I was worried about Richard Curtis writing a Doctor Who for two reasons – first that it could be too Richard Curtis; second that it could be Richard Curtis free. I’m glad to say that Vincent and the Doctor was Doctor Who and it was a Richard Curtis Doctor Who.
First let’s get some of the small stuff out of the way. There were nice jokes about the sunflowers and only using the screwdriver to screw in screws. I’m not sure if The Doctor actually talked too much in this episode or if that was just the impression I was left with from reading Curtis’ interview on the BBC. There were times I felt a slightly quieter Doctor might have had a bit more impact. Music can be a powerful tool for stirring emotions but it is a dangerous tool that can distract from the impact of a scene too. I’m also not sure if the music was needed over the scene in the gallery at the end or it real bravery would have been to let the emotion of the scene play by itself.
This year’s Bad Wolf, The Glowing Crack, didn’t appear but Amy’s relationship with Van Gogh kept the Crack’s implication centre stage. The early joke of the children in the gallery with the Portrait of Dr. Gachet reminded us of the mystery of why no-one remembers the Daleks, Cybermen or other events.
Tony Curran is one of those actors who I look forward to seeing. He turns up in so many interesting roles. The camera angles, costumes and Curran’s passing likeness for Van Gogh’s self portraits help sell his performance. Why is it that the Scottish accent can pass for other accents? There was a time only Connery could pull that off but it appears Curran can now carry it off too. The Scottish Van Gogh only pulled me out of the story once.
Bill Nighy’s cameo at the start and the end was wonderful. His inclusion is an obvious tie to Curtis’ previous work. He had a difficult job to do – he had to pull off not one but two info dumps. The first had to set up Van Gogh for anyone unfamiliar with the artist. It was always going to be a bit awkward like any info dump. The second was essential to completing the emotional journey of the story. He nailed the moment at the end with just a move of the head when he’s not sure if he’s just met the real Van Gogh. Nailing that moment and the moments before it nailed the story.
It took the darkness that can be found in Doctor Who in a new and powerful direction. Amy’s Choice reflected on the darkness inside The Doctor by externalising it and personifying it as the Dream Lord. Vincent and the Doctor tackled complex and difficult questions of depression, creativity and suicide in a way that felt both sympathetic and honest. It’s easy to remember Curtis for his RomComs but Blackadder Goes Forth deals with one of the most difficult settings a SitCom has ever tackled and in its final scene conveyed a powerful truth about the futility of war. Tonight he managed that again.
The easy end would have been for history to change. For the slaying of the external monster invisible to all but Van Gogh to be the slaying of mental illness. I’m glad Doctor Who is still a drama capable of avoiding the easy path. The result is Vincent and the Doctor, one of the best Doctor Who episodes since the relaunch.