• 12th June 2010 • Review by Seb Patrick •
To the list of utterly stellar single-story guest performances in new era Doctor Who – that already includes the likes of Derek Jacobi, Julian Bleach, Carey Mulligan and David Morrissey – we must surely add Tony Curran. In an episode where all the advance publicity concerned the identity of the writer – possibly the most independently famous name so far to write for the series – attention in the aftermath surely falls squarely on the guest character whose name, for only the second time in the show’s history, is the leading word of the story’s title.
And it’s entirely appropriate. This is all about Vincent – an engaging, sympathetic, often entertaining character – and while much of that is down to the writer (of whom more later) and a surprisingly unflinching, honest portrayal of his mental illness (though perhaps having an “if you have been affected by any of the issues…” message at the end of Doctor Who is a shade misjudged – and yes, we all made the same jokes), it’s fair to say that it’s Curran that really gives him life. From the wide-eyed joy to an internal despair rarely explored in a programme of this type, his conveyance of a range of emotions is crucial in shaping our empathising with this complex, brilliant, tortured man. Like all the best supporting characters, he’s one we’re genuinely sad to see the TARDIS crew leave behind at the end of the story (is he, in fact, the new Sally Sparrow?), so well does he spark off them and slip naturally into their dynamic – with of course the additional element of tragedy considering we know how short his remaining life is to be.
As for Curtis, it was difficult to know in advance just what he’d make of Doctor Who – and indeed which Richard Curtis we’d get: the inspired master who co-created Blackadder and gave Four Weddings its cutting wit, or the one with a tendency to fall into the unbearable schmaltz of Love, Actually. In the end, we got a little of both: good jokes throughout, a warm yet sharp story, and yet – it’s true – a glimpse at his worse excesses in that final scene, one which is just about pulled off by Curran’s performance, but which really didn’t need the Athlete track or the supreme over-egging of the curator’s speech.
Of perhaps more interest is the question of whether he engaged properly with the show itself – “Vincent and the Doctor” is undoubtedly a strong (if flawed) piece of television, but is it good Doctor Who? On that, I think, the jury remains out – the character himself is, as in a number of non-Moffat-scripted stories this year, sidelined to a frustrating extent (do these writers not realise the asset they’ve got in the shape of the current leading man?), and I’m honestly not certain if the decision to show Van Gogh his own future is in keeping with everything we know about the character – it could, perhaps, be said to be a “rookie mistake” by someone who knows the concept of the show but doesn’t have an innate feel for it. Yet at times Curtis shows an enviable knack for grasping quintessential Who-ness, not least in a scene that bravely places the Doctor on his own in the TARDIS, with nobody to talk to but himself. An utterly glorious little minute, it’s funny, it gets a good sense of the Doctor’s character, and it allows Smith to truly shine, unfettered, for arguably the first time since “Flesh & Stone”.
He’s good with the companion, too – no, make that excellent. Aside from her childhood appearance in “The Eleventh Hour”, you could argue that even Amy Pond’s creator hasn’t quite yet done enough with the character yet. She’s quite deliberately difficult to get a handle on, and I’m sure that’s going to come with a payoff eventually, but it makes it tricky for those not involved in crafting the overall series arc to find much in her to engage with. Curtis manages that here – aided by Gillen’s best performance yet, by quite some considerable margin – not least because, for the first time, the examination of a historical cultural figure is not just because the Doctor says they’re great (Shakespeare, Dickens, Christie) but because the companion is legitimately and independently an excited fan of their work. This existing context makes the subtle romantic connection between Amy and Vincent all the more effective, with Curtis also playing on the actors’ similarities in hair colour and accent.
It’s a curious one to judge in terms of story, though, because the “monster” threat is – again quite deliberately – almost incidental. It’s not that it’s a bad idea, at all – in fact, the “invisible monster” is a rather good one, and very Whoish, and the ways of getting around it – from the Doctor’s bizarre over-the-shoulder mirror device thing to Vincent’s slightly fractured mind simply being able to see things that others can’t – are fairly ingenious. It’s just that it’s not the important element of the story – this is firmly a character piece, and although the slow pace will have been offputting to some, and the series couldn’t sustain this type of episode on a weekly basis, it’s a welcome change of pace as a distinct one-off. And in fact, it’s to the episode’s credit that it can be less interested in its “threat”, but still present a fairly compelling one – complete with the added complexity of the fact that it’s not a straightforward malevolence.
A word, too, since we often neglect to mention it, for the direction. In such a marked mood and character piece, visual tone becomes crucial – even moreso when the episode is about an artist whose use of colour was his single most celebrated aspect. As such, vivid colour becomes an integral part of this story, and Jonny Campbell uses it strongly throughout, occasionally to a spectacular degree. There are the obvious set-piece moments – the painting in the sky, the recreation of the cafe, Amy among the sunflowers (and if using a rich colour palette does anything, it’s to further emphasis the darned-near-unfathomable beauty of Gillen), and so on – but the entire episode is lit and shot with a deft hand that elevates Curtis’ script even further.
It’s still the sort of episode that defies an immediate and definitive verdict – I still can’t make my mind up whether the ending goes against everything Doctor Who should be, or is forgiveable in the context of an otherwise entirely unique story – but there’s no denying that for plenty of its running time it’s a beautiful, odd little thing, and the sort of idiosyncratic little treasure that Moffat’s “fairy tale” show should be expected to throw up on occasion. Certainly, there’s far more wit and imagination on display than in the episodes that immediately preceded it – and, one (perhaps unfairly prejudgingly) suspects, the one to follow – and its central figure is a masterpiece of sympathetic writing and performance. In a normal week, I’d rather an episode be about “The Doctor and…”, but just this once, I’m happy for him to sit back and give the centre-stage to Vincent.