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.

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