Review: Doctor Who – 5×10 – Vincent and the Doctor

Perfection – almost

Vincent and the Doctor

In the UK: Saturday 5th June, 6.40pm, BBC1/BBC HD
In the US: Saturday 19th June, 9/8c, BBC America

Have you been affected by any of the issues raised in Saturday’s episode, such as life imitating art imitating life, giant space chickens following you, the memory of your ex- being wiped, or Athlete?

If so, you can either call the BBC or you can come talk about it in a supportive environment – full of spoilers – after the jump.

The Doctor, Amy, Vincent Van Gogh and a terrifying alien all feature in this stunning but heart-breaking adventure, written by Richard Curtis.

Was it any good?
Well, although I have reservations about it, in many ways it was a thing of wonder and delight.

The most wondrous thing about it was the direction by Jonny Campbell. My god, that was a beautiful piece of work. You could probably flag up a few movies that have tried to be that beautiful and bring art to life (The Girl with a Pearl Earring, Prospero’s Book), but this is first time that I’ve seen a sci-fi drama try to do it and succeed (I’m glowering at you here, Voyager).

Normally, CGI is a thing to be irritated by, but the recreation of ‘Starry Night’ to the narration of Tony Curran’s van Gogh was a thing of awe. Add on the sunflowers and the fields of corn, and you have some true moments of TV joy.

Then we have the acting. Much as Matt Smith and Karen Gillan have been showing off their acting chops of late, they definitely had to up their game in the face of the magnificent Tony Curran as top ginge painter, Vincent van Gogh. He went from joy to deepest misery and back entirely convincingly. If your tear ducts weren’t yet exercised, Curran would certainly have put a whole more pressure on them. And let’s face it, Bill Nighy’s explanation of why van Gogh was such a magnificenct painter should have added a hundredweight of extra emotion to that particular lacrimony.

The script
Overall, a wonderful structure that was full of meaning and metaphor, and let the Doctor finally do what we all would do, sooner or later, if we had a time machine – take a famous person from the past into the present to reassure him or her that history would treat them kindly. Unlike previous “and a very special guest appearance by <INSERT NAME OF FAMOUS PERSON HERE>” episodes such as The Unquiet Dead, The Shakespeare Code, and The Unicorn and the Wasp, there was actually a decent enough reason for the Doc to go visit van Gogh, who rather than be revered from the outset was treated mostly like a normal person, both by the script and the Doctor. The Doctor prefers less impressionistic paintings it turns out (more of that fuddy duddy 11th Doctor quality) and rather than explain to Vincent in another toe-curling speech just how great he is (a 10th Doctor quality), he got someone else to do it instead, which was a pleasing touch.

We also got a relatively convincing look at manic depression within the confines of the format (typical Richard “issues” Curtis) with the all-important ending in which van Gogh still kills himself, despite knowing how revered he will be. I liked that a lot – very bleak for family TV.

Other good things:

  • The sets: Well, Croatia, which was a whole lot more convincing as France than Venice
  • The gizmo: The Doctor has contraptions again!
  • Bow ties: Not cool, but good to see someone else wearing them (and wouldn’t Nighy have been a great Doctor?)
  • Amy crying: Were you crying too, as you realised she was sad for Rory even though she couldn’t remember him?
  • Niceness: Amy and the Doctor’s relationship, with Amy and the Doctor having more jumping up and down time together and Amy wondering why he was being so nice to her. Of course, the question is that now Rory has gone, what kind of relationship does Amy think she has with the Doctor? Did she try to snog him on the eve of her non-existent wedding? Has she been footloose and fancy-free the whole time? Does she think the Doctor is her boyfriend now? History has been rewritten – will it be rewritten back at series-end if we’re not getting any kind of relationship rewrite at this stage?
  • Vincent kissing the Doctor and apologising about the beard
  • Vincent’s reaction to the gallery of his work. Just epic
  • Chicken death scene

Not perfect
Nonetheless, there were a few flaws:

