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June 06, 2010

"Deze review is geboren uit wanhoop. Ik heb bijna mijn eigen oren afgesneden probeert te schrijven. Hier is dan zeven uur van mijn leven ..."

"Hello, and tonight’s Middle Row will concern itself with a single artistic achievement, this week’s Doctor Who, Vincent and the Doctor, which we’ll discuss with Behind The Sofa reviewer Stuart Ian Burns.  In it, the timelord as currently played by on television by Matt Smith meets the Dutch impressionist a year before he committed suicide as they battle against an invisible monster.  Here’s a clip …"

“You can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs.”

“If you made an omelette, I'd expect to find a pile of broken crockery, a cooker in flames, and an unconscious chef.”

"That’s the wrong clip.”

“(interrupting) Yes, that’s City of Death.”

“Oh right.  So Stuart, what did you think of it?”

”Marvellous.  Absolutely.  Absolutely marvellous.  Certainly one of the best episodes of recent years.”

“Now, Richard Curtis isn’t known for being a writer of science fiction.  Did you have any reservations about him writing for Doctor Who?”

”When Curtis was announced as a writer, I was one of the few who probably had quite mixed feelings about it.  Having grown up with his work, quoting chunks of Blackadder with friends during chemistry lessons at school, crying through Four Weddings and a Funeral and in adoring Notting Hill, I’ve simultaneously hated Bean, sat stony faced through The Vicar of Dibley and wondered why he’s been so determined to turn Comic Relief into contradiction in terms. 

"He's written a time travel adventure before of course ..."

"Black Adder: Back and Forth -- yes -- but that was really just a mechanism to visit the same characters in other time periods.  My ambivalence reached its zenith when I chose to analyse Love Actually for a university dissertation and found a deeply misogynistic work in which all the middle class white men are permitted to romance and marry the help and the female characters must give up on romance either to care for a disabled relative or live in a loveless marriage for the good of the children.  His follow-up, The Boat That Rocked, was an editing disaster that continued his slightly dodgy approach to sexual politics with its resurrection of the Chaucerian bed trick.

Only in recent times has the Make Poverty History campaigning drama The Girl in the Café offered some of the old sparkle with its May to December romance and a social conscience and it’s that writer that I hoped would pitch up with our favourite timelord and his current plus one.  The pre-broadcast press releases about Curtis having an idea in his head for years about illuminating Vincent Van Gogh’s madness and deciding it would be best served as a Doctor Who story suggested that it could go either way.”

“And which way did it go for you?”

“Well, I think it’s important at which point we should take a short break to discuss what we want from a Doctor Who episode.  Personally, I don’t care, other than that it should be good.  Of course, whether some is “good” or “not good” is an open and lengthy discussion, which I suspect we don't have time for, but generally I have a very relaxed attitude to what the franchise is offering and indeed tend to be equally impressed when it’s breaking out of formula to propose something different like Love & Monsters or using that formula to make a specific point about it or its main character like The Waters of Mars.”

“Which is a given, I suppose, um …”

“I think the success of the episode, and an extraordinarily successful episode it is, clearly Curtis’s best work in five years, is that it manages to do both.  Richard Curtis fighting against Doctor Who’s formula and presenting us with the best of both worlds, a campaigning drama about mental health that requires a phone number over the credits versus celebrity pseudo-historical, the Doctor fighting the psychological demons inside someone else’s head, the head of Vincent Van Gogh chasing an alien that can be poked by an easel.”

"So it’s a bit of an atypical episode, then?”

“The scene beneath the stars is the perfect example.  However important the Krafayis is in forcing the Doctor to visit Provence and providing the expected action sequences, it’s one of those rare occasions, rarer still on the television wing of the franchise these days, which I sometimes wish would happen more often, in which the usual shocks take a back seat to offering an insight and perspective on history and its fellows,”

“How insightful is the episode in terms of Van Gogh’s work?”

“I'm not enough of an expert to really comment on the aspects of the episode that directly reference the work, though some of the recreations of the paintings were startling even if now and then -- for example his bedroom -- historical accuracy was apparently fluid at best, but then, if you assume that this is the Whoniverse's version of the man's life rather than our own, everything's hunky-dory.  If Dickens can erroneously take his speech tour to Cardiff, then this is fine too.  My first proper experience of Vincent Van Gogh’s genius was at library school…”

“You went to library school?”

“Yes, well it was a university degree in information studies, but I like to call it library school, just as I went to “film school” years later.  You do know we’re still on the air?”

“Oh yes, sorry.  Go on…”

“We’d been tasked, in that pre-Google period, with carrying out a literature search for sources of information about one of his paintings.  During the course of finding articles and books related to the Starry Night, of which we only had a small black and white illustration, I was amazed to discover, as we all did in the Doctor Who Confidential that accompanies the episode, that he produced from his cell of the sanatorium.  I couldn’t understand how such a troubled figure could paint something that beautiful, from memory.

