It's hard to say what I expected from the writer of Four Weddings and a Funeral
tackling a Doctor Who
script. Whatever it was, "Vincent and the Doctor" took me by surprise - if there is
a precedent for it in Richard Curtis' work, it's probably the legendary final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth
I feel as if I should defend myself over liking this episode so much, given that I disapproved of the suicide in "The Waters of Mars." As with most things it probably comes down to tone: That death was a brutal full-stop to a pretty relentlessly miserable episode, there for the purpose of making the Tenth Doctor see that he's not omnipotent. Whereas while van Gogh's suicide overshadows the whole of this week's episode, it's part of a much more sensitively handled overall story about depression. I know it's being referred to as "a Very Special Episode" and came complete with helpline over the end credits, but I think it's quite a bold thing for a family show to try and deal with, and certainly a subject matter that isn't often broached (it also seems to nicely coincide with the posters I've been seeing on the Tube promoting better awareness of mental illness.) The only similar attempt to explain depression to children that I've come across is JK Rowling's Dementors. Here also the monster is a metaphor for depression, if not in quite as on-the-nose a way. The monster here does have the misfortune of looking like a chicken wearing a bandanna, but that's budget cuts for you.
This is one of those episodes where I'm not sure where to start so I'll just say a load of stuff in any order. Tony Curran is, fortunately, easily up to the task as an actor which is just as well, because given his uncanny resemblance to van Gogh's self-portraits he'd probably have got the job even if he wasn't. (I follow Tom Goodman-Hill on Twitter, and after the episode he tweeted to say he was once walking with Curran past a van Gogh exhibition, and got a bit freaked out.) Director Johnny Campbell also does a great job, and the episode looks appropriately beautiful. Karen Gillan once again did a much better job here, although it may be a bit too late for me to properly warm to her, she did pull off the emotional ending which rather hinged on her reaction. And I have to say the episode crept up on me and made me cry, twice. In fact it crept up on me both times I watched it, and I cried in the same two places. In retrospect, the amazing "starry night" scene is softening the viewer up for the real emotional sucker-punch of Vincent travelling to the present day and seeing how he's remembered. Although the fact that I cried here I attribute entirely to Bill Nighy in an uncredited cameo: That speech about van Gogh's greatness would have been so easy to play as a gushing tribute, a big soaring finale. The fact that Nighy keeps it so simple, so matter-of-fact, is what gives the moment its power. The second scene that made me cry was the final museum scene as Amy finds out that despite having let him see he will be loved through the ages, their visit didn't stop Vincent from killing himself. And what I think brings me back to why this account of a suicide isn't like the more oblique one in "The Waters of Mars" - the Doctor's final summing-up of the monster even he couldn't defeat, the fact that the good things in life don't solve the bad things, but by the same token the bad doesn't cancel out the good. It kinda reminds me of the end of Avenue Q
which has much the same message, and is strangely triumphant, in conjunction with Nighy's speech about van Gogh taking abject misery and turning it into beauty.
Inevitably there's people calling the episode manipulative, and no doubt it is. But if it is manipulative it justifies it by doing what it sets out to do, which is something braver than most adult TV tries, let alone "family" shows. And I can't help thinking that people would have been more lenient about the way Curtis goes about telling his story if this wasn't as well-known a writer, with a reputation for mawkishness. You wouldn't want Doctor Who
to be like this every week, but after a duff, by-the-numbers couple of weeks, this has brought the series back to life and really gone for the idea that this is a show without a format, that can try anything.