Back in 1963, when Doctor Who first started, head honcho Sydney Newman was very keen that there were to be no BEMs – Bug Eyed Monsters - and believed that the time travel elements should be used to explore history for the entertainment and enlightenment of the viewers at home. All of which was well and good until the show’s second serial hit the screens and Dalekmania swept the nation. However despite the massive success the show enjoyed as a result of serving up monsters, the First Doctor still got to meet all manner of illustrious folk from the past and turn up for great moments in history, all without any BEMs sneaking into the storylines.
However in the days of Patrick Troughton, these more educational historical stories were soon phased out, and it was in the Second Doctor’s era that the show cemented its reputation for being scary. This period in the Doctor’s travels established a host of iconic creatures such as the Cybermen, the Ice Warriors and the Yeti: the monsters had well and truly won the day. Later still, the pseudo-historical story was born; adventures in the past that revealed the involvement of all manner of monsters and aliens in the fabric of our history.
When the show was regenerated in 2005, Mark Gatiss’ The Unquiet Dead, a gaslight tale which saw the Doctor rubbing shoulders with Charles Dickens, re-established the pseudo-historical as a firm staple of the new series. And not only would the Doctor be revisiting the past on a regular basis but he would be also hobnobbing with great historical figures, and since then we’ve seen the TARDIS crew meet Shakespeare, Queen Victoria, Agatha Christie, Madame Pompadour and Winston Churchill.
And while these adventures with historical celebrities have been great fun, with the show in full-on romp mode usually, few capture any real biography between the monster chasing. The Shakespeare Code and The Unicorn and the Wasp focus more on playfully referencing the works of Christie and Shakespeare, while Tooth and Claw, The Girl in The Fireplace and Victory of the Daleks feature Churchill, Madame Pompadour and Queen Victoria in a famous guest star character capacity. Of them all, only The Unquiet Dead really comes close to getting under the skin of its historical celebrity with Mark Gatiss’ script providing an interesting snapshot of Dickens: near the end of his life, exhausted and riddled with doubts.
Hence when I heard that this series would feature a tale where the Doctor and Amy meet Vincent Van Gogh, I was a little worried for several reasons. Firstly as a devotee of the great man’s paintings and being very familiar with the details of his troubled life, I was wondering how appropriate it was to insert a large sci-fi monster into his biography. While I revere the Bard of Avon as equally highly, we actually know very little about Shakespeare’s life – indeed scholars are still debating whether he really penned the plays that bear his name* . And due to this biographical vacuum, Shakespeare’s works aren’t bound up in his life story and there aren’t many historical toes to avoid treading upon. Similarly, Agatha Christie’s many books and stories aren’t interpreted through the lens of her life. But Van Gogh’s paintings are inextricably linked in his personal history; his struggles with creative innovation, madness and the attitudes and reactions of society past and present to both.
Secondly I was also concerned that Richard Curtis was on script duties. Now, like many of you, I have a somewhat mixed response to Mr Curtis’ oeuvre. While I grew up on his comedy work, Blackadder, Not the Nine O’clock News, Spitting Image, I’ve never really clicked with most of his film work. Don’t get me wrong, the writing is as lively and polished as ever, but in the main, rom coms just don’t really do it for me I‘m afraid – such is the price of cynicism…
But my own misanthropy aside, I couldn’t really see how Curtis writing in either mode would fit with introducing the Doctor to Van Gogh in a respectful manner. And reading that the initial title of the episode was ‘Lend Me Your Ear’ didn’t exactly help either. However after Simon Nye, another writer best known for his comedy work, surprised us all with the excellent Amy’s Choice, I decided to put aside my preconceptions and not automatically assume it was going to be awful.
And as it turned out, by the time the credits rolled I was convinced I’d just watched an extraordinary episode of Doctor Who and a unique piece of television. Not only did it deliver the most biographical pseudo-historical we’ve seen to date, but it was truly genre-bending and surprisingly, actually genuinely moving. In fact, I was quite, quite stunned by what Curtis and co delivered. However my first proper critical thought was – this one is going to be very divisive.