  • Space chicken: Interesting idea, the invisible monster (cheap in budget terms) who turns out to be blind and a bit frightened. Shame it was a CGI space chicken really. And why couldn’t the Doctor understand it sooner if it was sentient and could speak?
  • Amy: Suddenly, Amy loves art. Who knew? No pictures in her house that I recall, but hell, maybe she’s minimalist and has them all on her iPhone. Or maybe not having Rory around her whole life has changed Amy. But why the strange attraction to the much-older, bearded ginger Dutchman? Oh yes, Richard “Love Actually” Curtis is writing the script.
  • Violence: Was the Doctor really trying to twat the space chicken with a metal pole?
  • So little action: For a script that has lots of running around and lots of fights, there was really very little excitement, so little sense of urgency. Instead, everything was a bit flat or too comedic to ring true.
  • Athlete: Nice music, pity it drowned everything out worse than Murray Gold on full blast
  • Amy screamed: Yes, she actually bloody screamed.

And, please, we really need a few more scenes with Amy and the Doctor talking about their feelings. I’ve completely lost track, particularly in light of last week’s episode, of even why Amy’s travelling with the Doctor now, let alone whether she wants his babies.

The series arc
No cracks this week. Interesting. So the Doctor isn’t following cracks in time, or if he is, he took a breather (after finding out the TARDIS will be destroyed at some point) to take Amy on a literal guilt trip. What could be happening in the finale?

Pretty magnificent in a lot of ways, but really needed a bit more woomph in its action scenes and maybe just a bit more time with the Doctor and Amy talking.

Next week: The Doctor becomes James Corden’s lodger for the Doctor-light (and presumably Amy-lighter) episode.

  • Anna

    Really, really great review sir. And that’s not just because I agree with every word 😉 Particularly part about the direction which was stunning (this episode genuinely gained from being watched in HD) and why Amy loves art so damn much. Great stuff.

  • Anna

    Really, really great review sir. And that’s not just because I agree with every word 😉 Particularly part about the direction which was stunning (this episode genuinely gained from being watched in HD) and why Amy loves art so damn much. Great stuff.

  • I thought it was fantastic (apart from the space chicken, who should have stayed with the Clangers). There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
    I’m not a Richard Curtis fan by any stretch of the imagination, but it was a great script and the direction was beautiful. Definitely my favourite episode of the new series.
    Shame about the music.
    And yes, Bill Nighy would have been great.

  • It was lovely. And apparantly the space chicken was so bad that I even thouhgt it was an old-fashioned rubber monster. Good thing, bad thing…?!
    Great review: I even forgave them Athlete. Something I didn’t think I would ever do.

  • Electric Dragon

    I was a bit conflicted about this one. The space chicken felt a bit bolted on, as if Curtis had originally envisioned a pure historical but either he or Moffat chickened out at the last moment and decided to include the mandatory monster.
    On the other hand Curran was fantastic as van Gogh, Gillan and Smith producing some wonderful acting to balance things out, and the direction was wonderful. The van Gogh at Orsay scene was great, but spoiled by Nighy’s speech being just a bit over-effusive. (VvG is one of the greatest, for sure, but the certainty with which he says VvG is THE greatest annoyed me. What about Leonardo? Velasquez, Rembrandt, Turner, Picasso etc?)
    Again there seems to be some tricksiness with time going on, the Doctor leaves Amy and Vincent at one point, doesn’t come back till it’s getting dusk but they don’t notice…
    I was thinking about the new series’ “celebrity pseudo-historicals” last night and realised that they’ve all been either leaders (Churchill, Queen Vic) or arts people (Dickens, Shakespeare, Christie, van Gogh). Isn’t it time for a scientist? I’ve got this great idea in my head involving alchemy, the Tower of London and Isaac Newton…

  • MediumRob

    @Anna: Thanks very much – and nice to see you around here again!
    @Rullsenberg: I thank you, too!
    @Electric Dragon: Yes, I do hope we’re not going to get to the end of the series and find out that all this timey-wimey stuff we’ve been spotting has just been a problem with reshoots and a duff continuity checker. That would be so disappointing. And no, no scientists. But then science and Doctor Who: hmm…

