Continuing his series rundown, Tom Steward throws out the sunflowers and climbs the stairs…
Vincent and the Doctor
Some viewers have seen this episode as a genuine attempt to revive the Dr. Who historical. These were stories set in syllabus-friendly periods of human history (The Romans, The Aztecs) without any science fiction elements, except the TARDIS. Historicals were prevalent in the early years of the show when its remit was to educate as well as entertain. Episodes of this kind went into decline after Scottish clan serial The Highlanders in 1967 and haven’t been seen since the twenties-set English country house mystery Black Orchid in 1981.
This episode about final year in the life of Vincent Van Gogh wasn’t exactly free of science-fiction but it was clearly much more interested in art history and biography than the vague ‘invisible monster’ sub-plot. I would like to see the historical make a return. However, I think the claim that the weak monster storyline was a deliberate strategy to enhance the historical credentials of this episode are making excuses for Curtis approaching the script with a dearth of story ideas. I can’t tell whether my antipathy towards this episode is due to my contempt for Richard Curtis’s ineptitude as a screenwriter or because it was so alien to what I think of as good Dr. Who.
The story, such as it was, stopped dead after about thirty minutes, abandoning content in favour of incessant hugging and people saying goodbye. This was disappointing given what a half-decent horror writer could’ve done with the concept of an invisible monster. To give Curtis his due, the first half-hour was decent enough. Though squandering numerous opportunities for scares and intrigue, there were a few good gags of the kind I genuinely didn’t think the writer was capable of any more. Thanks to Smith, Karen Gillan and Tony Curran (as Van Gogh), the schmaltz had a touching resonance to it for the most part.
My major beef was with the final ten minutes. In these latter scenes, I felt both that I could’ve been watching any programme and that it had been completely overtaken by Curtis. The insipid music and Curtis’ emotional manipulation of the audience in the closing moments suggested that the writer cared far more about reaffirming his persona that the programme he was authoring.
Despite having low expectations, I was quite taken with this episode. Notwithstanding a facility for entertaining dialogue and writing highly regarded Dr. Who novels in the hiatus period, Gareth Roberts’ episodes in the Davies era (The Shakespeare Code, The Unicorn and the Wasp) only worked gag-to-gag, and were always dramatically disappointing. We got the best of him in this episode. Roberts based the episode around a solid comic premise, the classic sitcom trope of an odd couple flat share, rather than a set of individual gags. This development in his writing since his collaborations with Davies also demonstrates how much more successful comedy has been in this last season under Moffat.
The script dealt thoughtfully with some important (if resolutely first world) social questions about life in contemporary Britain – should you stay at home and find love or explore the world and follow your dreams? Like the Silurians two parter, this episode recycled imagery from previous eras of the programme, namely the early Pertwee period where the Doctor was trapped on Earth, as he is here. The references, however, were beautifully integrated into a coherent concept rather than randomly juxtaposed.
Still, there were several problems with the episode. The direction (variable in quality throughout the season) by Catherine Morshead was dodgy, underestimating the scare potential of the mysterious upstairs room premise. She also screwed up the football match sequence, which should have used former professional Smith’s ball skills to demonstrate the Doctor’s superhuman tendencies (as with the cricket match in Black Orchid) but was cluttered with cutting and montage. The denouement was disappointing in terms of story – why does every story’s resolution seem to hinge on ‘the love of a good man for a good woman’?
But this all pales into insignificance given the sublime performance by Smith. He managed to despatch an ostensibly comic performance without altering the Doctor’s characterisation, persona or his acting style one iota. This is something I genuinely think Tennant (and Eccleston, actually) would be incapable of doing. This is also the episode where Smith consolidated his interpretation of the role. His impeccably choreographed awkward social fumblings and misunderstandings brought out the idea of the Doctor as a misfit outsider stronger than ever before.