So, ‘Vincent And The Doctor’ wasn’t just a working title after all.
Presumably, any other title will just give away far too much about the plot, right? Well, actually, no, because any other cracks in Series 5’s ongoing story are being pushed back to the edge of the frame this week, as this episode (more than any other so far this year) is, if not running on the spot, then certainly having a relaxed amble through the sunflowers.
Ret-conning a series – wiping the storyline slate clean – is always a big risk. Usually it comes after a series has lost its way somewhat and is borne of a desire to reboot the programme back to its classic basics. Sometimes it’s at least believable, if highly controversial (the classic “it was all a dream” storyline from Dallas) or neatly seeded in (the season in Buffy The Vampire Slayer where a new character was introduced into the cast as if she’d been there all along). More often, it’s just downright shoddy, bad writing (too many examples for us to go into here).
It appears that Series 5 of Doctor Who is heading this way, with at least some swiping and wiping of previous storylines, presumably in order to make new characters’ sense of shock and awe more believable. Now, it remains to be seen exactly how audacious this will be: will it simply be Amy’s memory that’s wiped (possibly not), all of humanity’s (at least likely) or will Steven Moffat go for broke, and have The Doctor himself forget his own travels? This last is probably a step too far, but it’s at least possible – we’ve already been told a time-traveller’s memories can be wiped if they relate to that traveller’s own experiences – and it would be glorious to see Matt Smith’s Doctor meeting the likes of Daleks and Cybermen for the ‘first’ time. Of course, it would also instantly give the power back to those villains – making them immediately panic-inducing, sweaty-palmed-making monsters of the week, where we, the audience, know exactly how terrifying they could be, while Doctor Eleven tumbles into unforeseen danger.
Unforeseen danger – or at least, danger that can’t be seen – is the order of the day here from Blackadder writer Richard Curtis. Van Gogh (whose name is pronounced a number of ways – presumably the TARDIS translation circuits are on the blink), a master of painting what he could see and feel, as opposed to what was physically there, is being troubled by his own demons – both figurative and actual. Played with a sensitive grace by Tony Curran, he swings from black mood of depression to cheeky flirting with Amy in a way that’s entirely convincing and compassionate. And really, this is where that Ronseal title – ‘Vincent And The Doctor’ – earns itself.
More than anything else, this is a ‘relationship’ episode. While The Doctor takes Amy on a museum trip because of his own guilt trip (due to events of last week’s episode), the story pretty quickly turns into a kind of ‘bromance’ between the episode’s titular characters. It’s entirely believable and affecting, although it might not always feel like Doctor Who – even The Doctor himself notes that there’s not quite enough action: “Is this how time really passes? Really slowly… and in the right order…”
Like any good painting, your first impression might be different from your second, third and so on. If we’re honest, we’re still making up our mind on it. It’s a much more accessible piece than, say, ‘The Beast Below’, which felt more like immediate Doctor Who. But conversely, this – and you’ll find the same phrase repeated in conversations with people who absolutely hate or absolutely love the episode – feels very much like a Richard Curtis film. It’s clearly a love letter, almost a manifesto, to Van Gogh, and as such looks ludicrously beautiful, with images ripped directly from the man’s own paintings.
There’s also a great cameo from Love Actually‘s Bill Nighy (presumably, by appearing here, writing himself out of ever appearing in the title role), who loves the great painter only slightly more than he loves The Doctor’s bowtie. And, yes, you read that right: Bill Nighy’s much trumpeted appearance is limited to a couple of cameos. Whatever else happens by the end of this season, even if the universe ends, you should be demanding this character’s return.
In the end, though, this is about impressions: about what you can really see and what sits in your heart. From a somewhat startling (but not really surprising) secret that Amy (Karen Gillan) whispers in Van Gogh’s ear, through the final gift that the artist presents to his new favourite red-head, to the Doctor’s steadily increasing sorrow letting him do something that, as the last remaining Time Lord, he shouldn’t strictly be allowing himself to get away with, this ends with a man, used to travelling in the stars, ‘seeing’ them for the first time.
There’s been some criticism this series of a few episodes feeling like ‘painting by numbers’ Doctor Who. This episode, while it doesn’t always feel like traditional Who, might be a minor masterpiece to return to and savour several times over. It seems appropriate that, finally, The Doctor meets his own Starry Night.
Airs at 6.50pm on Saturday 5th June 2010 on BBC One.