VINCENT AND THE DOCTOR
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Richard Curtis is a wealthy man. He’s made a bundle out of feelgood movies which ruthlessly stripmine a twee, clichéd Englishness from the real England and package it tidily for overseas consumption. They’re very popular, but not with us. They bring us out in hives and send us into sugar shock.
Another thing that’s popular? Doctor Who celebrity historicals. These, too leave us colder than a polar bear on ice skates, particularly when said celebrity is squished, mushed and remixed to suit the programme’s purposes.
These things are simply a matter of taste. They’re not to ours. If you found Vincent And The Doctor uplifting, poignant and heartwarming, we’re happy for you. Your taste coincides with the writer and production team’s, and you had a much better time watching it than we did. But please don’t read this review. It will only enrage you.
Because of the Richard Curtis/celebrity historical factor, we knew going into this episode that it was going to be uphill work for us. But despite our misgivings, we went into it as we always do with an open mind. So dedicated are we to this, in fact, that before we watched the episode for the first time we gave ourselves a stern talking to on another subject altogether. The reality is creeping over us that Matt Smith as the Doctor casts an unnatural glamour over every scene he’s in. Oi, Smith. We know your game. Be all complex and eccentric and wonderful, and we’ll see merit in things that actually don’t deserve it. We’re on to you.
So, open mind about Richard Curtis, and determination not to let Matt Smith seduce us more than is strictly necessary. And what did we find?
The start’s actually pretty good. We were hoping when the revival of Doctor Who was announced that Bill Nighy would get the gig in the TARDIS, so it was supercalifragilistic to see him here doing his City Of Death bit. And of course, he’s as stellar as you’d expect. We do wish they’d just left us to notice that he’s a Doctor too and is also wearing a bowtie, rather than ramming it down our throats, but you can’t have everything.
Do you really need to hear us say Matt Smith is also stellar? Didn’t think so. His touching concern for Amy even though she doesn’t know why, his expression as he looks at the monster mysteriously overlooked by a century of art scholarship, the reprise, just as well delivered as before, of “Bowties are cool”…, his delivery of “Ministry of Art and…Artiness”, and that’s just in the first three minutes. In fact, this is a noticeably Doctor-heavy episode, and with the Eleventh Doctor that can be nothing but good news.
The café scene is charming, with the expensive location shots putting in a pretty creditable imitation of Provence and the locals hilariously shearing away all that awe at his genius stuff that’s got stuck to Vincent van Gogh over the years (“Looming over the customers day and night in a stupid hat!”). Tony Curran turns in a great performance as Vincent. Amy, in her carefree who’s Rory state, seems to be stuck permanently oscillating between sassy and kooky, which is becoming a trifle wearing, but the Doctor, dear God, the Doctor. The “I’m…new in town” (can you imagine any other Doctor making that work?), the fond but sad smile as he watches Amy flirting with Vincent, then his expression as they bond over their red hair - it’s all matchless. You can see all the layers here: his sadness for Amy about Rory, but also his own feelings for her as he watches her with someone else. Goddammit it, it’s just too good.
Then, from an azure Provence-ish sky, a tiny dot of black. Falling…falling…getting closer…oh, it’s an anvil. They blame Vincent for a murder he has nothing to do with. because he’s mad. People discriminate against the mentally ill out of hatred and fear! Clang!
Then absolutely tons and tons of the bits we hate most about celebistoricals. His bedroom! Just like the famous painting! (Which wasn’t actually in this town, but never mind, none of the rest of it is accurate either. He’s still got all of his ears, for a start.) The famous paintings! Still wet! And, over and over and over and over again, the fact that nobody likes Vincent’s painting and he’s a failure as an artist.
Mixed, of course, with the arrival of Demonicus Metaphoricus, the terrifying creature only Vincent can see. A vicious, brutal predator, except it’s actually adorable, because it’s blind. Aw! If we have some problems with their presentation of mental conditions, which we’ll get to in a bit, we have problems squared with the whole blind thing. Yes, we know Moffat’s been using blindness and vision as metaphors the whole series, but that doesn’t excuse the massively, massively patronising and condescending way it’s used here. First, there's the offensive perpetuation of the myth that the blind have amazing hearing. That’s not true: it just makes the sighted feel better. Worse is the way a terrifying, brutal killer is at one stroke reduced to a cuddly toy just because it happens to be blind. Hurl. The fact that it’s a giant turkey needs no further comment from us.
And yes, that mental illness thing. They were batting on a sticky wicket here, as while heaps of theories have been advanced on exactly what mental problems Van Gogh had, from lead poisoning to schizophrenia, nobody knows for sure. Here, they seem to plumping for bipolar disorder while flinging a few other bits and pieces like synaesthesia into the mix for good measure. While occasionally they hit the mark, as with the scene of Vincent’s despair that they’ll leave him alone like everyone else, the rest is pretty crass. Either it’s ridiculously unrealistic - I’m bipolar! That means I’m fine now even though I was sad a second ago! - or it’s a hideous compost heap of misinformed clichés - he’s not crazy, he’s just misunderstood! Being bipolar makes you a genius! Being bipolar makes you see what other people can’t, including their own emotions! Being manic makes you a lovable eccentric! Clearly, they thought they were going for a sensitive portrayal, helpline and all. We think they missed by a mile.
