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New Who 5.10: Vincent and the Doctor

Yeah, so - for the fifth time this season, I spent the weekend doing things that stopped me seeing Doctor Who on Saturday night, and then most of the rest of the week writing about them. It's going to happen for the season finale, too, which is a bit sad.

I'm afraid I was quite disappointed by this episode. Maybe it's partly that I saw it late, and went in with my expectations set too high after reading multiple reviews describing it as a powerfully moving tear-jerker. But it really didn't strike me that way at all. In fact, given the potential of the material, Van Gogh's depression and forthcoming suicide in particular seemed to me to be skipped over pretty lightly. We got one minute of him lying on his bed behaving a bit grumpily, but the next moment he was fine again - and that was about as far as the story's engagement with the issue went. For most of the time he was simply a fun guy to be around - a larger-than-life rogue with the added bonus of supernatural powers of perception. Meanwhile, we never seemed to meet Van Gogh the real human being, beset by angst and misery and frustration and serious mental illness, at all. The offer of a helpline to call at the end of the episode if we had been 'affected' by the issues which it raised tells me that the BBC thought it was offering a serious treatment of serious issues - but personally, I didn't see much of that in the episode itself.

The history and geography were a mish-mash, too. The bedroom, the cafe and the sunflowers are all from Arles in 1888, but the church with the space-chicken in it is from Auvers near Paris in 1890 - the year when the story is supposed to be set. And Van Gogh really shouldn't still have been in possession of both his ear-lobes by the time of this story, either. parrot_knight very cleverly suggests that this impressionistic approach is well-suited to the subject-matter of the episode, and I do very much like his thinking. But I find myself in the end feeling less charitable about it. It seems to me that if you are going to build a story around a historical character to the extent that he is referenced in the title, it is rather perverse to then go ahead and treat that character in a way which glosses over and distorts what is known of his real personality and historical context. What we got here was history as a fantastical theme-park, and while I recognise that this supports Moffat's thematic use of fairy tales this season, and indeed that many another Doctor Who story has done much the same thing (e.g. The Romans), somehow this time I just found it glib, cheap and annoying. Perhaps if this cherry-picking approach hadn't been combined with the claim to seriousness inherent in the trail for the helpline, or the Doctor's sad observation that all he and Amy can do for Vincent is give him some more good times amongst the bad, I might have been happy enough to accept it. But the two together didn't really work for me.

Also, gratifying though Van Gogh's own visit to the museum might be for 21st-century audiences who want to reach back in time and say "See? We would have understood you all along!", this sequence also throws up a classic problem with historical stories that deal with known characters and events. That is, since we know so much about Van Gogh's life, why isn't there any surviving trace of this event, which he says explicitly "changes everything", in what we know of his history? Indeed, I felt unconvinced that it had changed anything for him. The script had already both told us and shown us quite explicitly that he was in the middle of a highly prolific period before the Doctor and Amy ever appeared, so it doesn't really add up to claim that they spurred him on to greater achievements by showing him his own future. Meanwhile, the timing in relation to the known event of his suicide raises the unfortunate possibility that that was actually the final outcome of Van Gogh's journey into the future - perhaps in response to the subsequent experience of returning to a world where he did not yet enjoy such adulation. I'm sure that isn't what the script intended to suggest - but it would have been nice to see the issue thought through more carefully.

Still, all that said, there was some good material here too, which I believe I will present as bullet-points:
  • I liked the gradual emergence of information about the Krafayis - at first presented just as a straightforward monster, but later something which we develop compassion for as we come to understand it better.
  • Bill Nighy as the art critic was just great - absolutely perfectly cast doing exactly what he does best.
  • The structure of a story which begins with paintings in a Parisian art gallery and later requires a visit to the era when they were painted was a HUGE shout-out to City of Death, for which much win - though poor old Foury never did get to meet Leonardo da Vinci (or not in that story, anyway).
  • It's interesting to note that the Doctor puts particular stress on telling Van Gogh when he is depressed on the bed that the one thing there always is is hope - surely a fore-reference to how the opening of the Pandorica is going to be resolved at the end of the story?
  • On a similar note, interesting also that the casual references to unscreened adventures at the beginning of the story are to visits to 'Arcadia' and the 'Trojan Gardens'. I'm reading those as places in space which happen to have Classically-resonant names rather than actual Arcadia or a garden at the historical Troy - but they still fit nicely with the season's theme of myths and legends, and with the Pandorica, which is presumably another example of the same thing.
  • Bored!Doctor waiting outside the church for the space-chicken to appear was really funny.
In fact, there were some great Doctor moments throughout this episode, and indeed plenty of good individual moments and well-crafted lines for all the characters. I did enjoy watching it, for all I've said above. But I didn't feel that it entirely lived up to its own pretensions.

