Reviewers across America have called Battlestar Galactica the Best Show on Television, and they might be right. Producer Ron Moore has struck a winning formula mining the storyline of a classic series for all of the dramatic potential it provides and milking it with hard working actors and directors. He’s done his job exceptionally well, and we are the better for it.
However Battlestar Galactica has only one tale to tell: the ragtag remains of humanity fleeing the Cylon threat. It’s a great story, full of facets to examine, but it all strikes the same note, and it sometimes starts to run out of steam. Witness the rut the series fell into during the last half of the second season. And while interesting new threads have been introduced (the examination of Cylon society, for instance), there is a impending sense of a limit to the number of the tales that can be told.
This is where Doctor Who outshines its science-fiction cousin. Doctor Who, for all its sci-fi trappings, is a fantasy bearing the most flexible format in fiction: it is a story about a wizard with a magical cabinet that can take him anywhere he wants to go. Whereas Battlestar Galactica is confined to the same characters and the same basic setting, Doctor Who not only changes settings from week to week, it changes genres.
Nothing illustrates Doctor Who’s superior storytelling agility than the most recent episode aired by the CBC, a bittersweet romance called The Girl in the Fireplace.
Leaving modern day England, the Doctor, Rose and Mickey arrive in a deserted spaceship in the 51st century. But though the crew are nowhere to be found the ship is far from dead. It’s generating massive amounts of power, “enough to blow holes in the universe”, and it appears that it has used that power to build time portals to 18th century France.
Investigating further, the Doctor finds himself jumping forward into the life of one Reinette Poisson, originally appearing to a seven-year-old girl out of the fireplace in her bedroom, and helping her against a monstrous clockwork robot. And, sure enough, the clockwork robots — repair robots from the ship — are stalking this young lady through her life, as she becomes Madame de Pompadour, mistress to the King of France. And while the Doctor, Mickey and Rose race to find out why the robots are stalking her, the Doctor encounters something more shocking — that Reinette might actually be in love with him… and he with her.
Author Stephen Moffat wrote last year’s Hugo Award-winning two-parter, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, and he is in fine form here, using the program’s whole toolkit in ways Battlestar Galactica could only dream. The Girl in the Fireplace is a romance, is a comedy, a mystery, a horror and a tragedy, giving the episode a depth that exists nowhere else on television. The dialogue sparkles, with such gems as:
Rose: It’s kind of abandoned.. Anyone on board?
The Doctor: Nah…. Nothing here- Well, nothing dangerous- WELL. Not that dangerous. Know what, just have a quick scan in case of anything dangerous.
The Doctor: Must be a spatial temporal hyperlink.
Mickey: What’s that?
The Doctor: No idea. Just made it up. Didn’t want to say ‘magic door’.
And, of course, the absolute best:
Manservant: Who the hell are you?
The Doctor : [laughing]I’m The Doctor. And I just snogged Madame de Pompadour!
Moffat is helped by the performances of all the regulars and especially guest star Sophia Myles, whose onscreen chemistry with David Tennant lends critical credibility to the storyline. Director Euros Lyn crafts each scene exceptionally well, welding the 18th century and 51st century sets in ways that complement and contrast, but special mention must go to composer Murray Gold, whose work for this series reaches a high point here. His theme for Reinette is charming and heartbreaking at the same time and really cements the feel we have that something really special is gracing our screens, here.
The story turns on the tragedy of the Doctor’s near immortality, a theme taken up in the previous episode, School Reunion, and David Tennant shows what he is capable of in this episode, more than he has before during his tenure on board the TARDIS. He delivers great punch to the realization that the humans around him have the comparable lifespan of fruit flies, and that in the end, he will always be a lonely little boy.
The Girl in the Fireplace is not only the best episode of Doctor Who this season, it is one of the best hours of television, trouncing everything that Battlestar Galactica has mustered, through its depth, breadth and storytelling agility. It shows just what the program is capable of, without breaking a sweat.
Next week, the Cybermen return for a monster thrash. And, here’s one area where Battlestar Galactica may well have outdone Doctor Who.