And speaking of lovable eccentric, we’re asked to swallow whole the idea that Amy and Vincent have a mad passion after having spent less than a day together. Um, yeah. In the midst of the languorous looks and his ever-so-touching proposal that they have lots of kids, we couldn’t help observing that it all seems a little less sighingly romantic when you take into account that he probably had syphilis at the time.
Back to the story, such as it is. And even Matt Smith doing a Perseus can’t save the frankly yawnsome turkey plot. The great “Is this how time usually passes? Really slowly. And in the right order” is there, but also some clunky name dropping about Michelangelo and Picasso in which Matt Smith is as close to unconvincing as we’ve yet seen him. Then they smack us about the head with Vincent slaying his demon with the instrument of his artistry and…that’s it. But how can this be? There’s still another thirteen minutes to go!
We’ve never actually seen the Richard Curtis Script Factory, but we know what it looks like. Imagine a giant, sky-high vat of sugar syrup. Now imagine cartons labelled The Bleedin’ Obvious. Turn on the tap on the sugar vat, and a tsunami of syrup flows out, creeping up the cartons until they’re completely saturated. Now write “by Richard Curtis” and you’ve got yourself a script. And that is, without a fraction of a shadow of a doubt, how the second half of this episode was manufactured. It's mushier than a mushy pea.
We’ve seen a lot of people talk about the starry night scene that follows with trembling emotion. Huh. For us, it’s painfully obvious and nauseatingly slushy. But it gets worse. Oh, it gets worse.
We all cry when we hear “Vincent”, right? And we’ve all felt sorry for Van Gogh and wished we could tell him that he got all famous and such. That, in our book, is precisely the reason not to do it here. Richard Curtis, however, is determined to leave no sugar cube unturned. Not only are we going to tell Vincent we all think he’s a great artist, we’re going to tell him he was one of the greatest human beings who ever lived. And what’s more, we’re going to do it to a power ballad. He even cries. Grr. Argh. We’ve seen boring Who. We’ve seen bad Who. We’ve very rarely seen a scene we found so difficult to sit through. We had to bribe ourselves with chocolate to make it through a second time and even then it was a Herculean struggle.
And, in the end, they can’t change Vincent’s fate. This is supposed to be an affecting moment about the way there are no simple answers with mental problems. And there aren’t, and that of course is genuinely sad. The problem is that the way they set this episode up, that’s not our take-home at all. For a start, we wonder exactly what it is they’re trying to say about the death itself: the episode starts with a mysterious rustling in a cornfield, never explained, and Vincent marking his last painting (his last according to this, anyway) with a distinctly crack-shaped crow. And look at the branch very prominently in the foreground as they drop Vincent off back in the nineteenth century. Crack-shaped or what? Are they suggesting that he didn’t actually commit suicide at all? Whether that turns out to be true or not, it certainly dampens the emotion around his death.
Also, although the Doctor says earlier in the episode that it would be their fault if they got Vincent killed during the turkey shoot, we wonder whether, if all the crack stuff does turn out to be a red herring and Vincent shot himself in the chest on cue, how much blame the Doctor should take for that instead. To take an unstable man and show him the greatness which will be his but which he won’t ever see, not to mention to show him stuff like the TARDIS and time travel which has to shake his already tenuous grasp on reality, is at least as likely to precipitate his suicide as to discourage it. We don’t think that’s what they meant to show us, but it’s there.
What’s more, the Doctor’s speech about life containing good things and bad things is all very touching, but it doesn’t sound like him at all. The Eleventh Doctor is a man of indirection, crypticness and silences, not the kind of simple directness we see here, reducing his complexity and making him seem more like a primary school teacher than a mysterious intergalactic traveller.
Without doubt viewing this is an emotional experience, but the emotions it made us feel we really don’t want to revisit. We sincerely hope we never have to see this again.
MORAL: If it looks like a turkey, and it quacks like a turkey, it’s probably a turkey.
YOU’RE NOT DOING IT PROPERLY IF IT DOESN’T SOUND LIKE YOU’RE THROWING UP A HAIRBALL
One of us, who speaks Dutch, said gloomily at the beginning of this: “Wonder how many times they’ll mispronounce Van Gogh?” Answer: we lost count. Bill Nighy gets closest at the beginning, but at the end defaults to Van Goff. Still, at least they didn’t call him Van Go.
DO YA LIKE SCRATCHIN’?
As the Doctor looks at the church painting, he scratches his head. The sound for this is so badly synched that the noise is still going as the Doctor takes his hand away.
If the paintings are precious to Vincent, why is he putting a coffee pot down on them?
A MATTER OF PERSPECTIVE
The bedroom set looks like it’s been built to look like the painting, so when the Doctor moves around in it the proportions look weird.
I’LL SEE YOUR TRAGIC HERO AND RAISE YOU A LONELY GOD
Playing the Last Time Lord card again, Doctor?
BILL STICKERS IS INNOCENT
We love the Doctor’s annoyance at having the TARDIS flypostered, and the way the posters burn off in the time-space continuum.
Buy this Doctor Who DVD: UK
Buy this Doctor Who DVD on Blu-ray: UK