Vincent and the Doctor

Story No. 228 Vincent and Vincent
Production Code 1.10
Dates June 5 2010

With Matt Smith, Karen Gillan
Written by Richard Curtis Directed by Jonny Campbell
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Piers Wenger, Beth Willis.

Synopsis: The Doctor and Amy discover a monster in one of Vincent van Gogh's paintings.


A Review by Tim Curtis 22/7/10

OK, the episode starts off promisingly as the Doctor sees an anomaly in one of Vincent van Gough's paintings that Amy and him are perusing in an exhibition, so they go back in time in investigate. So far, so good. Unfortunately, it's all down hill from there on.

The anomaly turns out to be a monster that only van Gough can see (why only him?) - cue scenery moved by strings and people pointing chairs at thin air in a menacing fashion - which is eventually dealt with in an unsatisfactory way.

To me this seems to be the cheap episode of the series, not just because of effects but also the extremely simplistic plot: find a monster, deal with the monster, turns out it had a troubled past, yawn.

The whole of the last section is utterly pointless and serves no purpose whatsoever that I can see; the point made being pretty obvious, if not a little patronising. It was so sentimental and schmaltzy that I found myself cringing for the last 10 minutes and very nearly switched it off it was so bad. Typical Richard Curtis, then. I really hope he doesn't get to write any more episodes.

Amy's over-excited obsession with Vincent van Gough seemed a bit odd as it was not mentioned at all in the previous episodes. Perhaps it was just her hammy acting; talking of which, can someone ask Karen Gillam to stop pouting all the time? It's getting very annoying.

On the wider topic of the current series, I find that Amy is too ready with a smart-arse remark, acting like she's seen it/done it all before. Many of the plots seems very simplistic (Time of the Angels/Flesh and Stone excepted). I had high hopes for this series, what with Steven Moffat as head writer but up to this point I feel rather disappointed.

Maybe you've had enough coffee now... by Evan Weston 31/12/17

Vincent and the Doctor brings to mind something that's been scraping around my head for a while, but there hasn't been a proper episode in which to articulate it. This is, quite clearly, a very low-key episode of Doctor Who, with a relatively low-stakes threat, almost no supporting cast besides a featured guest star, a warm, historical locale and a meandering tone that is meant to draw out quieter emotions than stir up the crowd.

This type of episode actually pops up a lot more than you'd expect throughout the show. The Girl in the Fireplace, for instance, is probably the story that best captures this feeling and elevates it to classic level, though there are certainly bigger set-pieces going on there. I'd posit Human Nature/The Family of Blood set the standard for what a truly down-to-earth Doctor Who episode could be. Its imitators (and lesser forbearers) include Boom Town, Love & Monsters, The Unicorn and the Wasp and even some of the less-epic Christmas specials like The Next Doctor. Vincent and the Doctor is notable only in that it embraces this format with so much enthusiasm and totality, and, in the end, it accomplishes its goals pretty well.

The monster here is so insignificant that, were it not a metaphor in the central story, it would not have done the episode a disservice to simply gloss over it entirely. The Krafayis is basically a giant, mostly invisible murderous chicken, an image you're probably guffawing over right now. But that's how the villagers viewed van Gogh, when deep down both were just misfits searching for a home. This is delivered with wonderful subtlety and poise by writer Richard Curtis, who is clearly responsible for the dramatic shift in tone presented here. The scene in the church is heartbreaking, with the Krafayis slowly dying and van Gogh's spirit passing along with it.

This tremendous touch makes the episode's greatest flaw that much more annoying - there are no fewer than three completely pointless action sequences that are clearly here just because it's a Doctor Who episode and, gosh darn it, we can't completely bore the kids. To hell with the kids, I say. The extended chase sequence outside the TARDIS is particularly ghastly, a made-for-the-trailers madcap that never extends beyond Matt Smith mugging for the camera. This scene also introduces Vincent and the Doctor's obnoxious McGuffin, the old lady gift that the Doctor uses to see the monster. The metaphor nearly falls apart with the Doctor (and by extension, the audience) able to see what van Gogh sees, though Curtis's steady hand keeps everything intact for the most part. Still, I shouldn't have to explain why the Doctor conveniently possessing a device that can strap to your stomach and show you invisible creatures is stupid.

Beyond the more Doctor Who-ish parts of the episode, though, Vincent and the Doctor is a treat. A huge pat of the back and an ice cold mug of beer raised to Tony Curran, who goes beyond his striking physical resemblance to Vincent van Gogh and gives us a deep, detailed portrait of the tortured painter. Curtis is first and foremost interested in van Gogh's story, and Curran is more than capable of handling the script, matching Toby Jones and James Corden (we'll get to him in the next review) for guest star of the season. Curran and Karen Gillan have instant chemistry on screen, and Amy is adorable alongside van Gogh. The title of the story is actually pretty misleading; it should be Vincent and Amy, as the Doctor is obviously marked as the third-most important character to this story. Gillan also does well with the subtle hints about Rory throughout, no doubt peppered in by Moffat after the script was finished. They needed to be there, though, and Series 5's arc remains the strongest yet on the show.

Matt Smith does a lot of running around, as previously mentioned, and this is among his least memorable performances yet. This is only the second time in the whole series where he is clearly not the lead - Amy's Choice belonged to that titular character - and Smith hadn't quite figured out how to calm down his larger-than-life Doctor yet (he gets it right in The Lodger). Van Gogh still manages to shine, thanks to Curtis and Curran, but Smith threatens to get in the way at times. His best moment actually comes alongside Bill Nighy, delightful in a random cameo, as they discuss their bowties in the pre-titles sequence.

Speaking of that museum bookend...the ending of Vincent and the Doctor was extremely risky, as is all historical revision on this show. It had the potential to come off as mawkish and heavy-handed, but I think it works, and it's because Curtis is brave enough to still kill van Gogh at the end. The Doctor remarks that it was for another reason, most likely, but not even seeing evidence of his future success could have changed a man that tortured and dark. Van Gogh, like the Krafayis, ends up dead and alone. But the story offers a glimmer of hope, as at least the painter was able to witness how much he is loved today. It's an adorable moment, and it leaves you with a weird, fuzzy feeling afterwards. Okay, maybe the indie rock song was a bit much, but it's a mostly successful choice when it had almost no right to be.

That sums up Vincent and the Doctor pretty nicely. An incredibly minimalistic effort in which the villain is actually invisible, Richard Curtis's shift in tone is most successful when he fully embraces it, taking the Doctor Who-ness out of the show and still delivering a winner. The only portions of the story that fail, oddly enough, are those that attempt to be more like Doctor Who and less like Richard Curtis. While it's not perfect or even great, Vincent and the Doctor is proof that a radical scaling back doesn't necessarily mean a bad episode, and that a talented enough writer can really take this show anywhere and still produce an above-average product. That speaks to both Curtis and to the show's uniqueness. With Doctor Who, they say the show rules all and this is mostly true, but it can be a very generous king on occasion.