THIS EPISODE TAKES
PLACE BETWEEN THE
AUDIO BOOK "THE JADE PYRAMID" AND THE
"CITY OF THE DALEKS."
'THE COMPLETE FIFTH SERIES' LIMITED EDITION STEELBOOK BLU-RAY DVD
(BBCBD0130) RELEASED IN NOVEMBER 2010.
In Provence, the Doctor, Amy and Vincent van Gogh
join forces to fight
a dangerous alien...
5TH JUNE 2010
Richard Curtis and Doctor Who might not be the most obvious marriage, but it’s one that I’ve been quietly looking forward to ever since I first got wind of it, and one that I think will both surprise and impress a great many viewers. After the high-octane action of last week, here the Blackadder and Love Actually scribe supplies us with a script that is calm, affectionate and ultimately very moving.
Vincent and the Doctor’s title, structure, soundtrack and stunning cinematography all betray the fact that it isn’t about conventional Who monsters and scares. Indeed, the fact that Curtis’ rampant alien antagonist is invisible speaks volumes about where the heart of the matter lies. This is a story about an idealist who can save a man from an invisible monster in a church, but not from a monster hidden deep within his soul; about a girl who’s had half her life torn away, and she doesn’t even know it; about sight and sightlessness, darkness and light. This is a story about Vincent van Gogh and the Doctor, and about Amy Pond too.
“Every time I step outside I feel nature shouting at me. Come on! Come and get me! Capture my mystery!”
It’s strange hearing the BBC continuity announcer speak-ing over the closing credits, inviting anyone affected by the issues raised in the show to telephone a helpline – such things are generally reserved for soaps like EastEnders, or those wonderful programmes where anorexics are force-fed and the obese are starved. Yet it’s wholly appropriate as more than anything else, Vincent and the Doctor is a refreshingly forthright and frighteningly accurate portrayal of a man tormented by his own inner demons. My wife is a practising clinical psychologist and she was astonished by the veracity of both Richard Curtis’ script and Tony Curran’s agonising portrayal. Vincent and the Doctor captures not only the more sensationalised aspects of van Gogh’s infamous mental anguish, but also the (probably epilepsy or drug-induced) adventitious synesthesia that some posit inspired the vivid works of his final few years. Indeed, for me the episode’s most powerful scenes were those that sought to show us the world through the troubled artist’s unique eyes, such as his wild speech about the vibrancy of colour early in the episode (“it’s colours. Colours that hold the key. I can hear the colours. Listen to them...”), and Jonny Campbell’s beautifully-shot scene staring at the night sky towards its end.
However, Curtis is very careful not to limit van Gogh’s torments and talents to what can be explained neurologically. The whole story is built upon the charming conceit that only van Gogh can see the Krafavis, yet Curtis resists the lure to explain why, preserving a certain sense of enchantment around the character. What’s more, van Gogh is apparently able to see far more than the vivid colours and “complex magic of nature” that he describes so eloquently – he can sense Amy’s loss; a loss that she isn’t even aware she’s suffered yet, Rory’s death in last week’s episode having been erased from her mind along with almost every trace of his hapless existence (I say ‘almost’, as this episode makes it abundantly clear that Rory’s memory still lives on in the Doctor – something that Cold Blood was a little woolly about).
“He transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty…”
The episode’s final act is a thing of untainted beauty, really giving Steven Moffat’s Girl in the Fireplace a run for its money as the series’ greatest ever tear-jerker. The casting of Bill Nighy as the bow-tie wearing museum curator is ideal in every sense, and his delivery of his hundred-word summation of van Gogh’s legacy is excruciatingly profound. It would have been rousing enough even if van Gogh hadn’t been stood behind him (the beneficiary of an illicit TARDIS trip), reduced to tears by the realisation of his unthinkable success, but as it is it manages to be both tremendously uplifting and eternally sad at the same time; a real feat of drama.
But to say that it’s such an emotionally stirring episode, Vincent and the Doctor has a real sense of playfulness about it. The darkness of the subject matter is delightfully offset with moments of gentle humour – for every bout of depression, there is the Doctor shamelessly venting his boredom (“does time always pass this slowly?”); for every invisible tear, there is a ‘ginger’ jibe (“if we had got married our kids would’ve had very, very red hair.”) Even the lack of traditional Who rudiments is amply compensated for with a flood of fan-pleasing elements, such as images of the first two Doctors appearing on a printout and a fleeting reference to Arcadia, a human colony from an old Virgin novel which Doomsday revealed had fallen in the Time War. As such, it’s going to be hard for even grizzled classicists to find substantive cause for complaint here.
