Doctor Who – Vincent and the Doctor
5 June 2010
Warning – this review contains spoilers
Trying to help Amy get over a loss that she doesn’t even remember, the Doctor exposes his companion to the world of art. What follows is an exploration of pain and madness as well as a revelation of the beauty that is all around us, seen through the eyes of Vincent van Gogh.
Vincent van Gogh does his best to concentrate on the painting
The Doctor and Amy arrive in contemporary Paris at the Musée d’Orsay to bask in the wonder of art and hopefully forget the painful loss of Rory in the previous adventure. Unfortunately, Amy has no memory of Rory’s life or death or of their relationship, making the Doctor all the more uncomfortable. A helpful art critic played by Bill Nighy (the man who could have been Doctor No. 9) lays out the situation as he describes van Gogh’s life as miserable and full of failure. Soon, the pair of travelers are off on another adventure away from the awkward art lesson, after discovering that one of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings contains something it shouldn’t, a gruesome looking monster lurking through the windows of a church. Arriving in 1890 shortly before van Gogh’s most productive painting period and eventual suicide, the Doctor finds that the monster is far more difficult to deal with and it is also not the worst of his worries.
Arriving in the past to follow Vincent until he paints the church and sees the monster proves troublesome as the artist is shunned by the locals and a hopeless drunk who can neither pay for his drinks nor will he allow anyone else to pay for them. I have to say, given that this leaves no logical method by which to obtain alcohol… I am impressed that van Gogh was a ‘hopeless drunk.’ We are back in the realm of ‘television for the intelligence impaired’ as a stream of characters refer to van Gogh as mad and dangerous as well as a terrible painter. Van Gogh himself allows the Doctor and Amy to go home with him (no doubt hoping to bed Amy) and apologizes for s the poor quality of his paintings and declares himself mad… in case we missed all of the dialog earlier or the art critic’s speech that both said the exact same thing.
Van Gogh’s madness is depicted as mad fits against an invisible assailant, something only he can see (because he’s an artist, I guess). The Doctor’s empathy toward Vincent is very well played by the actors and it is a testament to both Tony Curran and Matt Smith as it is so hamfistedly conveyed. The Doctor tries to use a magic mirror device to see the monster (which strangely results in the third appearance of William Hartnell on screen this year) but eventually realizes that they’ll have to force Vincent to go to the church with them and wait for the creature to turn up.
That is the drama… going places and waiting for things to happen. It’s such a bad idea that even the Doctor gets bored and rambles about his experiences with other famous painters.
In due course the monster shows up and the Doctor gets chased by it all ’round the inside of the church until Vincent kills it by accident. Van Gogh laments over the alien’s death, for some bizarre reason seeing a bit of his own relationship with the locals who despise his ‘madness.’ All three lay in the field and stare at the stars, urged on by Vincent to see the colors and shapes that seem hidden in the black sky… which are then digitally drawn on the screen in case the viewer has no imagination at all.
Seeking to lighten the mood, the Doctor shows Vincent the TARDIS and takes him to the same exhibit the story started in to show him that he ends up being appreciated as a major success. Despite the newfound inspiration the experience gives him, the Doctor and Amy travel back to contemporary Paris to discover that the artist still committed suicide… well, duh.
To say that the long-awaited Richard Curtis (Blackadder) script leaves a lot to be desired is understating the situation a great deal. I remember reading that the script went through several rewrites (no doubt a major strike against Curtis’ ego) as it did not capture the Doctor’s voice and was far too slow. Given the final product, I think that the problem is not in the pacing but in the entire concept. The basic idea is that the Doctor meets van Gogh, fights a monster, tries to show Vincent that he is a major success in the future and the leaves the artist to commit suicide. It makes very little sense and in the end serves no real purpose. The script is strained and full of so many plot contrivances I’m not sure how I am meant to take it seriously, and presumably I am since the overlong long obnoxious montage at the end signals a torrent of tears.
Granted, it’s not a total loss as the actor playing van Gogh, Tony Curran, is rather brilliant. Smith and Gillan are, as always, incredible and have so much chemistry and exuberance on screen that I’d watch them in a telethon. The ending sequence where van Gough encourages the Doctor to look at the world with new eyes is also very moving and wonderfully portrayed… it’s just a shame that the plot is so dreadful and the subject matter is so clumsily handled that you’d think van Gogh were a fictional character.
The Doctor (Matt Smith) attempts to get a view of the monster
The lost monster, like many other creatures in the new Doctor Who series, serves no real purpose. The Doctor is able to find out what it is via a kind of time-travel wikipedia, yet he has no way of dealing with it. Apparently he had hoped o wave his magic wand around until the problem took care of itself, but no such luck. The Doctor realizes early on that he cannot help van Gogh, yet he whisks the artist to the future and tampers with the timelines… knowing it cannot save him. I suppose we are meant to think that the trip inspired Vincent through his productive period, yet it is insulting to the very same idea that he utilized his emotional anguish to create breathtaking art. I’m also gob-smacked at how the program depicted depression and anxiety yet chose to avoid addressing it at all aside from a brief exchange of dialog when Vincent tells the Doctor to shut up.
My point is that while it has some charming moments, looks stunning, and contains some noteworthy performances, Vincent and the Doctor is flawed on a very basic level. If the Doctor and Vincent van Gogh fighting a lost and lonely kill crazy alien isn’t a bad enough idea, having the episode skirt around his madness was even worse. It is a script that should have been rejected outright.
Next time, The Lodger: