Sunday, 27 June 2010
Written by Steven Moffat, directed by Toby Haynes, 2010
Less a story than a puzzle box, though exhilarating The Big Bang can't help but be ultimately anticlimactic, given that nothing is resolved. I don't know what I was thinking, really, imagining that, say, the Dream Lord, or some similar vengeful supervillain would be responsible for the TARDIS' destruction. Obviously I reckoned without Steven Moffat's wormy brain.
I feel I should be annoyed by the ultimate lack of resolution to these events (and I’m sure lots of people will be), but actually, the delicious tortuousness of this story is perfectly adequate recompense. "Silence will fall," indeed?! I should have known nothing so mundane would be on the cards. The potential for multi-season arcs is quite intriguing, though one wonders what a general audience must have made of this story (if anything), let alone another self-involved conundrum down the line.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Less out-and-out dazzling than the preceding episode - the essentially four-handed structure makes it feel surprisingly small, and though, frankly, I prefer a bit of intimacy, it somewhat undercuts the epic threat - this final episode was nevertheless filled with numerous great moments, not least those when a chunk of the plot fell into place. There was still a touch too much exposition of the 'this is going to happen because I say this is going to happen' variety (for example, flying the Pandorica into the exploding TARDIS is in no way self-evident as a solution, rather something we have to take on trust). But, it still widdles over Davies' efforts, given that I don't immediately wish it could be purged from my mind.
I was expecting some sort of progression from the previous episode, akin to the initially baffling dream world with which Moffat's Forest of the Dead begins, so the "1,894 years later…" caption didn’t come as a massive surprise (incidentally, how satisfying must they be to write?!). The revisit of The Eleventh Hour's opening moments - the series coming full circle - was unexpected, but felt absolutely right, especially as it was actually great to see young Amelia again. Given the Doctor’s childlikeness, it seems odd this affinity hasn’t been exploited with child-companions before now (suddenly I have images of TV Comic's John and Gillian appearing on screen in the sixties...).
Similarly, I can't be the only person to have also welcomed the revisits to other previous stories, though it would have been nice if they’d been more integral. Considering how baffling this story could be though (if you didn’t pay attention), that might have been asking for trouble. Having said that, I wasn’t fully convinced that this would actually happen, on the basis of the scene where the Doctor briefly appeared to have regained his jacket in Flesh and Stone, which seemed almost too subtle to be anything besides a continuity error. However, it did appear to me that there actually was a continuity error this time round, as he seemed to have bare arms even when wearing the jacket?!
More than any of his previous series fnarg stories, this finale demonstrated the most outré elements of Moffat's imagination, as well as it arguably being here that he fully justifies his position as showrunner and head writer. Rory as a two thousand year old Auton - who'd ever have seen that coming?! That sort of unrestrained approach to storytelling is something always attributed to Davies, and which never quite worked for me - whereas here I think it does, the difference being that the story doesn’t coast on one or two elements. On the contrary, The Big Bang encompasses Roman Britain, 1996, calcified Daleks, Amy and Rory's long-awaited nuptials, a fez ("Fezzes are cool"), the TARDIS as a sun, and obviously "nonsensical time-travelling farce,” as Moffat puts it (nicely undercut by the future Doctor appearing and tumbling down the stairs).
Speaking of Daleks, it's entirely appropriate that it is one of them which forms the only sentient threat in this half of the story. I certainly can’t say I’m particularly upset that the alien alliance of The Pandorica Opens is pretty much irrelevant, simply serving as a means to put the plot into motion, so we're spared Doomsday-style interminable monster-smackdowns.
Probably unsurprisinglyly, I feel this is an episode which will repay rewatching in a big way, and already very much makes me want to return to the beginning of the season with the benefit of hindsight. I can't believe the Eleventh Doctor's first run is all over, but, gloriously, The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang has fully justified the poorer stories of the series (which, in fairness, are relatively few) – though, in light of the season's strong opening and closing, these become little more than forgivable lapses.
