(Between the demise of the old Starburst and the birth of its new incarnation, there were fourteen Doctor Who stories broadcast that the magazine never got around to reviewing. This is one of them.)
A breath of fresh air.
Right from the off, it’s clear that Richard Curtis (presumably being given free rein, as probably the most famous writer ever to have worked on the programme) is writing from a template as laid down by Russell T Davies during his five years in charge of Doctor Who, rather than attempting to emulate the rather uncertain tone of Moffat’s showrunnership to date (at this point in the series, Moffat’s version of Who has clearly still to find its feet, with many of the elements of the previous tenure still weighing in strongly amongst the new). Like so many of Davies’ stories, then, Vincent and the Doctor is really a drama about human beings that uses an ‘alien invasion’ plot as little more than background to the real story, and the Krafayis’ influence on events comes to a conclusion a good ten minutes before the end of the episode, allowing plenty of time for the Doctor, Amy and Vincent van Gogh to tie up the emotional loose ends.
It works beautifully.
But the small things first. The location filming – in Trogir, Croatia again – mingles invisibly with the sequences shot in Wales to provide an efficient and convincing backdrop to the story. The Krafayis itself, while rather sketchily explained, is by turns both daft and frightening in execution, as many of the best Doctor Who monsters have been down the years. There’s an odd mention of babies coming from Vincent that might have been an addition of Moffat’s, and Rory’s death is dealt with expediently but delicately, allowing us to get to the heart of the story without too much ado.
While many might find Richard Curtis’ screenplays overly mawkish and sentimental (although those who instantly doubted his abilities ought to remember that his career encompasses Blackadder and Not the Nine O’Clock News, as well as Love Actually and Four Weddings and a Funeral), part of the joy of this episode is in seeing the author of Notting Hill tackling television’s most famous Time Lord (although it’s not the first time they’ve crossed paths, as Curtis was behind Steven Moffat’s 1999 charity story The Curse of Fatal Death). Curtis gets the Doctor just right, with Matt Smith playing up to the mixture of passion and curiosity, awkwardness and wisdom in one of his best performances of the series (and he’s been consistently good). There’s a small but profound moment when he bemoans the age he feels, and it’s perfectly in tune with the rest of the episode: Vincent and the Doctor is about the meeting of two impossible characters, two brilliant minds, neither of which is in a body that can do it justice, and you sense the unspoken sadness of the Doctor’s place as the last of the Time Lords as he helplessly watches van Gogh’s madness play out as it surely must, regardless of outside intervention. The madness is delicately handled for a Saturday teatime audience, never shying away from illustrating its consequences (either those immediate ones, as van Gogh is shunned by the locals, or the long-term one as the artist’s suicide is drawn attention to on a number of occasions) but never unbalancing the series’ format to paint its portrait either. Tony Curran is thrilling as van Gogh, understated and yet never missing an emotional beat, by turns amusing, passionate and philosophical, and gives one of the best guest performances the programme has ever seen. Even Karen Gillan as Amy Pond ups her game in response, with a little less of the shouting this week, and a little more honesty in the emotion. She’s still not quite there, either as an actress or a character, but she’s definitely on her way.
There are some beautiful moments towards the end, too, ones that the production was obviously aiming to achieve and ones that can only work if the first half-hour of the story has done its job well enough. The image of the night sky turning into a detail of The Starry Night is lovely and affecting, and the kind of conceit that Doctor Who really oughtn’t to try and attempt but just this once, convinces with. The sequence in which van Gogh gets to travel into the future for a vision of what his life will have meant to others is pure Curtis schmaltz and – as conveyed by Bill Nighy – completely wonderful. It’s for this very scene that Moffat hired Curtis, and Curtis doesn’t fail in the delivery. The coda, in which Amy Pond discovers that this sequence actually failed to change anything – that van Gogh still committed suicide after meeting the Doctor (Nighy’s Doctor Black, that is); that van Gogh’s demons still continued to haunt him – feels almost like an afterthought, but is an essential moment in the drama. The one tiny change to the future that Amy subsequently discovers is a hairs on the back of the neck moment, however.
Doctor Who would soon become dull and too-worthy if it tried to tell a story as profound and involving as this every week – and correspondingly, a story like this if one of many would soon lose all meaning – but just to have this one attempt adds an extra level of worth to the programme. Vincent and the Doctor is an episode to cherish, and by consequence, gives us another reason to cherish Doctor Who as a whole.
(If you’d like to go further into the programme’s past, I’ve collected together various reviews and articles that I’ve posted online over the years here: http://watchingdoctorwho.weebly.com/)