Monday, August 23, 2010

Doctor Who Story 214: Vincent and The Doctor


And Away We Van Gogh...

There's something peculiar about the title Vincent & The Doctor. It makes me think of an 80s New Wave band. The 7th Doctor story Delta & The Bannermen is, I understand, a deliberate echo to the band Echo & The Bunnymen. With Vincent & The Doctor, there is no mystery of who it will involve: I doubt we'll have a story featuring Vincent Price (though that would be very cool). Here, we get the genius of Vincent Van Gogh, and apparently an explanation for his mental state.

Visiting the Musee D'Orsay, the Doctor (Matt Smith) and his Companion, Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), tour an exhibition of Vincent Van Gogh paintings. While observing The Church at Auvers, the Doctor notices a strange figure, a monster, lurking within the church. With that, they go off to see the Dutch painter to find out what's going on. Vinnie (Tony Curran) is a most unhappy man: poor, unable to pay his bar tab, depressed about where his career is not going. The Doctor, who now is a patron of the arts, attempts to befriend him, but Van Gogh finds common bonds with Amy (beyond the red hair).

There have been a series of killings which the townsfolk blame on the odd painter, making him even more self-loathing. Van Gogh knows he hasn't been successful in terms of selling his work, and constantly puts himself down. However, we soon discover what is behind the killings: it's a monster, the Krafayis, which only Vincent can see. Going to the church at Auvers, the three fight off the Krafayis and defeat it (albeit accidentally) even as we discover it's not as monstrous as we thought.

Van Gogh, sad to see them leave, is taken to the D'Orsay, where the tour guide there, (Bill Nighy in a cameo, and with rather a cool bow-tie himself), tells Amy & The Doctor within Van Gogh's earshot that the Dutchman is the greatest painter of all time (a point of debate I'm sure, but neither here nor there). Tragically, even this good news isn't enough to stop Van Gogh from eventually taking his own life, much to Amy's sadness. However, there is a note of joy: Van Gogh's Sunflowers now bears the inscription "For Amy".

Vincent & The Doctor is pretty light, pretty average, nothing to write home about. This monster, the Krafayis (who looked a bit like a dragon of sorts), is almost secondary. We get a lot of Van Gogh paintings in what I figure is an attempt at comedy...oh look, Van Gogh is painting over another of his masterpieces. Wow, the Doctor & Amy are declining to take a self-portrait he's made.

Side notes: I still am of the old school which pronounces his name as "Van Go". Hearing the updated pronunciation of "Van Go-ff" did throw me a bit. Also, while looking at the self-portrait, I couldn't help but think, 'Van Gogh does looks a lot like Kirk Douglas. I think writer Richard Curtis would have done better to have him paint a portrait of The Doctor & Amy, but perhaps that would have been a touch too much, yet I digress.

Going on about the Krafayis, is it me, or is there some obsession with making the monsters less monstrous? I keep wondering whether there are actually any villains, seeing that the aliens we've encountered, minus the Daleks, are actually more misunderstood than truly evil. (Then again, in Dalek, the lone Dalek was more sympathetic than usual, but again I digress).

The performances, under director Jonny Campbell, were good. Curran, I understand, has gotten criticism for having a Scottish accent in Vincent & The Doctor, but one must have some sense of disbelief. Douglas didn't have a Dutch accent when playing Van Gogh in Lust for Life and I don't hear people going on about how American he sounds. He was thoroughly sympathetic as Van Gogh, and even added touches of humor, especially in his scenes with Gillan's Amy. They made a wonderful couple.

Come to think of it, Vincent & The Doctor was a very contained story, less about monsters and more about people; with three main characters, it might have been better called Vincent, Amy & The Doctor. It was delightful to see Nighy as Dr. Black, which wasn't a showy part but added another layer of lightness to the story.

While much of the story was good, here's where I find fault with Vincent & The Doctor. In real life, Van Gogh had serious mental issues which led to his suicide at 37. Having his hallucinations be explained the way they are (that he was actually sane because the monsters were real) strikes me as a bit dicey. It potentially downplays the fact that those who suffer from mental illness are shown to be accurate in how they see the world when they should be treated with therapy and perhaps medication.

I don't think Curtis, Campbell, or Steve Moffat are trying to minimize the seriousness of mental illness, especially when at the end of Vincent & The Doctor, a telephone number was given in an effort to help those with mental health issues. This (which I don't remember happening in the American broadcast on BBC America), feels almost as if they're trying to be sensitive when for nearly an hour they've used mental illness as a plot device.

It brings to mind Tears & Laughter: The Joan & Melissa Rivers Story, where Joan & Melissa Rivers played themselves in the story of the aftermath of the suicide of the elder Rivers' husband Edgar Rosenberg. There was also a hotline number given then, but the fact that it all appeared so tawdry got them jeers rather than cheers. I get the same feeling here, a sense that something is not right in all this.

That said, I should cut them some slack, given the fact that we've had a "monsters going after a historic figure story" before (The Girl in The Fireplace), it would be difficult to come up with a reason as to why no one save Van Gogh could see the monster. There is one thing in Vincent & The Doctor that I did enjoy tremendously: no crack, at least none that I remembered.

Did I miss the crack? Did I Ever So Not Miss That Damn Crack! I tire of that crack, and given that minus Amy's Choice this is the only story NOT to feature it, I suppose it should get points for that.

Overall, Vincent & The Doctor was a light story, almost unimportant in this grand "THE CRACK IN TIME THAT WILL DESTROY ALL EXISTENCE" that has been plaguing this series since The Eleventh Hour. The performances, especially Curran's was brilliant (his scene where he hears of the impact his work has had on the world postmortem is especially moving), and one can't help enjoy seeing a bit of how a genius like Van Gogh sees the world (the scene where he shows Amy and The Doctor how starry a night can be, beautiful).

I didn't like the monster, I didn't like the more humorous bits, I have concerns about how mental illness is handled, and these things can't be dismissed so easily. Still, it isn't worth cutting off an ear over.


Pity I had no time to visit the Musee D'Orsay while I was in Paris. And to think, we looked for Van Goghs at the Louvre only to discover they were only a few miles away. Alas...


Next Story: The Lodger

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