Now, I’m surprised to find that Doctor Who, in a scene that might otherwise have only strained itself onto the pages of a spin-off novel in which the timelord his current plus one and Vincent himself look up to the sky and he describes what he sees do I finally get some sense of how it happened.  As the “real” sky digitally swirled to recreate Van Gogh’s vision we discover it’s because the artist was able to remember not the real image but how it effected his emotional well-being.”

"Woud Lord Reith be pleased with the way the paintings were portrayed?"

"I certainly think that any UK museums with Van Gogh paintings on display should brace themselves over the coming weeks.  But even taking into account the scenes outside the church in which the Doctor's manic name dropped reached Vasari levels this wasn't a documentary.  But we did at least get more of a sense of Vincent as a painter and his abilities, certainly than we did with Shakespeare."

"The theme of mental health has been covered across television in recent times, most recently a season on BBC Four which included another showing of the Stephen Fry documentary about his own condition.  Was this a worthy contribution?"

“I think it was.  The extrapolation of the painter’s mental state was sensitively tackled as Curtis and Moffat recognised there’s only so far you can go at tea time on Saturday.  The trick is to focus on the Doctor and Amy’s reaction to the painters mood swings, his drift between lucidity, extreme moments of inspiration and the depths of darkness and despair.  Broad strokes to be sure, but there has to have been some children watching last night who noticed the similarities between Vincent’s behaviour and that of a relative.

But notice that this story doesn’t offer any easy answers.  In the past few years we’ve been shown the inspirational, often messianic abilities of the Doctor to inspire people to be better – not least at the close of the previous episode.  Yet here was a man who the timelord knew couldn’t be saved even after dragging him through time to show him the effects his work would have on future generations, demonstrating the difference between some mood swings and a genuine psychological condition.  That’s very powerful.”

“Now, when people think of screen Van Gogh, they’ll immediately think of Kirk Douglas in Lust For Life, but there was also of course Tim Roth in Vincent and Theo – which the title of this episode refers to – John Simm in The Yellow House. How does Tony Curran measure up?”

"He’s riveting.  Authoritative in his gait yet also somewhat child-like, he invests the painter with a singular genius that's also hypercritical.  He’s exactly like many of the artists I’ve bumped into over the years, unable to quite comprehend what is about them which makes them do that.  But in some moments, especially when he was confronting the monster, he reminded me a lot of the tenth Doctor, who on reflection was quite a lot like Vincent, the lucidity, genius and darkness.  In that way you could view the eleventh Doctor’s actions in trying to offer emotional support to the painter as a way of salving his own demons.”

“What about the accent?  There’ll be some might question the wisdom of not offering a Scottish Van Gogh.”

“It’s a brave decision, especially considering the casual viewers who might wonder about all of the regional accents on display here – the waiter in the café being another example.  Of course, it’s a continuation of the accent confusion in the TARDIS’s translation circuits last seen in The Fires of Pompeii, in this case Scottish equals Dutch.  But it aided Curran in finding that slot between the crooked self portrait and human being without the ever present need to maintain the accurate inflections in his voice, useful on the speedy television schedule this was probably shot on.”

“Now, some have argued that in concerning itself so much with Van Gogh’s state of mind it stopped being proper Doctor Who …”

“(interrupts) … but as I said earlier, it depends what we mean by “proper Doctor Who”.  The set-up was very similar to The Time of the Angels from earlier this series and the spin-off novel The Stone Rose, the Doctor noticing something unusual about a museum object and jumps into the TARDIS to investigate, and, since Curtis hasn’t had the memo about its erratic behaviour, the Doctor’s able to steer the time machine to the exact moment (if not quite location) in space and time, unlike almost every episode in this series.

Plus, art and art galleries have been very present in Doctor Who over the years most notably the, ahem, aforementioned City of Death whose Louvre scenes with a fourth Doctor looking for information were very much like the Musee D’Orsey scenes in this.  It was certainly a more dignified homage than Mona Lisa’s Revenge, The Sarah Jane Adventures episode, mainly because Bill Nighy’s curator was allowed to be expert and illuminating without being a twit yet still share some bow-tie humour with Matt.  Nighy was once Russell T Davies’s choice to play the Doctor incidentally, and was announced as such by the Daily Mail, so it’s lovely to see him in the franchise finally.”

“Did you think the Krufayus was a worthy opponent?”

