...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Day 3443: DOCTOR WHO: Vincent and the Doctor


Normally, when you put the words AWESOME and DOCTOR and VINCENT together, a Liberal Democrat will jump to a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT conclusion than that you're talking about the week's Dr Woo.

Last week Daddy Richard was a bit DOWN on visiting HISTORY; does he still think that?
Well, that'll teach me to be cynical about the "celebrity historical" as an overused sub-genre of Doctor Who. This was a wonderful, emotional exploration of a very creative yet very troubled life, not afraid to show us glimpses of that life's dark side while keeping it appropriate to a Saturday teatime audience.

You've got to give Moffat credit for bringing talent to the table, because surprisingly it's the "celebrity guest" authors – Nye and now Curtis – who've turned in the better stories this year, more interesting, thoughtful, original, yet making good use of the format; while the more "traditional" Who-writers – Gatiss and Chibnall – who, while we can't hold them entirely responsible for poor choices by the design department, have given us the stories that, er, underperformed. I can't say that bodes well for next week's episode by TV's Gareth Roberts.

…not sure where Toby Whitehouse fits in: being famous as creator of "Being Human" could make him a "celeb" author, but as writer of season two's "School Reunion" he could be seen as "trad", too. "Vampires of Venice" was pretty good, though…

Two possibly-not-contradictory possible reasons for this come to mind: first, Moffat may have just left the "trad" writers to get on with it, after all, that's how he worked for Russell, while he focussed his efforts on supporting and tweaking-to-fit-the-format the work of the writers less familiar with Doctor Who's current incarnation; second, there the case for a "fresh eye" from writers only peripherally aware of Doctor Who's tropes and clichés coming up with something a bit more outside the (blue) box. A third possibility is that they bring a dose of the "emotional intelligence" that was key to the Russell Davies era to add to Moffat's genius for plots and ideas.

Interestingly, possibly coincidentally, Nye and Curtis's episodes are the only stories to have no "cracks in time" at all so far, although both do move along the emotional story arc, with "Amy's Choice" resolving Amy's feelings towards Rory and now "Vincent and the Doctor" having, as it happens, Vincent and the Doctor able to see the gap where Amy's emotional trauma ought to be.

As an aside, Jonathan Blum is quite right when he points out that although this is very much what the Russell Davies model would expect of new Who (or more crudely what Lawrence Miles would call Moffatt doing his "Fire in the Girly Place" writing), this is quite wrong from a story point of view. It's very touching that the Doctor has been consoling Amy for Rory's death – and weirding her out because it's for something she cannot remember – with trips to Arcadia (presumably pre-Dalek Time War fall), and today the Museé D'Orsay, but in terms of the series story arc, why is he not now urgently investigating the cracks in time that look like they will destroy his TARDIS? Or, alternatively, explicitly avoiding those cracks in time because they will destroy his TARDIS.

Previously in this arc, we've seen the Doctor first believe he's dealt with the crack in Amy's bedroom wall, then return for Amy possibly because he suspects that all is not quite right with her (if his significant glance at the TARDIS scanner at the end of "The Eleventh Hour" is to mean anything); then we see – but importantly, he does not – that there are cracks following his and Amy's progress to Starship UK and the Cabinet War Rooms; and then the Doctor encounters the crack aboard the Starship Byzantium and again thinks that he's dealt with it by dropping an army of angels into it. The crack that he hears about in "The Vampires of Venice" is past tense; his response to the silence at the end is puzzled, not alarmed; and, as I've said, there doesn't appear to be one in "Amy's Choice". So up to that point it's not illegitimate for him to not to be thinking about these as an urgent or pressing threat. He may even feel that he is trying to deal with it by "sorting Amy out".

However, in the aftermath of "The Hungry Earth" that's gone impressively horribly wrong; it is, to coin a well-turned phrase, really extremely very not good. It's possible that he's even caused the cracks in time by making Amy's wedding day not only the most crucial day of her life but also one that isn't supposed to happen at all: the kind of universe-shattering paradox that might happen if she only ran away with the Doctor because it was the eve of her wedding, that the things that the Doctor has put right because she was with him, only happened at all because of something he's now prevented from happening – explaining how the crack appear to be following them: it's trying to swallow up the paradoxical events of Amy's post Wedding-that-never-was timeline.

Storywise, Moffat-wise, he ought to be doing something about this.

However, in the context of this story, the arc is only used as an "in" on the slightly other-worldliness of Vincent Van Gogh – something that he shares with the Doctor, since they both sort of see Rory's place in the timeline – and anything more would have been intrusive and unnecessary.

And, frankly, I'd rather have this story than any number of episodes about the cracks.

Even before we get to the story, it's a beautiful episode to look at. Full marks for getting the most out of the location work this year, with Croatia brilliantly doubling for first Venice in, unsurprisingly, "The Vampires of Venice" and now doing a passable impression of France for a visit to Van Gogh. Or at any rate not-Wales, anyway, at least until the scenes outside the Church at "Auvers" which look crushingly Welsh chapel again. The ingenuity of the producers is to use different aspects of the same location several episodes apart, so you don't notice it. Unlike – Alex points out - using Lanzarote to double for alien planet Sarn are, er, Lanzarote during the same story, which is less likely to get away with it, as you can discover for yourself if you get the DVD due out next week.

Jonny Campbell, directing, is here even better than in the Vampire story: fluid and funny in the "chase with mirror" sequence and again in the fight in Vincent's back yard; and yet moodily thoughtful when dwelling on the sunflowers as a motif for a troubled life and death; and of course – and let's not shirk the kudos for the art department too – beautifully recreating scenes from Van Gogh's art "as life", in the café, the bedroom (who cares if that's anachronistic) and the sublime "Starry Night" sequence which really is what the episode is about.

