Vincent and the Doctor

This week the Doctor and Amy arrive in 1890's France to save Vincent van Gogh from a strange beast he painted into one of his pieces. This episode was written by British film Director/Writer/Producer Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Bernard and the Genie) and it's first shot at a Doctor Who story.

Maybe in an attempt to try some more relaxing time travelling, after last week's departure of Rory, the Doctor brings Amy to Paris (Circa 2010) for some standard sight-seeing. In the Musée d'Orsay they stop to take a look at the work of Van Gogh. They get to the painting “The Church at Auvers” and the Doctor notices something weird. There's a beast thingy painted into one of the windows. He's clearly worried that this alien is there, so he immediately walks up to the nearby Van Gogh expert, 'Dr Black' (Bill Nye) to get the exact date this painting was made, so they can travel back to deal with it.

Upon landing in the 1890's they scare a cat (which is always funny) and they head towards a Café that Van Gogh was known to frequent. Not being the most popular artist in town they encounter the man himself just as he's failing to sell some of his work in exchange for drink. The Doctor tries to get in his good books by buying the painting so he has the cash for booze. This fails to impress Van Gogh, it's not until Amy steps in to work her ginger charms that he agrees to free hospitality. Just as all is going well, and the Doctor is getting close to some information on the Church painting, they hear a scream from a nearby alley and rush over there. They find a dead girl, seemingly attacked by the beast. The girls mother then rushes in and, upon catching sight of Van Gogh, jerks some knees and instigates the crowd to attacks all three of them. Stones flying, they make a run for it.

On the way back to Van Gogh's house, he reveals that this beast attacked some one the week previously, so he invites them to stay for safety. Entering the house Amy and the Doctor are excited to be greeted by oodles of randomly scattered masterpieces. After some pleasantries, Amy goes outside leaving Vincent and the Doctor to chat - but it's not long before she gets herself into trouble with a customary scream for help. Immediately panicked by the scream, still on edge from the loss of Rory, the Doctor runs, with Vincent in tow, to help her. It seems that this alien beast has caught up with them and is set to cause some more trouble. They quickly discover it's invisible and only Vincent can see it. The Doctor doesn't have much luck trying to attack the thing and gets thrown about a bit, so Vincent manages to scare it off.

Back indoors, the Doctor gets a image of it from Vincent and, using a Tardis computer, manages to work out what it is. At this point the story changes tact slightly. Vincent has some depressing moments, the Doctor worries about the impact they are having on this man so they convince him that they should try and catch the beast. They set off for the Church in hope that it will be there. After Vincent begins to paint, the Doctor gets annoyed at the pace of progress. But sure enough, the huge Chicken-Worm looking thing, does come to the window. Plan-less and gleefully clueless as to what course of action to take, the Doctor goes inside with his Tardis computer thing to meet this creature. Amy follows after him after a short time and they both get trapped. In the end Vincent comes along and saves them by stabbing it to death with his easel.

Usually, that would pretty much mark the end of a Doctor Who episode. They've encountered, mused over and killed the alien in question - it's all wrapped up with 5 minutes left for loose ends. But in this episode there is still plenty of time left, which, it seems, Curtis has left for himself for a good 10-15 minutes of time-travelling wish fulfilment.

The beast's corpse still littering up the Church and the painting finished, they all take the time to lay outside under the stars. Here Vincent beautifully describes to the Doctor and Amy how he perceives the night sky. Giving the well travelled Doctor a view of the universe he perhaps hadn't stopped to notice before. The next morning the Doctor and Amy say their goodbyes, but just as they are about to leave, the Doctor decides that he can offer Vincent something of a leaving present. They take him to the Tardis and travel back to present day Paris and enter the gallery exhibit that now houses all his work. Vincent is slightly confused and amazed so the Doctor asks the unwitting Dr Black to describe to Van Gogh's his own legacy. Here we get a nice moment where a historical figure gets to have a glimpse of their place in history. After returning Vincent to his time, Amy fully expects to be able to return to the modern gallery and find that what they did mattered and they ultimately changed his outlook, cured his depression, resulting in years more work. Rather depressingly, she finds this is not that case. But they did change a little history in that Amy gets a dedication on the Sunflowers.

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I'm a little torn about on episode. Whether or not this 'monster who torments the artist' is a valid metaphor for Van Gogh's mental problems, the execution of this 'monster-chicken' was actually a 'lame duck'. It was a bit sidelined from the characters attention most of the time and had so little peril associated with it, it might as well have been Big Bird. Lazily constructing this metaphor does somewhat metaphorically trivialize those mental problems. Why is it dispensed with so easily? That makes no sense. That whole aspect of the episode didn't have the correct tone and didn't go far enough.

On the good side I did like that Curtis clearly set out to use Doctor Who to do what many of us would do if we had a time machine. Personally I'd find some one important from the past and show them what they have meant to the world. But previously many of the “real people” Doctor Who stories have done well with the jokes and references towards such people, but they rarely venture past trivial encounters with them. Here Curtis makes the Doctor go one step further than he would usually do; he decides to gift Vincent with some context to his life. Context only a time traveller can give a person. That's an interesting idea and, along with a solid script that peppers the character with fairly eloquent dialogue, we get a nice 'Vincent Van Gogh' portrait. A competent 'light' portrait of him. Topped off well by Tony Curran's acting of course.

All considered, this is not an episode that I would call “great”, it's merely, “not bad” with some nice emotional touches. Maybe if they pushed it further, hardened that metaphor and we had a darker story that explored the depression further; then I think it would have worked better. I know this is 'Doctor Who' and typically family entertainment, but they are also dealing with a 'not so light' subject. They can't have it both ways.

Next week James Corden gets a new flat-mate. We shall reserve judgement till we see it, but on the positive, Daisy Haggard is in it as well.

Doctor Who

The long-running BBC TV science fiction series that started in 1963 and recently celebrated its 50th Anniversary. 2017 saw Peter Capaldi regenerate into the show's first female Doctor played by Jodie Whittaker. The Thirteenth Doctor's first season debuts in 2018, with Chris Chibnall replacing Steven Moffat as the current showrunner.

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