“The – Krafayis – was the kind of fantastical creature we’ve been seeing a lot this season, and this was the kind of giant chicken I remember from school books when I was a kid as the possible missing link between the dinosaurs and the battery egg poppers of the modern world.  It's also another lost soul, alone.   Arguably the episode could have worked without it, like a 60s historical, but I suspect even Moffat and Curtis weren’t brave enough to write an episode without a monster.  The bravery was to not let it overpower the episode – as arguably happened in The Shakespeare Code – and let the celebrity still be the primary focus.

The decision to make it blind is part of what John Moore from the Den of Geek website notes is the episode's obsession with "sight" and seeing beyond what's in front of you which was, of course, an obsession of the impressionists and other avant-guardians though interesting the term "impressionist" was proposed by a critic, Louis Leroy, but was using it in a critical sense: "    Impression—I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it … and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape." Which sounds like an average review of this episode on Gallifrey Base)

“... it let us see one of the Doctor’s gadgets.”

“Yes!  Those scenes of the Doctor in the TARDIS talking to himself as he searched for the hugeywhatsit tossing other items across the TARDIS floor, were one of the few occasions so far this series where we’ve seen what this Doctor is like when he’s alone and unlike Tennant but like Tom, he’s not self conscious about it, happy to jabber away at inanimate objects.  Matt relished these scenes with their gesticulating opportunities.  But the writing throughout tapped into the incongruity between his impotent inscrutability and the giddy professor sock puppet he uses to mask it.  

It is strange, however, seeing the Doctor, who's supposed to be possessed of a special insight into the universe, employing a hugeywhatsit to identify the thingydoodah  (and witness the reappearance of Hartnell's image in this episode, followed by Troughton - never mind the crack, what's that leading up to?).  But kids love gadgets.  Look at the tricorder like abilities of the sonic screwdriver.  Plus I’m sure they will have loved the scene in which he and Amy demonstrated a few more of the console’s controls.”

“A good episode for his companion Amy?”

“Yes, though again there’s still an unreal element to her, not least after the events at the close of the last episode, and it’s interesting that something wasn’t made of how her character might have changed in the absence of Rory and how she remembers her past now.  She’s certainly flirtier, I suppose.  One of the few oddities in the episode was in her relationship with Vince which seemed far further developed by the end than their screen time might have suggested.  Was something cut of their evening alone together while the Doctor was away monster chasing? 

But this was otherwise a spectacular episode of Karen Gillan, forever offering some business even in scenes were she wasn’t the primary focus, for once showing us some of the chemistry we've seen she has with Matt in real world interviews.  I loved the way she said "Of course" when asked if she'd be following the Doctor in to the church having been told not to.  I'd postulate that if you were to watch this series in production order you'd be able to more clearly see the two of them getting used to their roles and what works best, rather like Lalla Ward in her first season."

“What did you think of the look of the episode.  It was certainly cinematic.”

“Yes indeed.  Tragir doubling for Provance rather than Venice this time and again able to create the most convincing sense of place we've probably ever seen.  All the primary colours.  It’s quite startling after a couple of episodes very much grounded in television direction to be handed something which returned to the feature film photography of earlier episodes.  Jonny Campbell, who also shot the “vampire” episode clearly has a very cinematic eye and strove to make the visuals match the lushness of Van Gogh’s painting.  Witness the opening scenes of the cornfield, the luminous shot of Amy in amongst the sunflowers and the closing scenes shot on a turntable to demonstrate Vincent’s head spinning as he listens to Nighy’s tribute.”

"What did you make of the use of music at the climax?"

"Your tolerance for the late appearance of Athelete's Chance probably depends on whether you've been swept away by the previous forty-odd minutes.  It's certainly the most Russell T Davies-like climax we've seen this series, though it could more closely attributed to Curtis who has provided similar moments in his own films - Joni Mitchell in one of the few emotional true moments in Love Actually.  Popular music isn't as alien to Doctor Who as it use to be and has been employed to underscore emotional beats before.  The lyrics, which talk of taking the opportunities in front of you while you still are reflecting in Van Gogh's particularly fruitful final year and are entirely in-tune with Curran's teary performance which reflects the moment when the painter realises what he is capable of.  Plus, at least it wasn't John Denver's rendition of Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)."

“Finally, what was your favourite moment?”

“Predictably it has little to do with the main plot.  It’s when the Doctor takes Vincent back to the TARDIS only to find that its been flypostered.  He simply sighs and creates a hole big enough to open the door.  Then, when the machine lands in the future, we simply see the scorched remains of the posters left on the face of the blue box having not survived the time vortex.  It’s one of the few occasions when the mad details of the Doctor’s life are vividly demonstrated.”

"Stuart, thank you.  And Vincent and the Doctor will be on the iPlayer for a few more weeks, released on dvd and blu-ray twice, and repeated on BBC Three until the end of time…”

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