Tuesday 8 June 2010


“Have you heard about the writer Ritchy Curtis?
Who wrote the Doctor and did miss
No point sitting on the fence
That was bad in the English sense.”

(With apologies to Jonathan Richman)

Every now and again a long-running genre fiction series will decide to splash out and get a Proper Writer in. Healthy cynicism aside, this can sometimes work. Harlan Ellison wrote well for both ’Star Trek’ and Marvel comics. But he had half a foot in genre fiction to start with. More normally, this very drive will propel them into getting a Real Proper Writer – someone with no previous on their record.

At which point the results are almost inevitably lose-lose. It’s like bringing in a master chef to flip burgers. His Egon Ronay training isn’t going to help him flip any better, in fact the guy they just deposed, who knew how to flip burgers, he did it better. What people tend to be good at is the thing that they are good at.

This notion then married the New Who fixation with wheeling in Big Historical Figures. These have not worked well in the past. By bringing in someone to impersona... sorry, play this figure, some of their gravitas is supposed to rub off. But it’s like sticking a statue up, then trying to cast it in your drama.

Combining these two is a perfect storm of good intentions and bad outcomes. You end up with a historical drama about the last years of Van Gogh’s life with a monster turning up and running round at arbitrary points. It’s like the ’Red Dwarf’ episode where a tank turns up in a Jane Austin adaptation. Except risible instead of funny.

Before anyone rushes to the Comments section, yes I got the idea that the monster was some Bunyanesque manifestation of Van Gogh’s despair. In fact I got it with the full force of his stabbing easel. Only he can see it! He kills it with his art! But if the monster’s there to do anything, it has to give us some insight into that despair. So if you want to argue that a giant, badly CGI’d chicken is an illuminating metaphor for manic depression, then the Comments section is now open.

The monster was such a poorly conceived afterthought that it didn’t really work on it’s own terms. Desperate to make it not just a giant, badly CGI’d chicken they launched a late-in-the-day campaign to portray “evil when I see it” as suddenly lost and alone. But the more they gave it it’s own identity the less it became Van Gogh’s embodied despair, there for him to slay and vanquish. It was lose-lose. (And was there any internal logic as to why only Van Gogh could see it?)

In fact, his despair is brought home much more in the scene where he’s unable to leave his bed. We all have moments a little like that, so we relate to him just as we realise his are so much more magnified. After such scenes, do we need all that stupid chicken chasing? I couldn’t help but think how much better it would have worked with all that rubbish removed, as a return to the old ‘true’ historicals.

Perhaps the time travellers are unable to give away their origins, and become convinced that if they could just explain how they know his art to be important... Perhaps there could be a left turn, when they realise they have just labelled his art “historically important” but when pressed can’t articulate exactly what is so great about it. Perhaps they finally desperately admit where they’re from and he just dismisses them as bigger absinthe drinkers than he is.

Alternately, the monster could have been made to actually mean something! There’s two all-too-brief suggestions of this, which might have worked if they’d been built on. One comes right at the beginning; as Van Gogh paints a wheat field, it rustles mysteriously amid the stalks. Later he part-enthuses, part-rages at the Doctor that nature calls him to “capture my mystery.” The appeal of his art is that it portrays nature not as a pretty scene for our contemplation, gardens assembled like a still life, but as a wild force, an entity in its own right. Trees thrust up through the ground, skies convulse. The monster could have become the nature he fought to capture in his art, a Captain Ahab always after the white whale.

But I’m forced to concede that, over at Behind The Sofa, Neil Perryman had the best idea. What if the Doctor had it right the first time? The invisible monster really was just in his mind, a for-real creature of the id. Used to encountering the real thing, the Doctor tests for it with ever-more-elaborate scanners fished from the Tardis’ closet. Finally he bleakly concludes that this is the one kind of monster he could never hope to defeat.

This might have even fixed that sickeningly schmaltzy ending. Some are those who have seen the particular soundtrack choice as a step too far. (A band called Athlete, whose market demographic seems to be anyone who finds Coldplay too edgy and challenging.) But the terrible truth is that it was all too terribly appropriate - it fitted right in with what was on the screen!

Yet the basic premise, underneath that Euro-mountain of saccharine, is actually quite a good one. Depression is a medical condition to be distinguished from a grumpy head day. It can’t be cured by buying the sufferer some nice things, any more than an evening out cures typhoid up.

So instead imagine this. Amy alone in the gallery, sobbing uncontrollably for the man she couldn’t save. Finally Bill Nightie happens by and agrees that, yes, these paintings really are quite moving. Or perhaps his despair is in some way cured, and Amy races to see the extra works only to find the room empty – with no demons to struggle against, he had no need of art and chucked his old easels on the fire.

