Troubled Dutch


The path to the ‘celebrity historical’ in Doctor Who is paved with good intentions. We’ve had one attempt this series already with Victory‘s Winston Churchill, the man who among other things helped popularise the term ‘black dog’ . Richard Curtis’ Vincent and the Doctor is a different breed however, being distanced somewhat from pure entertainment and unlike its predecessor striving for that difficult stool between didactic and emotive. It’s a Richard Curtis story – your mileage may vary.

It is also the story of Vincent van Gogh, a man perversely celebrated as much for his torments as his triumphs. Who knows how he would have reacted to becoming a poster boy for mental illness, and is that a question worth asking? It’s important to have these figures with us, to acknowledge the place such stigmatic afflictions had in their lives and how they lived with them. It’s a challenging notion to make a story about them though, particularly one for Doctor Who which despite our protestations does not usually strive to challenge. For myself I’m torn with this episode, certainly not viewing it as coldly as Neil Perryman’s withering critique on Behind the Sofa, but I do think in places it over-reaches itself, which isn’t to say these stories shouldn’t be attempted, but that perhaps the series isn’t yet as robust as it could be to sustain them without, well, a giant invisible CG chicken in tow. So it’s a brave thing to have done, and for the most part it works. It certainly looks beautiful.

Beauty alone is not enough however, and so I must also acknowledge the performances. Tony Curran’s version of the painter certainly looks the part, inhabiting the screen as befits a character afforded his own name in titles ahead of the Doctor. Having not seen Lust for Life and only shades of Andy Serkis’ portrayal of van Gogh in Simon Schama’s History of Art, I have to confess some ignorance into the man behind the masterpeices, but Who‘s historical figures usually tend toward the vague sketch or broad brushstroke themselves. This is not a revelatory biography, unless you somehow believe the presence of the Krafayis to be a genuine ingredient in the master’s last days. Given the series’ track record the best we can hope for is something sympathetic and believable – two ticks there. Having Bill Nighy hammer home the context of van Gogh’s work in the history of Western art certainly helps shift that uncomfortable didacticism, and for what it’s worth I’m rather tickled by the Doctor revealing that he’s more of a Gainsborough fan – another subtle distancing from the Time Lord’s more emotive predecessor, perhaps?

In the end though, a better class of story for this series, and despite my misgivings above one with a pretty sound emotional core, strengthened by insisting that history run its course, and wisely panning away from Vincent’s inevitable and necessary demise. Wellington’s first TV script for Doctor Who is ultimately worthy for surprising with its choice of topic and sensitivity of its approach to an equally troubled and gifted man.


4 Responses to “Troubled Dutch”

  1. the_other_dave Says:

    Annother effortless (in a good way) review. For me one of the first higher pitched episodes of the season, and as you say good emotional core. I was slightly concerned that (viewed with dyslexia last time) it might become “issue of the week”, but given that this may be some of the younger viewers first brush (no pun intended) with a story about mental illness, it was rather well done.

  2. Al Says:

    Nice work, Peter.
    Episodes like this make me proud to be a fan. Possibly my favourite scene of this series so far was the ‘starry night’ sequence. Maybe a predictable use of effects in retrospect, but a beautiful example of art imitating art – if I’d seen this at school I would have opted for Art History like a shot.
    Interesting too was the voice-over at the end offering advice to anyone wanting to follow up the ‘issues raised in the programme’. What an intelligent and sensitive way of reaching 7 or 8 million people with an important message.

  3. the_other_dave Says:

    One thing I missed first time round was the reference to Wellington in the last line and had to have the significance of it very carefully explained to me. So… if Richard Curtis was born here does this mean that Vincent and the Doctor is the long awaited Doctor Who episode by an NZ writer?!

    Go on, you know you want to… From the people who brought you “undefeated” in an international sporting event the we got kicked out of the first round of for not actually winning anything…

    Only other comment is, and I’m loathe to make such a tiny tiny point, but the term “black dog” definitely predates Churchill. It has been arround Irish circles for some time (my Grandfather used to use it, although more for foul moods rather than specifically for depression), however can be taken back in literary circles as far back as Dr Johnston .

    I’ll get my coat….

  4. Peter A Says:

    Thanks Dave! Who ever said Who fandom wasn’t educational? :)

    Kicked out because we didn’t win a game? I prefer to see it as set aside because we didn’t win enough! It’s been a heck of a tournament for upsets though, which is a good thing.

    Cheers to you both for the thoughtful responses elsewhere. I felt this was a story I could have gone on and on with, there’s certainly more to remark upon including the Beeb’s decision to run a help-line voiceover at the end (who’d have thought we’d see that sometime?) which perhaps is a clear sign of how they see the show now, as a product with a broad audience and no small influence?

    Good show to them, if so.

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