5/6/10 “Vincent and the Doctor”
I know how it will end—it will not end well. –Vincent van Gogh
I was told by my French teacher in 1998 that we were to pronounce “van Gogh” as “van Go” because that was the Dutch pronunciation, while the foofy art world favored pronunciation of “van Goff” was only how the French pronounced it. Whether this is actually the case (see the Wikipedia entry for discussion), the fact that characters in this story persisted in using “van Goff” slightly nettled me, which is how I felt about the episode in general. I was quite looking forward to it, and while I’m pleased to have a historical episode set in France with something of the tone of “The Shakespeare Code,” who would have guessed that Richard Curtis + historical comedy/drama=disaster? Okay, it wasn’t a disaster . . . only a missed opportunity, in my opinion.
The teaser was set in the wheat fields around Arles. I was prepared to be rather impressed that Doctor Who had filmed in the Musée d’Orsay, until I was told it was actually the Millennium Centre. I have fond memories of my trip to the Musée d’Orsay in 1998, which created a nostalgia furthered by the first scenes of the story. The Doctor takes Amy to the Musée d’Orsay in a gentle homage to “City of Death,” with Bill Nighy filling in, after a fashion, for the John Cleese character. I like Bill Nighy, and his character provided a cute, if lightweight, diversion as the Doctor and Amy meandered through the galleries. “Why are you being so nice to me?” asks Amy. “You take me to Arcadia” (presumably before the Fall), “the Trojan Gardens . . .” Something must be up. “I was joking,” she says, with some misgivings. “Why aren’t you?” Of course, the audience recalls Rory’s erasure from last week, so Amy’s poignant ignorance is felt equally by us and the Doctor. Amy is a van Gogh fan, apparently, and in regarding The Church at Auvers, they discover a strange, alien face at the window of the church (churches showing up as settings a lot in recent Doctor Who). The Doctor accosts the Bill Nighy character to find out when the painting was painted, compliments him on his bow tie, and declares, “Art can wait!”
With the benefit of their time machine, the Doctor and Amy are able to go back to 1890, Arles (I presume). I have the feeling that if this was a story from the olden days with four parts, the mystery of the face at the window would have been drawn out longer. Matt Smith’s Doctor does, like his predecessor, seem to demonstrate a proclivity for mad dashing about, so this approach within the new format works. The alley the TARDIS lands in looks suitably Provençal, and the production team has been at pains to recreate the Café Terrace on the Place du Forum in Arles as well as the mode of dress straight out of the Musée l’Arlesienne. Now, I don’t pretend to be an expert on van Gogh—I studied his life and work superficially in high school—but I have been to Arles, which was probably my favorite city in southern France. With that mind, Richard Curtis has assembled an “impression” (how appropriate) of van Gogh’s life in 1890, which means it isn’t wholly correct (you wouldn’t have drama if it was documentary-style, anyway!). Bedroom in Arles recreated exactly in van Gogh’s bedroom when Amy and the Doctor get there gives real aesthetic value to the story, but I’ve walked past the house where that room is situated, and it’s in the middle of Arles, not in a ramshackle farm cottage on the outskirts—to complain about that is to nitpick, yet I’m almost tempted to argue it does have subtle bearing. In any case, I’m prepared to let minor, minor details like that slide. What did perturb me slightly was the shorthand for letting the audience know van Gogh was isolated and considered eccentric by his neighbors. As far as I know, no one ever stoned him. I understand that establishing van Gogh’s character quickly to younger viewers might have meant not mincing words, but that was just sloppy storytelling, in my opinion.
