Here's a thought. Supposing at the end of Doctor Who's 26th season, comedy writer supreme Richard Curtis made a last-minute bid to rescue the popular science fiction show from the jaws of death?
After all, now that Blackadder had come to an end in 1989, a vacancy would have welcomed Curtis with open arms. Not only that, but a spell as Doctor Who helmsman would have meant no Four Weddings And A Funeral, and no Vicar Of Dibley, featuring stereotypical upper middle class twit or yokel simpletons and blindingly obvious punchlines that could be seen as far away as Uranus.
Doctor Who though - now for Curtis, that might have been a different proposition. Because here's the thing – Curtis' Vincent And The Doctor shows that the man knows how to write top quality Doctor Who. It may include some of the more recognisable Curtis hallmarks such as an unsubtle schmaltz fest near the end of the episode and also Bill Nighy, but even detractors of these two familiar elements may grudgingly agree that the story works like a charm.
In the context of this season, Vincent And The Doctor sticks out like a sore thumb for two key reasons. One is the fact that it can be taken on its own as a standalone story. There are no headache-inducing references to The Crack, with only fleeting acknowledgements of Rory's recent (cough) passing.
The other important reason is that in an era full of clever clever timey wimey conundrums, Vincent And The Doctor is a much more personal story that comes from the heart just as much as from the brain. It isn't afraid to shirk away from Vincent Van Gogh's depression. Nor is it afraid to tug on the heartstrings throughout, whether it's through Tony Curran's awesome performance or through the wholesale blubfest in Dr Black's museum.
A regular factor of 21st century Who is that it's not afraid to embrace its emotional side – particularly in the RTD adventures which include an openly weepy Tennant Doctor and various other blubbing machines such as Jackson Lake and Wilf. Some people like this, some don't. Sometimes the weepy scenes can be a bit unsubtle and coupled with the fact that Murray's Pompous Choir are let loose on proceedings, this is enough to make any sane man bawl like a baby. But when it's done right – eg: Wilf's last goodbye to the dying Doctor in The End Of Time or Sarah Jane's closure in School Reunion, the emotional aspect of Doctor Who is a modern marvel.
However, there's been relatively little of that so far in Moffat's first season. Detractors of Crybaby Who will tell you that this is a good thing, but I don't know – one thing that strikes me about Matt Smith's first season is that it feels like there's been a deliberate backlash against the RTD syrup, but the downside of this is that there's no one to emotionally invest in, resulting in stories that sometimes feel a tad hollow.
The story so far then: The Doctor's decided to go all arty on Amy, who's a wee bit suspicious of the Time Lord's recent niceties, having enjoyed the delights of Arcadia and the Trojan Gardens (“OK, I was joking, why aren't you?”). Presumably, the Doctor's hoping to distract Amy from Rory's recent (cough) death with a whistle-stop tour of some of the great artists of our time: Leonardo Da Vinci. Picasso. Tony Hart. Maybe the Doctor's hoping to take Amy to the BBC studios in 1984 to thwart the evil machinations of Tony Hart's horsey posho sidekick, Margot, a woman so snooty she makes Penelope Keith's similarly titled character look like a downtrodden chav.
But there's no time for that, because the Doctor's seen the face of evil in a Van Gogh painting - “Something not very good indeed”. The race is on as the Doctor and Amy travel back in time to 1890 Paris to ask the great man himself – and of course, when they land, they find that all hell has broken loose because the locals are being picked off by an invisible force.
Invisible unless you're Van Gogh. Because he can see clearly that a great big demented chicken is responsible for the deaths – an apparently merciless monster called the Krafayis. So merciless in fact that if any hapless member of this pack-travelling monster race is left behind, they are abandoned by the others, the nasty rotters. So an angry, abandoned Krafayis is not the sort of being you want running amok in a small little French village, especially when there's lots of hammy mademoiselles shaking their fists aloft at such relentless carnage.
Mind you, I can't help but feel sorry for the Krafayis – not least because it looks ridiculous: a bit like an overgrown chicken impersonating the lead singer of Sigue Sigue Sputnik. Good thing that no one else apart from Vincent and the Doctor can see this punky chicken strut around, since it'd be laughed and jeered at by the locals in seconds flat. The Doctor can only see this terrifying monster with the aid of a lash-up device that resembles a 2CV driving mirror clumsily stuck onto a harness.
Not only that, but part of the reason for the Krafayis' drunken lurching is the fact that it's blind as a bat. When it's cornered by the Doctor, Amy and Vincent, it can't see that there's a whopping great big easel aiming for its chest, enduring a sad, lonely and painful death, a bit like the poor old Terileptils in The Visitation. “I think he's saying 'I'm afraid, I'm afraid'” says the Doctor sadly as he comforts the dying Krafayis.
Metaphor fans can take the Krafayis in one of two ways – as Vincent points out, the Krafayis is like the frightened villagers who have lashed out and hurt Vincent because they're frightened of him (“Like the villagers who scream at me... Like the children who throw stones at me...”). But then on the other side of the coin, the lonely, isolated Krafayis also tallies with Vincent's isolation.