And indeed Vincent and the Doctor has provoked a very mixed reaction. Now obviously if you don’t rate Van Gogh as an artist, this episode is probably going to leave you very cold. And although I wouldn’t agree with your assessment of his works, I do understand that Vincent’s paintings aren’t to everybody’s taste, and therefore this episode of Doctor Who which is a paean to the man and his art just isn’t going to appeal. Equally this episode is not going win around anyone who hasn’t took to Matt Smith and Karen Gillan in the lead roles. And those reactions are fine; you can play the personal taste card with pride.
But I can’t help feeling that some of the negative reactions stem from reviewers not shelving their expectations and prejudices as I did. To begin with, a certain proportion seems to take issue with this episode because it didn’t deliver the comedy that they expected from the writer of Blackadder and The Vicar of Dibley. And this reaction just doesn’t make sense to me - after all when Simon Nye delivered Amy’s Choice no one was clamouring for Doctor Behaving Badly.
Doctor Who has always had a touch of comedy. When it’s done right, it is limited to a touch of wit in the dialogue and the Doctor’s bumbling, but when it’s done badly, the comedy is broad and we get farting Slitheen, which pleases no one. And in Vincent and the Doctor, Curtis sagely kept his comedy chops in check, and deployed just the right amount of wit and clowning in a manner appropriate for Doctor Who. So to use Curtis’ past CV as stick to beat him with seems a trifle odd; after all he was paid to write an episode of Doctor Who not a sitcom, and so to criticise the episode for not being funnier, is like complaining an apple isn’t a banana.
Reading between the lines, I think this ‘not funny’ critique is tied up with the mixed feelings people have about the trajectory of his career. Many of us spent years quoting Blackadder at each other and so when he switched sarcasm for sentiment in his rom coms, some see it as a sign that Curtis has lost the old magic. And certainly the sentiment in Vincent and the Doctor is also a problem for some.
Now as stated above, Curtis’ romantic comedies have left me cold; I’m far too much of a marble hearted fiend to enjoy light and syrupy tales of love’s triumphs. But in fairness, that’s more a reflection on my tastes and attitudes than on Curtis’ abilities as a writer. And while I can appreciate that non-fans of his more recent work will see Vincent and the Doctor as Curtis pouring forth the schmaltz again, I really think that there is a big difference here.
To begin with new Who isn’t exactly a stranger to tugging on the old heart strings these days and I think the problem is not that Vincent and the Doctor aims to stir the emotions and touch the heart but the fact that it is Richard Curtis doing it. But more importantly, piling on the emotion in a romantic piece of fluff in which an empty headed girl gets it together with a lank haired fop is poles apart from building up to the ultimate tragedy of Van Gogh’s life.
To often these days, we will happily lap up works that heavily lay down hard emotional negatives – bleak, grim and depressing are almost always instantly critically credible - but anything that is heart warming or tear jerking is swiftly dismissed as manipulative pap. Now Vincent’s paintings are all about passion and feeling, and his life story is a very poignant one, and so I really don’t think that Curtis was doing anything wrong in going for a moving finale that reflects the intensity of feeling in his art. Indeed, to properly communicate the essence of the man and his work, such a story should be emotionally moving.
And this was an episode firmly focused on Vincent, illuminating his life and work with a depth we haven’t seen in Doctor Who since the Hartnell days. Despite a rampaging alien beastie, in Vincent and the Doctor, Curtis managed to paint a well rounded portrait of the troubled artist; choosing to depict the harsh realities of his illness and his failure to be recognised as an artist, yet at the same time showing us his great passion and enthusiasm for painting and for life.
And Curtis’ finely nuanced script was brilliantly brought to life. Tony Curran was simply astounding in the role, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see that in the wake of this appearance, he will be asked to reprise the role for a straight biographical drama. Curran gave a powerful yet balanced performance, capturing Vincent’s humanity as well as his troubles. With a tragic figure like Van Gogh, all too often fictional renditions of their lives present just the madness and pain, and hence it was very refreshing to see Vincent portrayed as more than just a tortured soul; as a human being, possessing humour and joy as well as sorrow and depression.
Equally impressive was the manner in which some of Van Gogh’s paintings were brought to life in this episode, with loving creations of the real world scenes that inspired Café Terrace at Night, Wheatfield with Crows, and Bedroom in Arles. But most wonderfully of all, was seeing Starry Night forming in the heavens before our eyes, illuminating the links between reality and his paintings, showing us how Vincent’s unique vision interpreted the world around him.
