Oh, this is LOVELY. Written by Richard Curtis (must I say it? Blackadder I-IV, Notting Hill, what have you), directed by Johnny Campbell, guest starring Bill Nighy and Tony Curran. It’s another quite alien-lite episode this week, there’s no great conspiracy to uncover or anything; just one lonely, blind Krafayis having been abandoned by its people. But that’s not what the story is really about (as in the end the alien is not that vicious, it’s really just a pitiable creature that’s afraid to die), it’s about the gift of sight. The Krafayis is blind, but the Doctor and Amy cannot see it either — the only one who can see it is Vincent Van Gogh. And that’s not the only thing Vincent can see: he can see so much, he can see the universe, the stars as they burn. The directors have used that for a wonderful sequence of the sky turning into Van Gogh’s famous painting of the Starry Night. Just that moment alone, with the Doctor, Amy and Vincent lying in the grass, holding each other’s hands, and the stars transforming before our eyes makes the episode so much more than just awesome Doctor Who, it makes it a dream.
This episode is not only about the wonders of the universe, it’s about how those wonders stay hidden out of sight for the sane, but unravel and become wonderous for the mad. It’s about how what we think we know or perceive isn’t always what we really feel — this becomes obvious as Vincent tells Amy that he thinks she’s lost someone, but since she can’t remember Rory, she denies. Still, Vincent spots a tear sliding down her cheek that she hadn’t even noticed: some part of her feels the loss of Rory and is mourning him, she just can’t remember it. “Time can be rewritten; I know it can!” Oh, Amy, you don’t know how much indeed you know it. And still you tell Vincent that you’re “not really the marrying kind.” Well, so much for those who always said that Amy should just put Rory out of his misery and let him out of a romantically dysfunctional relationship.
This episode is very much about how wrong the Doctor occasionally is, and what grave mistakes he’s made and how the often tragic circumstances pertaining him change the lives of his loved ones:
The Doctor: […] half of the paintings on the walls of the Musée d’Orsay will disappear… (flops down on the sofa, stricken with guilt) and it’ll be our fault.
It starts off with the Doctor dragging Amy around to all the great sights in the universe (I suppose by ‘Arcades’ Amy meant the Medusa Arcade? There was a reference at the end of the episode, when the Doctor and Amy take Vincent to 2010, and the Doctor pauses in front of a statue showing Perseus after he’d chopped Medusa’s head off), showing her what she’d like to see, eventually taking her to Paris, to the Musée d’Orsay, to see her favourite artist, Vincent Van Gogh. Well, his paintings anyway. She jokingly gets suspicious because he’s being so nice to her and he gets all defensive —
Amy: Look, I was joking — why aren’t you?
— and we realize right off the bat how guilty the Doctor feels about Rory’s death and that he feels he has to make it up to Amy. And we see how this distracts and affects him throughout the entire episode (so much so that, in the middle of the confrontation with the Krafayis, he lets Rory’s name slip when he addresses his companions): as Amy interrupts Vincent and the waiter’s quarrel, the Doctor’s eyebrows rise slightly higher with every flirty word, and he smiles a sad, soft smile, which says: She’s flirting like she always would when she had no spouse — and it’s his fault that she actually doesn’t have one anymore. The Doctor can’t stand to be reminded of it by his companions, and thus breaks up the, ah, ginger flirtation immediately. And, I mean, rightly so — Vincent’s chat-up line wasn’t really the smartest.
What was REALLY awesome: fan service! I mean, yay, when did we ever get to see an outer space, erm, ID machine?! Complete with encyclopedia information such as pronunciation, etc. Lovely! And the Doctor thought it was junk, shame on him! And then, a fight with an invisible beastie — did we ever have that before?
Also: now, after all those deadlines and warnings and countdowns — the alien in question is, in fact, late. And it pisses the Doctor off a mighty bit:
Is this how time normally passes? Reeally slowly. In the right order. If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s an unpunctual alien attack!
Which, of course, doesn’t keep the Doctor from rushing into the church all on his own…
But you’re not armed! — I am! — What with? — Over-confidence, this, and a small screwdriver; I’m absolutely sorted.