My only substantial reservation is probably an unfair one. That is that The Eleventh Hour formed such a perfect pilot that I feel quite cheated that Leadworth and the inhabitants we met in that episode didn't become at least semi-regular. Given the format established prior to this year, it does make Moffat's version of the series lacking in not having a central core in that way (if not in many other ways).
It’s either less… or more… than the sum of its parts – not sure which – but I loved it. A finale that I didn’t simply tolerate at best! Some of it is too easy (the Doctor and River’s escapes), but at least things don’t get overly laboured, and instead we just get on with the story. Pleasingly, both Rory and Amy are brought back without recourse to much-derided deus ex machina reset switches; the situations of their deaths were resolved rather than rescinded. Moffat’s definitely a keeper.
It doesn’t feel like a coherent, fully fleshed-out story in the way The Empty Child or Silence in the Library do – it’s too episodic for that, and maybe a bit too clever-clever for its own good. But, in dramatic terms it’s massively satisfying - even if there’s probably a billion plotholes, should one chose to enumerate them. I don’t, though. Dramatically, it works; the Silence apart, it ties up a season’s worth of adventures and enigmas, and the effortlessness with which Moffat essays the audaciousness of the plot is glorious.
• So was Amy not remembering Daleks (and, presumably, Cybermen) a symptom of the events here? Or something else? It didn’t seem explicitly addressed. (Oh, and the whole thing with the duck-less duck pond - I presume that was an oblique reference to the emptiness of chez Pond?)
• It’s funny how quickly we as the audience – and the Doctor – have come to take River for granted, despite (rather like Captain Jack) not knowing the first thing about her history or background. She also seems to have returned to the somewhat milder, (marginally) less arch figure of Silence in the Library, rather than the brassier portrayal of The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone.
Having her make a Dalek beg for mercy is an interesting development – though heavy-handed; yes, we get that she’s not necessarily that ‘nice’ – even if it does smack of yet more fan-teasing. Given that we have Moffat’s assurance that the next series will reveal more about her, I can live with that; I particularly can’t wait to see their first encounter (from her PoV).
• Matt Smith's evening wear is better than David Tennant's Paul Smith tux. Exciting that his costume is apparently being souped-up for future outings, but I’d be happy to see him retain his Edwardian spiv look, for a while at least.
In terms of this series at large, overall, Moffat hasn’t reinvented anything as such – rather added a fairytale/childlike veneer to the format he’s appropriated from Davies. Fortunately the format itself, since the show came back, is a strong one, and given that I prefer the slightly more magical approach Moffat has brought to the series, these are Good Things.
Perhaps my main overall criticism would be that Amy hasn't been given much chance to respond to what she experiences; there's been a slightly disappointing old series-style assumption that her thoughts should be implicit with the audience, whereas Davies brought the wonderment of the situation to the surface. This needn't be a constant, but it would be nice to see some acknowledgment that she has at least some self-awareness. Similarly, I don't really want to see a return to the domestic milieu of the companions' families (somehow I can’t imagine Augustus and her mum becoming major presences?), but at least glimpses of it throughout the next run might make her seem more rounded.
To be frank though, I’ve enjoyed the underlying tenets of this approach to Doctor Who so much more than the Davies era that any criticism is pretty much superfluous. The highest praise I can possibly give is that I am looking forward to Christmas and series six with excitement rather than apprehension.
Next Time: WHO KILLED KENNEDY
Sunday, 20 June 2010
Written by Steven Moffat, directed by Toby Haynes, 2010
I hate season finales. Tediously overblown, messy, self-indulgent things. But maybe I should put that into the past tense.
Russell T Davies is the only writer to have previously tackled the slot designed to bring a season’s worth of stories to a climax. Therefore, more than any other element of this second era of revived Doctor Who, it’s impossible to discuss this series’ finale without comparing it to those of the previous showrunner.
In my Lodger review, I pondered whether Moffat would take a different route from his predecessor’s overblown approach, or instead try to out-Davies Russell with more of the same. The appearance of multiple alien races would appear to point to the latter – an escalation of Army of Ghosts/Doomsday’s Daleks versus Cybermen more-is-more principle. In practice though, that Moffat undercuts this expectation is representative of the previously un-furrowed direction in which he takes The Pandorica Opens.