The tone is right, however, I feel, when the Doctor and Amy meet van Gogh trying to pay for drinks in the Café on the Place du Forum with one of his paintings. The management is unimpressed and, with characteristic pride, van Gogh refuses to accept the Doctor’s offer of a drink. He is, however, more kindly inclined to Amy’s offer to share a bottle of wine. Getting down to talking, van Gogh asks the Doctor, “Your accent—are you from Holland like me?” I thought this was a good way of addressing an ongoing conundrum on British TV/radio—representing regional accents from non-English-speaking countries in English. In such a case, van Gogh having a Scottish accent seems perfectly acceptable. The dialogue here, in contrast to the reservations I expressed earlier, flows well and conveys a lot of what we need to know rapidly, namely that van Gogh is tired of his brother Theo sending lots of doctors to look after him. All artists, I think, can sympathize with him when he says of his art, “I know it’s terrible. It’s the best I can do.”
A local woman is found mauled to death, the mad old Dutchman is blamed, and so he retreats with the Doctor and Amy in tow. “Where are you staying tonight?” he asks them. “You’re very kind,” the Doctor replies, inviting himself and Amy to the farmhouse (which reminded me more of Cézanne’s studio, up to a point, as did the landscape we see later in the film—Aix-en-Provence). I was surprised by the inviting fire van Gogh has made (I would have suspected him to be the epitome of starving artist at this point in his career after his break with Gaughin, but I could be wrong). The Doctor and Amy are appalled with the casual way van Gogh treats his canvases. Van Gogh is eager to share his artistic philosophy with his new friends. “It’s color that holds the key. I can hear the colors!” I find the Doctor’s reaction to this exuberance quite unfair—surely in his Fourth incarnation he would be acting at least as barmy. “A nice calming tea? Chamomile?” the Doctor suggests instead of coffee. The Doctor’s reaction to van Gogh’s sudden evacuation into the garden with a pitchfork is similarly un-Doctor-ish. “He’s having some kind of fit.”
While van Gogh fights the invisible monster, there is a gentle satirization on artists as the visionaries, the ones who can see the dawn before everyone else can. Van Gogh drives the monster away, pretty much without the help of the Doctor or Amy, and then the Doctor rather improbably sets out to fight a creature he can’t see. He first asks van Gogh to draw a picture of what the monster looks like. The Doctor tells them he will return very quickly. Curtis supplies some good one liners such as the kind for which he is famed—the Doctor returns instantly with, “Not that fast . . . but P-R-E-T-T-Y fast.” He makes a quick trip to the TARDIS in an inventive moment where he retrieves some sci fi nonsense in the form of a machine that identifies species based on representation. This is enjoyable because the typewriter on the console actually gets to do something: identifies the Doctor in his Hartnell incarnation (the second time this series—just a bit of fun or otherwise meaningful?). The machine can’t identify the creature from van Gogh’s drawing. “This would never have happened with Gainsborough!”
He has a scary moment walking back from the TARDIS pursued by the mystery invisible monster, then runs into Amy. “Sorry, I got bored.” Ah, we should never touch our idols, as Gustave Flaubert once said. The Doctor’s glimpse of the creature, however, has helped him identify it as an “ugly, abandoned Graphias.” Amy has somehow found a bunch of sunflowers which she gives to van Gogh. “They’re not my favorite,” he says. “But they are a challenge.” Despite what the Doctor just said about his preference for Gainsborough, he still calls van Gogh, “the greatest artist who ever lived!” He’s mindful of not getting van Gogh killed in the church as they pursue the Graphias. As he goes to ask van Gogh to come alone, van Gogh is having an episode of depression. “Everyone always leaves,” he says (a sentiment the Doctor, at least according to what he’s said so far, would agree with). The painter is upset, and the Doctor’s response fairly inept. Unfortunately, Murray Gold just lets the strings go, destroying any poignancy for the scene and replacing it with high melodrama.
When the Doctor and Amy set out for the church, however, van Gogh has recovered and is in better spirits. It’s interesting that he has become the Ood Sigma of the moment, giving riddles and prophecies regarding the Doctor’s and Amy’s futures and “auras” (for lack of a better term). They wait as van Gogh sets up his easel in front of the church (we get shown the sharp stakes of the easel in a clear case of “don’t show a gun unless you plan to use it”). “I remember Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel,” the Doctor moans. “And Picasso!” “Is this how time normally passes? Really slowly and in the right order?” Very funny and reminiscent of the Doctor from “City of Death.”
