Doctor Who 5.10 – Vincent and the Doctor

If somebody asked me to make a short list of my favorite writers and/or directors working today, Richard Curtis isn’t the first person who’d leap to mind. He might not even be the fifth. Despite that, I count myself as a big, big fan of his stuff, going all the way back to “Blackadder,” and right up to his most recent work, “Pirate Radio,” a movie which didn’t do well at the box office and got some fairly tepid reviews upon release. Like Curtis’s “Love Actually” before it, I suspect “Pirate Radio” (or “The Boat That Rocked,” for those of you in the U.K.) will go on to become a favorite of many, many people, because it’s an utterly charming, daffy piece of cinema that doesn’t want to do much more than entertain the hell out of you for a couple hours. And that it does. When it was announced that Curtis would be writing an episode for this season of “Doctor Who,” naturally I was interested in the prospect, but if I’m being totally honest, I didn’t expect all that much from it, and even less so once it came out that it would be about Vincent van Gogh.

For starters, Curtis has no track record writing science-fiction or fantasy (at least not the type one thinks of when bandying about such terms), and while it seemed gratifying to have such a high profile writer onboard, nothing in his works indicated that, with only 45 minutes to play, he’d likely create anything more than an amusing romp. Perhaps it was less Curtis himself, and more the new series having a pretty bad track record when it comes to tackling historical figures, regardless of who’s writing them. In fact, they typically seem to end up…amusing romps. Probably the best was the first one, “The Unquiet Dead,” which featured Charles Dickens, and from there they’ve kind of incrementally gone downhill. I didn’t think the formula could get much worse than “The Unicorn and the Wasp” with Agatha Christie, but along came “Victory of the Daleks” with Winston Churchill to prove me wrong. So imagine my surprise upon discovering that Curtis trashed my expectations by creating a deep, lovely, tortured thing of beauty that reduced me to tears. I have really got to start trusting this guy. His name is a stamp of quality no matter what “they” say.

(Editor’s note: I’ll second that, having interviewed Mr. Curtis in connection with the release of “Pirate Radio.” You can check out the conversation by clicking here.)

“Vincent and the Doctor” is the new standard by which these types of stories will, or at least should be measured. I have never quite understood the point of the Doctor meeting up with famous figures from the past only so that we can laugh at them and their quaint, backwards ways, all while cramming in little in-jokes that play off of what we know about these people from today’s perspective. Curtis presents us with a fictitious riff on van Gogh that lays waste to the previous approach. His story demands that we feel for van Gogh and his problems, which in turn gives the episode a gravitas that’s lacking in stuff like “The Shakespeare Code,” in which young Will was little more than a smarmy Casanova. Curtis comes from a place that has a huge amount of respect for this artist, as well as understanding that van Gogh’s troubled history was a big part of what made him the artist he was. Curtis also wisely avoids tackling the infamous ear-cutting incident, which is something a lesser writer would’ve worked into the story by having the alien lob it off or some such nonsense.

From the very first sequence, the reality of van Gogh (Tony Curran) painting “Wheatfield with Crows” is mixed with the fantastical element of the unknown in the field, disturbing the birds, and thus giving a reason for the crows in the painting in the first place. Quickly the action moves to the present at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, and before you can say Bill Nighy, there he is, as Dr. Black. At first it seems a somewhat wasted cameo, but lucky for us Nighy returns before the episode is over. The Doctor has taken Amy to see the van Gogh exhibit at the museum. It seems he’s taken her numerous places since their last adventure, and he’s got a guilty conscience about the loss of Rory, who of course Amy no longer even remembers. The painting “The Church at Auvers” catches the Doctor’s eye, as there’s something in one of the church windows that he recognizes as “evil.” And so it’s off to 1890 to get to the bottom of it all.

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Doctor Who 5.6 – The Vampires of Venice

I was sold on “The Vampires of Venice” (not “Vampires in Venice,” which is what I mistakenly called it at the close of last week’s recap) by its beginning – well, its second beginning, since there are two. In the first, we are in Venice of 1580 and Guido (Lucian Msamati) has brought his daughter Isabella (Alisha Bailey) before Signora Rosanna Calvierri (Helen McCrory). He wants for her to be a part of Calvierri’s school, so that she can have a better life. Since we’ve all seen plenty of “Doctor Who” at this point, we know this isn’t going to end well for Isabella, and since we’ve seen the previews we also know that Calvierri, as well as her son, Francesco (Alex Price), are vampires (or are they?). So there’s precious little that’s surprising or of interest about Beginning #1, although the sequence ends with a lovely little smash cut from Isabella screaming to Rory (Arthur Darvill) screaming at his stag party, which is Beginning #2, and the point at which I was won over. The two beginnings are also the jumping off points for what end up being the episode’s A and B plots, but more on that later.

Ah, the stag party! Drunken friends, cardboard cakes and the clichéd sound of “The Stripper” wafting through the proceedings. The Doctor may rescue the human race from all manner of grotesque alien creatures and life threatening situations, but this is the first time he’s rescued a human from this occasion that’s grotesque in an entirely different manner. From the moment Matt Smith pops out of the cake, he’s bloody brilliant, simply because he chooses to play it straight, in what’s a thoroughly absurd setup. Many actors would’ve mugged and tried to add to the already ridiculous situation, but Smith (or perhaps freshman “Who” director Jonny Campbell?) allows the scenario to happen around him, and in the process the joke becomes about five times funnier than it has any right to be. I’ve been trying to figure out for weeks now how to explain precisely what it is about this actor in this iconic role that I find so very appealing, and this scene offers up the best example yet of why this guy is the perfect Doctor for his time. Smith’s very much the anti-Tennant, which isn’t to bag on Tennant, but the series really needed this kind of change coming off Tennant’s tenure, and it’s a decision that’s shaping up to be the best one Steven Moffat made for his inaugural season.

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