Vincent and the Doctor provides both a perfect introduction to Van Gogh, neatly outlining his biography, his influences and his ultimate impact on the world of art. I’m quite certain that this episode will open the door to his work, making great art accessible for countless viewers. It really was a return to the Reithian values that Doctor Who started with back in 1963.
However both Who and television itself have changed considerably since back then, and so despite the strength of the biographical drama, we also had an invisible alien running amuck. And despite the fact a good few of us would have gladly seen the monsters being given a week off, alien threats are now so heavily embedded in the public consciousness as an integral part of what Doctor Who does, the Krafayis was a necessary addition.
And indeed another faction of the negative reviews has focused on the fact that the usual sci-fi monster business was pushed to the background, damning the episode as being not very Doctor Who as a consequence. But in that case, many Hartnell stories, historicals that don’t feature any monsters, aliens or robots, are invalid too. Doctor Who should be more than a monster of the week type of show, and I for one applaud the decision to run with this story that uses the flexibility of the format to great effect.
But at the same time, I do think that Curtis found a way to include a monster that was both suitably Doctor Who and fits neatly with the themes of the episode. And while I must question the design decision to have the Krafayis appear as a monstrous chicken - surely a crow would have been a more appropriate template considering the context – as it was invisible for most of the time I can let this niggle pass. However the fact that only Vincent can see it, moves the beast from the usual sci-fi threat to the level of metaphor, with the Krafayis becoming a symbol for Vincent’s mental illness.
And I also would applaud the portrayal of mental ill health in this episode too. Depression and other mental health conditions, although common, are still poorly understood by the general populace – when people think of mental ill health the first images that spring to mind are of the extremes, raving madmen in padded jackets and people who think they are Napoleon. And thankfully, rather than take the lazy ‘crazy artist’ route, depicting a man whose genius makes him act a bit weird, Vincent and the Doctor vividly illustrated the truth of depressive ailments; that sufferers are not gibbering loons but ordinary people who are subject to the disabling mood swings that can appear with frightening speed.
All too often depression is not taken seriously by those who have not experienced it and the concept that mental ill health is just the extremes of schizophrenia or psychosis is so ingrained that even sufferers may not consider that what they are experiencing is a form of illness. I sincere hope that the treatment of the subject in Vincent and the Doctor will open a few eyes to the realities of the condition.
However it is a telling measure of the ignorance and the stigma of mental illness that some people have complained about the inclusion of a help line message at the end of this episode. Now speaking as some one who has struggled with bouts of depression throughout my adult life, and have seen several friends go through it too, I can say that in my experience, depression is at its most dangerous when it is unacknowledged and unidentified. Now the scenes depicting Vincent’s mental troubles rang very true for me, and I firmly believe that there will be people out there who will have recognised themselves, just as I did, and having made this identification, rang the help line and hopefully now be on the road to forward towards better mental health. It may sound overly dramatic but the inclusion of that help line number may well have saved a few lives.
One of great things about Doctor Who everyone agrees upon is that it is a unique format where the characters can go anywhere at all and many different types of stories may be told. And while some may not have liked Vincent and the Doctor, feeling that Curtis’ experiments in biography may not have come off, surely credit must be given for attempting such a thing in the first place. For even if you judge this episode to have fallen where it should have soared, or even wished it had took flight in a completely different direction, the intentions to bring both an appreciation of Van Gogh and his work and foster an understanding of depression in a highly popular Saturday teatime show is still a distinguished and noble endeavour. If nothing else it shows the potential inherent in the Doctor Who format, opening the way for future stories that may be more widely appreciated across the board.
Personally speaking, I thought it was a triumph, achieving its lofty aims and delivering a solid Doctor Who story that can be appreciated on a variety of different levels. For me, this was the kind of important and profound television that positively affects and enriches the viewers who could get on board. And on a more trivial note, any episode that can have an old cynic like myself, who sat stonily faced through Love Actually and yawned through Notting Hill, misty eyed and on the verge of blubbing into my beard must be doing some thing not just right, but very remarkable.
Mr Curtis, thank you. You not only did Vincent and the Doctor proud but also many of us at home too.
* OLD JOKES HOME
- So, art thou saying Bacon wrote all of Shakespeare’ plays?
- Which bit of bacon?
- His hands!