Friday, 11 June 2010

TV Review: Dr Who - Vincent and the Doctor

Ah, I’m starting to get the hang of this new Doctor Who series now. It’s taken me ten weeks, I know, but it’s all starting to sort of work now, thematically and creatively. You see, I was a huge fan of Russell T Davies’ big, brash vision for the series – the spectacle, the emotion, the humanity, the scope and scale of it. I loved all the mad stuff – the sky ripping open to spew out armies of Toclafane or Daleks, the starship Titanic plunging through the earth’s atmosphere and skimming over Buckingham Palace, the big giant Cyberking stamping all over Victorian London, The master dancing to the Scissor Sisters. Loved it, loved it all. I loved the simpler stuff too; the brooding horror of ‘Midnight’, the edgy and unsettling ‘Turn Left’, the beautifully-evocative ‘Gridlock’, the brilliantly observed ‘Love & Monsters’. Even in those rare off-form episodes – ‘Fear Her’, ‘Age of Steel’, for example – the show had a brio and swagger about it that made it irresistible. New showrunner Steven Moffatt’s version of the series has, despite its superficial similarities, turned out to be a different beast. The show’s become tighter, more intimate, telling stories across a smaller canvas than before – whether for budgetary or creative reasons we may never know. But gone, largely, are the big stomping battle scenes, the massive CGI sequences, casts of hundreds (well, dozens...) and big mad stories built around big mad ideas. The show’s human core has been harder to find this year, too, thanks largely to uneven writing of arguably the most important character in the series – the Doctor’s companion – coupled with frustratingly-variable performances by actress Karen Gillan. But I’m getting it now, I can see what Moffat’s been aiming for. This year the show is stripping away Davies’ view of the Doctor as a “lonely God”, the last survivor of the Time Lords and yet still the man who gives the monsters nightmares. The new Doctor – and yes, Matt Smith is absolutely brilliant in the role – is a more vulnerable and flawed character, the Time Lord who always tries to do the right thing and who tries to make a difference but sometimes find circumstances moving way beyond his control. Much of the season has seen the Doctor struggling. In ‘The Beast Below’ it falls to Amy to find the solution, he effectively loses in ‘Victory of the Daleks’ as the silly day-glo Daleks win the day and fly off to fight another day. In ‘Vampires of Venice’ he saves the city but he can’t save the Saturnyans from themselves, his own dark side nearly destroys him in ‘Amy’ Choice’ and in ‘Cold Blood’ his attempts to broker a lasting peace between humanity and the Silurians is brought to a dead stop by human nature, the one thing he really can’t quite control. All the stories this season have been quiet character pieces, often with a small supporting cast, all set in one or two locations with only the Silurian two-parter aping the breadth of the Davies-era stories. This, I’ve now come to realise, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It reminds of the transition from Pertwee - all Lethbridge-Stewart and UNIT’s six-man army fighting Axons and Daleks and Sea Devils – to Tom Baker with his super-powered bad guys like Morbius and Sutekh with, for years, not a troop of rubber-suited aliens in sight. So whilst I miss the ‘wow, amazing’ gasp factor of the Davies years, I’m learning to love the subtleties of Moffat’s first year as it builds towards what, ironically, promises to be something of a spectacular finale.

