My series in praise of the wonderful female characters created by Stephen Moffat for Doctor Who continues with Part 2 of “Moffat’s Women,” focusing on one of Doctor Who’s most popular characters, Reinette, better known as Madame de Pompadour.
For the first article in the series, go to “Moffat’s Women #1: Nancy“
In the Doctor Who Series 2 episode, “The Girl In The Fireplace”, Steven Moffat breathes exquisite new life into a historical figure and creates his second intriguing, complex female role for the show.
The Doctor, Rose, and Mickey find themselves on a 51st Century spaceship that is emitting “enough energy to punch a hole in the Universe.” As it turns out, it has. The Doctor comes across an 18th Century French fireplace on the ship. If that wasn’t strange enough, the fireplace is a time window, which allows The Doctor to enter the 18th Century from the ship. It is there that he meets an unflappable 7-year-old French girl named Reinette who is mysteriously being pursued by clockwork androids dressed in 18th Century French masquerade garb. As the episode progresses, we learn that the clockwork androids are pursuing Reinette through time windows that open up at random points along her life. Having used their own human crew for “parts” to repair their stalled ship they were, for some reason, waiting for Reinette to be “complete” so that they could take her brain and use it as their ship’s main computer, allowing it to fly again.
The Doctor, along with the audience, falls in love with her.
What’s so interesting about the way Moffat creates Reinette—the future Madame de Pompodour, Official Mistress to King Louis XV—is that we see the seeds of greatness early on and get to watch them grow. From the time she is seven years old, she is the kind of little girl who doesn’t show fear as a strange man enters her room from her fireplace. She is the kind of girl who will look a monster in the eye and ask it, of her own volition, why it is pursuing her. She is the kind of girl who smiles during a duel between an android and a man wielding a sonic screwdriver.
As she gets older, her fearlessness is complimented by a laser-sharp intelligence and wit that probably would have existed whether she had proper breeding or not. She is elegant and has cultivated numerous talents that would make her an asset at Versailles, but it is her mind that sets her apart. For example, when The Doctor appears to her for the second time and comments on how much she’s grown, she responds with “You do not appear to have aged a single day. That is tremendously impolite of you.” When she is called away, she exhibits more of the fearlessness we’ve already come to expect from her, making the most of her brief time with him by pushing The Doctor up against the fireplace and kissing the hell out of him before leaving. Reinette is no wallflower. She is a woman who sees what she wants and takes it.
Her ambition is made crystal clear the next time we see her. The Doctor walks through another time window, and watches her from afar without interacting. We see her walking with a friend through the gardens of Versailles, and her friend informs her of the death of the King’s current mistress. After Reinette reacts to the news with stunning sarcasm, her friend reminds her that the King will now require a new mistress saying “Every woman in Paris knows your ambitions.” To which Reinette replies, “Every woman in Paris shares them.”
Reinette is pro-active, and this is her greatest strength. We see this in the way she climbs the social ladder in Versailles, and in the way she pursues intimacy with The Doctor. And even as she’s being plagued by clockwork androids throughout her life, she never runs, hides, or cries. She confronts them directly, just as she’d been doing since she was seven, demanding to know who they are and what they want with her. While she does wait for The Doctor, it never seems as though she needs him. Her interest in him is less about him saving her and more about her loving him. The next time he appears to her, he reads her mind to find out why the androids would be seeking her out specifically. He tells her that if there are memories that she doesn’t want him to see, she should imagine a door and close it. She seems awed and thrilled by his ability to walk amongst her memories, though she puts up doors when she needs to. However, she begins to walk into The Doctor’s mind, saying cryptic things about what she finds (“Doctor. Doctor who? It’s more than just a secret, isn’t it.”). When The Doctor asks her how she did it, she simply says “A door, once opened, may be stepped through in either direction.” Whereas anyone else might have let The Doctor have his way with their minds, too intimidated by him to do anything else, Reinette is never afraid to walk through the door.
She does this again later when Rose steps through a time window to warn her about the android plan for her when she gets to be 37 years old. Rose assumes that her space-age explanation for what is happening will be beyond Reinette, but Reinette says “Then be exact, and I will be attentive.” As Rose fumbles with her modern description of events, Reinette explains them not only succinctly and accurately, but poetically:
There is a vessel in your world where the days of my life are pressed together like the chapters of a book so that he may step from one to the other without increase of age, while I, weary traveler, must always take the slower path.
As Rose goes back through the time window to the 51st Century ship, Reinette follows her, walking through yet another door to see more of The Doctor’s world. And it is in this moment that we see how soft and human she can be. When she sees the cold world of the 51st Century and hears the screams that are in her own, more immediate future drifting from another time window, she decides that she doesn’t want to hurry to that end, and fear is evident on her face for the first time. It is also in this moment where we see how perceptive she is about others. She has only to look at Rose to guess her feelings for The Doctor, saying “You and I both know, don’t we Rose? The Doctor is worth the monsters.”
Much like Nancy in “The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances” was a symbol of England before winning WWII, Reinette in “The Girl In the Fireplace” symbolizes a nation. When she finally reaches her 37th year, and the androids finally come for her, the crowd at Versailles panics, and she calms them saying “Kindly remember that this is Versailles! This is the Royal Court. And we are French!” Reinette is France just before the French Revolution, struggling to balance the immediate needs of a disillusioned people in dire need and a national pride in French culture, intellectualism, and ambition. And the androids want off with her head.
But The Doctor rushes in to rescue her, breaking the time window in the process, effectively trapping himself in the 18th Century with her. Once again, her fire and sense of adventure, not to mention her cleverness, are evident as she reveals that she saved the original fireplace from her childhood bedroom, having it installed in her room at Versailles in the hopes that The Doctor would use it to return. When The Doctor realizes that he can use the fireplace to get back to the 51st Century, he offers to take her with him, telling her to pack a bag. She accepts, and goes off to pack and to look out the window to “pick a constellation,” just as The Doctor told her. Sadly, her trip into the stars is not to be. The Doctor goes through the time window to prepare for her arrival not thinking about the fact that when he goes back for her, more time will have passed. In this case, it is too much time. In one of the most heartbreaking endings on Doctor Who, he returns to 18th Century France to see that she has just died. What’s worse is that she never stopped waiting for her “lonely angel” to return to her.
As Reinette, Sophia Myles infuses her performance with steel and softness, creating a thoroughly engaging character, but it is clear that Moffat’s writing gave her a lot to work with, creating one of Doctor Who‘s most compelling women.
Teresa Jusino was born on the same day that Skylab fell. Coincidence? She doesn’t think so. She is the NY Geek Culture Examiner at Examiner.com, and she’s also a contributor to PinkRaygun.com, a webzine examining geekery from a feminine perspective. Her work has also been seen on PopMatters.com, on the sadly-defunct literary site CentralBooking.com, edited by Kevin Smokler, and in the Elmont Life community newspaper. She is currently writing a web series for Pareidolia Films called The Pack, which is set to debut Summer 2010! Get Twitterpated with Teresa, Follow The Pack or visit her at The Teresa Jusino Experience.