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19 June 2010 @ 04:27 pm
Vincent and the Doctor  
And as I fall ever further behind in watching Dr Who (still not watched the Lodger yet, and unlikely to until B gets back from California on Tuesday), I fall even further behind on reviewing.

I thought Vincent and the Doctor was good but I'm not sure it was quite the triumph some have claimed. I'm not sure what it is about it that holds me back from saying I it was a really great piece of Doctor Who. Possibly, it's the giant chicken. Although impressive, in many ways, the giant chicken was, well, a giant chicken and that seemed out of place with the general tone of the story.

In recent years we've been treated to a lot more historical Dr Who stories than was common in classic Who, except in the very early years. In many ways, this is one of the few areas, where NuWho has consciously sought to be more imaginative than the classic series which, for much of its run, seemed to consider history to be intrinsically dull. However there has been a certain repetitive nature to the new-style `celebrity historical'. The Doctor turns up, he meets a historical celebrity who may (or may not) bear much resemblance to an actual historical personage. The Doctor tells the celebrity they are wonderful (or possibly fantastic). The celebrity reciprocates. Everyone is fantastic, in fact. While Vincent and the Doctor followed this basic form it had interesting differences which, I think, echo the ways Amy has been treated differently as a companion.

Matt Smith's Doctor is not all-seeing and all-knowing. Obviously the Doctor has never actually been all-seeing and all-knowing, even during the worst excesses of Sylvester McCoy's manipulative `dark' Doctor, but in comparison to companions and celebrity historical figures he has often appeared to be. The role of both has, to a certain extent, been to throw into relief all the many ways the Doctor is smarter, more knowledgable, and better than they are. To an extent the more the historical figure or companion is talked up the more the Doctor is inflated by the comparison. But here we saw a Doctor at sea in the face of another genius. Yes! Vincent was amazing and fantastic and, ultimately, he reciprocated the Doctor's admiration, but he was also troubled, and moody, and short-tempered, and Matt Smith's Doctor was visibly thrown by this, unable to operate in a situation outside the bounds of his normal interactions. So in the end we were shown a meeting of genius' on equal terms, much as the relationship between the Doctor and Amy, at least early in this season, seemed to be one of equals.

Way back when I was a teenager, Warriors' Gate, was one of my favourite stories. This preference was derived in part from the novelisation and in part from partial recollections of the visuals, particularly the moments when the camera work sought to draw parallels between different plot threads: the Doctor tosses a coin and the camera cuts to one coming down as Aldo and Royce toss it. It was a disappointment to see the story at university and realise that these cuts were executed considerably more clumsily than they were in my imagination. I mention this because it's the only other time I really recall Dr Who trying to do something explicitly with camera work or visuals that could not be translated easily to the written word. The continual visual echos, throughout Vincent and the Doctor, to van Gogh's work culminating, obviously, in the moment where the Doctor, Amy and Vincent look at the night sky was impressive. As frankly, was its attempt to at least have some discussion of van Gogh's actual work, and what it is doing and portraying.

On the down side, all the educational content forced Amy slightly into the role of reciever-of-info-dumps. Karen Gillan did a good job with her part but she never quite convinced as the gushing van Gogh fan girl who nevertheless needed to have the basics of his vision explained to her.

The fact that Vincent and the Doctor managed to serve up both art criticism and a sympathetic treatment of mental illness within the space of 45 minutes that included a fight with an invisible giant chicken is nothing short of incredible. I imagine this was the sort of entertaining but educational fare that Sydney Newman first envisaged. Of course the show's Reithian roots have long, long been abandoned, so much so that we are startled when they suddenly return. In fact, I'm not sure this story would have been at all out of place in the first season of Doctor Who. Sometimes in the whizz and bang of NuWho we lose sight of the enduring nature of the template, it's ability to explore any time and any place, to treat serious issues in a way appropriate for a Saturday tea time and, of course, its tendency to serve up slightly dodgy monsters.

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/8489.html.
philmophlegmphilmophlegm on June 19th, 2010 04:18 pm (UTC)
I did like this story a lot, but I also think it would have been even better without the chicken and played as a straight historical. That would have been, as you say, a typical early Hartnell story.
louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on June 19th, 2010 04:27 pm (UTC)
I find it a hard one to call. Vincent's ability to see the chicken and the Doctor's inability to see it worked very well within the story. It's just it was, well, a chicken. A Hartnell story along the same lines would probably have picked an invisible something that was less straightforwardly threat-like (although possibly more chicken-like, I don't know).

Without an alien, I'm not sure what the story would actually have been... something very different. The Hartnell pure historicals tended to have a focus on the crew's effort to return to the Tardis while navigating a complex society, all of that was absent from this.
daniel_saunders: Doctor Whodaniel_saunders on June 20th, 2010 12:36 pm (UTC)
I liked this, but as with Amy's Choice, I wondered if I liked the idea more than the execution. I felt there were two stories: the monster story and Vincent's story and the latter was considerably more interesting than the former. I am not sure that the two stories were integrated particularly well.
louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on June 21st, 2010 09:27 am (UTC)
It's interesting. There were two stories but they were very closely linked. Without the chicken, the Doctor has no motivation to stay long especially after he recognises (and is obviously rather discomfited by) the extent of Vincent's problems. The invisible chicken also eases the way into Vincent's different perception of the world. I think the execution was fumbled rather but without the chicken I'm not sure there was a lot there, and certainly no real driver to the interactions between the Doctor, Amy and Vincent.