The Doctor Who episode Vincent and the Doctor recently debuted to Canadian audiences, and I find it a hard one to review. Upon first glance, it appears that my own impressions are at odds with many in fandom. Many people like this episode, a lot. and while I have to admit that there is a lot to like about this episode, it just did not resonate with me. Given its quality, and given how much it strives for, I am hesitant to call this tale the weakest entry in the season, but it still left me cold.
Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood. Maybe this story resonates more with people more familiar with Van Gogh’s output than I am. I’m not sure what happened.
A spoilery review appears after this break.
The Doctor takes Amy to the Musee D’Orsay, to see the finest collection of Vincent Van Gogh paintings, anywhere. Amy wonders if something is up. The Doctor has been making a great effort to show her the sights, almost as if he is apologizing for something, but she can’t fathom what. After an uncredited cameo by Bill Nighy, the Doctor suddenly ends this outing when he notices an odd face in one of Van Gogh’s paintings. Amy’s hardly disappointed, though, because the Doctor proposes something much, much better: that it’s time to go back to meet the great painter himself.
So begins this season’s second outing to meet a famous historical figure. This has been one of the better features primarily unique to the revival. Although the original series had the ability to take the TARDIS into the past, it rarely seemed to have the courage to feature major historical figures in the narrative in any greater capacity than a cameo. There was H.G. Wells in Timelash, but the less said of that episode, the better. In the new series, we’ve had Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Agatha Christie and William Churchill. They appear to have hit on a successful formula, and Vincent and the Doctor does nothing to disgrace it.
Anchoring the episode is Tony Curran as Vincent himself. He puts on an excellent performance covering the highs and lows of Van Gogh’s mental state, and he has excellent chemistry with Matt Smith, and especially with Karen Gillan. The episode is also written by Richard Curtis, who is new to Doctor Who but an old hand on British film and television, whose credits include Blackadder, Mr. Bean and Four Weddings and a Funeral. The script is strong, capturing the essence of Van Gogh, and quite clever in places. The monster that Curtis supplies for the occasion provides effective moments of tension.
But it is director Jonny Cambell who shines, here. I’m not well versed in all of the works of Van Gogh, but I did know enough to appreciate the care Cambell took in recreating several of Van Gogh’s paintings in real life. There’s a real artist’s eye at work, here.
Now that Curtis and Cambell have their setting and their main guest character, now comes the task of doing something Doctor Who with them. A mysterious, invisible monster appears to be attacking at random in Vincent’s village. The frightened villagers blame Vincent’s madness, and it’s clear that, just as Vincent sees the world differently than the rest of us, through his paintings, he can also see this monster who isn’t there. People have been asking where the cracks are in each episode, after the cracks took a holiday for The Vampires of Venice and The Hungry Earth. Some have suggested that the crack in this episode was in Vincent’s head, which is an interesting theory. It would explain why Vincent is able to see that Amy has recently lost Rory, even though she herself can’t remember this. I’ll credit the production crew for not hammering us over the head with this; this can still play as just being part of Vincent’s exceptional ability, but later developments lend further credence to the crack theory. In any event, it’s a clever plot device that respect’s Van Gogh’s genius. I’m a little less impressed with the fact that the invisible monster that Vincent sees (and which the Doctor can only see in a rear-view mirror) turns out to be a giant chicken.
Although, to be fair, if we were to come face-to-face with an actual giant chicken, the effect might be terrifying, no matter what we might think.
The giant chicken is beaten pretty easily, as it turns out to be old and blind, ill and frightened. I think that the moment of its death inserts a note of tragedy into this tale that highlights the slightly discordant tone in the background that may be at the root of why this episode didn’t resonate with me.
Vincent and the Doctor isn’t sure what it wants to be. Is it a tragic examination of a man who cannot beat his own madness? Is it a monster romp featuring an old and blind but still dangerous giant chicken? Is it a celebration of a life’s work? Doctor Who has successfully played with divergent agendas before, so why doesn’t it work for me here?
Part of the problem may be that this episode ran out of time. The coverage of Amy and the Doctor’s friendship with Vincent jumps around — in some ways matching Vincent’s mood swings, but making this audience member wonder if some scenes were cut. It might be intensional, but for me it was still alienating.
Then comes the scenes where the Doctor and Amy decide to take Vincent along to see how his work is truly appreciated today. This is, in theory, powerful stuff, but I think the production crew tried too hard to hammer this point home. The use of an intrusive musical interlude, and the superfluous verbage by Bill Nighy’s character, lend the whole thing the subtlety of a brick, when Tony Curran himself has the ability to carry the moment on his own, and perhaps should have been left to do just that.
So Vincent and the Doctor is an odd duck. It’s bound to be quite a popular episode this season, and I can see why it would be popular. Unfortunately, I missed the ride. And I cannot help but wonder if the fault lies simply with me.