That's where the real drama lies in Vincent And The Doctor. An outcast from society, Vincent is down on his luck. Despite his considerable talents at painting and his prolific output of work, Van Gogh only manages to sell one piece of art. Take Maurice the surly patron, who's on at the poor scamp with all the hospitality of a tiger who's just been woken up by a quick blast of Shaddap You Face by Joe Dolce. “I can't hang that on my walls,” he growls to Vincent. “It'd scare the customers half to death.” As a dejected Vincent explains to the Doctor, no one buys his paintings or they'd be laughed out of town. Just like the Krafayis, Vincent is treated with fear and contempt by the outside world. They can't begin to comprehend his fragile state of mind, and react with angry hostility as a defence mechanism.
Vincent And The Doctor is notable for tackling the subject of depression head on. It doesn't go for the patronising cliché route of showing Vincent pace up and down with a perpetual scowl while Snow Patrol dirges play in the background soundtrack – instead, it's a matter-of-fact study that isn't afraid to show harrowing scenes such as the one in which Vincent sobs in a foetal ball on his bed.
Scenes like this also avoid the cliché of the Doctor getting through with his compassionate side: The Doctor offers to help with a sympathetic ear, but instead Vincent roars at him to get out (“When you leave and everyone always leaves, I will be left once more with an empty heart and no hope”). It's daring stuff for a Saturday teatime.
In a season that's full of timey wimey derring-do, it's telling that not even the Doctor can save Vincent from his own demons. Despite taking Vincent forwards in time to hear Dr Black wax lyrical about the great man's talents and posthumous accomplishments, it's not enough to save him. “Time can be rewritten,” beams Amy, bounding up the stairs of the museum. “I know it can!” But in this case, time hasn't pulled the rabbit out of the hat as Vincent has still taken his life at the age of 37, leaving Amy devastated. The following speech of the Doctor manages to sum it all up: “The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things – the good things don't always soften the bad things...”
Some of the fans apparently spluttered their sandwiches at the telly when Vincent And The Doctor first aired. The Doctor and Amy take Vincent forward in time to an exhibition of his work. What happens then is that Dr Black, the cool curator dude in a bow tie, embarks upon a long, gushing speech about how great Vincent is, all to the sounds of Athlete blubbing into their jangly guitars. Naturally some of the fans questioned whether the Doctor tipped Vincent over the edge by suddenly whisking him into unfamiliar surroundings and a massive head-rush of giddy appreciation. Good point, and for that matter, maybe the scene is too cloying for some tastes.
But at its core, it's a beautiful, moving scene, thanks to some skilled writing from Richard Curtis which never lapses into phoney pretension, and also to superlative performances from Bill Nighy and especially Tony Curran. Nighy makes the most of his uncredited cameo – quite why he doesn't receive an on-screen mention is anyone's guess, but he injects what's potentially a throwaway cliché with a lot of heart and his usual talent for understated humour (“You were nice about my tie”).
But in the end, it's Tony Curran who deserves all the awards for his sensitive, well-observed turn as Vincent. It's a tricky part to nail, this – Vincent's complex character means that one minute he's cowering away from the world in sobbing despair, the next he's musing on the wonders that the world has to offer (“There's so much more to the world than the eye can see”). Curran manages the task with a superb performance full of dignity and realism. Easily the guest best performance of the season, and come to think of it, one of the best guest performances in the whole series.
It's also one of the finest for both Matt Smith and Karen Gillan. We get to see the more thoughtful, compassionate side of the Doctor this season, whether he's gently attempting to reason with Vincent, comforting the dying Krafayis or consoling Amy at the story's conclusion – not only that but he's protecting his feisty companion from the fallout of Rory's death (he mistakenly calls Vincent, Rory at one point). It's a prime example of why Matt Smith was the perfect choice for the Eleventh Doctor – he turns in a performance that's full of understated charm and charisma.
While we're dishing out the compliments, what's happened to Amy? Only in the last review was I bemoaning her sarky, sulky persona. Miraculously, that's vanished overnight to be replaced by a warm, genuinely likeable companion, whether she's beaming in a vista of sunflowers or tearing up at Vincent's suicide at the end. Karen Gillan responds with a winning performance that nicely pre-empts her more rounded, three-dimensional persona in the following season.
It's not just Curtis' script that works – it's Jonny Campbell's superb visuals that also propel this episode into the upper echelons. Campbell has great vision when translating Curtis' script to the small screen, and there are lots of beautifully filmed shots, including the opening shot of the wheat blowing gently in the wind, or the evocative shot of the Doctor, Amy and Vincent holding hands in the field at night. This was the other story to be shot in Croatia, and again the results are amazing, giving a feel for the ages-old Continental ambience that comes alive before the viewer's eyes.
Vincent And The Doctor is a masterpiece. Richard Curtis' finely crafted script is bursting at the seams with wit, fun and genuine pathos. Jonny Campbell's direction does this fine script justice. Matt Smith and Karen Gillan are on top form. Plus, Tony Curran caps the whole thing off with his scene-stealing performance as Vincent. A beautiful story, finely told, and the first bonafide classic of the Matt Smith era.
* Like Vincent, it'd be nice to sell some more of my works of... well, I'm not sure they qualify as art. But anyway, if you're feeling generous, then my Doctor Who ebook guides to the Third to Eighth Doctors are only £2 each at Amazon.
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