Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Doctor Who: Vincent and the Doctor

Van Gogh: 'I know how it will end... and it will not end well.'

I really didn't think I'd like this one. I'm not usually a fan of historical episodes. Despite being vaguely enjoyable, there's a sameness about them which irks me. The historical figures are often portrayed as caricatures, which is fine for comedic purposes, but it's hard to get emotionally involved when the characters don't feel like real people. You smile at the familiar references, you chuckle at the Doctor somehow being responsible for their most famous works or sayings, but ultimately, it all feels a little contrived. Well, not tonight. 'Vincent and the Doctor' was an absolute gem. It was funny, charming, exciting—yet had a poignancy and depth we seldom get to see in Doctor Who.

Amy was understandably suspicious of the Doctor's generosity, tonight: first Arcadia, then the Trojan Gardens, then the Musée d'Orsay. Of course, we know that the Doctor's behaviour is a reaction to the tragic events of last week, but since Amy can't remember Rory's death, she's naturally perplexed by his sudden kindness. And where did his sense of humour go?

The strength of tonight's episode lay, not so much in the story itself, but in Curtis' characterisation of Van Gogh. That's not to denigrate the narrative—it was an undeniably fine yarn—but it was the Dutch Impressionist who stole the show. Rather than follow the well worn path of setting up Van Gogh as some chirpy, quick witted stereotype, Curtis, gifted him with completely human character traits. He didn't shy away from Van Gogh's well documented depression, nor did he sidestep his eventual suicide—which could have made for a depressing 45 minutes, but thankfully didn't. Curtis was respectful of Van Gogh's memory, without ever sliding into morbidity.

Van Gogh was riddled with self doubt, under appreciated in his own time, and plagued with feelings of inadequacy and loneliness—yet, he saw real beauty in the world. The night sky morphing into Van Gogh's 'The Starry Night' was a prime example of him seeing riches in the darkness. It's just a shame that, despite being in awe of the world's splendour, he couldn't bear to be a part of it. With the Doctor and Amy there he was able to fight monsters, but with them gone, his struggle with anxiety and mental illness overwhelmed him.

Yet it's the knowledge that Van Gogh eventually killed himself which gives the ending its power. The Doctor tried to instil in Van Gogh a sense of hope by showing him his own would-be legacy. He showed him a world which revered his work; a time when the man himself was respected; a future where nobody laughed at his paintings; a place where his art meant something, and brought joy to millions. Tony Curran was simply stupendous as Van Gogh. His likeness to the artist's self portrait was uncanny, and his reaction at the Musée d'Orsay, on seeing his own work on display, and hearing Dr Black's glowing praise of him, was deeply moving. What a marvellous gift the Doctor gave him.

But not even a trip to the future could eradicate Van Gogh's demons. In the end, he still terminated his own life—presumably for different reasons, but the outcome was the same. What a pity things couldn't have turned out differently. Of course, a happy ending would have been to meddle with real history, and Curtis wisely steered clear of that—although an alternate history story might have been an interesting twist. In fact, that's kind of what we got with Amy's name appearing on Van Gogh's Sunflowers painting. Something in our world clearly did change.

It was interesting, too, that only Van Gogh could see the Krafayis. The implication, presumably, was that Van Gogh's depression somehow enhanced his perception of certain things. He spoke of nature crying out at him. He was also able to sense Amy's sadness, despite Amy herself not being aware of it. In many respects, Van Gogh and the Krafayis were alike—both were the victims of ignorance and fear. Which is probably why, after realising it was blind, Van Gogh found himself sympathising with it. I did get a little confused, however, by the chronology of this episode. The Doctor told Amy that Van Gogh would take his life just months after their visit, yet Van Gogh didn't die until 1890—which is a two years deficit. Did I miss something there?

And at the risk of being unpopular, I was distinctly underwhelmed by Bill Nighy's performance. The man's a fine actor... when he actually acts. I loved him in Underworld, and Underworld: Evolution, in which he was nigh on unrecognisable as vampire elder, Viktor (pun unintended, and barely recognisable), but he does have this tendency to gravitate towards roles which are basically just extensions of himself. Thus my gripe with Doctor Black—he was just Bill Nighy with glasses on.

Other Thoughts: 

— I loved how they got around the Scottish accent problem—by not really getting around it at all. I suppose we can always blame the TARDIS. It does have a tendency to assign random accents during translation.

—Presumably this episode was filmed at the same time as 'The Vampires of Venice'. Both were shot on location at Trogir, Croatia.

—The song at the end was 'Chances' by Athlete.

—I loved the Doctor sticking out his tongue at the mirror.

—Some nice continuity, with images of Hartnell and Troughton flashing up on the screen of the Doctor's mirrored thingy.

—I'm assuming the Arcadia they visited was the same Arcadia which fell during the Time War?

—Where did Amy's tights go? On the way to the church she was wearing them, when Van Gogh started his painting they were gone, only to reappeared again inside the church. Of course, you have to be staring at Amy's legs the whole time to see it. You have my permission.

—The Doctor called Van Gogh, Rory. Whoops!


Amy: 'You do have a plan, don't you?'
Doctor: 'No... It's a Thing; it's like a plan, but with more greatness.'

Doctor: 'Sometimes, winning... winning is no fun at all.'

Vincent: 'But you're not armed.'
Doctor: 'I am.'
Vincent: 'What with?'
Doctor: 'Overconfidence, this, and a small screwdriver; I'm absolutely sorted.'

Doctor: 'One simple instruction, don't follow me under any circumstances.'
Vincent: 'Will you follow him?'
Amy: 'Of course!'
Vincent: 'I love you.'

Doctor: 'Is this really how time passes? Really slowly, in the right order?'

Doctor: 'The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things... hey... the good things don't always soften the bad things; but vice-versa the bad things don't necessarily spoil the good things and make them unimportant.'

Amy: 'If we had got married, our kids would have had very, very red hair.'
Doctor: 'The ultimate ginger.'
Amy: 'The ultimate ginge.'

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