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( 22 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 12th, 2010 05:34 pm (UTC)
If Vincent had tried to tell anyone about his trip to the future, they'd have stoned him to death! Bleedin' nutcase! We were right about him all along.

I think we have to take history in the Whoniverse as being only loosely based on real history - despite the sterling efforts of John Lucarotti, I don't think anyone else has ever really cared about "getting it right". I do completely agree about the depression helpline: it took me greatly by surprise after 45 minutes mostly about battling a giant invisible space chicken in 19th century France. Why isn't there a megalomania helpline after any of the episodes that feature frothing mad scientists from the future?

Jun. 12th, 2010 07:50 pm (UTC)
Or a relationship counselling helpline after this week's episode for that matter...

(I recognise that you probably haven't see it yet, being based across the pond, but you will see my meaning once you do).
Jun. 13th, 2010 06:35 am (UTC)
I have to admit that the helpline announcement at the end took me rather aback as my first thought was "just how many people do battle a giant space chicken on a day to day basis, and isn't the Beeb just stretching my licence fee a bit too far" before actually twigging what the helpline was for.
Jun. 12th, 2010 06:52 pm (UTC)
I actually enjoyed the episode but for a lot of it I was thinking "this is like a Richard Curtis film" because of the cheese. Then I found out it was written by Richard Curtis! So there you go.

Some of the "cinema"tography was good, I thought.
Jun. 12th, 2010 07:51 pm (UTC)
Yes, you're right - the landscapes and the colour palette did a good job of evoking Van Gogh's paintings.
Jun. 12th, 2010 08:41 pm (UTC)
The structure of a story which begins with paintings in a Parisian art gallery and later requires a visit to the era when they were painted was a HUGE shout-out to City of Death, for which much win

Heh... I was waiting for John Cleese.
Jun. 12th, 2010 09:31 pm (UTC)
Well, for values of Bill Nighy we more or less got him!
Jun. 14th, 2010 08:16 am (UTC)
You say shout-out, I say rip-off. It's possible I'm being unfair, though.
Jun. 14th, 2010 08:55 am (UTC)
I think one man's shout-out is another man's rip-off (or woman's, obviously). I'd say it's the former for me, because there's a lot here which isn't in the least bit like City of Death, but YMMV. There's definitely a lot less Parisian location-porn, for one thing.
Jun. 14th, 2010 08:21 am (UTC)
I completely agree with everything you say here! (But I have not seen The Lodger yet. I mention this in case you suddenly and inexplicably decide to leave GIANT SPOILER in response to this comment.) I think I was one of the minority who neither loved nor hated this one - it was okay, there was good stuff in it, it contributes to my ongoing GIANTELVENLOVE, but a serious and profound multi-dimensional treatment of suicidal depression it wasn't, and from some of the reviews I've seen, it thought it was.
Jun. 14th, 2010 08:57 am (UTC)
Oh, I am glad to hear that you have the Eleven-love, though! I know Ten was a crashing disappointment for you after Nine, so am pleased that you are getting a Doctor who pushes your buttons again.

But yeah - the actual episode was fine, but as you say, nothing like as profound as it seemed to think it was.
Jun. 14th, 2010 10:51 am (UTC)
Yup, I pretty much agree with everything you say. Though I do keep finding myself wondering who Dr Who is aimed at at present. I think of it as being "a kids' program", where you might not want thorough treatment of depression (or maybe you do!? I don't know) but it did seem to be very skated round.

I was willing to accept the bit about the visit "changing everything". I've certainly heard enough people say something life-changing has happened to them, or that they've had a dramatic revelation about something, only to watch it drift away from them in ensuing weeks. I assumed van Gogh felt that it would change everything, but back by himself with nothing but depression and a scathing criticism of his art for company, he found that it didn't change anything.
Jun. 14th, 2010 12:56 pm (UTC)
Yes, your point about what is or isn't appropriate for the audience is important. We've got quite used to heavy helpings of angst in the RTD era, but Moffat seems to have moved away from that somewhat, quite probably because he's trying to position it more explicitly as a children's programme. Even RTD would probably have shied away from going too far into the issue of depression, though.
Jun. 14th, 2010 01:44 pm (UTC)
I agree totally with your interpretation of how Vincent was affected. As I said below, it would be appalling if we saw his mental illness cured by a trip in the TARDIS, but I liked that it made him feel better about himself, and at least temporarily turned things round for him.