Despite the scale deriving from its culmination of various season-long strands, there’s a surprisingly restrained – and in that sense, decidedly un-Davies approach to this story. Which is not to say that it is restrained, but by comparison to the previous new series finales at least there’s time to breathe.
Inevitably, this episode will be described as something of a synthesis of Davies and Moffat’s approaches, with the often ultimately hollow spectacle of the former reinforced by the latter’s more assured way with a complex plot. And it works. For once, I was as excited about a finale as I evidently was always intended to be, a possibility which was always destroyed by the looseness and lazy crowd-pleasing of the previous stories in this slot - to say nothing of the excruciating celebrity cameos.
Most telling, perhaps, is the evident comparison between the mysterious Sphere in Army of Ghosts and the mysterious Pandorica: one is in a deeply dull research facility, and has some Daleks in it. The other is under Stonehenge! In a creepy gothic vault! It might be massively clichéd, but at least it has atmosphere. I know what I prefer. Oh, and, it doesn’t have some Daleks in it.
It’s nigh-on impossible to accurately judge a two-parter on the basis of one episode, and in fact, The Pandorica Opens feels rather more like the pulling together of various strands than a coherent story in its own right. However, it performs its function rather gloriously, and if making the narrative itself rather disjointed is the only end-of-season concession we’re going to get under Moffat, then - ehh, I can live with that.
The cracks, the TARDIS explosion, the Pandorica, Rory’s return (which, miraculously, doesn't actually renege on his death in Cold Blood with a direct reset-switch), Amy’s past – obviously, all these things aren’t fully resolved here, but for once it’s actually exciting seeing them coming together, rather than tiring, and makes the Bad Wolf and Saxon memes seem even more inadequate. Where those seasons literally led toward an answer to ‘What/Who is it?’, there are multiple elements at work here, making both trying to predict what will happen - and enjoying the revelations as they come - far more rewarding.
What’s most satisfying is the dexterity with which Moffat handles these various threats: the Pandorica itself being the ultimate case in point, the revelation of its function seeming immediately obvious, in the most gratifying way; it had to be linked to the Doctor, but…
Similarly, the various races’ relationship to one another, again undercutting the Doomsday-on-acid thing, is a similarly simple but effective bit of sleight of hand. It made me think of Jonathan Morris’ DWM strip Death to the Doctor!. It fact, the monster axis of evil has a very comic book feel, albeit located within a contrastingly complex situation. If the story had been merely what it appeared to be - Monster Smackdown, or even Monsters versus Romans – it would have been severely naff. It’s also a bonus that this isn't 'just' a Dalek story or a cyber-story, cos, really, we don’t need that, and it wouldn’t be anything special for a finale.
That all this is going on alongside Auton Romans (who saw that coming?), the return of Rory (with another major nod to Mickey), and Amy’s apparent death, is fantastic – none of these would have been so thrilling individually (whereas any one of these things might have been a major element of a Davies finale), but have a cumulative power that left me literally jaw-dropped – something I cant say happens very often. And in the best way – thrilled, slightly overwhelmed, and amused at the script’s audacity, and at my own complicity in not seeing any of this coming.
There is also what seems like a very deliberate attempt to do a Stolen Earth early on, and cement this season’s status as a self-contained era in its own right with the appearance of various characters from earlier stories. It’s funny, I’d already found myself musing, earlier in the run, on the idea of situation where characters like Churchill and Liz Ten might return en masse – like the celebratory New Adventure Happy Endings - and it’s brilliant (and unexpected!) to actually see something akin to that. There have been a number of particularly brilliant pre-titles sequences this season, a damn-sight less perfunctory than in previous years, and the appearance of van Gogh, Churchill, and only bloody Liz Ten (meeting River!*) is massively impressive – in delivering a really obvious bit of audience-pleasing, without it seeming offensively unnecessary.
