Season 31, Episode 10 – Vincent & The Doctor, by Richard Curtis.

June 6, 2010

Review by Martin Odoni

You know, this had all the makings on paper of being a real festival of originality and creativity. And, given that it was to be about van Gogh, it should have been a great tribute to originality and creativity too. It had everything going for it. Richard Curtis is a hugely successful writer and satirist, with a career entirely independent of the creative team of Dr. Who (so he should have had plenty of room to explore his own ideas), it has some very effective and valid things to say on the subject of depression and emotional disorders, and the concept of meeting one of the great artists of human history (not Da Vinci for once, which is rare for a Dr. Who episode about artists) sounds really promising.

So let me ask the eternal ‘biggie’; why does Vincent & The Doctor turn out to be such a cowardly adherence-to-formula? Seriously, it doesn’t take a single chance with anything. Routines are recycled from elsewhere so liberally that they might just as well have repeated The Unicorn & The Wasp.

Am I really the only one getting sick of these episodes where a great artistic or political figure from British history meets the Doctor and his companion and they spend half the episode trying to feed them things to say or do that they will become famous for in later life? In Tooth & Claw, Rose kept trying to get Queen Victoria to say, “We are not amused!” In The Shakespeare Code we had to endure round after round of the Doctor and Martha throwing around quotes from Shakespeare’s plays, setting up the bard to say, “Hey, I might use that in one of my scripts!” In the aforementioned The Unicorn & The Wasp (one of the most truly awful episodes of Dr. Who ever made), the Doctor and Donna feed plot ideas to Agatha Christie. And now we have the Doctor and Amy suggesting Vincent van Gogh should paint images that we already know he’s going to do in the future. It seems, even with a new producer in charge, the series will not stop congratulating itself for jokes it’s done a hundred times before (and weren’t even particularly funny the first time).

Another routine is lifted, this time from Evolution Of The Daleks, where the Doctor spends a minute or two trying to reason with the evil monster, which appears to listen quietly, and then wordlessly resumes its dreadful attack. Remember Hugh Quarshie’s character getting exterminated after his tedious, “We’re all in this together!” speech? Samey. The repetitive bow-tie gags are getting pretty boring too.

The actual plot is as half-baked and generic as they come. An invisible monster is haunting somebody, the Doctor and his companion arrive on the scene, spend a while running around and getting agitated a lot, then kill the monster. And that really is about it. Now, even sidestepping the matter of what a 50’s sci-fi movie cliché an invisible monster is anyway, this story is so linear and meat-less that it’s probably the least satisfying episode of the season from a purely cerebral point of view. Given how brainless Victory Of The Daleks was, that’s saying something pretty major. Perhaps it’s a glaring sign that the plot itself is only a paste-on to justify what was really needed, which was an excuse to have a story starring Vincent van Gogh. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised though, as plotting has never been Curtis’ strong point. I mean in all those years working on Blackadder, even with Ben Elton working alongside him Curtis could only ever come up with about five different stories.

Still Vincent & The Doctor has its strengths. As I mentioned before, the details about depression and mental illness are perfectly valid and quite well done – they hit quite close to home for me as well, for reasons I won’t go into here. It also looks very well made as an episode. If there’s one thing that Dr. Who has always done well, old era and new, it’s producing historical environments and making them look authentic. And the music is again composed for the most part with commendable caution by Murray Gold, which is another redeeming feature.

But the performances are all off-colour for differing reasons. Matt Smith seems nervous all the way through. I don’t just mean that he makes the Doctor appear nervous, I mean he seems agitated and unsure what he should be doing. Karen Gillan’s “look-how-sexy-and-cocky-I-am-and-how-clever-I-sound!” strutting, head-bobbing saunter is now p*ssing me off no end, and I really want something bad to happen to Amy just to force Gillan to rein it in a bit. She’s still a companion with great potential, but it’s being thrown away far too often in favour of resurrecting the old Rose-Tyler smugness. Meanwhile, Tony Curran doesn’t seem to have been informed that van Gogh was Dutch, and not from central Ibrox. Not a big problem, as fussing too much about accents can detract from the rest of a performance, but it still bears mentioning. Bill Nighy was rather good as the curator, mind, but dreadfully underused in what was really just a walk-on role. Surely they could have given him more to do than that?

Things did improve a bit towards the end, and Amy’s tears when she realised that they had failed to resuscitate Vincent’s self-esteem was quite affecting. But it’s asking a lot to sit through forty-odd minutes of very by-the-numbers television to get to it.

I do like historicals. And I do think that the personal-historical (meeting a great figure from history) genre that the series keeps going for does have potential. But so far, none of the episodes they’ve made in that genre have been much kop. The Shakespeare Code was about the best of them, and that doesn’t exactly draw comparisons with the work of Dostoevsky, does it? I guess it’s worth giving the idea one more try, but they have got to ditch so many of the conventions that keep getting brought back into them.

I’m afraid that, after a great start, this season really is stumbling through the mire of mediocrity and has been for weeks now. It’s still generally been far better than the last two years of utter trash under RTD, but it’s still not living up to its potential. As for this episode in its own right, I can only give it 4 out of 10.

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