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Sunday, 6 June 2010

Doctor Who — 10thPlanet's Review of 5.10 "Vincent and the Doctor"








The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. Hey . . . the good things don't always soften the bad things; but vice-versa, the bad things don't necessarily spoil the good things and make them unimportant. I think we added to his list of good things.'




The word 'masterpiece' has never been used more appropriately than for what is simply a magnificent piece of art, because however you might pronounce his name, Vincent van Gogh's glorious mind and terrible life have been captured not only in creative essence but in the factual accuracy that undoubtedly makes this the best historical Doctor Who episode ever. Thus it is because of its artistic qualities, its infinite themes, and its ability to be seen from as many perspectives as there are stars in the sky, this episode must be appraised as would be one of Van Gogh's own paintings.


Although its unusual power and why rearview mirrors work against it was never to my knowledge explained, the invisible threat stalking the streets of Provence contributes a singular theme of sight that pervades throughout the episode. Both the Krafayis' blindness and invisibility as well as Van Gogh's unique vision of the world, which was rendered in a magical CGI masterpiece of "The Starry Night", were blended together like paint on canvas. (What a clever simile. Bet you didn't see that coming.) Granted, the monster hardly sends a chill through one's spine, though the pre-titles alone should have indicated the lack of thrilling action, because that sequence was not exactly the most epic ever. That award goes to either The Time of Angels or The Stolen Earth; so take your pick. Nevertheless, it sets up the tone of the coming story in a way few others have.


This is a character-based story, one that subtly defines who Van Gogh is and what Amy has suffered but can no longer recall. When the episode begins, anyone who hardly knows anything about "the greatest artist who ever lived" would think of him as a slightly troubled painter. What Richard Curtis has written, however, is graced by precise strides of dialogue that the average viewer may fail to appreciate, the same sort of careful brushstrokes for which Van Gogh is famous. This might be a good time to mention that Curtis seems to believe that the artist had synesthesia, which is when someone associates one sense with another; it would therefore explain why Van Gogh supposedly claimed to see and feel colors and why he can see the Krafayis. Nevertheless, it sharply undermines his emotional pain as a character by assuming that, to say it in a politically correct way, there was something unusual about him mentally, while historically it was supposedly physical sickness that caused his depression.


The plot itself ends more than twelve minutes before the end; and yet, if you are familiar with the complexities of a story, the monster's death is not its climax. Vincent and the monster are obviously the same (Vincent van Beakyface), since both are cast away by their societies and are so very lonely in a world that cannot accept them. This disappointment in himself and in his works is the driving force that is the episode's greatest strength. It promotes a sense of universality, the sorrow within us all. Richard Curtis has indeed done a superb job to involve the viewers, even if they are unaware of the artist's history. When watching "The Shakespeare Code", easily the most comparable episode to this one, viewers had to have at least a basic understanding of Shakespeare's works, which were cleverly referenced here by the brilliant Bill "Bow-Tie" Nighy. Yet this story clearly explains just about everything we need to know, from Van Gogh's heritage (Holland), the existence of his doctor-loving brother (Theo), and his contributions to the art world (Oh, the pieces I could name). And absolutely everything in those last few scenes was perfect, especially Amy's contemplation of "the ultimate Ginger" and the absence of the ever-present Doctor Who warble that slams this story shut with stark finality.


In case you did not already know, I would like to explain why critics love Vincent's work so much. As Nighy mentioned in his tear-jerking monologue, Van Gogh used his personal reality and imbued his very brushwork with emotion. Never before had an artist been able to convey his sadness and the way he saw the world. Just imagine it: before him, almost all art was either strictly religious, completely realistic, or both. Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel comes to mind. Van Gogh could make sunflowers weep with color and a star-jeweled night shine with the deep blue wind.


On a final note to my very first review of an actual episode of the show, which I hope has been enjoyed (both the episode and the review), I want to leave a last thought to all of you who were so keen on on this episode being far more self-contained than usual this series. I would like to point out a very suspicious, mysterious, and otherwise unnecessary and distracting Crack-shaped branch in the foreground of Vincent's parting shot . . .