At various points during the writing of these reviews, I’ve wondered how unfairly biased I am toward series fnarg. I really don’t like Davies’ general approach, whereas I really like Moffat’s stories and mentality: I was probably always going to cut him some pretty substantial slack. But this run of recurring characters is the sort of thing I hated The Stolen Earth or The End of Time for, yet here… Perhaps it’s because it’s genuinely woven into the narrative. Not the overall story, perhaps, but part of the set-up, a chain of events, in a way that that Sarah or the Torchwood team’s arbitrary involvement, or the Tenth Doctor’s dying rounds, didn’t.
Quite apart from the characters, in this case I loved seeing such varied settings – Provence, the war rooms, the Stormcage (even if it was another one of those over-used Cardiff locations), the cartoony jungle planet, Liz Ten’s gallery (love that she provides the security herself…) - even the Star Wars-y bar where River does her dirty deal. All those situations add to an impression of the expansiveness of the Doctor’s universe, whereas a role-call of former companions only emphasised the insularity of the Tenth Doctor’s world.
Okay, so, this story wasn’t without its flaws. I think the Pandorica prop wobbled at one point, for example. Ooh, that’s not going to be pretty in HD! And then there’s all the little niggly points – who woke the Silurians up to be part of the alliance when they won’t even meet the Doctor for a couple of thousand years? (That we know of, admittedly – but I’ve got my Outraged Ming-Mong hat on. It has a bobble.) How comes the Cybus Cybermen have a fleet? How does Rory nobble a Cyberman (even a battered one) with a sword? Hmm? More importantly, do we care…? Well, no.
Flagrant disregard for continuity bugs me; what can I say – I’m a fan. But, for once, I really get the immediacy of the big, fast, shocking, involving finale. And I say finale like it’s separate from any other type of story, because I think it is. It’s a different format, where the story is drawing on things that have been established over several weeks, and has to bear the extra weight of those snowballing expectations. And, previously, the series has always flunked for me, and failed totally to deliver on those expectations. The series two and three finales are among the most hateful of new Who stories for me, the moments where phrases like ‘dumbed down’ and ‘lowest common denominator’ really come in handy.
But, I actually – can I say it? – kinda loved this. I’m writing immediately after watching, which I don’t usually do, so it’s probably not the most balanced of reactions - but that’s sort of part of the fun. It was invigorating and actually shocking, mainly because it didn’t entirely jettison the intelligence and little twists of Moffat’s mindset.
There is always that worry of how enjoyable something’ll be when you know all its secrets – how much will be left? – but let’s ignore that for once. What’s perhaps most exciting is not having a clue what to expect from episode thirteen. I imagine it’s unlikely to hang around the under-henge for too long, and hopefully it’ll end with Rory and Amy finally tying the knot. But whose is that voice? Next week I’ll probably sound as stupid as those people who thought Omega might be in the Pandorica, but – the Dream Lord…?
If this series had ended on a damp squib (…and I do realise there is still time for that), I might’ve found it hard to overlook my disappointed with fairly hefty swathes of the year’s stories. But it looks set to go out with a (big) bang, and in that case, I’m happy to overlook the saggy middle.
*Something The Guardian suggested back in week two, although it – and I - hoped for more of a bitch-off.
Sunday, 13 June 2010
Written by Gareth Roberts, directed by Catherine Morshead, 2010
A slightly different version of this article can be read here, on Kasterborous.
Well, that was a bloody improvement. After the dud contributions from Messrs Gatiss, Whithouse and Chibnall, it's heartening - albeit belatedly - to see that not all the new series writers have (quite literally) lost the plot. Not that the plot per se of this episode was anything more than a framework to drape a concept around, but that becomes forgivable when said concept is such a corker. Like Amy's Choice, a simple premise - the Doctor lodging in a house which, essentially, eats people - fares much better than this season's attempts at large-scale stories, while also avoiding the pitfalls of the two-wildly-different-stories-smashed-together approach, as modelled by Richard Curtis' preceding Vincent and the Doctor. Personally, I haven’t read the comic this story is based on, but with such a delicious ‘why hasn’t anyone done that before?’ central idea, it isn’t at all surprising that it’s the latest story from the spin-off media to make it onto the small screen.
