Saturday, June 05, 2010

Vincent & The Doctor: They're Not Listening, Still. Perhaps They Never Will.

'I can hear the colours. Listen to them!'

A confession. A necessary confession. I'm really not sure where to even start with this review of the latest Doctor Who episode. It was many things and, I'm sure those many things are being actively discussed - for the positive and negative - on a message board somewhere near you right now, dear blog reader: It was talky. Possibly a touch self-indulgent (although I might argue the point on that one, actually). It was certainly brave; wilfully anti-commercial; gauche; strange; outré; touching; difficult; introverted; self-aware. And beautiful. I mean really, really, genuinely, twenty-four-carat beautiful. Whether it was Doctor Who, per se, is another matter entirely. That's what it says on the tin so, realistically, it was. But it didn't feel like any Doctor Who episode I've ever seen previously. Then again, neither did The Deadly Assassin or The Mind Robber or Castrovalva so, you know, such a requirement is seldom a deal-breaker. One can't criticise Doctor Who for doing something different with its format when doing something different with its format is one of the show's greatest boasts. We'll come back to that question later because, there are more important things to deal with here. I wondered, prior to the episode, which of the Richard Curtis twins would have been the one to turn up and write this episode. The clever, witty writer of historical parody of Blackadder or the bloke who wrote the characterless, bland and inoffensive Four Weddings and a Funeral and The Vicar of Dibley. In the end, I'm not sure I'm any the wiser, really. It could've been either. The wit and sparkling dialogue that you'd expect from the man behind a thousand cunning plans from the Baldrick family was in evidence, of course. 'I'm from the Ministry of Art and ... Artiness,' for one. 'Maybe you've had enough coffee now?' for another. 'I had an excellent, if smelly Godmother.' Et cetera. Yeah, good. Curtis' Doctor is a curious mixture of manic excitement ('This would never happen with Gainsborough. Or one of those proper painters!') and a very intriguing introspective stillness ('is this how time normally passes? Really slowly and in the right order!') And it's rather good, as it happens. Matt Smith plays him much as he played Moffat's Doctor and Chris Chibnall's Doctor earlier in the year, very nicely indeed.

Where Curtis really shines is in his characterisation - post-impressionist, if you will - of the episode's central character. Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890). You remember him? Painter. Kirk Douglas played him in the film. Don McLean wrote that really soppy song about him. Bit of a weirdo. Cut his own ear off (van Gogh, not Don McLean). In the hands of Richard Curtis - and a quite fabulously nuanced performance by Tony Curran - Vincent becomes, quite shockingly, a real person. A real, troubled, complex, awkward individual - with all of the foibles and flaws that one would expect from someone whose life ended so miserably. Curtis fills his Vincent's head with a sense of wonder amid the blackness of despair, a quite literal explosion of synesthesia and a deep melancholy aura that paints, in broad strokes, the surrounding story; not in a harsh or venal way, but with shades of quiet and touching redolence. Touching, a word that'll crop up a few times in this review, without ever becoming mawkish, or trite, or needlessly overt when it was necessary to play with the audience's collective emotional responses. That's quite a feat to pull off, frankly, because in lesser hands this script - and, indeed, this episode - could have been sensationally awful. And it wasn't. It was, as previously mentioned, many things but that certainly wasn't one of them.

But, inevitably, that still leaves the question of whether it was Doctor Who or not? In places, it really sounded like it should be. 'There are more wonders in this universe than could ever be dreamed of,' remarkably, isn't a line if dialogue from the Doctor but rather for the man with a bipolar personality disorder that he's casually having a glass of wine with. By contrast, the Doctor's closing 'every life is a pile of good things and bad things,' soliloquy to Amy is the closest that the Doctor gets to a genuine moment of philosophical truth. This, in an episode in which the spectre of Rory's death last week hangs, heavy, over many of the Doctors actions. 'Why are you being so nice to me?' asks Amy early on. Trust me, love, you really don't want to know. Although there are hints, in one of the episode's most perfectly realised scenes, that she actually does know, somewhere, deep down. Vincent realises this but is too confused to connect the dots and too innocent shut the hell up about it. In an episode that's, essentially, about altered perceptions and featuring an invisible monster, the Krafayis, as a whopping great metaphor for the crushing loneliness of depression there's something entirely fitting in Vincent's ability to see what others cannot and yet his inability to understand why. On all sorts of levels. And, that the Doctor is still feeling very guilt indeed about Rory's demise is evidenced not only subtextually, but also in an unguarded Freudian moment, in actual words. The crack are, indeed, widening. An apocalypse is coming.