As for who Doctor Who is aimed at; it's kind of an unusual, schizophrenic programme these days, because it's a survivor of an earlier kind of television, when families watched together. Modern Doctor Who seems to have single-handedly resurrected that style of TV. Moffat has said he feels children are the core audience, so it has to be suitable for them. But at the same time it has a lot of adult viewers, and so it has to appeal to them too. That can cause an awkward "falling-between-two-stools" type of show, or it can produce a wonderful fusion that speaks to both groups on different levels.
Jun. 14th, 2010 03:40 pm (UTC)
mental illness cured by a trip in the TARDIS

Actually, I hadn't thought of it exactly like that, but yes. Quite apart from the "Bipolar? You need a trip through time!" aspects, I think the idea that mental ilness is so simple would be a bad thing to potray to kids (or to adults).

I have only the flakiest (and second-hand) understanding of depression, but it has always seemed to me that it's a popular misconception that people are depressed *about* something. So it would have been a mistake to assume vG was depressed simply because the world didn't appreciate his paintings, and thus that giving him a future preview would effect a cure.
Jun. 14th, 2010 05:14 pm (UTC)
Well, my own knowledge of (clinical) depression is actually pretty limited, but I do understand it's a mental illness, and shouldn't be trivialised. But of course a show like Doctor Who can't exactly do a thorough, in-depth exploration of it either!
Jun. 14th, 2010 03:42 pm (UTC)
Also, I cannot work out whether to be impressed or horrified by your userpic ;)
Jun. 14th, 2010 05:09 pm (UTC)
Thank you! 8^D

Unfortunately, I can't remember where I found it (somewhere online, yeah, that's helpful...), but I loved it from the moment I set eyes on it, and knew it had to be mine!
Jun. 14th, 2010 01:00 pm (UTC)
I was disappointed with episode 'Vincent and the Doctor' myself.
Jun. 14th, 2010 01:36 pm (UTC)
Personally, I thought it dealt as seriously with Vincent's depression as it reasonably could (given the nature of the show), and actually the episode seemed to me to be more about The Doctor (and Amy) meeting Vincent Van Gogh than about chasing a giant invisible space chicken. That part of the plot was resolved quite early, after all.

But what I really wanted to say is that I think in some ways the treatment of depression was quite profound. OK, we didn't spend that long watching Vincent lying about, crying and raging -- but honestly, how much of that can you get away with before the whole episode itself becomes depressing, or worse, boring?

But throughout the episode we see Vincent's crushing lack of self-esteem and a sense that he feels his whole life is pointless. And at the end that's fixed, at least in part. And I like the fact that it's only in part, because it would be horribly facile to suggest that people with mental illness can be cured by a quick trip in the TARDIS.

One friend who has personal experience of depression told me he really liked the episode, and felt the blind monster that only Vincent could see was a great metaphor.
Jun. 14th, 2010 01:57 pm (UTC)
Oh, I forgot to mention that the playing fast and loose with the order of events in Vincent's life was rather annoying, especially since it seemed to me that it wouldn't have harmed the story in any significant way. I know Richard Curtis has said he didn't want to do too much research and become an expert, because then he might feel overly bound to get the facts straight at the expense of telling the story he wanted. But that sounds like making excuses to me. Little effort would have been required to look up dates and places on the internet and make it believable that the story happened when it was supposed to.

At least they could have had Vincent missing part of an ear! The story of what led up to him cutting it off -- the deterioration of his relationship with Gauguin due in large part to his paranoia and obsessiveness, culminating in his threatening Gauguin with a razor blade -- would surely have been a huge boost to depicting the scale of his illness.

Nevertheless, I liked the episode a lot, and found it genuinely moving. I just think it could easily have been better.
Jun. 14th, 2010 05:50 pm (UTC)
Gosh, I didn't know that about Richard Curtis' comment on his research! That does sound like a pretty weak excuse for laziness. And I agree about the ear-lobe, too. It's the main thing everyone knows about Van Gogh, for heaven's sake, so it seems silly to leave it out when there is every reason to include it - especially since, as you say, it could make for another small but constant reminder of his mental illness.
( 22 comments — Leave a comment )

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