“I’ve seen many things, my friend, but you’re right. Nothing quite as wonderful as the things you see.”
On a final note, I must take my hat off to the cast of this episode. Matt Smith instils his performance with great heart and sincerity, and after spending a fortnight largely on the sidelines, Karen Gillan makes her presence felt here in a big way. In forty-five minutes she is required to convey just about every human emotion conceivable, and does so with utter conviction. Inevitably though, the real star of the show is Vincent van Gogh himself, Tony Curran, who gives such a potent, mesmerising performance that you don’t really notice he’s playing a Dutchman as a Scot. La tristesse durera toujours…
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2010
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
At last: an episode where the Doctor isn't trying to save an entire planet, or fighting to save the whole of humanity / time / the universe, which instead focuses on the life of one person, and is all the better for it. Without having to worry about the suitably grave depiction of responsibility, acting on behalf of billions of people, the Doctor’s direct focus on Vincent van Gogh and his demons is touching, tender and entirely convincing.
“If Amy Pond can soldier on, then so can Vincent van Gogh.”
“It wasn’t without mercy at all. It was without sight.”
“Though I may be mad, I’m not stupid”.
Van Gogh’s depression is dealt with in an accepting, matter-of-fact but sympathetic way. Amy’s disappointment over his inevitable fate is enough to introduce the Doctor’s speech about life’s good and bad moments without becoming indulgent, and doesn’t take away from the truly beautiful moment of van Gogh seeing his work in 2010, and hearing how loved and appreciated he is after his death. This is where I wish the series would stop being an enjoyable sci-fi drama and instead become real life - I wish someone really could go back and let this tragic and brilliant artist know how truly valued and wonderful his life’s work is. How amazing would that be?
Copyright © Rebecca Tessier 2010
Rebecca Tessier has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
What a triumphant piece of drama! Easily the most accomplished piece of writing so far in Series 5, and a complete diversion from the usual alien takeover shenanigans that the series usually dabbles in. I was whooping with joy as the credits rolled at the thought that Doctor Who could still be as entrancing and surprising as this.
I have to be perfectly honest with you: I haven’t found Series 5 to be as gripping as previous years. There’s only been one episode that I’ve out and out disliked (Cold Blood) and there have been more than a few that I’ve raved about (The Eleventh Hour, The Time of Angels two-parter, Amy’s Choice) but overall there hasn’t been the same drive to this series, particularly if you compare it to Series 4 which at this point was ramping it up with Forest of the Dead and Midnight. Matt Smith has been phenomenal, Karen Gillen has shone when the material has allowed her to (less said about the cocky Scot from the last two episodes the better) and the writing and productions have been generally up to scratch. It just hasn’t felt as if the show is firing on all cylinders and I’m not quite sure why. Certainly there has been a much more apparent arc this year, and this has impacted on pretty much every single episode, though not necessarily in a negative way. I’d put it down to too many quiet episodes and not enough gut-busting drama… but then even the quieter episodes have been unusual and compelling. Perhaps it’s just me being silly.
“So, Vincent... painted any churches recently?”
Vincent and the Doctor is another quiet, small scale episode, but it’s pretty much the best example of how to do this sort of episode. What you have is an intelligent piece of drama that explores art, mental illness and history and wraps it up in a gorgeous overseas shoot that looks as good as any feature film. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Richard Curtis, but I’ve always been a huge fan of his comedy and what we got was a complete side step from the usual explosions and monsters and a delicate piece of character drama. Frankly it makes me hope that Steven Moffat will seek out more fresh, professional writers and see what spin they can add to the mix. Neil Gaiman’s episode next year, for instance, should prove to be a real highlight if it has even a tenth of the imagination of Stardust.
