With his friends, the Paternoster Gang set up in Victorian London, the 11th Doctor has more reason than most Doctors to spend quality time in this period. Both The Snowmen and The Crimson Horror would see him return to the 19th Century, and in Vincent and the Doctor, his first adventure from that period of time, we depart from the green and pleasant land of England to take a trip to France and another of the new series beloved ‘celebrity historicals’.
There was quite a buzz when it was revealed that for Series 5 Steven Moffat had got a couple of rather big names to write for the series; namely Simon Nye of Men Behaving Badly fame and Richard Curtis of Four Weddings and a Funeral fame. These were big names and not names usually associated with science fiction, let alone Doctor Who.
Both writers’ episodes depart from the ‘norm’ (if Doctor Who can be said to have a norm). Nye’s episode, Amy’s Choice is a slightly surreal piece more focussed on characters. Curtis’s script takes that character focus and ramps it up even further. This is not an adventure that is particularly bothered about telling a rollicking adventure with a twisty-turny plot. This is evident in the fact that the ‘plot’ finishes with 15 minutes of the episode left to go!
Watching Vincent and the Doctor again, I realised how much I adore Matt Smith’s Doctor and it brought into sharp relief the issues I have with Capaldi’s version. I just love Smith’s performance. His delivery of lines, his twirliness, his joy. It just shows how much fun Smith is having in the role. Throughout this episode there are wonderful bits particularly in his interaction with Van Gogh (a pitch perfect performance by Tony Curran) and, even more so, his two short scenes with Bill Nighy’s art historian. Nighy is superb in his, oddly uncredited, cameo as the Dr Black and his confusion at the end when Vincent hugs and kisses him is played to perfection with his face suggesting he momentarily wonders if he has just met the real Van Gogh, immediately dismissing it as impossible. It’s a excellent performance and a really good use of a star name. It is reminiscent, to an extent, of the cameo from John Cleese and Eleanor Bron in City of Death.
The story, what there is of it, involves an invisible monster crashing around a French town. Frankly, this is the least interesting part of the episode. The design of the Krafayis (when visible) isn’t great, it's basically a four legged chicken/turkey affair, but seeing as it is invisible for the majority of time it’s main impact on screen is knocking over the odd box. It isn’t the greatest of effects, although some of the fight scenes with the Doctor being knocked about by invisible tails are fun. However, fairly quickly there is a final ‘battle’ in the church, a sudden realisation that the creature is blind and separated from its pack and now, unfortunately, dead. Vincent bemoans the fact he didn’t intend to kill it, but when his chosen action was to stab it with the sharp end of his easel, one wonders what his intention actually was.
This leaves the rest of the episode free to examine what it is really interested in: Vincent’s depression and the relationship between him, the Doctor and Amy. To tackle depression in what is a family show is brave and is done in a very sensitive way. Van Gogh’s mood swings and desperation contrast with his sheer joy and relief when transported to the future. The tragedy involved in the irony that whilst he thinks his life has found new purpose, history dictates he will kill himself shortly after the events of this story, is heartbreaking (in fact, only 2 months if the date Dr Black gives to the Doctor is the date they actually travel too).
This is coupled with the tragedy of Amy and Rory. Rory had died and been erased from history by a crack in time in the previous episode, Cold Blood. The Doctor is clearly trying to make up for this by taking Amy to various fun places, despite the fact she cannot even remember Rory. Her flirtations with Vincent, and his desire to marry her and have numerous ginger children, is touching and yet saddening at the same time. When the Doctor accidentally calls Vincent, Rory whilst they are escaping from the Krafayis, it is a short, sharp shock and made me, as a viewer, realise what was missing from the episode, just as the Doctor clearly felt his absence.
There are numerous lovely directorial touches throughout this story. First off is the reproduction of Van Gogh’s paintings in ‘real life’; notably the café (which was in a different town in the true history) and Van Gogh’s bedroom (again, actually in the wrong location – both of these are from Arles, where Van Gogh lived prior to moving to Auvers, where this story is set). Furthermore, the scene towards the end of the episode where Vincent, the Doctor and Amy stare at the starry sky only for us to see it metamorphose into Van Gogh’s famous Starry Night painting is absolutely beautiful.