In common with Simon Nye's episode, there's a sense of this story making good on the season's promise, the bold-but-twisty, storybook-tinged style premiered in The Eleventh Hour. (So much so that it felt credible that Prisoner Zero could be making a return appearance. Albeit sans dog.) There are certainly shades of that story in the Aickman Road house and its textbook-creepy upstairs neighbours (which is to say nothing of other familiar moments like the ‘possessed’ speaker and a combination of The Unicorn and the Wasp’s ‘stimulating the enzymes’ and The Christmas Invasion’s tannin fetishisation).
Outside of Moffat’s own episodes, relatively little of season fnarg has lived up to the fresh stylistic approach of its earliest episodes, mainly inhabiting a more generic version of the Doctor's universe, but, despite being set in unremarkable environs, The Lodger’s Colchester does feel something of a spiritual cousin to Leadworth. It’s surprising for a somewhat unassuming story - which it might be assumed would be filed alongside other equally low-key suburban stories like Love and Monsters and Fear Her - would be one to realign the season with the Moffat house-style most successfully. Not that it doesn’t have similarities with those season two stories, most notably the former - though James Corden, despite apparently doing his best to become an eminent hateable nonentity in real life, brings a shade more realism to the borderline-useless everyman catapulted into the Doctor’s life which both stories share.
Roberts' effort also wins out over those episodes’ Barratt Homes soullessness by acknowledging that perhaps there should, or at least could be more to life than pizza-booze-telly. While it is perhaps unappealing for every single guest character the Doctor meets to come away with an epiphanous new outlook on life, the resolution of Craig’s unrequited love is certainly preferable to the equivalent woman in Marc Warren's life being transformed into what I think Lawrence Miles memorably called a 'concrete fellatio machine'. By contrast, this story addresses legitimate fears about the crushing monotony of “work, weekend, work, weekend,” and it’s pleasing to see that though the Doctor may have been out of his depth when faced with van Gogh’s mental state, he can inspire Daisy – and without it feeling heavy-handed or mawkish. Win!
It's easy to forget how relatively short a period it has been since Doctor Who returned to television, and despite those four and a bit years peppered with Russell T Davies' trademark 'realist' settings, it's still quite a surprise to see the Doctor placed in such a rigorously ordinary environment. Human Nature aside, we've never seen the Doctor so fully immersed in day to day life (in 47 years, this is, what, the third time we've seen him have a bath or shower? And I’m sure a lot of people will thank Roberts for that. Drinking milk while wearing a towel, this could suddenly be anything other than Doctor Who). In fact, it seems absurd to imagine (say) the Third Doctor popping round the Brigadier's pad for cribbage and a Heineken. (Or... whatever.)
Obviously, this unexpected culture clash forms the crux of the episode, and it's perhaps the closest we've had to the Doctor as a Starman/Watt on Earth*-style alien-baffled-by-everyday-life. Fortunately, Roberts makes this chestnut funny rather than tedious (“Call me the rotmeister. No, I’m the Doctor, don’t call me the rotmeister”), and doesn’t seem too out of character, despite this season alone (and the new series at large) having already demonstrated his greater knowledge of the minutiae of human life than previously acknowledged (internet porn and Kylie Minogue, anyone?). Incidentally, I’m almost glad we don’t know how the Doctor got hold of £3000 in a paper bag over the course of one day.
There's arguably a danger that Matt Smith's Doctor is becoming an out and out comic figure in a way perhaps only formerly true of Tom Baker, predominately during season seventeen. For a lot of people that won’t be a bad precedent, but, given that the whole series was pitched at a more blatantly comic register, it does give rise to the question of how appropriate it is to the 'dark fairytale' stylings of the Moffat administration. In fact though, the Doctor's eccentricity may be exaggerated (the air-kisses…!), but Smith is in the enviable position of making it seem perfectly natural, and in fact delivers what may prove to be one of his definitive performances as the character. Also, whereas Fourth Doctor would probably be too aloof and alien for such a domestic arrangement, the Eleventh's constant state of wonderment and enjoyment of the situation is what brings this rather glorious concept alive.
