lighting really works. The SS Madame de Pompadour all cold sci-fi, Versailles warm sun- or firelight until Reinette dies, when suddenly it’s graded dismal, lifeless grey. The clockwork robots are superb, both in and out of masks and periwigs. I love Moffat’s inclusion of the Peter Pan idea of them ticking as they hunt their prey. The time windows leading to different moments in Reinette’s life are brilliant (although the failure to age up Sophia Myles between “23” and “37” slightly detracts from the notion of the Doctor stepping ‘from one to the other without increase of age while I, weary traveller, must always take the slower path’). The spaceship working like a reverse Cyberman, replacing mechanical parts with human organs, is brilliant – particularly given what’s coming up Next Time.
It’s stuffed with ideas that Moffat more fruitfully explores later – Reinette is both Amy and River; the ‘lonely little boy’ is at the heart of Listen; time moving at different speeds either side of a window is the concept of The Girl Who Waited; the horse turns up again in The Day of the Doctor. We finally get some Spock when the Doctor does a mind meld (more evidence that this conceptually works better as Star Trek than Doctor Who). Some of the jokes are very funny (‘Oh, look at what the cat dragged in: the Oncoming Storm’). The robot scenes are effectively scary. The Doctor smashing through the mirror to save the day is iconic. I see all these things.
But in the end, there are too many bits I don’t like – the Doctor sneering at the King, ‘Yeah, well I’m the Lord of Time’ as he swaggers in to steal his lover; Rose abandoned (although presumably with the emergency programme set to return her to 2007); the Doctor clocking Reinette’s decolletage and declaring ‘Goodness, how you’ve grown’ – overwhelm the bits I do. It’s a palpable hit, and a bad miss.
The crew of the SS Madame de Pompadour encounter the fatal ion storm and are attacked by something. And in Versailles, the clock on the mantel shatters. Very effective as a teaser.
Next Time: Rise of the Cybermen