‘Doctor Who’ – ‘Vincent and The Doctor’: The joy of painting

Senior Television Writer
06.26.10 55 Comments

I know I said in last week’s “Doctor Who” review that, because of the scheduling difference between the US and the UK, I might wait till the end of the season to review the remaining episodes. However, tonight’s “Vincent and The Doctor” was strong enough – and relatively standalone enough – that I’m going to take a chance on it. My thoughts coming up just as soon as I buy a sofa and a couple of chairs…

“I’ve seen many things, my friend. But you’re right: nothing quite as wonderful as the things you see.” -The Doctor

Television is a writer-driven medium, which can make it hard for an outside writer to parachute into a series for an episode. That’s why, in general, you tend to see more Very Special Guest Directors (Tarantino on “ER” and “CSI,” or Joss Whedon on “The Office” and “Glee”) than Very Special Guest Writers. And when the latter example turns up, sometimes it’s on a show where their work is rewritten enough to make it indistinguishable from a staffer’s script (say, the Gervais/Merchant episodes of American “Office” and “The Simpsons”), while in other cases there’s clearly something unusual going on (the infamous David Mamet episode of “Hill Street Blues,” or Darin Morgan’s occasional demented genius on “The X-Files”).

When I heard Steven Moffat had gotten Richard Curtis to write an episode of “Doctor Who” this season, I was curious to see whether it played out as the former or latter example. Curtis is primarily known for the Hugh Grant romantic comedies he’s written (“Four Weddings,” “Notting Hill,” et al), but his resume’s fairly eclectic. He wrote for Rowan Atkinson for a long time, wrote the excellent pilot to HBO’s short-lived “No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency,” and worked with Moffat once before on a “Who”-related project, the Comic Relief charity spoof “The Curse of Fatal Death.” Because of that, I didn’t automatically assume that Curtis would have Matt Smith stammer around and make self-deprecating references to ’70s pop culture, but I didn’t know for sure.

“Vincent and The Doctor” ultimately straddles the line between the two camps, I think. It has some Curtis-ian touches, to be sure, particularly at the beginning and end. His frequent star Bill Nighy has a cameo as the bowtie-wearing Van Gogh expert at the Musee D’Orsay, and the climactic sequence where The Doctor and Amy bring Van Gogh to the Musee so he can learn about his legacy – scored to the song “Chances” by Athlete – feels very much like the sort of uplifting third act moment you’d find in a Curtis film.

But at the same time, The Doctor is still The Doctor, Amy is still Amy, there’s still continuity from Rory’s death and erasure from history, there’s still a monster to be fought, and much of the episode played out like the Davies-era shows where The Doctor and his companion would meet one of history’s great writers.

And the notion that even with cracks in the universe, some parts of history can’t be changed by a kind deed – that Van Gogh’s mental illness (depicted here as a form of manic depression) was simply too strong to be cured by the knowledge that his art, and his pain, would be widely understood – felt very “Who,” ala The Doctor and Donna’s trip to Pompeii last season.

The meditation on how Vincent had to see the world differently in order to paint the way he did, and Tony Curran’s performance as Vincent, made this my favorite of this brand of “Who” episode, as I felt it got to the heart of his creative process in better, and more touching, fashion than the Agatha Christie or Shakespeare episodes did.

For that matter, there was some discussion last week that this Moffat-run season was smarter but colder than the Davies years. I would disagree, as there’s been plenty of emotion in episodes like “The Eleventh Hour” and “The Beast Below” and the River Song/Weeping Angels two-parter, and this episode was overflowing with warmth and compassion and humanity. We get a sense in the prologue that The Doctor has been going out of his way to show kindness to Amy in the wake of Rory’s death, even as she has no idea why(*), and then we see the two of them quickly come to care for Vincent at a time in his life when no one understands him, and to make that grand, wonderful gesture to show Vincent that his life had meaning. Even the death of the monster was more about emotion than clever plotting, as The Doctor laments, “I am really stupid and I am growing old” once he realizes that the creature was simply blind and afraid.

(*) But her memories aren’t quite gone, as Vincent’s special vision (his Vinny-sense?) can detect her grief over Rory, and she sheds a tear as he probes on that subject.

Now, I recognize that the season finale aired in the UK tonight, and has likely been downloaded and viewed by many of you on this side of the pond by now. So I will once again remind you that we are not, under any circumstances, going to discuss, or even allude to, the season’s final three episodes. I’ll be back in a few weeks’ time to discuss them after the finale airs here in the States. Right now, let’s confine discussion only to “Vincent and The Doctor,” and to any of the episodes leading up to it. Nothing, however vague, about what’s coming, is acceptable.

With that in mind, what did everybody else think?

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