Coincidental or deliberate? You decide. Please feel free to comment on your own views of the episode and this possible Crack. If you want to watch "Vincent and the Doctor" again or for the first time, check out PCJ's post. And if you wanted to know what that song was in the incredible scene of Vincent in 2010, it was "Chances" by Athlete.

44 comments :

Combom said...

nice 1 m8, thanx :)

TheRedDalek said...

cool review 10 :)

Nik Nak said...

Yeezz, I wish I’d written that … !

Combom said...

who spotted the van gogh exhibition poster on the fridge in the trailer for the lodger?

gerard said...

i would just like to say how FANTASTIC your review was!! You've captured everything about the episode down and i think you should be a professional :)

"In my opinion this was the greatest episode that ever lived" :)

Combom said...

well spotted on the crack, i was watching for it, but missed it :) a very good ep, the only downfall was the dodgy CGI in the chase, drop that and its a classic :L)

Nik Nak said...

Hang on, ComBom! CGI’s always a tricky one.

Although the Krafice dos look like a kind of invisible space chicken …

Combom said...

CE & DT era was good cgi, s5 has been a bit sucky :)

Nik Nak said...

True: the basic’s are ther, but I think that can be accounted for by a change in either effects company, or design staff.

10thPlanet said...

I wonder if they still use the Mill, then. Coz they've always been great. I'm still awed every time I see Pompeii annihilated or the continents of the Library. Series 4 had the best CGI ever, I think.

kbatch7 said...

Love it. This is a Masterpiece in its self.

love from,
Scifigeek

ps, leave it to you to find a crack shaped tree branch

Joe Shelby said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one that caught the bit about synesthesia. Being a music historian, I'm used to hearing about it in composers (Messiaen being the most documented case), where hearing notes creates visions of color. Here, Curtis shows the opposite: seeing color creates sound. I'm sure it is possible, and I'm also sure it wasn't something the 19th century really knew much about.

10thPlanet said...

Which may have contributed to his being called a madman. His depression and synesthesia may have been linked. Of course, there's very little historical evidence for any of it. Richard Curtis basically made it up.

Joe Shelby said...

Actually though, (having read a touch more), I don't think the synesthesia was presented as either the cause or even a symptom of the mental illness. The change in the character's tone when he presents it made that clear to me: his art to a certain degree was independent of the mental illness. The synesthesia contributed to his art, to how he saw the world differently from us, as most artists do.

It also likely contributed to his isolation, given that it was the sort of thing the 19th century would never understand (but we 21st century types take it as a psychological given, hence the Doctor and Amy the perfect people to tell).

Joe Shelby said...

There's quite a bit of academic study on the possibility that Van Gogh had it. One example,

marcia smilack - reflectionist - synesthesia and photography:Ms. Smilack explains, “We’ve been able to identify long-ago synesthetes only by chance comments or anecdotes. For instance, Vincent Van Gogh, when he was a kid, was ‘fired’ by his piano teacher because all young Vincent wanted to talk about was the colors of the notes.”

10thPlanet said...

That might be true. But like I said, there's little historical evidence. All the same, it would explain a lot.

anonymouscatt said...

I'm with Joe on this one. Synesthesia isn't a cause or sympthom of mental illness, and I don't think it was presented as such in the episode. As someone with this condition, I can testify that it does NOT mean there is "something mentally wrong" with a person.

Nik Nak said...

Was there any evidence of exactly what mental illness Van Gogh had … ?

Nik Nak said...

Oh, lordie, don’t get me wrong, @anonymouscatt, I}m not suggesting it is: synesthesia strikes as being lefthanded. Neutral, in that sense.

No, I’m wondering if there’s any evidence of him being bipolar.

That’s seems to be how they were presenting it …

anonymouscatt said...

I think (in the episode, I'm unsure about historically) that there was evidence of both synesthesia (in the color associated with sound) and him being bipolar (the mood swings). Nothing wrong with that, they're just not necessarily related. :)

An said...