Which brings me, at last, to ‘Vincent and the Doctor’, the most recent episode, scripted by Richard Curtis. This is ‘Doctor Who’ as its most adult in many years. Curtis’ sensitive script sees the Doctor and Amy travelling back to 19th century Provence to track down an alien lurking in one of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings. But of course it really isn’t about that at all – the Krayafis creature is just a throwaway concession to the show’s need to have a villain, a monster – it’s all about Vincent Van Gogh and his own private monsters, the demons which haunted him, savaged his sanity and ultimately led to him taking his own life. Even the intervention of the Doctor, demonstrating to Van Gogh that there’s so much more to life than just living and that future generations will appreciate and venerate his genius, can’t change his eventual tragic fate. Again and again this year the Doctor is depicted as the powerless time traveller who does his best but who sometimes really can’t make a difference. In ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ (I still think it’s a lousy title...just ‘Vincent’ would have been so much better) we are again told a small-scale, intimate story – just a handful of speaking parts, here – but it’s a tale told with sympathy and imagination with gorgeous location filming (Croatia filling in more than effectively for Provence) and a script which never undersells its drama and never writes down to its audience. Guest start Tony Curran – despite the at-odds Scottish accent (which the script makes an amusing attempt to explain) – is outstanding as the tortured Van Gogh, swinging from desperate depression to elation and whilst there’s never any serious chance of him acting the mesmerising Matt Smith off screen it’s certainly one of the stronger performances in a season which has already given us the likes of Toby Jones, Sophie Okenedo, Robert Pugh. Helen McCrory and Alex Kingston. Curran brings out the best in Karen Gillan, too, as she delivers a more measured and less-breathless turn as Amy, genuinely marvelling in and inspired by Van Gogh; the scene where she decorates the artist’s yard with sunflowers in a cheeky attempt to inspire him, is priceless. So soon after her display of grief and fury at the death of Rory in ‘Cold Blood’ Gillan again delivers the goods in the emotional final scene as she and the Doctor return to the gallery and she’s pretty much devastated to find that all they have given Van Gogh is a moment’s peace of mind. What more can be said about the extraordinary sequence, moments earlier, where the Doctor brings Van Gogh to the art gallery in the 21st century and, with an Athlete power-ballad crashing away in the background, the artist realises what the future has in store for his art. It’s a ‘Dr Who’ moment which can stand proudly shoulder-to-shoulder with the best of the Davies era.

In its own way ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ is something of a work of art. The central monster-runaround storyline is clever if generic and, ultimately, really unnecessary. How much braver if the show had told a purely historical story – the Doctor and Amy visit Van Gogh and change the way he thinks about himself – and it’s a shame the series couldn’t have taken this bold step and dispensed with its monster-of-the-week requirement for just one episode. But there’s so much good stuff here; cracking dialogue (a particular strength of this series), some decent action, stunning direction and design and a Richard Curtis script which doesn’t drown in schmaltz and cheesy emotion. That ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ is the best of this particular series is pretty much a given, in many ways a perfect distillation of what the show had transformed into. ‘Doctor Who’ is now a series about a very flawed man doing his best and while it’s easy to yearn for the more bombastic fare of the series 2005 – 2009, I’m pleased to report that in the last few weeks especially the show’s new magic spell has really started to work on me and, with the big two-part finale just around the corner and several of the mysteries threaded across the series ready to be explained, ‘Doctor Who’ has successfully made the potentially-damaging leap from Davies/Tennant to Moffat/Smith with its reputation and its popularity pretty much intact. ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ is not only about as good as we can reasonably expect proper modern ‘Doctor Who’ to be, it reminds us, in these dark days of nonstop talent shows, just how good TV drama can still aspire to be.


Sunshine Superman said...

Vincent and the Doctor is the only episode this season that I feel I could watch more than once. That I have watched more than once. The rest have been, quite frankly, awful. I've no plans at all to buy the series box set at the end of the year, unless the final three tales are exceptionally good.

This tale is a pearl among dung. I love it. It's wonderful. Mainly due to Vincent - the portrayal and the writing. Wonderful.

Depression... what can I say? Very sensitive writing from the man who co-wrote Blackadder and who wrote The Vicar of Dibley. And I speak as a sufferer of same.

Just possibly, one of the best Dr Who stories in the last 47 years.

Did I say that I love it?

Paul Mount said...

Wow, didn't realise you'd taken so badly against the new series, Den! It's taken me a while to warm to the new show but I'm getting it now and whilst I'm not 'loving' it the way I loved it up until last year, I don't think it's been as awful as you think. Give some of those earlier episodes a rewatch, they do grow on you.

Sunshine Superman said...

Well, you never know. Tonight's episode, The Lodger, was also a good tale. Maybe the tide has turned... who knows? WHO knows!