Elsewhere, you get a few Doctor Who staples - there are, for instance, lots of West Country accents in that there Provence it would seem. There are some smart in-jokes ('dark night. Starry night' and the entire sunflowers sequence). There's a smashing little cameo by Bill Nighy along with gorgeous non-sequitar lines ('Your hair is orange!') and some hilarious dialogue conceits. 'What's the worst that can happen?' asks the Doctor, having something of a Dr Pepper moment, as he prepares to go out into the night and find the unknown, unseen terror. 'You could get torn to pieces by a monster you can't see,' replies Amy, not unreasonably. Even the Doctor is forced to concede 'Oh, yes. Right. That.' Another terrific moment occurs when the Doctor is about to enter the church. 'You're not armed,' say Vincent. The Doctor can only tap the MacGuffin-type device he has brought with him from the TARDIS and admit 'I am. With this, over confidence and a small screwdriver!' Now that's a mission statement if ever I heard one.

The direction - by Jonny Campbell - is gorgeous. Tony Curran, as mentioned, is wonderful. The script is var nigh perfect, covering some very deep subject matter - including, awkwardly, mental health issues - with considerable tact and dignity. Its characterisation of the regulars is fine. Curtis has suggested that early drafts of his script were too talky and slow and that The Lord Thy God Steven Moffat (Thou Shalt Worship No Other Gods Before He) had to tell him to beef up the action and get to the point of the episode quicker. If so, then this worked to a degree because Vincent & The Doctor, despite a slow opening quarter, fair rattles along once the monster is introduced and it never outstays its welcome, even during a lengthy extended coda. One which, again, avoids some potential pitfalls by being a necessary antidote to a lot of Doctor Who 'happy endings.' This one isn't happy, not in the slightest. The guy, we know, will still cut his own ear off and then shoot himself in the head and takes two, agonising, days to die - alone, afraid, unloved and penniless. An act of kindness brings only a sense of temporary relief and Amy is saddened at the climax over the Doctor's inability to change time just that little bit. Just this once. That's a radical thing to do at seven o'clock on a Saturday night in a family drama. If there was a sour note to the episode, I didn't really like the use of the song as a dramatic device in the final scene. I thought that was layering it on a bit thick. It's a standard element of much modern drama I know, having become something of a regular feature in many shows on both sides of the Atlantic. It can work. It can work brilliantly (Corrie's use of The Smiths 'Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want' in an episode concerning Joe's painkiller addiction was one of British TV's dramatic highlights of 2009). It could even work in Doctor Who but here, I felt, it didn't. It just seemed unnecessary. The cherry on the cake that the cake didn't need because it was tasty enough already. The final punch that Ali never threw Foreman as he was going down. Like holding up a little white card to the audience which says, 'you should feel sad now.' To be honest, I think we're mostly smart enough to get that from the previous forty four minutes, thanks all the same.

But that's a very minor issue. A far more major one was, again, was it Doctor Who? To be brutally honest, I'm not sure it was. But, d'you know what? I couldn't care less. This was a Saturday evening tea-time show about, essentially, the horrors of bipolar depression. How daring is that? Whilst on the other side at more or less the same moment Britain's Got Talent is doing its best to shovel the nations intellect and dignity down the nearest toilet, here's Doctor Who saying 'it's okay to be different.' Vincent & The Doctor, ultimately, was what it was. Talky; possibly a touch self-indulgent (although I think I probably would argue the point, there, on reflection); brave; wilfully anti-commercial (and proudly so); gauche; strange; outré; touching; difficult; disconcerting; oddly-paced (particularly the beginning and the end); multi-layered; fiendishly daring; at times in danger of crawling up its own arse but at others a lone - and magnificent - sane voice in a wilderness of babble and yak. And it was beautiful. It had a heart. A necessary heart. It had soul. A whole lot of soul. It was poignant and had some universal truth to it. Some necessary truth. Television is the business of compromise, we all know this to be true. But sometimes we, as a collective audience, get the television that we should have. Whether we want - or even deserve it - or not.


Tom Salinsky said...

Kurt Douglas?

john said...

Well said sir

wol said...

well said.

Graeme said...

Was it Doctor Who? No more or less than Blink, Love & Monsters, The Deadly Assassin, Inferno, or Mission to the Unknown for that matter.

Carey said...

It featured one man's mental illness represented as a giant invisible chicken/pantomime horse crossbreed: of course it was Doctor Who!

In all seriousness, this felt like a throwback to the early Hartnell days of Marco Polo, where the character study was as much about the historical guest star as about the Tardis team, but done in the style of modern television. It was a sublime collection of contrasts, cutting from the seriousness of Van Gogh's condition to the Doctor being pursued in the narrow alleyways while looking in a rearview mirror, and running like a drunk giraffe. And it was beautiful: the recreation of Van Gogh's bedroom alone justified the story visually.

What is it about Dr Who that, when it deals with art, it produces arguably its best work (step forward too, City of Death)?