Literally hundreds of psychiatrists and physicians have put forth theories about what emotional and physical he might have had, from depression, paint poisoning, brain lesions, absinthe poisoning, epilepsy, to just about everything. One letter from his doctor was the basis for many "speculative diseases" but no, there is no historical proof that he had any mental or physical illness.

http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/cgi/content/full/159/4/519

Joe Shelby said...

literally dozens of doctors had done so at the time as well - a fact referenced in the story by calling his brother Theo "doctor loving". Each were looking for a different cause (since other causes were ruled out by the inability of previous doctors to cure it), so pretty much every cause was documented in what survives of his medical records at some point.

As is often the case I think there is a problem in trying to reduce it to just a single cause. A variety of things may have been involved, some triggering others. Some are self-feeding (the depression increases temper, which repulses neighbors, which increases isolation, which increases the depression...) creating a significant chicken-and-egg situation.

Cosmo Love said...

AWESOME review! Made the tears return to mine eyes! And I noticed the crack, too....glad I wasn't the only one. Honestly, I thought: "oh that looks like the shape of the crack"...but wondered the same...if it was coincidence or purposeful. I'm thinking the first. Again, great review....I'm sharing this with my friends! :)

Cosmo Love said...

Actually...it was probably quite purposeful...just a subtle reminder of what's to come! ;)

Nik Nak said...

Cheers for putting that lot up, everyone..

The shame of it all is that all I can contribute is the fact he was fond of one specific brand of pencil …

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pencil#Notable_pencil_users

WillWC said...

I agree that this episode was a masterful piece of character writing. The alien chicken creature seemed rushed, and I did find the Doctor was more off balance than usual, but the character interaction was brilliant and moving.

With regard to the CGI, it has been of lesser quality than we're used to, but it's still serviceable, though sometimes jarring.

There's been much talk about how the production team has had to do the same work with a smaller budget, however, the CG seems to be the only area that has suffered. The quality of the talent they've snagged and location work they've done this season, as well as the practical effects have been top notch. They also did a tremendous amount of promotions this year to support the new regime, which couldn't have been cheap. There was a new title sequence created and a new TARDIS exterior and Interior constructed. Throw in the Adventure games budget and you are left with a number of different groups of people, doing a lot of different things with a finite (shrinking) budget. Many of these costs will not be an issue next season, and hopefully, they'll be able put that money back into digital effects.

Maybe we can all agree that the CG work this season has been lacking so it won't be necessary to speak of it again? It just doesn't seem to be worth the effort to bring it up every time. It's like saying, "This week, the TARDIS was blue."

Bill Nighy was in this episode! For him, I can deal with mediocre CG.

WillWC said...

Also, Cudos for a fantastic review!

Ricardo Baptista said...

The rearview mirror is easily explained, Van Gogh could see things that most of us have their backs turned to.

Blink said...

The effects have always been rather dodgy. Remember the flying London bus? Or the Cyberking? Or the CGI slitheen used in running scenes? TERRIBLE EFFECTS!

Your review was great though!

10thPlanet said...

"Van Gogh could see things that most of us have their backs turned to"? Not quite. I thought the rearview mirror was a silly (in a good way) but rushed gadget used for solving a difficult problem, being how the Doctor can see something invisible.

Personally, if I could have made corrections to Curtis' script, I would have had the Doctor perhaps tap into Van Gogh's mind in a Reinette "step into a doorway" sort of psychic trick to see the Krafayis. But that would have been too complicated . . .

10thPlanet said...

It still feels weird that I've written a review. And now thousands have read or at least glanced at it. I still can't wrap my head around it.

newelectricmuse said...

I was out last night so I watched on BBC3 tonight. Great episode - loved the recreations of Van Gogh's paintings - his room, the cafe, his chair, the starry night, the sunflowers. Perfect casting of the two main supporting roles. I know the monster wasn't the best but its symbolism was the main thing this time, rather than what it looked like. Shame about the song in the last scene, which was intrusive...but I cried anyway...

Nik Nak said...

@10thPlanet Seriously, that was a great piece: literally, I’m still wishing I’d written it.

Granted, ComBom’s given mine a mention in his Sunday Round-up — for which I’m truly thankful, as it’s earnt me both extra readers and commenters — but that was a beautifully put together piece of work.

