Friday, February 18, 2011

"Vincent and the Doctor"

I'm not entirely sure what to make of this episode. On the one hand it's narratively a little flimsy, plodding in places, relies too heavily on the tropes of the already extremely tired 'celebrity historical' concept, burdened with a virtually unnecessary monster and some weird time travel-related issues and perhaps to some a trifle condescending, yet on the other it's extremely well-performed, startlingly original for the New Series, thematically fresh and interesting, generally blessed with strong dialogue and ultimately quite a memorable one.
I have to praise the episode for its examination of issues relating to depression, mental illness and suicide, which are dealt with in a reasonably mature fashion without being preachy or overly sentimental. It's certainly surprising, and it's the kind of thing the previous era would never have even contemplated addressing let alone touched with a ten foot magic sonic screwdriver. Alternately I can see why people may take issue with it; there's the fact that Vincent has a moment of extreme negativity which is rapidly resolved, and yet I realise that rapid and extreme moods can be symptomatic of these conditions. I think the Doctor's argument that the bad parts of life don't necessarily spoil the good ones or make them unimportant is an extremely neat comment on the situation, yet I simultaneously feel that the Krafayis, known among the educated as the Giant Space Turkey, is a rather heavy-handed allegory. The idea that only Vincent can see it and therefore must defeat it, yet it also has its own problems of blindness and abandonment and being misunderstood, seems a rather obvious metaphor for the dilemma faced by those who are suffering - others are incapable of appreciating their situation. There's also the fact, of course, that Van Gogh's illness is not exactly categorical and he seems to be endowed with a number of almost 'psychic' abilities. It's a bit touch and go, but the way I am forced to see it is this: at least they tried. The New Series before this would never have even attempted to look at this kind of issue, and while I realise I view the Classic Series with rose-tinted spectacles at least they tried as well, although with other issues. Science fiction is about exploring issues, and at last they're going back to that.
Another factor which  is important to note here is the sparcity of characters. Apart from Doctor Black, played with his usual supreme class by Bill Nighy in the opening and closing moments of the episode, the only three characters of significance are the Doctor, Amy and Van Gogh. Again this is paradoxical for me, because sometimes the town feels inordinately sparse, isolated and quiet, and this seems to diminish the realism somewhat, but at the same time it reinforces the impressionist nature of Van Gogh's work and the isolation and alienation of the depressed and mentally unusual. Again, it feels as if issues are being examined here, and this is precisely what Doctor Who is meant to do. If an allegory has to be forced down our throats for the benefit of children and thickies then so be it. Nonetheless I do think we could have done without the Karafyis and somehow purely been character-driven. I suppose what this achieves however is that it allows the episode to be both concept and character-driven, although not very plot-driven. The best stories of the Classic Series always did all three of these and it's something which I feel "The Eleventh Hour" and "Amy's Choice" for instance managed particularly well, but the monster-of-the-week nature of this story hampers it a bit. The Krafayis just feels so arbitrary.
It's not helped by the fact that the scenes in the church really drag and the bit where the Doctor and Amy are hiding in the confessional booth always feels like it goes for hours. It is good that when the Doctor starts to have a big old perspective dump about depression while Vincent starts painting he gets shooshed so as to avoid a 'tell don't show' policy, although when he goes in while Vincent is really upset and just starts slapping him on the back and urging him to get up seems a bit tactless. Wouldn't the Doctor know that telling depressed people to cheer up is one of the worst things to say? Regardless Matt Smith does an extremely good job as the Doctor in this one, being personable and yet at the same time alien, both serious and funny, and achieving the absolute synthesis of character traits which was always the great power of the Classic Series Doctors. One thing I can say about this series is that it truly does feel like a return to form.
Amy seems a bit sidelined in this episode, mostly existing to serve the implications of Rory's erasure and to give Vincent someone to have a bit of a flirt with but she is as always very affecting and plays her part well. Again, the tumultous bundle of fieriness, compassion, doubt and confidence all coalesce extremely well, especially when she hopes for Vincent to have lived a long life and her disappointment that there are no new paintings in the museum. This raises another issue for me; is it possible that this evidence of his success could have contributed to Van Gogh's illness and exacerbated his problems, or did it permit him to stave off the darkness of his moods for a little while longer? Unfortunately it's rather unclear and it seems a bit iffy of the Doctor to show him his own future so blatantly, especially when with Bill Nighy's lectures and the information everywhere he could easily have become aware of the nature of his own demise. It all just comes across as rather dubious but is simply ignored by the episode apart from the disappearing Krafayis Face and the dedication to Amy on the sunflower painting. Again, it is to an extent made up for by the Doctor's sagacious words about good days at the conclusion but it still irks me a little.
There's also the pop song which plays over the ending, and at this point I'm reminded of the fact that this episode was written by comedy writer Richard Curtis, who once upon a time co-wrote top-notch comedy such as Blackadder and now mostly creates rather cutesy-poo romantic comedies mostly featuring Hugh Grant in some role which girls like to watch. They almost exclusively also depict the English as charmingly awkward on a universal scale and rely on sentimentality and pop songs to pluck at the heartstrings and rake in absolutely loads of dosh. Nonetheless I don't find the conclusion too sappy or cheesy and while the song is rather unusual for Doctor Who it certainly fitted better than the random and rather obvious insertions of the previous era. I'm willing to ascribe it as simply a hallmark of Richard Curtis' touch.
I suppose the one other thing I ought to discuss is Tony Curran as Van Gogh, whose name apparently should be pronounced Van Hhhoghhh with lots of phlegm but who is unanimously called 'Van Goff' apart from a rather strained attempt by Bill Nighy at the beginning. He really is a good likeness when held up to the painting, and while his Scottish accent makes no sense his conveyance of the demons plaguing the artist is pretty good stuff and as he's effectively companion number two for this episode as well as the story's main focus his interactions with the Doctor and Amy don't feel nearly as forced as with characters such as Shakespeare and Agatha Christie, and you can accept his loneliness as a good motivator for accepting these two complete strangers rather briefly into his life. The idea which Bill Nighy offers that Van Gogh was one of the greatest men who ever lived, however, I find a bit of a stretch. I like his description of his artistic genius in transforming his pain into beauty but all this 'greatest man' stuff, fully equipped with crying, reminds me a bit too much of old men and complete strangers telling the Tenth Doctor what a wonderful man he was while he was busy massacring people and complaining that the humans he's constantly telling are short-lived and can't stay with him always leave. Clearly Van Gogh is an excellent artist, but that doesn't make him a great man.
Thus it's a bit of a wild card episode. I have to give it credit because any examination of issues is a relief these days, yet at the same time the monster is really, really arbitrary and the plot's not very interesting. I'm sick of celebrity historicals. All the silly jokes become incredibly predictable and when we know how history will play out it will either make the entire story seem pointless or, as in this case, make it confusing as to what the real consequences of the Doctor's actions were. Nonetheless it's very well acted and it does make you think about what you're feeling, which is always a good thing.

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