A pile of good things and bad things
Review by Paul Kirkley
Vincent and the Doctor. The clue’s in the title. There’s no ambiguity about who gets top billing here - and it’s not the fella with the bow tie and the bandy legs.
In the current Doctor Who Magazine, Richard Curtis admits he’s had a Vincent van Gogh story buzzing about in his head like a bee in a bottle for years. And what’s this? Why it’s only his old chum Stephen Moffat, pulling up outside his door at the wheel of the perfect vehicle with which he can finally do it.
Which, indeed, it might have been, if Curtis had succeeded in weaving his van Gogh story into the fabric of Doctor Who, or vice versa. What we got instead was a perfectly charming, if slightly hagiographic portrait of the great man, with a clunkingly incongruous Doctor Who creature feature badly bolted on to the side like a botched Frankenstein creation.
The entire Krafayis nonsense must rank as the most ill-advised alien appendage since that giant green cock off Creature From The Pit
Or maybe that wasn’t how it happened. But it’s certainly hard to shake the notion that the entire Krafayis nonsense - which must rank as the most ill-advised alien appendage since that giant green cock off Creature From The Pit - was a bit of a dutiful afterthought, and that Curtis would much rather have done a straight van Gogh story – or at least a very simple Doctor-meets-Vincent story, a bit like those superannuated school text books they stuck Tom Baker’s face on in the 70s: Doctor Who Discovers The Impressionists, anyone?
All of which begs the question: Why bother with the monster-of-the-week at all? Many fine Who stories have got by without one, and just as many (Caves, Talons, Frontios, the usual) would clearly have benefited by not bothering either. You could argue that today’s CGI-frazzled nunchuck monkeys wouldn’t give the 21st Century version of yer no-frills Hartnell historical the time of day but, when the money has so clearly run out that the notional Big Bad spends most of its time invisible anyway... well, what are The Kids actually getting out of it, save for the occasional fleeting shot of what appeared to be very large, very angry parrot wearing one of those stupid Tibetan hats? (Apologies to any Tibetan readers – they’re not stupid when you wear them, obviously; I’m thinking more your N-Dubz – and, indeed, giant space parrot - end of the market.)
This is clearly one of those “amazing found-at-the-back of the cupboard monster cameos” a production insider was mithering about in Private Eye recently. And anyone who’s ever been bored into submission by one of Danny Hargreaves’ interminable practical effects demonstrations on Doctor Who Confidential will have found it difficult to escape the image of him running round pulling over random props with bits of fishing line every time the invisible beastie went on one of its walkabouts.
Still, its lack of physical appearance was nothing compared to the invisibility of small matters like motivation, character consistency (was it an evil killer or a poor, frightened wretch? Even the Doctor didn’t seem to be able to make up his mind) and, indeed, anything approaching an actual storyline. The poor bugger just crashed about a bit then died a rather pathetic and pointless death at the hands of our so-called heroes; a weak, brutal resolution to a sub-plot that was barely there in the first place. Talk about being bred for slaughter.
Even in the main Vincent-meets-Doctor throughline, though, there was evidence of the romcom king gingerly feeling his way through an unfamilar genre: surely no-one who’s even on nodding terms with your basic sleb historical template – whether in Doctor Who, Bill and Ted or a hundred other timey-wimey capers – would have recycled so many familiar genre tropes, or seemed quite so pleased with themselves for doing so. The way in which the Doctor and Amy brought their influence to bear on the creation of various van Gogh masterpieces, in particular, failed to bring anything new to a well-worn gag: compare, if you will, the pay-off shot here – a simple For Amy daubed on those Sunflowers – with City of Death, written more than 30 years ago, in which we ended up with six Mona Lisas bearing the legend This Is A Fake in felt-tip pen. Now that’s good value storytelling.
The gags were disappointingly subdued, too. Maybe Curtis was too aware of his baggage as a comedy writer and felt the need to exercise restraint, but it was surprising to see this end up with a lot fewer laughs than this year’s Moffat, Nye or even Whithouse scripts. And yet…
It’s no exaggeration to say I felt a very real sense of Doctor Who coming of age.
... despite all this, I kind of loved it, actually. Partly, I suppose, because I'm a sucker for those stories that amble around the houses a bit instead of hurtling at breakneck speed from the starting gun to the finish line, and Jonny Campbell’s direction served the script well in this respect, giving the piece an easy, languid charm that suited the Provence sunshine, while demonstrating a keen eye for the mise en scene, especially in those sly (and occasionally not so sly) recreations of van Gogh’s paintings.
But the main reason I liked it was because, for all the lack of cohesion and structural integrity, this episode was redeemed by what I'd consider to be three of the most extraordinary scenes in Doctor Who’s long history.
The first was when Vincent welcomed the Doctor, Amy and the viewers into his mind to give us a privileged glimpse of the world through the gaze of an artistic genius; to show us the Starry Night as he saw it in his head, the dark canopy transforming into the brilliant whorls of his magnum opus before our very eyes. What an honour (and, for the first time ever, I really wished I had HD).
The second revelatory moment was the depression scene, where the Doctor encountered van Gogh curled up on his cot in the depths of his despair. It’s no exaggeration to say I felt a very real sense of Doctor Who coming of age here, tackling real human emotion and frailty in a way it’s never quite been brave enough to do before. And what was most striking was the Doctor’s reaction, his sense of helplessness. Because this is the one monster the Time Lord doesn’t know how to fight: the black dog of depression at the heart of a broken man. The Doctor has always been about seeing, and sharing, the joy, the boundless wonder of the universe. Yet here is a man who looks at the universe and sees only darkness.
Or does he? Because the final extraordinary scene of the episode was one of redemption, in which the Doctor and Amy took Vincent into the future in an effort to lift the terrible burden of failure from his shoulders. It’s a beautiful sequence, anchored by a wonderful speech from Bill Nighy: “Pain is easy to portray. But to use your passion and pain to portray the ectsasy and joy and magnificence of our world – no-one had ever done it before. Perhaps no-one ever will again.” This, when you think about it, is a Big Idea for the little show designed to fill the gap between the pools results and Juke Box Jury. Some see a red door and they want to paint it black: Vincent van Gogh saw only black but somehow willed himself to paint over it with the most vibrant colours and shapes imaginable.
And say what you like – actually, don’t, I’ve seen plenty of online griping already – but Chances by Athlete was a perfect, perfect choice for the occasion. Sure, it’s from their slightly mushy latter period (Athlete are the musical equivalent of Curtis himself, in fact, with the spikier early stuff giving way to more crowd-pleasing anthems; for the real deal, check out the awesome Shake Those Windows from Vehicles and Animals). But get over your emotionally retarded, uptight English post-punk fear of sentiment for a minute, and I promise you you’ll see the scene and its soundtrack revealed in all their heartfelt glory and compassion. (And besides, given Curtis’ track record – Ronan Keating, Wet Wet Bastard Wet – I reckon we got away pretty lightly with a bit of soft-rock lighter-waving.)
Three extraordinary scenes, then. Add those to the three luminous central performances from Matt Smith (loved the knowing wink of Eleven looking in the mirror and seeing Patrick Troughton, by the way), Karen Gillan and Tony Curran, and that’s half a dozen good things right there. And the good things didn’t always soften the bad things but, vice versa, the bad things didn’t necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant. And, at the end of the day, Richard Curtis has definitely added to Doctor Who’s pile of good things.