Having said all that, perhaps with a (one hopes!) climactic finale on the way, we may yet see the Doctor acknowledge the weight of events – tune in next week, kids. Depending whether Stevesie (I'm getting tired of typing 'Moffat'; silly name anyway) goes down a gravitas-laden path, or ramps up the big overblown thrills’n’spills and out-Davies Davies. Either way, we know the next episode has the unlikely distinction of namechecking both Chelonians and Drahvins, so my geek-spot is already tickled.
Already the first outing for the revived series' second era is coming to an end, and, it has to be said, it's been a mixed bag. For what it's worth, on a personal level, the leads and the general timbre of the series - both richer, more whimsical, but also more traditional than the last few years – are a joy, so I’m prepared to overlook the slides into mediocrity. It’s just unfortunate that these have mainly come later in the run, giving the impression of a series that's lost its footings after a confident and original take at the get-go.
The Lodger goes some way to assuage those disappointments though, and as the last 'basic' one-episode story of the Eleventh Doctor's opening run, it's a welcome reminder of the deftness that has been displayed throughout the season, if not consistently. A relatively minor detail, but – by way of example - this story continues a trend this year for memorably self-contained pre-titles sequences, transcending arbitrary Deaths of the Week – The Time of Angels, Amy’s Choice, and even The Beast Below spring to mind.
Also, that Matt Smith shines is a given, but for those who've lost patience with the slightly one-note nature of Ms Pond's character development, her less-is-more involvement can't help but make the heart grow fonder. All Karen Gillen is required to do may be some shaky-TARDIS acting and talking to a gramophone horn, but she still does it rather lovely…ly. (Although you would be forgiven for thinking she'd already ticked the Amy-lite episode off her contract with The Hungry Earth.)
If an episode like this - and its earlier fellow standout, Amy's Choice - demonstrate anything (and really, we should know this already), it's that small-scale stories with a solid, simple concept and small but well-chosen casts, are, frankly, the way to go. (Especially given the visible strain budget cuts have apparently placed on some of the grander FX requirements of this series. By contrast, the pseudo-TARDIS upstairs is quite a magnificent set - up there with that in Mark of the Rani: praise indeed!).
This is a deceptively effective episode, and one that may perhaps be easy to dismiss given its frivolity. However, in its effortless blending of equally effective humour (“Those keys – you’re sort of… fondling them”) with genuine creepiness, in a far more equal balance than, say, Vampires of Venice, The Lodger is in a position to become something of a high benchmark for the Smith era. More like this for next time, please.
*That’s the last time I’m ever namechecking that series. Written by Pip’n’Jane Baker, fact fans!
Sunday, 6 June 2010
Written by Richard Curtis, directed by Jonny Campbell, 2010
I’ve been hedging my bets about Richard Curtis’ contribution to Doctor Who. However, though his films may be the cinematic equivalent of the four riders of the apocalypse, in Vincent and the Doctor he’s delivered a story that sits at the higher end of this series - despite being somewhat unbalanced and seeming to pull in two directions.
The chasing-invisible-monster bollocks seems extraneous, being by far the least interesting section of the story. The atypically 'Doctor Who-y' areas of the script, on the contrary, are far more compelling, perhaps suggesting that Curtis isn’t a natural when it comes to the fantastical. (A more abstract threat would perhaps have felt more appropriate.)
The emotional side of this story, though the more effective element, is still relatively unremarkable, given that the new series routinely explores its characters' emotional states to some extent, along with now-customary heartstring-tugging. What’s most disappointing though is the distinction between the character-led parts of the script and the alien turkey parts. It’d be far more preferable to have these two sides integrated, potentially creating a greater whole than either approach could individually – something previously achieved in Human Nature and Silence in the Library.