He soon realizes, though, that he isn’t going to be the one man to save the day this time:
No, I am really stupid. And I’m getting old.
And he even questions his use of the sonic screwdriver simply because it’s so sodding useless against this life form:
I’m definitely just using the Screwdriver for screwing in screws!
This episode, more than even Amy’s Choice, is very much about the Doctor questioning himself, explicitely calling himself out on his own mistakes: he’s getting sloppy, and it begins to dawn on him how fatal that may prove very soon indeed.
As much as this episode might be regarded as filler, or irrelevant, or whatever kind of useless the last fifteen minutes of the piece are going to be declared because of the Doctor taking someone more than a century into his future but being unable to save his life: It’s a piece of art, it’s great, it’s beautifully written. It has such a melancholic undertone, but several smile-really-widely moments, such as the Doctor’s carefully timed slapstick when he rummages about in the TARDIS (and what was that what he flung behind himself as he was searching for the gadget? For a second, I thought I’d seen a leather thong…), and that great moment when Vincent steps into the room with his hat on, and in a long coat worthy of the Tenth Doctor, looking like a good ol’ friend of John Wayne’s, ready to face danger with a paint brush, which is just to die for (especially when you’ve, like me, watched almost every good — and bad — Wild West movie in existence).
In the end, the Doctor and Amy fulfill two people’s greatest wishes: Vincent sees some of the wonders of the universe (“How come I’m the crazy one and you two have stayed sane?”), and Dr. Black, chief of “artiness” and cool bow ties, has indeed met the artist he admires the most (even though he doesn’t really realize). After they’ve brought Vincent back home, they go to the museum again and Amy is shaken by the reality that Van Gogh still committed suicide barely a year later, in 1891, and wonders whether they’ve actually made a difference for the better in his life. The Doctor explains it like this, in what must be one of the corniest things the Doctor ever said about happiness and the lack thereof:
The way I see it, life is a pile of good things and bad things… The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa the bad things don’t always spoil the good things and make them unimportant … and we definitely added to his pile of good things.
After that sequence, Curtis dips a bit too deep into the well of kitsch (but maybe that’s just me). The music underlying the dreamwalk-like sequence as Amy approaches Vincent’s drawing of the sunflowers that now bears a dedication to her name could have been gentler, not so.. just a bit too loud. Nothing as sad as Madame de Pompadour, but a tad less overbearing. But that is just about the only thing I’d half-heartedly complain about, because the idea itself was wonderful, I think, and brilliantly created on screen.
Vincent: Doctor, my friend. We have fought monsters together, and we have won. On my own, I fear I may not do as well.
The dialogue just sparkles and shines and explodes around us, and the acting by Karen Gillan, Matt Smith, Tony Curran, and the lovely Bill Nighy is just so perfect I’d give them their own spin-off immediately. I am certainly no expert on depression, but I dare say that this piece of writing won’t have to deal with the notion of being perceived as patronizing (such as the last two episodes incorporating the issue of dyslexia) — the possibility that his first witnessed sighting of the Krafayis is, actually, a hallucination (as the Doctor seems to think); or a weeping Vincent on his bed doesn’t feel cliché, it feels believable.
Vincent: Will you follow him? — Amy: Of course! — Vincent (somewhat bewitched): I love you!
Random thoughts aka Did You See That, Too?
- This thing with eyes really is a thing. The things you only see from the corner of your eye, the eye of the Atraxi, the Doctor’s on-going thing about “notice everything”; the (what I think was an eye) thing on the monitors in Flesh and Stone, the eyes growing out of Really Old People’s mouths in Amy’s Choice… and now this episode entirely about sight and perception.
- Did anyone else think the bird Vincent painted at the beginning looked rather like a crack in the skin of the universe from that angle?
- The Doctor’s changed another habit: As he introduced himself, he said “Oh, I’m… new in town.” with an air of wonderful smugness, as opposed to the slightly bashful “I’m just a friend, passing through.” that Nine sported wherever he went.
- Ketchup and mustard on the TARDIS? I think I’m in love!
Next episode: The Lodger.
Oh, and don’t forget: Bow ties are cool.