PLEASE NOTE: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS. OUR SPOILER-FREE REVIEW IS HERE.
It’s ironic, really. I get one week of reviewing Doctor Who (Simon’s on holiday), and what do I get to spoil? Absolutely NOTHING. Oh no, no big reveal for John.
Last week the boss had Rory’s ‘death’ (my mental jury is still out on whether that’s the right word) and a bit of the Tardis wrapped in a spotty hanky. What do I get? Vincent Van Gogh is from somewhere in the Scottish Highlands, apparently.
Oh, and Bill Nighy is a bona fide national treasure, though you probably already knew that.
You know what, though? I wouldn’t swap it for the world.
So, what do you want to know? The Doctor’s spoiling Amy, presumably to ease his own guilt over what has happened to Rory in the valleys (with the trumpet gun and the strange light from the crack in time, though where was, remains unknown). We assume he still remembers Rory – he mistakenly says Rory’s name at one point – though it’s never explicitly made clear. Whatever, he certainly doesn’t want to talk to Amy about it.
After seeing a strange figure at a window within Van Gogh’s painting, The Church At Auvers, while on a tour of the Musee D’orsay in Paris, The Doctor gets his adventuring head on and decides they need to help Vincent.
“I know evil when I see it,” he says. But not for the first time this season, people’s eyes are playing tricks on them. Indeed, sight is becoming a sledgehammer of a theme that Stephen Moffat has been exploring for some time now.
His contribution to The Doctor Who Storybook, back in 2007, was a dark short story called The Corner Of The Eye about perception-altering little miscreants called Floofs. Peripheral vision and half-seen creatures were a concept he returned to in this year’s series opener too. Then, of course, there are the iconic weeping angels of Blink, and this year’s two-parter. Even his Vashta Nerada (of Silence In The Library) moved as shadows, but were something quite different.
Sight, or should that be ‘vision’, is again a central theme of Vincent And The Doctor. It is made clear that Van Gogh has a visual acuity beyond the norm. He can ‘see’ things others simply cannot, almost beyond this dimension. In one later scene, this gift is wonderfully represented by a stunning animation where the night sky is transformed into Vincent’s Starry Night canvass, leading the Doctor to comment that nothing he has seen is as beautiful as the things Van Gogh sees. Earlier, to prove the point, Van Gogh observes that Amy is sad, which Amy denies. Apparently, the artist can see the hidden truth, see beyond whatever the crack is doing to erase events. Does this give scope to reverse the damage done, one wonders?
The concept of ‘vision’ permeates everything here. Not least in the episode’s ‘big bad’. Indeed, mirrors and frames, compositions and interpretations are central to the comedy, the drama and the beauty of Vincent And The Doctor.
What the characters can and can’t perceive, sight, the eye and its relationship to the brain are once more explored in detail, this time by the illuminating writing of Richard Curtis.
We meet a cantankerous, somewhat sozzled and broke Van Gogh in what is presumably Auvers-sur-Oise in France, presumably sometime in 1890 not long before to the artist’s suicide (right there, knocking about his house are several classic Van Gogh canvasses, including Prisoner’s Round, painted that year while Van Gogh was in an asylum).
The timescale for the episode focuses on Vincent’s prolific outpouring of work prior to his death. However, Vincent’s sleeping arrangement, the subject of his Bedroom In Arles painting, which one scene here riffs on, are from his time in another town further south a few years earlier.
Not that I’m nitpicking, or anything you understand. As is drama’s way, this episode plays fast and loose with facts to make its point, but in a true homage to roots of the Doctor Who concept, Curtis provides a highly engaging historical overview of Van Gogh, his essential works, motivations and life.
The monster-centric conceit of this instalment is that the Krafayis in the window – may we present your Monster Of The Week, ladies and gentlemen – is not the pure evil we are initially lead to believe it is. Yes, it is killing villagers; yes, it is pretty gruesome looking, a bit like a huge, featherless mutant turkey; yes, it is invisible to the naked eye (at least to everyone except Vincent and his extraordinary ‘sight’); yes, people are starting to blame the mad artist for what’s happening. However, what we eventually discover is that the monster is blind, confused, lost and alone. Are you getting these points? They’ve been made enough times.
Another important device related to sight is the Doctor’s curious identification machine, which eventually identifies the monster in a nice comedic action scene. When The Doctor himself looks into it, it identifies him by summoning up images of Hartnell and Troughton. Tell me that’s not important and I’ll call you a liar. I’d lay money we’re going to be seeing that machine again some time soon.
When Vincent kills the Krafayis with fifteen minutes of the episode to go, the fact that the monster is mere symbolism, a thematic sheep in the clothes of a B-movie wolf, becomes clear. Only after the climatic confrontation in Auver’s church, do we get to the real point of Vincent And The Doctor: a chance for Curtis to flex his innate talent for pathos in the episode’s emotional, sentimental coda.
Those of you who read the spoiler-free version of this review will know that I waxed quite lyrically about how much I enjoyed this forty-odd minutes. As a piece of Whovian folly, I found it almost life-affirming. Others have dug into the sentimentality and the pathos with disdain. I didn’t feel like that at all. I love the way Curtis used the ending. For me it drove home a very important point that I think writes a cheque that Moffat will cash later on.
Specifically, it is that pretty much all the Doctor can do is try to make things better, bearable. He can illuminate lives, give them deeper meaning, offer insight and perspective that others can only fantasise about, but ultimately some things just are, and he’s powerless to change that.
We saw it last week. Though the events weren’t a fixed point in time, he was powerless to stop human nature screwing it up. And this week even offering Vincent Van Gogh an insight into his legacy was not enough to shift his demons of depression. Despite knowing that he will be appreciated for a hundred odd years to come, Vincent still takes his own life in the same horrible way, at the same time. All that changes is the dedication of a painting to Amy. His life was enriched, altered, but ultimately stayed the same.
While this episode moves the larger story arc on very little, it still, I believe, augments the larger drama quite a bit. I stand by initial analysis of this episode as an exquisitely important piece of fluff. Vincent And The Doctor is a shiny trinket, a tableau, an ornament. But it’s one that tells us more about the show’s central protagonists than it has any right to, effortlessly splashing colour across the characters.
As I said in my earlier review, Stephen Fry is very fond of reminding people of Oscar Wilde’s sentiment that “all art is quite useless”. Vincent And The Doctor is utterly useless, but absolutely art.