And one that had me glued to it, all the way down to the bottom of the page … !

And I’ve got to be honest, @WillWC, I’ve not been able to find any online references to a new effects team, although I’m surely sure a new team has taken over: if I’ve picked up the right impressions from the various episodes of Confidential …

James said...

I thought it was really good. but the song at the end where he was in the museum kinda ruined that scene. They shouldn't do that in doctor who. or anything really, it's too distracting. i also thought they were putting it on a bit much with the 'greatest artist who ever lived' thing. i mean, i guess if you like impressionism; you can't really compare him with other artists.
but i'll agree with everything else that's good lol

10thPlanet said...

Thanks for all the fantastic comments, everyone. For these I thank you. I worked very hard on my review, and your thanks and compliments make it all worth it.

chris said...

Lovely review, looking forward to more!

Kristen said...

Great review. This is an episode that I can easily see becoming a classic among Whovians. Throwing my own two pence in, synaesthesia and Stendahl's syndrome http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synesthesia and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stendhal_syndrome could easily contribute to a feeling of alienation and isolation. Many creative persons have both. Re: the song, it's a Curtis signature, to use music that way, and I actually thought it was perfectly complementary to the tone of the denouement. (Also, thanks for including what the song was, I just went and bought it.) Nighy, as always, was exquisite. I would dearly love to see Tony Curran win every possible award for his portrayal of Van Gogh. I also thought that the slightly off-kilter Doctor was perfectly in line with the fact that he's keeping this profound secret from Amy, and thus there is a sort of wall between them. Keeping those sorts of secrets wears on a person. All in all - this was a beautifully done, superbly acted, and emotionally/historically deep episode. I liked that BBC included help numbers for mental health, at the close.

e. j. anderson said...

Thanks for the great read 10th!
I absolutely loved the episode, and as an art historian I thought I'd jump in the discussion a bit.

People have this obsessive tendency to associate synesthesia with every modern artist there is- the level of it has become rather ridiculous. Its a very difficult thing to fake and the effects of it are generally consistent between people with the same type, so there is very little actual evidence that certain artists have had the condition. Honestly I never got the impression that it was the intention to suggest he had the condition in the episode. Perhaps its because such metaphorical descriptions or personification of artistic notions are very common to the art world and artists. We get a little wonky sometimes. :) Actually an interesting thing to note is that there were changes from his early to later works, likely due to influence of the many impressionists he knew.

As for the Dr. Black scene- yes it was a little over the top- but honestly because he was a Dr. I assumed he was intended to be the actual curator of the show. One needs to take such waxing poetical with a grain of salt. ;) He's a fan of the post impressionist works.

Listening to Richard Curtis speak about his research was very enlightening too. He didn't intend to do so much and move far away from the legend of the man (for example the "he only sold one work"), it is doctor who and not a documentary. I think the essence of the Van Gogh story that people know was well kept without going far far too over the top. I was able to enjoy it without nitpicking too much. :)

10thPlanet said...

Well, I can feel satisfied that I've done a good job reviewing an art episode of "Doctor Who" when an actual art critic compliments me. Thank you so much. :)

10thPlanet said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Weirdmonger said...

The monster was a representative of Hieronymous Bosch in a Van Gogh painting. The whole production (beautifully set, e.g. within van Gogh's own studio) was highly, deeply, emotionally, often absurdly, logical. Without question, a significant high point in the Dr Who canon since I started watching the series in 1963.

It was the archetypical Van Gogh, if not the real one...

Poignant as well as rumbustiously Whovian.

(Pignant was what VVG put in his paints before eating them).

Acting brilliant, including the regulars, but especially Bill Nighy (unusually for him) and the actor who played Vincent (Tony Curran).

Sarah C said...

Great review! I watched this ep this morning and was tearing up there at the end along with Vincent. Amazing episode.

Cheers from Boston.

Limiting institutions.... said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Limiting institutions.... said...

loved the review and the episode. Thank so much for putting up the videos! Your site is the only reliable site I can watch the Doctor in America!

I greatly enjoyed this episode. I love how they mixed Amy's sorrow with Vincent's.

Thanks so much from across the pond!