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.
Now this is where things get complicated, because, as we find out later on, the alien in the window, the Krafayis, is not actually evil at all, but is really a rather pathetic creature, blind and abandoned on Earth by his race. But I think this episode is meant to work on another level entirely, and that the Krafayis is a metaphor for van Gogh’s depression. It is, after all, something only he can see, but others can not. So if that is the case, does depression equal evil? It certainly can for the person who suffers from it (and I speak with a fair amount of experience on the matter). This is a story that is in part about an invisible monster, but the Krafayis is merely a vessel for a much more important issue. I’m frankly rather stunned that “Doctor Who” found a way to tackle such a weighty topic under the guise of family entertainment. It goes to show that this can be done on this series, provided you have a writer who’s sharp enough to figure out the proper equation.
In many ways, “Vincent and the Doctor” is one of the most mature stories this series has ever seen. It’s interesting to note that when it first aired on the BBC, the following message ran over the end credits: “If you’ve been affected by the issues raised in this program, and you’d like details and information and support, go to bbc.co.uk/headroom.” The message also offered up a phone number that people could call for help if they needed it. Once Vincent kills the Krafayis, he momentarily appears to be lost without it, as if the Krafayis gave definition to his life, just as mental illnesses tend to do. But once the Krafayis is truly gone, Vincent is a new man, with a new lease on life. It may be worth mentioning that the episode title is “Vincent and the Doctor” and not “Vincent and The Doctor,” which might refer to the role of the Doctor as a healer in the story, rather than his title and/or name.
This is also a great Amy episode, maybe even the first great episode for her character, and Karen Gillan really shines here – literally; she looks radiant throughout the piece. Her reaction to Vincent is star struck only at first, and then she quickly begins seeing him as a real, flesh and blood person. There’s that great moment when the two are walking and he senses the loss of Rory in her. His desire to marry and have 12 children with her, and her desire for him to recognize the beauty of sunflowers – lovely stuff. And it’s heartbreaking when she says “I’m not really the marrying kind.” Part of this episode’s triumph is how effortlessly is seems to work through her loss despite the fact she has no memory of it. (Part of me wonders if some of those touches were Steven Moffat’s.)
“Vincent and the Doctor” concludes with two stunning sequences. In the first, the Doctor, Amy and Vincent lay beneath the stars, while Vincent orates about the night sky, and the vastness of the universe. As he does so, “The Starry Night” is painted in the sky, which is one of the most unexpected uses of CGI I’ve ever seen in this series. It’s a breathtaking, beautiful scene, full of newfound life and camaraderie. In the second, the Doctor and Amy take van Gogh to the Musée d’Orsay in 2010 to show him the exhibit featuring his work, and all the people who have gathered to partake in it. It’s perfectly scored to a hopeful pop song (“Chances” by Athlete), no less, which is a Richard Curtis trademark if ever I’ve seen one. What happens here is one of those things that the Doctor just isn’t supposed to do. We’re used to him showing off the inside of the TARDIS to unsuspecting folk – but actually taking someone on a trip to see his future? It succeeds because it breaks that rule here and now, and gives this suicidal man some hope in the final months of his life. Just the heartbreak of joy on Curran’s face is enough to justify doing this sequence, but on top of that you’ve got Bill Nighy delivering this stunning, passionate manifesto on van Gogh – in a way that maybe only Nighy can do – that takes it right up over the top. (Please find a way to bring this character back at some point.) Man oh man, it makes the heart swell. Curran, by the way, is surely the greatest guest actor we’ve had all season. What a talent. He’s someone we should all be paying much more attention to in the coming years.
The Doctor: “The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant. And we definitely added to his pile of good things.”
If it isn’t already obvious, I dearly loved “Vincent and the Doctor.” I love it so much that you risk offending me if you offer up a contrary opinion. With the new series, I’ve come to rely on, at the very least, one episode per season blowing me away. Yeah, that’s how low my standards are. As long as there’s that one installment that just changes everyone’s (or at least my) perception of what this show can be about, then it’s doing well by me. Not every single episode can rewrite the book and be brilliant, but 1 out of 13 isn’t terrible in the realm of TV produced for the masses, and make no mistake, “Doctor Who” at this point is designed to appeal to the widest audience it can snag. Of course, I know it’s foolhardy to expect everyone to enjoy this and see it as I did, but if you didn’t, I won’t understand you, and I’ll feel the same kind of slack-jawed amazement I feel when someone tells me they didn’t like “Love Actually,” or that they thought it was schmaltzy crap. I might even suggest that you go invest in a heart.
Please Mr. Curtis, come back to the “Who” fold next time you have a great idea for this show, because it needs you, as do we. And, yes, bowties are cool.
NEXT TIME: It looks as if BBC America is taking yet another weekend off due to the holiday. We started out this season two weeks behind the U.K. and now we’re going to be a month behind. Ack. The week after, the Doctor rents a room in “The Lodger,” guest-starring James Corden.
Classic “Who” DVD Recommendation of the Week: I don’t know if I’ve ever, in my history of writing these recaps, recommended “City of Death” with Tom Baker and Lalla Ward. Widely considered one the best stories from the entirety of the classic series, it’s written by Douglas Adams (using a pseudonym), involves a plot to steal the Mona Lisa, and has cameos from John Cleese and Eleanor Bron. Exquisite. Absolutely exquisite.
(Thanks as always to Sonic Biro for the screencaps.)