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June 08, 2010

This Week, on a Very Special Doctor Who...

Doctor Who: Vincent and the Doctor
Review by Tom Dickinson

Amy's character makes less sense to me every week. By now what little understanding I had of her has been thrown out the window: her arc, to the extent that she had one, was sucked into the crack along with Rory. Amy was originally running away from her wedding with Rory, so with him gone her motivations for traveling with the Doctor would have to be completely different now. I suspected that she would now be engaged to Jeff, but this seems unlikely based on Amy's comment that she's "not really the marrying kind." Now I just don't know what to make of her. Rory was so central to our understanding of Amy as a character that his absence from her life should make her a stranger to us.

But then again, from her perspective, Vincent hearing Bill Nighy sing his praises should have altered the course of his life and redefined him. But it didn't. Depression is too complex for that. It's not like Vincent just needed to be cheered up, and then he could go on his merry way, feeling all better and living happily ever after. And despite the running theme throughout this series that "time can be rewritten," time is more complicated than we realize, and when meddled with it won't always respond in the obvious way.

It's a contradiction that's so firmly embedded in the identity of Doctor Who that we fans often lose sight of the fact that it makes absolutely no sense at all: the Doctor doesn't change history, he just wanders about, touching the lives of important men and women, changing them indelibly. Making them better. Which, somehow, doesn't change the course of history. Except when it does. We wrap this contradiction up tight in thick layers of irony (The opening moments of The Shakespeare Code) and technobabble (The "fixed points" referred to in The Fires of Pompeii and Cold Blood), allowing the programme to pull the wool over our eyes to help us forget that its very premise is fundamentally illogical. Fine. I'm more than happy to be fooled. That's the bit of illogic that fuels the TARDIS; if we can't buy into it then there is no Doctor Who.

Which, somehow, doesn't change the course of history. Except when it does. 

So it's rare to see the show grapple with this contradiction so directly. Just how rare, we might forget, because The Waters of Mars is so fresh in our minds. But Vincent and the Doctor handles the issue in a very different, less explicit way, exploring complex chronology via complex psychology. Vincent is a deeply troubled man and that's not going to change in a moment, however beautiful that moment might be. Just as the timeline can be nudged in a particular direction but the Doctor can't just pull the right strings to get the outcome he wants. He tried in The Waters of Mars and failed, and despite Amy's expectations his intervention is similarly ineffective here.

So the Doctor faces the one foe he can't defeat: depression. Yes, it's a "Very Special" Doctor Who. Still, why roll our eyes at it? One of the defining features of Doctor Who is the versatility of its format. Just because there's never been a Very Special Episode of Doctor Who before doesn't mean it should never be attempted. It's been done very badly very often in other programmes, but it's occasionally been done quite well. And here it's done quite well. This is just about as far into Very Special territory as Doctor Who can go without being terribly ham-fisted about it and veering too far from its own identity as a programme.

Which is probably why it features a pretty standard monster of the week to draw us into the plot and ground itself in the show's usual format, but ultimately the episode is not about the Krafayis at all. Rather, it's about the friendship between... well, Vincent and the Doctor. The Doctor often speaks of historical personages as though they were his close friends, but rarely is this played on screen. Usually he just pats them on the back for their accomplishments and enlists their help in fighting a monster. Madame du Pompadour is the only recent exception I can think of. This certainly seems like one of the closer and more personal relationships the Doctor has had with a historical figure. In some ways, then, it's the full realisation of the offhand dialogue references the Doctor has thrown around over the years: something we've heard about dozens of times but seen very rarely. And this particular variation on the format is a perfect fit for writer Richard Curtis.

And it's equally a great fit for Johnny Campbell, who excelled in directing The Vampires of Venice, and matches that standard here. The episode is visually stunning, standing out as something very different from the rest of the series and no less brilliant. Campbell's recreations of images from Van Gogh paintings are a bit precious, perhaps, but the visual "quotations" make a nice change of pace from the literal quotations that have been employed in episodes where the Doctor meets famous writers. And as Van Gogh, Tony Curran does a marvelous portrayal of Vincent, troubled but still warm and likable. Curran wonderfully captures the essence of the "pile of good things and bad things" metaphor the Doctor uses at the end of the episode. In a season with some really strong guest stars, Curran stands above many of the others. Likewise, Bill Nighy's cameo is a small joy. It's a part that could adequately have been played by just about any actor, but the charm Nighy brings to the role makes the character truly memorable, so that his speech about Van Gogh really seems to mean something when he says it.

...tears, hurt feelings, and an utter consensus void.

In the end, I found Vincent and the Doctor quite touching, funny, exciting, and beautifully directed. Which I suppose should put the burden on me to argue against Neil's review, which has made quite a stir here and elsewhere. Apparently it's even resulted in hate mail (which is absurd, you should all be ashamed, etc). But I really don't think I can make a case that Neil's wrong. I often find myself agreeing with some of the things Neil says but feeling entirely differently about the episode anyway, and this is one of those occasions. We could all argue all week about where to draw the line between good storytelling and audience manipulation, or whether there is a difference at all, or whether audience manipulation is a bad thing, or any number of other abstract arguments that never lead anywhere but tears, hurt feelings, and an utter consensus void. Sometimes there's no accounting for taste. I loved the oft-reviled Journey's End and felt let down by the fandom's darling Amy's Choice. So there.

Vincent and the Doctor hasn't done anything to rehabilitate my flagging appreciation for Amy as a character, and it's probably not the best episode of the series so far (it has been a pretty strong year). But it was witty, it looked fantastic, and yes, like some of my acquaintances in the Doctor Who Twitterspehere, I was brought to tears by the end, both times I watched it. It's an episode I'll remember fondly and return to often. Whether that was earned fairly or gotten through insidious manipulation isn't something I'm going to worry much about.

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