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. Some may argue that Trogir didn’t look that much like Venice, a few weeks 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 earlier this year, you’ll know Van Gogh was fluent in English by the age of 20.
His connection with Amy is persuasive. He sees a grief in her that she cannot, and that the Doctor is glossing over. Her sadness that they can’t prevent his suicide and his message to her across time are especially poignant.
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. Poetically, it is slain with Van Gogh’s easel. I can’t decide whether it would have been neater or crass had the Krafayis merely been a manifestation of the artist’s insanity, not a known alien.
Vincent and the Doctor may not be a masterpiece but we’re undoubtedly watching artists at work.