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Doctor Who: Review supplemental on Vincent And The Doctor

REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO

Another take on a daring episode of Doctor Who...

Vincent Van Gogh in 'Vincent And The Doctor'

When Richard Curtis was announced as a writer for the good Doctor’s latest season of adventures, deep breaths were drawn. Would Vincent And The Doctor stand up to the quality of the genius that is Blackadder? Or would it be more in the vein of his blockbuster romcoms such as Four Weddings And A Funeral or Love Actually?

In the end, much like Curtis’ movies, Vincent And The Doctor seems to have polarised opinion between the general public and the fans. Some have lambasted it for what could be taken as OTT schmaltz, not to mention the presence of what looks like a man in a novelty chicken suit. Others have praised it for its high emotional content and the willingness to tackle the subject of depression head on.

OK, the plot of Vincent And The Doctor is very basic. Doctor and Amy spy an evil face in a Van Gogh painting and so travel back to 1890 France to meet the man himself. There they find that the locals are being terrorised by an invisible force, which only Van Gogh can see. The Doctor, armed with a bizarre tracking device (a lash up of what looks like a driving mirror and a piece of avant-garde modern art) finds that the monster is a Krafayis, a blind, frightened and confused overgrown chicken which has been abandoned on Earth. And after some invisible hi-jinks in a church, the poor old Krafayis comes to a sticky end after it accidentally impales itself. In the end, it was only lashing out because of its blind confusion and fear.

Taken on its own, that doesn’t sound particularly inspiring. But Vincent And The Doctor is very much what it says on the tin. It’s a brief but detailed study of the painter, his exclusion from society and his depression. Van Gogh was never appreciated in his own time, and in his lifetime, only managed to sell one painting – despite his prolific output of work. As we see in the café scenes, Van Gogh is treated with contempt: He is a laughing stock, scorned by the café owner and all the locals.

With that in mind, the Krafayis can be seen as a metaphor for Vincent’s isolation. Cut off from society and regarded with fear and repulsion by the outside world – simply because the people in the outside world can’t comprehend. They can’t get a fix on Van Gogh’s fragile mind state, and instead resort to scornful derision. This sort of tack isn’t brand new. Not only have we had so-called foes representing the state of the mind (Xoanon = schizophrenia), but we have also seen deep thinkers cut off from society because they failed to conform (Binro The Heretic in The Ribos Operation). However, while the Krafayis may be rather poorly realised, the metaphor still works well, and in the end, the overgrown chicken’s death is rather sad. As The Doctor puts it: “Sometimes, winning is no fun at all.”

Surprisingly, Vincent decides to invite The Doctor and Amy back to his humble abode. And it’s there that we start to see the signs of his depression really kick in. The harrowing scene of Vincent sobbing on the bed is very affecting, and superbly played by Tony Curran. In my last few paragraphs on Cold Blood, I mentioned that Meera Syal’s Nasreen was one of the best guest characters so far. Well, Tony Curran’s Vincent is now a strong contender for that title. The character of Vincent was always going to be a hard one to get right, but Curran’s effortless performance means that it never once slips into hammy parody. It’s completely real, with his uncomfortable mood swings (“Every time I step outside, I feel nature is shouting at me”) alternating with his genuine wonder at the marvels that the universe has to offer (“There's so much more to the world than the eye can see”). Absolutely marvellous, and the scene in which he overhears Bill Nighy’s curator is very touching indeed.

The subject matter of Vincent’s depression was a brave move to take for Saturday teatime viewing. But it was handled with great sensitivity, never once lapsing into patronising cliché or resulting in pompous sermons from The Doctor. The end revelation that Vincent had still taken his own life, despite being shown how his work was regarded by future generations was both inevitable and bittersweet. It just showed that depression isn’t like a tap that can be turned on and off – as The Doctor says to Amy, life is basically a pile of both good things and bad things that are intertwined. And even if they failed to stop Vincent taking his own life, they at least added to Vincent’s Good Days pile.

The last few scenes have already, in their short lifetime, proved to be the most talked about aspects of this episode. Some found the whole thing a bit too OTT, with the curator’s speech, the Athlete song and Vincent’s tears. But others, like me, actually found it quite moving, and one of the most successful examples of the more emotional path that 21st century Doctor Who has taken. Admittedly, I don’t think the song quite fitted in (What is this? Holby City?), since I think that the acting from Nighy and Curran, and the beautifully written eulogy about Vincent was enough to do the job. But then I’d blub at anything, big wuss that I am.

Vincent And The Doctor doesn’t just score highly on its emotional content - from a production point of view, it also triumphs. With Jonny Campbell back in the hot seat, it’s time for another trip to Croatia. And like The Vampires Of Venice, the results are almost cinematic in quality. The Trogir shoot easily doubled for 19th century France, whilst managing to look different from the aforementioned vampire tale. Admittedly, Big Bird isn’t the best example of a Doctor Who alien, but keeping it invisible meant that it was only seen on screen for short bursts.

And the story is also one of the best for you know who’s. Yes, Matt Smith and Karen Gillan again turn in winning performances. Thanks to the miniscule guest cast, they are given more of a chance to shine. Smith is at his best, whether goofily stumbling around with his ramshackle contraption, or treating Vincent with genuine respect and admiration. The character of Amy has been accused of being too cold and aloof in the past, but this story is where she comes into her own. She strikes up a genuine rapport with Vincent, indulging in flirtatious banter, and when she discovers that the artist still committed suicide, she is genuinely gutted. One of Gillan’s best performances to date, and one that portrays Amy in a much more caring light too.

Even last week’s events are still felt as The Doctor calls Vincent “Rory” by mistake, while Amy is suspicious that The Doctor is being nicer to her than usual. And Vincent sees that Amy, like himself is sad. (“Then why are you crying?” he asks). Given the spoilers, it looks like Rory will be back in some shape or form (can’t they ever keep dead characters dead for once?), so I’m sure that this isn’t the last we’ve heard of this.

Vincent And The Doctor may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But the combination of Curtis’ witty script, the evocative location filming, and the uniformly strong acting (and that includes Bill Nighy’s short but sweet cameo as the curator) add up to one of my personal favourites of the season. And for daring to tackle a subject like depression and suicide in an honest but dignified way, Vincent And The Doctor must rank as one of the most important Who stories to date.

Next week: James Corden. Yay.

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