Another wonderful touch is the way the TARDIS has been papered in French posters when they return to take Vincent to the future. Reminiscent of the TARDIS being painted pink in The Happiness Patrol, it’s a fun image, particularly when the Doctor has to score through the paper with his key to gain entry. But this is improved more by the following scene where the TARDIS materialises outside the art museum and we start the shot watching the posters burning into cinders after their flight through the time vortex. It’s subtle and clever and something I don’t remember noticing on first view.
The scene where Van Gogh’s sees his legacy, set to the song ‘Athlete’ is a lovely end to the episode although I do find the art gallery a bit unconvincing in this scene. There’s something about the extras moving around which just doesn’t quite feel right – particularly the bunch of school children sitting on the floor in everyone’s way for no apparent reason!
Historically, there is a lot going on in this episode, although not all of it is accurate. One principal issue is the dating of some of Van Gogh’s paintings, which this episode has him painting after or before the actual dates. His most famous work with the sunflowers had already been painted by 1888 making the scene where Amy tries to inspire him with a yard full of sunflowers a little pointless. Also, Dr Black says that Van Gogh painted Church at Auvers ‘less than a year’ before his death, Whilst strictly true, it was in fact only a couple of months. Knowing this, as I’ve mentioned, adds an extra layer of tragedy to Van Gogh’s renewed spirit at the close of the episode. It reminds me of the way Charles Dickens was revived by his adventure with the Doctor in The Unquiet Dead, full of ideas to finish The Mystery of Edwin Drood, with the Doctor, Rose and the viewers knowing he would die before completing it. Of all the ‘celebrity’ historicals this is probably closest in style to The Unquiet Dead with a similar ‘team’, a historical figure at the end of their life and an intangible menace. The Unquiet Dead has more plot, but then it came at a time in the life of the revived series where taking the risk of a character-focussed story would probably not have worked (although that said, Boom Town later in that first series, was a definite step in that direction).
Of course, we also have the story of Van Gogh’s depression and his unsuccessful career as an artist: selling only one painting in his lifetime, are both consistent with historical fact. The famous cutting of his ear (although in reality he only cut off part of it, not the whole ear as common myth would have it) is also not referenced in Curran’s costume or make-up, although there is a subtle hint where Amy picks up a knife in his home, quickly putting it down when it seems to trigger some unspoken thought.
The one aspect, aside from the slightly dodgy monster, that I found unsatisfying was Karen Gillan’s performance as Amy. I know lots of fans have had issues with Amy, Gillan’s portrayal and Moffat’s scripting of her, but I couldn’t fathom the strength of feeling about these issues from some quarters of fandom (although that’s true for me of most of the more vociferous of fandom’s voices when criticising what they don’t like about the series). However, just in the microcosm of this story I found her performance a bit odd. She spends a huge amount of her screen time with a wide-eyed expression, which the camera seems determined to focus on far too much. Also, and this is more a fault of the writing than Gillan’s performance, she doesn’t actually have a huge amount to do except to fawn a bit too much of Vincent. There is no subplot for her to become involved in, she just follows the Doctor around, or keeps Vincent company.
However, overall, Vincent and the Doctor was a hugely enjoyable rewatch with lots of little details that add immensely to the overall feel of the story. The location work in Trogir is good (if more obviously the same place as The Vampires of Venice than when I first watched it) and the direction is generally effective. A slightly disappointing monster aside, there is much to like in this episode and, as well as reinforcing my personal preference for Smith’s portrayal of the Doctor, this stands out as a jewel in the 11th Doctor’s tenure.
A primary school teacher and father of two, Andrew finds respite in the worlds of Doctor Who, Disney and general geekiness. Unhealthily obsessed with Lance Parkin’s A History, his Doctor Who viewing marathon is slowly following Earth history from the Dawn of Time to the End of the World. He would live in a Disney theme park if given half the chance.