Caught the tenth episode of Matt Smith's run as Doctor Who, "Vincent and the Doctor", on Saturday night here in Canada. Here are my thoughts and observation, with perhaps a few ramblings.
One of the things Doctor Who excelled at during its best periods of the Classic Who was the ability to have stories that were changes of pace. "Vincent and the Doctor" made for an excellent change of pace story in the current series of the programme, and was for me, a highlight of the current series to this point.
The plot for the story is quite simple in many ways, and seems to be straightforward, but nothing in the current series of Doctor Who has been, really. The Doctor is taking Amy on a tour of Le Musee D'Orsay to console her for the loss of Rory (as seen in "Cold Blood"), which confuses her as she can't remember ever having had a Rory, when he spots something sinister in one of the paintings of Vincent van Gogh and then drags her off on a dash through time to investigate. Why he's in such a hurry is hard for me to fathom as he does have this time machine thingy, but that's one of the elements to Matt Smith's Doctor that I rather like. I was certainly amused by his urgent quizzing of Dr. Black (excellent performance by Bill Nighy) on exactly when van Gogh had painted the piece in question, and to be honest, this is what led me to enjoy the episode so much and peaked my interest in the story.
Historical figures have been an integral part of Doctor Who since the series debuted in 1963, and since the return of the show in 2005, we have seen the likes of Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, Madame de Pompadour, William Shakespeare, and Agatha Christie all play a part and have a vital impact on the Doctor. We've even seen Queen Elizabeth I, but I suspect she wouldn't be as quick to offer a glowing recommendation of the Time Lord. In "Vincent and the Doctor", the series producers and the writer of this story decided that it was time for the Doctor to meet an artist, and to be honest, I had always expected that it would be Da Vinci or perhaps Michaelangelo when the time came. While I can't say that I know enough about the life and times of Vincent van Gogh, I have to say that this choice was absolutely brilliant.
From the moment the TARDIS lands in the past, and the Doctor and Amy meet Vincent van Gogh, first impressions play a huge role. Shakespeare might have been able to get away with telling his audience to shut their mouths after one of his plays had ended, but Van Gogh couldn't even sell a painting in the local cafe to get a drink. Mockery was the mood when it came to Van Gogh, as even the waitresses poured scorn over his credentials as a painter. However, for Van Gogh, he was oddly used to it. He might have been a little desperate when trying to sell a portrait, but he took an instant dislike to and was suspicious of the Doctor's attempts to pander to his better nature. I'm guessing that on a list of failings for this Doctor perhaps flattery is one of them. And this is a trait that both William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton used in their time as the Doctor to various degrees of success. That said, I did roll my eyes a little, and I believed the Doctor when he was praising Vincent.
Insofar as Amy is concerned, Vincent van Gogh barely wasted a second to notice her, and he was certainly impressed with what he was looking at. What got to me, however, was that while Vincent's flirting with Amy was somewhat frothy, it never felt as strong to me as that which Shakespeare had going with Martha Jones. I actually thought that seeing Amy getting chummy with van Gogh might be a bad thing in light of Rory's death, but it's not. I am unconvinced, despite what happened in "Cold Blood", Rory is permanently gone, and I also noticed and rather liked the scene where van Gogh picked up on Amy's sadness, even though she actually had no idea why she was that way inclined. To me, this was a good thing, as it means that Rory is lingering in her subconscious. That said, it's also one of many perceptive moments from van Gogh as well. After all, he was the only person in this episode who could actually see the Crayfasis (sp?), and while it's never stated that it is due to his mental state, it's an interesting thing nonetheless, as the Doctor himself had difficulties seeing the creature without the aid of some strange contraption that didn't last very long.
The cast was in top form in this particular story. Matt Smith's Doctor was pure, Classic Doctor, a joy to watch, eccentrically brilliant, impatient, exasperating at times, and funny. The script for "Vincent and the Doctor" gave him a few of the historical jokes I always enjoy in the series, this time out about artists. Heck, he even managed to get in the old chestnut about Leonardo Da Vinci being afraid of heights. At other times his wisdom and sympathy came through, such as when he was comforting Amy about the fact that they hadn't really saved van Gogh from his eventual dismal fate. What they had done was to give him a few of those good moments that are not negated by all of the bad ones. It was a nice insight into the Doctor's perspective, not dissimilar to the Ninth Doctor's when he and Rose met Charles Dickens shortly before his death, and to several of the moments with William Hartnell's and Tom Baker's Doctors as well.
This was an episode where I actually liked Karen Gillan's performance and acting chops as Amy. Her performance had to bring across an Amy who couldn't consciously remember Rory, but who was, on some subliminal level, half aware of the loss she couldn't remember. That's not the easiest thing to do, and I rather liked her in this episode.
Tony Curran's performance as Vincent van Gogh was nothing short of brilliant. He was constantly effortless throughout the entire episode, but the moment Van Gogh was standing in the Musee gallery and overheard Dr. Black cite his work so highly, well...for me, that was some of the best acting in the current run of New Who, and was a highly emotional moment for the characters concerned. As amazing as Vincent van Gogh was in this episode, he didn't believe in himself all that much. You didn't need to be a tormented artist to be able to relate to that element of self-doubt, it's pretty innate. It didn't matter how many times the Doctor and Amy tried to convince him that he was a good artist; Vincent simply didn't buy it until he got physical evidence of his greatness. In a rather nice, if bittersweet, touch, despite the resurgence of his self-belief the episode wisely didn't alter van Gogh's sad outcome, even if Amy had wanted the Doctor to rewrite time on it as well.
And then we come to the monster itself. I'll be the first to state that the Crayfasis (sp??) looked a little... silly, but the one thing I loved was that it wasn't a malicious creature. While I knew that it was responsible for a death, and did try to kill the Doctor a few times, it was blind and confused... and when van Gogh killed it in self-defense, he was remorseful for his actions. What I liked about the episode was that it had taken van Gogh to piece together a lot of stuff about the Crayfasis, rather than the Doctor, and van Gogh realised far too late that the creature was lashing out - and he could relate to that, as he had his moments of sinking into depression and ashing out at the Doctor in the episode. I also liked that van Gogh was aware of the Doctor's interest in the church, picking up on it almost as immediately as he did with Amy's sadness. Heck, he even found himself instinctively following the Doctor and Amy into the church when the Crayfasis was on the rampage, and pretty much saved their necks in the process. The fight scenes against the invisible Crayfasis, which is inexplicably visible to van Gogh, are not the most gripping action sequences we've seen in Doctor Who, but that doesn't matter because they're not what the story is about.
And in the final analysis, that's the real key. "Vincent and the Doctor" is about genius and insanity, love and loss, and why art matters. In many ways, it is a throwback story to the original purpose of Doctor Who, which was to educate the kids while sugar-coating the pill with exciting stuff about cavemen and Daleks. What makes this story really stand out for me is that the story arc of the current series isn't visible here - the episode wasn't awash with anything new, aside from the Doctor's calling van Gogh Rory at one point; there were no mentions or visuals of the crack in time and space, nothing about the Pandorica, and that stuff. It was a self-contained episode that had a brilliant actor giving it strength, good performances from the regular cast, and a plot that had me interested in what was going on.
I give this episode a 9 out of 10.