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Doctor Who XXXI.10: Vincent and the Doctor (at greater length)

June 6th, 2010 (09:42 pm)

The Impressionists

Doctor Who's attitude to history is wayward. The travelogue of Marco Polo - and at some point I need to work out how well-researched that actually was - is nearly half a century ago. This Doctor is a creature of fairytale, and it's the Vincent van Gogh of legend whom he visits, who lives in a landscape and locality which although defined as 'Provence' (and shot, like The Vampires of Venice, in Trogir, Croatia) includes many details drawn from van Gogh's home in his last months of life, Auvers-sur-Oise, now a suburb of Paris. According to The Grove Dictionary of Art the impressionist movement of which van Gogh sought to be part was first identified as such by Jules-Antoine Castignary in 1874: ‘They (Monet and others) are Impressionists in the sense that they render not the landscape but the sensation produced by the landscape.’ Perhaps it's not too glib to say that Doctor Who's depiction of historical events and personalities is impressionist in a comparable way; while the details are rearranged the argument (about the impact of the specific person or event) seeks to be one which contains emotive impact and which could still be supported by an interpretation of the dry 'facts' (howeverso identified or defined) of an episode's setting. Perhaps, too, (as I said earlier) this is why I've found this episode the most satisfactory celebrity historical since The Unquiet Dead, and perhaps the best of all the sub-genre, which has flowered in post-2005 Doctor Who in a way it did not in the 1963-1989 series (the latest comparable examples being the didactic The Mark fo the Rani, featuring George Stephenson and his employer Lord Ravensworth and the lamentable Timelash, which allegedly portrayed H.G. Wells).

The episode had moments of pedagogy, it's true, but they were handled with a lightness of touch absent from what I've seen of Richard Curtis's other socially-aware work such as his sketches and films for Comic Relief and Make Poverty History. The sequence where Vincent, Amy and the Doctor hold hands while lying on the ground, and Vincent then describes how he perceives the night sky, leading to it evolving into an animated variation on The Starry Night, was bewitching even without the HD television for which the sequence was no doubt designed. Van Gogh's mental health was explored respectfully, with the link between creativity and apparent mental illness (in the news again recently) acknowledged not to be without cost.

Vincent and the Doctor was rooted more firmly and more comfortably in the overarching themes of the season than was the two-parter before it. The adventure was prompted as much by the Doctor's guilt over the loss of Rory and Rory's absence from Amy's personal history, as it was by the sight of the Krafayis in the window at van Gogh's painting of the church at Auvers-sur-Oise. While this seemed to revive one of the aspects of the Doctor's character with which I was uncomfortable when it emerged in the mid-1980s, his preternatural sense of evil, this was nicely debunked when it turned out that the Krafayis was blind and (we are led to believe) more frightened than hostile. It was perhaps obvious that the Doctor and Amy should get trapped in a confessional. This is not only because the Doctor is a priest-hero, an ordained Time Lord who is the last of his order and enjoys a more delicate negotiation than most with the universe, but also because both Amy and the Doctor have much to confess to the other which they are not sharing, the Doctor's need perhaps being most urgent. The privacy of the confessional is violated by the blind alien, who embodies here for the Doctor the guilt over Rory's death and erasure, and his inability to save Amy's memory, neither of which has not been expiated. It was good, too, to see the camera concentrate on Karen Gillan's reaction, as Amy, to the Doctor's definition of himself as "alone" - she feels this like a kick in the teeth. This is a new Amy, one who has never had Rory, for whom the Doctor means more. This seemed like Karen Gillan's most confident performance, but it's also because she's playing an Amy who now doesn't know what she can lose and is savouring her experience with the Doctor in a different way to before. The decision by Steven Moffat not to burden the companion with backstory, which has contributed in earlier episodes to a sense that Amy has been underwritten, pays off in that Amy can credibly become the embodiment of Richard Curtis's own obsession with van Gogh in a way which most of Russell T Davies's companions could not. (Though it's been pointed out to me and others that there is compelling pictorial evidence that as well as visiting Vincent, the Doctor took Amy to see Edvard Munch too.) I'd not really been convinced by those who praised Karen Gillan's background acting before, but now I see what they mean.

Impressionism was a parent of surrealism, and the Krafayis looks as if it owes much to the art of Dali, with a touch of the Jabberwock from the Gilliam-Jones film. Yes, it did look like a parrot, a chicken, and a turkey; but unlike its green-skinned ancestral kinsmonster, the Myrka, it was portrayed with subtlety, a nightmare creature which could only be seen out of the corner of one's eye, or more precisely by someone who always looked at the world through the rear view mirror. Its name, a blend of griffin and crayfish, is a pleasing nod towards Doctor Who's compounding of the fantastic with prosaic kitchensinkery.