Vincent van Gogh is not a painter I knew very much about, so it was fascinating to discover more about his tormented life. For an episode about colours it never paints his character in black and white; he slips from a perfectly normal bloke trying to barter for a free pint to a deranged hysteric, screaming for the Doctor to leave him alone. There is the gentle hint that if only the right health care was available, he could have lived a perfectly normal life, but would he have painted works of such exquisite beauty if he hadn’t been preyed upon by demons of the mind? Tony Curran brings a real presence and he never shies away from the terrifying unpredictability of mental illness. The thought of never knowing that your work would be appreciated and dying considering yourself a failure is simply heartbreaking. We all want to be remembered for something, and in real life van Gogh went to the grave considering his work unsuccessful. Here, however, Curtis steps in with his trademark ability to stick a lump in your throat, offering up the most wonderful of climaxes as van Gogh stares wild-eyed and in tears as his work is admired and praise is lavished upon him. It really is the most beautiful statement of what the Doctor is all about.
“Well, there you are you poor thing...”
Matt Smith has finally managed to conquer my mother - she simply adores him now, and with performances as good as this one I can fully understand why. I can’t imagine any other family drama being fronted by such extraordinary actors, and Smith once again approaches a new episode with a completely different way of portraying the Doctor. Last week he was all diplomacy and nostalgia, but this week Smith approaches the role with astonishing intimacy, playing his relationship with van Gogh with real delicacy. Curtis writes for the Doctor really well and makes some great observations, particularly his agonising wait whilst the church is painted, suggesting that the Doctor doesn’t really stay in one place long enough to really feel the passing of time. Smith shares sparkling chemistry with all of the other actors too, whether he’s complementing Bill Nighy on his eclectic array of bow ties; telling Amy off for constantly sneaking up on him; or holding hands with van Gogh and staring up at the night sky, trying to see the world through the artist’s eyes. I loved his walk back to the TARDIS and his incessant nattering to himself; Smith truly embodies the role and has made it his own.
But Smith I knew could deliver, and so bravo for presenting Amy is such a good light. How cute does she look surrounded by all of those sunflowers? It’s an image so dazzling that you can see why he signed her name off on it. This is the Amy that I love; the fairytale Amy who loves her life with the Doctor and empathises with the people that they meet. All that smugness has dropped away and we are as smitten with her as van Gogh is. I love all the little hints about Rory that she’s completely unaware of which must be leading up to something dramatic.
“I believe if you look hard, there are more wonders in this universe than you could ever have dreamed of.”
You could take photographs of this episode and present them in a gallery the art direction is so accomplished. The swaying fields of wheat, the moonlight on the cobbled lanes, the glowing windows from the night time café, sunlight streaming into van Gogh’s bedroom, the shadows highlighting the Doctor and Amy from the confessional door, the glorious turntable giddiness as van Gogh admires his works in Paris… it’s just one succulent treat for the eye after another. One thing I really love about this season is how it hasn’t stuck to the usual locations in (Cardiff disguised as!) London and the two episodes filmed in Croatia have had a visual splendour all of their own. It feels like another world exploring the cobbled lanes and leafy landscapes of Provence.
What’s more, whilst I’d love to encounter a historical episode with no science fiction elements in it at all, I even found the subplot here adorable. Whilst the Krafayis might look like a giant CG rubber chicken, it was of Moffat’s design that it isn’t quite what it seems and the scene where the Doctor realises it is blind and terrified suddenly makes you look at the earlier scenes where it was rampaging in a completely different light. It’s always great to see the Doctor with a new crazy gadget and his slightly scary Godmother’s present makes for a brilliantly surreal scene as he is pursued down the lanes by the invisible Krafayis which we catch just the odd glimpse of in the mirror. Its unfortunate death is treated pathos equal to the van Gogh storyline, and as such it becomes a lot more memorable.
“If we had got married our kids would’ve had very, very red hair. The ultimate ginge.”
Ultimately though I will remember Vincent and the Doctor for two extraordinary moments. Firstly, television magic was created when the Doctor, Vincent and Amy joined hands and watched the sky burst with life and become “The Starry Night”. It’s one of those moments where Doctor Who transcends television and becomes a piece of art in itself. The second is the gloriously upbeat ending that sees time travel being used to bring joy to the life of a tortured man. It’s a wonderful idea and is captured so very well in the performances.
Impeccably performed, stylishly shot, and written with real care, Vincent and the Doctor is my favourite episode of the year so far.
Copyright © Joe Ford 2010
Joe Ford has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
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