Particularly because of this, I'm not sure there’s anything that really distinguishes this as the work of A Famous Writer (not that there’s necessarily a correlation between fame and talent… obviously). Nevertheless it's far preferable to the weakest stories this season, and has a touch of the insouciant confidence of Steven Moffat’s own scripts, for example in its switching between locations.
The main strength of Vincent and the Doctor though has arguably less to do with the writing than with Tony Curran's quite phenomenal performance. It is perhaps telling that Vincent van Gogh with a broad Scottish accent doesn’t seem jarring, or even notable. The regional accents in the cafe rather wonderfully evoke The Massacre – given the 44 year gap, I presume this is unintentional (if probably not unacknowledged), but it’s pleasingly used in exactly the same way, to suggest differentiations in class whilst avoiding the horrors of dubious euro-accents. Nice too that this isn’t a point that’s laboured (it isn’t even pointed out that the locals are really speaking French), though it is suggested by the Doctor’s accent sounding Dutch to van Gogh.
Obviously any portrayal of van Gogh would be lacking without an acknowledgment of his mental health, and it’s striking to see Doctor Who presenting depression in a relatively unsantised way, especially without ‘tackling it’ per se, or becoming didactic. Admittedly, the self-pity gets heavy handed, but the celebrity historicals have never been subtle (the ‘best painter/writer EVAH’ hyperbole grates).
The scene showing van Gogh’s unexpected anguish and aggression flaring up whilst laying on his bed is the most memorable, brave and heartbreaking part of the episode, all the more because the Doctor can’t do anything about it. Similarly, the coda (pretty much the story’s raison d’être) could have been as saccharine as you’d expect from Curtis – I suppose it is, really, but Curran sells van Gogh’s overwhelmed disbelief so effectively that it becomes something far more human than that.
Maybe this is a purely personal prejudice, but there’s something far more compelling about having the Doctor encounter a painter rather than yet another writer, mainly because writing is impossible to portray on-screen, so is almost something the audience is expected to take on trust. The story doesn’t (quite) overdo showing Vincent painting, but his work is physically there throughout, not to mention the canvases and brushes, etc.
“One of the foremost artists of all times” is an arguably nonsensical label, but I’d be interested in seeing the Doctor encounter an artistic figure again. If we’re ever to have the Doctor meet another painter, it strikes me there’d be lots of fun to be had with ‘the Doctor meets Dalí’. (Having said that, I just imagined CGI melty clocks, so maybe Dalí’s association with moving image is best left to Spellbound and his collaborations with Buñuel.)
Yet another unconvincing CGI monster with no sense of physical presence or weight is a major drain on goodwill toward this story (and it is especially annoying that it looks far better in the production sketches the Doctor’s (entirely unnecessary) wing-mirror gadget prints off). The hammy ‘invisible acting’ is a bit unfortunate, too. But, the script does bring out the best in its performers, so I suppose I can let it go; there’s an effortless understanding of this Doctor that was missing in the previous two episodes, which felt like a broad, comic-strip style approximation of his characterisation. Smith is at his spazzy best here, all fluttering limbs and gawky wannabe-cool attitude, and some good one-liners. “This would never have happened with Gainsborough...”
Visually, as befits an episode where aesthetics are a part of its makeup, the location filming does look lovely on its own terms, and I suppose it’s churlish to lament that it is all too obviously Trogir doubling for a second European location within a few episodes. Although, there’d be no way of recreating or finding convincing equivalents for the low-roofed cottages and 'Provence' countryside in Wales, so the obvious non-Britishness almost makes it seem as if the Doctor could turn up in unrecreatable locations like… a glacier, or Machu Picchu, or African savannah, if a story demanded it.
There’s also some welcome stylistic invention (most notably the shots utilising a turntable in the Musée d'Orsay at the end) – could have done without the indie landfill dirge on the soundtrack though, which feels inappropriately unnecessary. For some reason the throwaway moment of the funeral procession passing seemed strangely filmic, though.
Though enjoyable, sort of hoping this might be a grower.
Points for further baiting oversensitive redheads everywhere (or maybe oversensitive mothers?), who will no doubt misinterpret the “ultimate ginge” line.