William Hartnell makes his third appearance this season, and Patrick Troughton his second; it's as if the current incarnation of the programme is stretching for legitimacy, beyond the Russell T Davies period. This episode, though, has proved that it doesn't need to. I was finally satisfied by the lighting, which was at last warm and inviting rather than washed out. It was difficult to believe at first that this was shot by the same crew as made the other story largely made in Croatia, The Vampires of Venice; perhaps where this episode's colour palette was (obviously) drawn from the van Gogh paintings which featured in the story, Vampires was deliberately shot as if the light was bouncing off murky water.

Just as Amy made sense to me here in a way that she hasn't since Flesh and Stone and possibly since The Beast Below, so Matt Smith's Doctor was more interesting and less irritating here than he has been for a few weeks. Keith Topping has written that Matt Smith was as good an interpreter of Richard Curtis's Doctor this week as he was an interpreter of Chris Chibnall's or Steven Moffat's Doctors in previous weeks; perhaps we are watching a slow developmental curve, as Matt decides slowly how to play the role while keeping an entertaining pace. I am far less alienated by him than I was by David Tennant in the latter half of his first series, when the relationship with Rose ran out of control; but as yet we haven't reached a moment comparable to the Doctor's confession in Gridlock that he had been too busy showing off to get to know Martha in Gridlock, which is when I really accepted Tennant's Doctor. The moment in the churchyard this episode where the Doctor expressed his boredom with life being lived at a normal pace was of a different order, but went a long way towards excising the wince-worthy "Squeaky bum time!" of Cold Blood. The "bow ties are cool" tick remains slightly grating, but at least the meeting with Dr Black (noticeably Bill Nighy received no credit for his role as the scholarly van Gogh fan) found something new to do with it.

The trailer for next week's The Lodger was well-constructed; this will be the current series' first encounter with contemporary urban life, the touchstone of the Russell T Davies era, and bring us into the home strait for the finale. Is that the crack in time in the upstairs room, or something else..?


Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: June 6th, 2010 10:00 pm (UTC)
Doctor Who

I greatly enjoyed this review. I'm still digesting the episode itself (which I only just watched) - I thought it was good, but perhaps lacking in some way. Hopefully more thoughts on my blog tomorrow.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 6th, 2010 11:08 pm (UTC)

Looking forward to it!

Posted by: Penny Paperbrain (pennypaperbrain)
Posted at: June 7th, 2010 11:56 am (UTC)

No Chibnall!

I liked it up until they brought Vincent to the present day, and then it got the big moral hammer out.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 7th, 2010 12:04 pm (UTC)

I thought the 'big moral hammer' scene was redeemed by the idea that all the Doctor could do was brighten Vincent's day a little; he was still going to commit suicide.

Posted by: Penny Paperbrain (pennypaperbrain)
Posted at: June 7th, 2010 01:39 pm (UTC)

It was still way too long though. If you'd devoted three minutes to all that, and removed the 'and this is what's happening right now!' speeches from the characters it might have been OK.

Overall though, one of my favourite episodes, just an overdone ending.

Ponder complains that he doesn't understand what people see in van Gogh, and insists on the superiority of Escher.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 7th, 2010 02:18 pm (UTC)

You've seen Castrovalva, I think, a long time ago...

Posted by: Penny Paperbrain (pennypaperbrain)
Posted at: June 7th, 2010 02:36 pm (UTC)

I think so. I remember what a PK would consider to be shockingly little of my Who education though.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 7th, 2010 02:37 pm (UTC)

I think I was shy of inflicting too much on you, anyway...

Posted by: Dewi Evans (wonderwelsh)
Posted at: June 11th, 2010 03:19 pm (UTC)

Great review as always. When will the makers of Doctor Who learn that the Ducth and alien chicken monsters are never a good combination...?

Seriously though, I agree the monster had an effective nightmarish quality about it. At the moment, this is probably my favourite episode of the entire revived show - I honestly can't fault it in any way. I'm sure this will change as time goes on, but at the moment I have nothing but praise for it. I do wish people on Outpost Gallifrey wouldn't set so much store by plot - sometimes the plot is the least important thing about the episode. This was just such an occasion.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 11th, 2010 04:21 pm (UTC)

There seem to be a lot of people about who have done writing courses which emphasize plot structure and pinning down detail. I think Doctor Who allows one not to do that.

This episode is aging well where I am concerned, boosted also by my non-fan sister's endorsement. I'd like to see, when the final ratings come in, how many viewers thought that they learned something new; it's an area where Doctor Who usually performs below the drama average, and I expect it to do better there this time.