It's tremendously good acting too from a very small cast (with a few supporting players). Bill Nighy almost comes as a buy-one-get-one-free with Richard Curtis these days, but here he gives a beautiful understated performance playing, essentially, "John Cleese in the Art Gallery", but with warmth and emotion in a role that could easily have been arch and comedic. The banter about bow-ties could have been played so much for laughs but instead he comes across as genuinely touched, so it's all the more forceful and credible when he eulogises Van Gogh at the climax.

Tony Curran as the man himself, and a startling visual double, shows us a person who – although also leavened by light humour: "sorry about the beard" – can be rude, uncontrolled, off-putting, even frightening and distressing, and yet at all times retains our sympathy for the so-obvious pain that his Van Gogh's genius has to suffer, and will continue to suffer.

So, what we get from these wonderful people is a story about a man and something terrible that happens to him, and a story about a monster and something terrible that happens to it, and how those two stories briefly intersect.

It's easy to say how clever it is to make this a story about a man who sees things differently from other people, sees more than other people and link that to a monster that is invisible to other people. And then to reveal that the monster itself is blind. (The member of the tribe left to die because blinded being strangely reminiscent of Leela and the ways of the Sevateem.)

And it is clever, certainly cleverer than having Shakespeare encounter witches who are really aliens whose power comes from language, and who he defeats with clever wordplay (to a certain value of "clever"). Or for that matter, running into "ghosts" with arch-spiritualist-debunker Charles Dickens. (And never mind how archly metatextual we got by having a story with Agatha Christie that was so like an Agatha Christie story that the characters actually started commenting on how like an Agatha Christie story it was…)

It's also clever that it ties in with a developing theme of eyes and sight throughout this series: perception filters that you only see from the corner of your eye; Atraxi who are all eye; Vampires that fool the eye; the importance of eyes – open, shut and not-looking-them-in-the – to the Weeping Angel story; turning a "blind eye" to what's going on in "The Beast Below"; and so on.

(Alex wonders if the Silurian's missing third eye is a symbol that Mr Chibnell missed that memo.)

But what's really clever here is that Van Gogh doesn't see the monster as an avatar of himself or his condition – this isn't "depression made external": he sees it as like the villagers, blind and lashing out. And yet Vincent retains his compassion for the monster and, by extension, the villagers who abuse him. He has a gift of sight that he wants to share, indeed does share with Amy and the Doctor and the Doctor admits it is more wonderful than anything he's seen.

In that sense the beast, the Krafayis, is Vincent's shadow, his antithesis, a dark reflection – re-emphasised by it appearing only in reflection, its features framed in the Doctor's mirror-gizmo "reflecting" the framing of Van Gogh in the self-portraits of that we see repeatedly through the story.

Obviously it's an enormous coincidence that a monster that can only be seen by someone like Vincent Van Gogh happens to be in the exact time and place to be seen by Vincent Van Gogh – and how long is this berserk creature supposed to have been in France, anyway? And what about all the other berserk beasties that left it behind, when exactly were they supposed to have been here?

But that's really not the point, and you should realise that from the way the Krafayis is offed ten minutes before the show is over.

This story is about the importance of different perspectives: we think one thing about the Krafayis when the Doctor tells us it's evil; we think another when we learn that it is crippled, alone, abandoned.

Vincent shows the Doctor a different way of looking at the stars, literally a different perspective lying back on the ground (which came first, this episode or the season trailer seen in cinemas?); it's commented on comically as the Doctor gains a new perspective of time, living it moment by moment waiting while Vincent paints the church and the Doctor cannot shut up with the spoilers. I particularly enjoyed the moment of him by the fireplace, listening to Van Gogh's synaesthetic rant about listening to the colours, swinging his head about as though trying to do just that, simultaneously baffled by the artists and trying to see from his perspective.

(And I just have to say isn't Matt Smith also rather wonderful. Funny and unafraid of looking daft and yet at times achingly alien. Just brilliant as the Doctor.)

In return, the Doctor shows Vincent another perspective by taking him into the future, showing him the long view of history of the Time Lord. And Amy gains new perspective when she realises that one good day isn't enough to save him.

Is it sentimental, to bring Vincent Van Gogh to the present day to show him a future that loves him? "Sentimental" is a cheap kick at Richard Curtis, after "Four Weddings…" and "Love, Actually", but is it fair? We've known since Dickens that the Doctor is not above bending the laws of time, or dropping a few "spoilers", to let the people he admires know that they are admired, so it's not out of keeping with the series. Is it tritely playing with our emotions? No, I think that the emotional response is earned.

And the episode is as nothing if the Doctor does not repay Vincent with the one kindness that he can give, even knowing that it won't change his fate – even knowing that perhaps it might (and I've seen a cogent argument that seeing the future, knowing he'll never be appreciated until after he's dead may have contributed to Van Gogh's suicide rather than prevent it).

The Doctor's point is about seeing life not as win/lose but as a pile of good things and a pile of bad things, and he's trying to add to the pile of good things. Think about that and remember where he's been taking Amy recently.

Mind you, as the indie rock of Athlete comes crashing in on the soundtrack over the top of the montage of images, you do have to wonder whether Richard Curtis didn't brief himself on new Doctor Who by watching an episode of Doctor Who Confidential by mistake.

Most of all, this episode is a different perspective on what it is to be "mad", to be "mental", to be "depressed", to be a bit different. And we should treasure it for that.

Next Time… If you can't get enough of the World Cup, then I'm sure the Doctor playing footy with Smiffy out of Gavin and Stacy is just what you need to fill a gap. If you don't want to know the scores, look away now. Safety deposit and a month's rent up front, please, for "The Lodger".


1 comment:

Eleventh Hour Podcast said...

Excellent, and much agreement from over here.