Let’s gallantly close with some plus points about this episode:

1. It does try to get into the head of it’s historical subject (“hold my hand, Doctor, try to see what I see”) rather than just stand him up reverentially and have him say the sort of things he’d say. He becomes a character in his own episode.

2.The Doctor’s new-found fallibility was in evidence. He’s a genius at extemporising his way out of a crisis, but not someone you’d want by your bedside as you were beset by depression. His railing against waiting, and time dully passing “in the right order”, was masterful. And, thank heaven for simple mercies, his sonic screwdriver didn’t work!

3. Rory’s absence was well handled, alluded to but never laid on.

4. When they travel back to the future, the Tardis is plastered with handbills. As it rematerialises they immediately burn up. Yet Van Gogh’s art survives. It works precisely because the image is not laboured over.


  1. I deliberately held off reading your Vincent article until I'd written my own, for fear of being influenced -- I saved yours up as my reward for finishing. It's intriguing to see how much we are (for once) in accord, even if on balance I was more positive than you. If you're interested,

  2. Great post, plenty of food for thought.

  3. I think the key to whether you enjoyed this one is probably what you think of Richard Curtis as a writer.

    Personally I found the coda not only schmaltzy but also rather pointless. Trying to cure Vincent’s depression by convincing him that he’s the World’s Greatest seemed to me to be a curiously egotistical medical treatment. It also had nothing to do with the plot, which was mainly about saving French people from being eaten.

    I guess it was just an attempt at tacking on a Romcom happy ending, which couldn’t work because of the contraint of leaving history unchanged (except for the for Amy inscription, bizarrely). So we were left with the odd rationale that, although Curtis couldn’t give us a happy ending this time, he’d given us some happy bits so that’s all right then...

    Perversely I did like the rest of the episode, mainly because the setting was in the foreground for once. Most of the recent historicals could have been set anywhere, but this one could only have been at this place and time. The Doctor was indeed "a character in his own episode". Curtis seems to have been faithful to his source material (to my limited knowledge) and included enough references to satisfy those post-impressionist fanboys. And I found Tony Curran’s performance rather engaging when the role could have invited the worst of hamming.

    Shame about the Krafayis though. It made me think of the Bullshit or Not? sketch from Amazon Women on the Moon, where Jack the Ripper turns out to be the Loch Ness Monster. But I suppose it did at least have some symbolism rather than just being the arbitrary creature-from-the-toybox that we’d got used to. I’d have loved to see this as an "old ‘true’ historical", but think how disappointed all those ten-year-olds would have been without a monster!

  4. Thanks to all for their comments. I have read Mike’s post and will comment as soon as I get the chance! But, after having pretty much written the episode off as a failure, I’m now going to (almost) defend it against Martin!

    Personally I found the coda not only schmaltzy but also rather pointless. Trying to cure Vincent’s depression by convincing him that he’s the World’s Greatest seemed to me to be a curiously egotistical medical treatment... I guess it was just an attempt at tacking on a Romcom happy ending.

    Schmaltzy yes, but I don’t think it was pointless or a failed attempt at a happy ending. I’d reckon that it started with the inevitable event of Van Gogh’s death and worked backwards. The futility of their efforts isn’t a failing – it’s the very point. We arrive at that ending for a reason. There’s even the suggestion that the Doctor suspected this from the beginning. All they could possibly give him was a nice afternoon trip out, not a cure. So the Doctor gives him the trip. Only Amy imagines it to be a cure.

    It also had nothing to do with the plot, which was mainly about saving French people from being eaten.

    The plot in this case was just a plate for Curtis to arrange his display on. Alas it was a saggy paper plate, not bone china. But I can be quite happy with ’Who’ episodes where the perfunctory plot is just used as a jumping-off point.

    and included enough references to satisfy those post-impressionist fanboys.

    Well I’m a Modernism fanboy, so I suppose that includes the post-impressionists by default. I could have wished for more, but I agree the episode said something particular about Van Gogh. (Whereas when Shakespeare turned up, he was just a bloke what wrote good.)

    I’d have loved to see this as an "old ‘true’ historical", but think how disappointed all those ten-year-olds would have been without a monster!

    Perhaps you’re right in this case. But then ten year olds of the Sixties watched their way through enough of them. (As any ’Who’ fan worth his jelly babies knows, it’s a myth that the historicals suffered from poor audiences.)

    Of course a ’Who’ episode has to stay a ’Who’ episode. Pushing the envelope can be enthralling. Breaking it simply deflates everything. Just look at every comic over the last twenty years that announced itself as ‘groundbreaking.’

    But I’m not sure writing out the monster would have deflated the envelope. The time travel element would still have been integral. Besides, I found the best idea to be Neil Perryman’s – where the monster does exist, but only internally.