“Art can wait, this is a matter of life and death!”
I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like. Since Doctor Who came back in 2005, there’s been a trend for episodes that focus specifically on one historical figure, most often an artist of some kind. We had Dickens in The Unquiet Dead, Shakespeare in The Shakespeare Code, and Agatha Christie in The Unicorn and the Wasp. You could almost add Winston Churchill in Victory of the Daleks, but he was sadly sidelined in favour of the new Day Glo Daleks.
And now, in Richard Curtis’ much vaunted debut for the series, we get Vincent Van Gogh. I really don’t know much about art, but Vincent is one of those artists that even a philistine like me is aware of. Curtis is obviously a fan, which is a good thing – imagine if we’d been treated to a story on the life of Vermeer, or Mondriaan. A lot fewer people would have got the references there, I suspect.
Vincent and the Doctor (the title presumably deliberately riffing on the film Vincent and Theo) was an enjoyable episode, but as with Simon Nye’s Amy’s Choice, it somehow didn’t quite feel like Doctor Who. Curtis is undoubtedly a talented writer, though since Blackadder your enjoyment of his work is dependent on your tolerance for sickly sweet romantic comedies, almost always starring Hugh Grant. But like Nye, he’s not a fan of Who particularly, and clearly has an outsider’s idea of how the show works.
In this case, it leads to an interesting episode. The focus on Vincent pretty much excludes any other character, and even the Doctor and Amy take second place to everyone’s favourite tortured artist. On the positive side, Tony Curran’s portrayal of Van Gogh was stunning, a brave performance the likes of which you rarely see in Doctor Who. As promised, Curtis didn’t shy away from the issue of the artist’s depression and mental illness, and this must be the first time a Who episode has been followed by one of those “If you’ve been affected by the issues in this programme” helpline ads.
But the depression, realistically shown by a hostile, hallucinating Vincent attacking the Doctor and Amy, wasn’t made the central point of Vincent’s character. He was shown as a talented but self-effacing man, who kept referring to his work as rubbish and trying to barter famous works of art for another drink. His flirtatious byplay with Amy was a delight, particularly the “Are you Dutch too?” line, which referenced his undisguised Scottish accent. And it was perfectly believable that the now single Amy would fall for him a little bit too, although she didn’t much care for the beard. Presumably the repeated exhortations to shave it off caused a razor accident involving his ear…
Thankfully, despite Curtis’ obvious veneration of Van Gogh and his own previous history, this was not a romantic comedy. Indeed, compared with Simon Nye’s delightfully barbed dialogue in Amy’s Choice, it was barely a comedy at all. The obligatory marauding alien was present and correct, though as with previous ‘great historical figures’ episodes, it seemed almost like a perfunctory afterthought. Still, some effort was made to give the Krafayis creature interesting characteristics; I liked that it could only be seen in mirrors, or by Vincent himself, who somehow “sees differently”. And it was interesting, though a little obvious, to make the particular example here a deliberate parallel to Vincent himself, abandoned because it couldn’t see and an outcast from its race.
However, the episode wasn’t really about the alien, and he was conveniently despatched about two thirds into it. And that’s where Curtis’ usual style really showed itself, as the self-doubting Vincent was taken to the Musee D’Orsay in 2010 to see an exhibition of his own work and be worshipped (albeit unknowingly) by the ever-excellent Bill Nighy. The dialogue here was actually rather cringeworthy as the art expert declared that, in his view, Van Gogh was “the greatest painter who ever lived”, but the performances sold it in an amazing way. Nighy’s dry delivery and Curran’s gradual descent into tears brought an undoubted lump to my throat regardless of how cheesy the dialogue was, and it ended up being a rather magical little scene that was well worth getting the alien out of the way to leave time for.
When you’re directing an episode about one of the greatest artists who ever lived, it must be a challenge. Jonny Campbell rose to the challenge admirably, producing a visually stunning piece of television that deliberately referenced many of Van Gogh’s most famous works. The literal translation of Cafe Terrace at Night that enabled the Doctor to track Vincent down was nicely done, as was the scary sequence of The Church at Auvers that started the whole story, but the real magic was reserved for the scene in which the night sky transforms into Vincent’s well-known work The Starry Night. The Doctor’s worshipful eulogy of how Vincent sees the world was a little much to take, but the visuals more than made up for it.
Vincent aside, there was a palpable tension in the Doctor’s relationship with Amy this week. Obviously uncomfortable at her loss of even the memory of Rory, the Doctor’s been doing nice things for her, and she’s wondering why. This wasn’t gone into with any depth – indeed, may well have been a post-hoc contribution from Steve Moffat himself – but was nicely played by Smith and Gillan as a prelude to something more. No sign of Amy’s Crack this week, mind…
Still, Amy did try to cheer Vincent up so that he wouldn’t kill himself, and learned the same lesson about changing time that Barbara did way back in 1964’s The Aztecs. But her attempt to brighten up his garden with hordes of sunflowers “you might want to, you know, paint them…” did turn out to have inspired him to create probably his most famous work, Vase with 12 Sunflowers. Although something tells me the real one doesn’t have ‘For Amy’ written on it. Again, it was a heartstring tugging moment, though slightly less successful than the one with Vincent in the museum himself. And as a ‘subtly altering time’ plot point, it reminded me of nothing more than that really silly episode of Quantum Leap where Sam has failed to prevent Kennedy’s assassination – “in the original history, Jackie died too…”. Yeah, right.
Still, cynical though I might be, this was an out of format episode that worked quite well. Richard Curtis still can’t resist the pull of pure sentimentality, but overall it was a heartfelt piece lifted by an amazing performance from Tony Curran as Vincent, and some great direction from Jonny Cambell. We’re obviously just treading water before the big climax at this point, but if all treading water episodes were this entertaining I’d say it was worth ditching story arcs altogether.