For Doctor Who fans there can are unspoken agreements that we should ALL feel the same way about certain instalments in the series. For the most part I would agree with the conclusions reached, but there are occasions when the Collective Fandom’s Hivemind doesn’t make any sense to me – and never is that more true than with Richard Curtis’s abomination Vincent & the Doctor.
Of course the fact that it is the unholy combination of being written by Richard Curtis and not being a comedy should be our first warning sign that maybe this won’t be up to much. The thing with Curtis is that while I rate him highly as a comedy writer (he is the man behind Blackadder and The Vicar Of Dibley and also the creator of Comic Relief) I do not tend to like it when he tries anything else. When he tries his hand at drama it rarely works for me and we get horrific monstrosities like Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually, Notting Hill or worst of all (which is saying something) About Time. Now there’s a film that wasted its time-travel premise to deliver sentimental trash in substitution for an actual plot… it’s probably my least-favourite film ever because of it, or at least bottom ten.
As well as having Richard F***ing Curtis as the writer, Vincent & the Doctor is also one of those Historical Celebrity storylines we have to put up with every so often in revived Doctor Who. This story’s already rubbing me up the wrong way before the opening titles have finished! At least Curtis resisited turning the Doctor into some insufferable, bumbling, useless Hugh Grant figure so thank goodness for small mercies.
One thing Vincent & The Doctor has got is a new and original monster so let’s take a look at that...
What about the Krafayis then, does it offer anything? Err… no, not really. It looks like a giant chicken, it’s invisible (for no reason) except to Vincent (again, for no reason) and when it dies you check your watch and see there’s still another almost-twenty minutes to go and question why Curtis bothered working a monster into the story at all. Why’s there anything alien in this story at all??? I don’t see why it’s there!!! It may well be the most redundant monster in all of Doctor Who, and it’s up against some serious competition.
The villain of this story is a gigantic turkey – the irony of this is not lost on me.
It later transpires that the creature is not a villainous monster at all but is only lashing out because it’s blind and scared. Apparently that excuses it of all those people it’s killed by this point; I’d be interested to hear what the victims’ families and friends have to say about that! “Sorry ma’am, this man only killed your daughter because he was blind and confused, so we’re going to let him off.” Yeah, okay.
But the worst offender has got to be the way mental disorders are presented. For starters let's take the historical fact that what Vincent’s actual diagnosis would be is not actually known to us because history doesn’t record it – but screw the facts, Curtis is going for bipolar disorder!
The way Vincent’s bipolar disorder is presented is problematic with a serious of misinformed cliches: Being bipolar makes you a genius! It makes you a lovable eccentric! It makes you able to see what others can’t! It makes you a sensitive and loving person! While I have no doubt that there are bipolar individuals out there who do display these characteristics, the way Curtis writes this episode makes the implicit assumption that this will always be the case for everyone with the disorder – I call bollocks on that! Otherwise Curtis avoids the cliches and takes the unrealistic approach: Vincent’s bipolar, that means he’s not cross any more even though he was a split-second ago! Utter garbage!
It’s horrendously insensitive at best and just plain crass at worst. I’m shocked nobody called them out on this disgusting approach to a genuine issue. They were trying to be sensitive and even for good measure slapped on a helpline after the initial broadcast, but I don’t believe they achieved what they were trying to do.
And then there’s the plot in which all this sickening sh*t takes place. I’m no expert on Richard Curtis but I’m convinced that when he’s not writing an outright comedic sitcom he takes the same approach every time: he has in his mansion a skyscraper-high vat of syrup and taps where the water has sugar dissolved in it. When he wants to write something he turns on those taps and tips the vat upside down until it’s empty. He takes the page he’s going to write upon and dips it into the sweet liquid flowing over his floor and lets the paper soak it up. Hey presto! You’ve got yourself a Richard Curtis script!
Take the starry night scene for example. He’s trying to go for emotion and, bless ‘im, he tries so hard that he almost manages it. For a second or two I think he hit the right mark but, because this is Curtis, he doesn’t know when to stop and drags it out. It’s painfully obvious and nauseating in its slushiness. Vincent’s a genius but he’s got a mental illness; we get it already, give it a rest!
But he’s not done. Curtis tries to give Amy an emotional journey too as she starts crying when she almost remembers Rory. He has Vincent suggest that he and she make babies, which is creepy – and gets even creepier since he’s probably got an STD if we’re going with recorded history’s version of things.
But the worst is yet to come! If we were to meet Vincent Van Gogh in the past via time-travel we’d all love to tell him about how his true talent and genius were never recognied until after he’d been dead for years. We’ve all heard of him and felt sorry for how he never got to feel appreciated for his work. This is precisely why if Curtis wanted us to feel any sense of sadness he SHOULDN’T have Vincent see it. But against all good sense he does it anyway so as to leave no sugar-cube untouched.
Cheer up mate; at least you don’t have to watch this rubbish. Lucky you.
And he can’t just have Vincent wander around the museum and see his legacy; he has to do it with a power ballad playing in the background and a monologue by some art expert (Look, it’s Bill Nighy!) about how he’s the greatest artist who ever lived. He even cries! I’ve seen bad scenes in this show before now and I’ve seen boring scenes too but I’ve very rarely seen one that’s both of these things at the same time. It’s difficult to sit through and not for the right reasons.
Apparently some people find this scene to be an emotional masterpiece. Give me strength…!
Then we learn that even after seeing this, after being given a newfound sense of hope and purpose, Vincent still takes his life anyway. Why would he still do that after everything he’s just experienced? Is it because he’s meant to be bipolar or something? I don’t buy that Vincent would still take his life after seeing these things. It’s nonsensical. It’s cheap. It’s dull. It’s lazy writing. Despite my misgivings about Curtis as a writer I can usually rely on him to avoid falling into that sort of thing and yet that’s exactly what he does.
So is there anything about this episode that works? Yes there is and that’s the acting.
Matt Smith is a phenomenal actor and I feel like I bore myself when I write that because it’s been said so many billions of times, but it’s only been said so many times because it’s true. His speech about life being made up of good things and bad things is certainly a nice moment and his annoyance at seeing the TARDIS fly-postered is a standout moment of subtle comic brilliance (as is the way said posters burn off during flight), but overall not even Smith can save this episode.
Shoutout also to Tony Curran as Vincent, selling the mentally unstable aspects to Vincent well enough despite the poor writing he has to deal with. Karen Gillan does not fare so well with Amy being written as so generic that, save for the brief reference to Rory, if you removed Amy Pond and replaced her with almost any other female companion from the show’s 53 years you wouldn’t know her role in the story was intended for her specifically.
So all in all what we have with Vincent & the Doctor is an episode that attempts to present a sensitive view of mental illness but actually ends up failing to do so and causes unnecessary offence in the process. Combined with one of the stupidest creature-designs ever to grace our screens, a plot that doesn’t make any logical sense and a script so sugarcoated that it will have dentists in uproar, this is definitely a story to avoid at all costs.
When he's not obsessing about Doctor Who whilst having I Am The Doctor play in his head, Dr. Moo can usually be found reading up on the latest in Quantum Physics. As you do when you're a physicist.