Vincent and the Doctor ★★★★★

Richard Curtis gives Vincent van Gogh the recognition he deserves in this tearjerking masterpiece

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Story 210

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Series 5 – Episode 10

“Hold my hand, Doctor. Try to see what I see. We are so lucky we are still alive to see this beautiful world” – Vincent van Gogh

Storyline
The Doctor takes Amy to a Vincent van Gogh exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, 2010. In one oil painting he spots a malign figure in a church window and decides to go back in time to investigate. They arrive in Auvers, Provence, in 1890, the year before Van Gogh took his own life. They befriend the artist, who is particularly charmed by Amy. The town is beset by an alien force, the Krafayis, which only Vincent can see. The threat dealt with, the Doctor and Amy take the depressed and destitute artist to the 2010 exhibition where he learns of his future glory. To Amy’s distress, it isn’t enough to save Vincent from the all-consuming depression that will curtail his life.

First UK transmission
Saturday 5 June 2010

Production
November 2009 to March 2010. Llandaff Cathedral; National Museum of Wales, Cardiff; Vrsine and Trogir in Croatia; Sutton Farm, Llandow; Neath Abbey; Llancaiach Fawr, Treharris; Upper Boat Studios.

Cast
The Doctor – Matt Smith
Amy Pond – Karen Gillan
Vincent van Gogh – Tony Curran
Dr Black – Bill Nighy
Maurice – Nik Howden
Mother – Chrissie Cotterill
Waitress – Sarah Counsell
Schoolchildren – Morgan Overton, Andrew Byrne

Crew
Writer – Richard Curtis
Director – Jonny Campbell
Producers – Tracie Simpson, Patrick Schweitzer
Music – Murray Gold
Production designer – Edward Thompson
Executive producers – Steven Moffat, Piers Wenger, Beth Willis

RT review by Patrick Mulkern
Every so often Doctor Who tells a story that only Doctor Who could tell. Vincent and the Doctor takes all that is best about the format – time-bending, reality-blending, optimism and joie de vivre – and gives it an artful, arty twist. A virgin on Who but a master of historical sitcom, romcom and occasional purveyor of schmaltz, Richard Curtis knows exactly what he’s doing here.

He’s immersed himself in Van Gogh and taken excusable liberties to sketch his storyboard in broad strokes. Academics will spot anachronisms (even I can tell you Van Gogh was painting sunflowers before 1890), but surely none can grumble at Curtis’s mission to touch the hearts of viewers, especially children, with the story of a troubled genius unappreciated in his own lifetime.

When the Doctor and Amy join hands with Vincent, lying on the grass, to share his vision of the Starry Sky, Curtis gives us one of the most magical moments ever in Doctor Who. And I normally can’t abide the tics and mannerisms of Bill Nighy, but the curator’s panegyric on Van Gogh – in the artist’s own hearing – had me in tears.

The Who crew made the most of their visit to Croatia. Perhaps Trogir didn’t look that much like Venice a few episodes back ago, but it certainly serves as a more than passable Provence. And the re-creations of some of Vincent’s famous images (Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, The Church at Auvers, the Bedroom at Arles) are effectively achieved.

Tony Curran first came to our attention as long-haired Lenny, the gay plumber in This Life (1997), but was born to play the part of Van Gogh. Eat your heart out, Kirk Douglas. We get over Curran’s Scottish burr early on. In any case, with what accent should the Doctor and Amy hear him speak anyway? Dutch, French, English..? If you saw the play Vincent in Brixton or read his letters on show at the Royal Academy in 2010, you’ll know Van Gogh was fluent in English by the age of 20.

His connection with Amy is persuasive. He sees in her a grief that she cannot, a grief that the Doctor is glossing over. Especially poignant are her sadness that they can’t prevent his suicide and his message to her across time.

Karen Gillan is at her sympathetic, luminous best here, and Matt Smith is just remarkable. Dashing around Provence with his daft, mirrored gizmo, he is channelling second Doctor Patrick Troughton from bow tie to bow-legged gait.

There has to be a Monster of the Week, and the Krafayis is an ugly duckling, cleverly symbolising Vincent’s turmoil and rejection from society. Only visionary Vincent sees the creature but it is itself blind. With poetic neatness, it is slain with Van Gogh’s easel. It would have been even tidier had the Krafayis merely been a manifestation of the artist’s insanity, not a known alien.

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In 2010, I wavered over hailing Vincent and the Doctor as a masterpiece. It is. Curtis produced a gem – and Steven Moffat polished it into a diamond, for which he magnanimously never took credit. We are undoubtedly watching fine artists at work.