  • Wouldn’t it be fun if the scientist could put the script writers right on all the duff bits of science in Dr Who? Rob/Stu_n, I think you’re needed(-:
    I loved this episode for all the aforementioned reasons, but space chicken was silly. LOVED the starry night bit particularly. And the Doctor’s gizmo. I do love the Heath Robinson new style Tardis. Also like the way Matt Smith has a slightly bow legged old man’s walk.
    Didn’t quite get to weeping, but the point where I nearly did was when Bill Nighy gave his speech, though I am with Electric Dragon, VvG THE greatest???.
    So overall top marks from me, and am looking forward to the ending. DO hope we’re not going to be disappointed about timey wimey stuff, Rob!

  • Glad I followed link to this review. What you’ve said is pretty much on the nose for me. Lovely job.
    Regarding the Nighy character saying VvG THE greatest, I found this totally believeable – what would you expect a nerdy Van Gogh expert curator to say? Of course HE thinks Van Gogh is the greatest and is passionate about him. It’s not about objectivity here, it’s an appropriate speech by the character saying it (we all have our favourites – don’t have to vacillate about that)

  • Agree that as OTT as Nighy’s praise for VvG was, it was prefaced with the clue words “for me” – it was therefore a very personal take on Vincent and his greatness, from – as Heather Jones pointed out (and hiya!) – a VvG nerdy expert curator.
    Re: Matt Smith’s ‘bow-legged’ ness. Man, the guy couldn’t stop a pig in an entry could he?! Me and mine keep constantly chuckling at how his knees don’t meet when he stands! bless.
    Sadly, I do have a horrible feeling that some of our timey-wimey things WILL be duff editing/continuity which would be a DESPERATE shame. Still, if Moff has been paying enough attention, who knows, maybe he’s taken note of all our eagle-eyed viewing and will at least bang in a voice-over to explain….

  • I saw a suggestion that the tree limb that spans the screen as Vincent says good-bye at the TARDIS in the field was shaped like the crack. Suggestive of it in outline, but I don’t know….
    When I went to see the movie version of “The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy”, I didn’t like anything about it but the new design for Marvin the Android. However, when Bill Nighy was onscreen, I remember thinking: “He’s totally wrong for Slartibartfast, but he’d be perfect as the Doctor.” (I’m still an advocate for older incarnations of the Doctor – Nighy as one, Roger Rees as another candidate…..)

  • David H

    The Starry Night scene was worth the price of admission (so to speak) alone. Simply magical.

  • stu-n

    There was a rumour running around back in 2005 that Bill Nighy was actually Rusty’s first choice for the Doctor in the planning stages, but he was vetoed by BBC top brass who wanted a younger actor.
    Electric Dragon: Hands off my Newton idea! I’ve been brewing that up for ages, and it’s only my self-disgust at the thought of writing fanfic that stops me having a go. He’d have to be the villain, if course. Interesting that part of Matt Smith’s preparation for the part was writing fanfic, though, and he did the Doctor meeting Einstein…
    So many people missed the metaphor of the monster (although it was a very weak monster plot), and then missed Matt Smith’s fantastic explanation of why you can’t cure bipolar disorder by cheering the sufferer up. I’ve seen it slammed as a ‘simplistic treatment of depression’, which it certainly wasn’t, and criticised for having van Gogh as too unsympathetic, when he was by all accounts a very difficult man. If you want an inappropriately sympathetic depiction of a historical character in Who, go back to Churchill.
    Didn’t have a problem at all with Bill Nighy’s gushing over van Gogh. It was depicted as his character’s opinion, and the reasons he gave made complete sense (you could disagree, but it’s a valid point of view).

  • SK

    Wasn’t Bill Nighy everybody’s first choice for the Doctor? But 2005 was just when his career was taking off post-State of Play and he would probably have been even more expensive than Eccleston.

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