When van Gogh spots the Graphias in the window, the Doctor wants to go in alone, armed with his confidence, the identification machine, and the sonic screwdriver. “Sonic never fails.” When Amy dashes in after him despite his explicit instruction for her to stay put, van Gogh gushes, “I love you!” Inside the church is a stone carving of St Michael and the dragon (the whole interior reminds me of a museum of Roman bric-a-bracque in Avignon housed in a 16th-century church, so well-done). I had thought for a long time that the monster of this episode was going to turn out to be the Tarasque, a local legend from the south of France (so much ingrained that it became part of the village culture and there was even a ceremonial model of one in the Musée l’Arlesienne. I was wrong, unfortunately, though it they had used the Tarasque it would have furthered the monster/outcast imagery we see hammered home later.
With Amy and van Gogh helping, the Doctor’s attempts to subdue the Graphias with the sonic are useless. “In fact, he seems to rather enjoy it.” Eventually they are trapped in a room with it. The Doctor slips up and says, “Amy, Rory—” The Doctor underlines the similarities between the Graphias and himself—“I also don’t belong on this planet”—and then lets the other shoe drop. (May I say for once I did decide halfway through the episode that the creature was blind, as that would be wonderful irony.) Rather pointlessly, in my opinion, van Gogh accidentally stabs the poor Graphias and it dies, telling the Doctor it’s “afraid.” I know Jamie didn’t think much of the monster design, but I for once liked it, it was ugly and distinctive! I felt really quite sad about the needless death.
Next we go to les Alycamps, the grove of the cypresses, in a stylish but lightweight evocation of Starry Night—“complex magic of nature” (I’ll admit, the art-lover in me quite enjoyed it). I thought surely this would be the end of the rather short-winded story, but FAR FROM IT. Pulling off circus playbills pasted to the TARDIS, the Doctor and Amy rather thoughtlessly decide to take van Gogh into the TARDIS (an honor not afforded Shakespeare or Dickens, I might add, though by default H G Wells did get the privilege). They have a fun time showing van Gogh what the TARDIS can do. “It plays soothing music!” “That’s ketchup and that’s mustard!” Then they all walk into the Musée d’Orsay in 2010, and the episode officially jumps the shark, in my opinion, as annoying pop music plays.
The Doctor asks Bill Nighy’s character, while van Gogh is within earshot but not visible, to recite his opinion of van Gogh’s artistic achievements and contributions to the art world. Van Gogh, naturally, finds this quite hard to take. It is nice to think that poor, unappreciated and reviled van Gogh could be the catalyst and beneficiary of a representation of suffering=art=ecstasy=validation, though you really have to wonder why the same kindness couldn’t have been afforded for Dickens at the very least (as both men were to die very swiftly in their own timelines after their encounters with the Doctor). “This changes everything!” van Gogh exclaims as he returns (willingly!) to the TARDIS and to his own time. It’s cute that his attraction to Amy mirrors that of Shakespeare to Martha (Amy is a mite more sympathetic to van Gogh, though she draws the line at marriage and lots of children). “I’m not really the marrying kind.”
Having returned him, Amy races back to the Musée d’Orsay, expecting to find the last year of van Gogh’s life alive with renewed ambition and works of art to prove it. “Time can be rewritten.” Unsurprisingly, the results are less than she expected. “We didn’t make a difference at all.” While the Doctor talks in saccharinely transparent terms to convince her that they did make a difference, much more efficiently, Amy finds a dedication in the sunflower painting to her. She reflects that if they did have kids, “they’d have very very red hair. The ultimate ginger.”
As a person who writes historical fiction, I can honestly say I have difficulty writing science fiction even though I enjoy watching and reading it. In hindsight, I’m not sure Richard Curtis was the right person to write this story. Visually and in terms of emotions, the story matches the expressionistic fervor of the artist, but it feels like an odd blip for Doctor Who.