Friday, July 9, 2010

Vincent van Gogh meets Doctor Who

In June 2010 the BBC aired an episode of the science fiction series Doctor Who entitled "Vincent and the Doctor." In it the time traveler and his companion travel back to France and meet Vincent van Gogh.

As a long time Doctor Who and Van Gogh aficionado I was very much looking forward to this episode. Normally I wait until Doctor Who comes out on DVD before I watch it. Mainly because the CBC, which airs Doctor Who in Canada, is forever cutting the show up, moving it, postponing it, etc. I couldn't stand it anymore. When I saw that the Van Gogh episode of Doctor Who was airing here in Canada I decided to make an exception and watch that one single episode before the DVD set comes out.

So the whole thing was a bit jarring for me because suddenly I was faced with a new Doctor (Matt Smith), a new companion (Karen Gillan), a new credits sequence and a new TARDIS. A lot to take in. But never mind.

As for the episode, overall I was disappointed. I'm definitely not a stickler for historical accuracy, but the errors were unnecessary and easily fixed. The Van Gogh specialist at the Musée d’Orsay (played by the always enjoyable Bill Nighy) says that Van Gogh died in 1891. He died in 1890. Most of the episode takes place in an unnamed French town which is both Arles (1888) and Auvers-sur-Oise (1890). I realize that the episode writer Richard Curtis (of Blackadder fame) included the Auvers setting because he wanted to use the church as a plot device (and that church was painted in 1890). But he easily could have set the whole thing in Arles and altered the story accordingly (was the plot really so dependent on a painted smear of a monster peeking out from the church's window?).

Which gets to the story. There's plenty of material to deal with when a 900 year old alien time lord travels to the 1800s to meet Vincent van Gogh. But much of this potential was untapped. I appreciate that this is a science fiction program (that has seen Agatha Christie in the same room as a giant wasp and both Shakespeare and Dickens confronting alien witches/zombies). But the best they could come up with is Vincent van Gogh battling a giant invisible chicken?

"Vincent and the Doctor" did have some strong points, however. The actor playing Van Gogh, Tony Curran, did a good job, even if his Scottish accent was a bit too Groundskeeper Willyesque. There's a strong physical resemblance and Curran's handling of Van Gogh's manic moments was well done. The set designers also did a very nice job in reproducing the Café Terrace and Van Gogh’s bedroom (if only they’d spent a few more pounds and digitally recreated the Yellow House, rather than having Van Gogh living in a sort of barn). And the ending, back in Paris in 2010 is touching and well understated.

With a few story tweaks here and there this episode of Doctor Who could have been outstanding. All in all it was adequate. And, of course, to see Vincent van Gogh standing in the console room of the TARDIS . . . . . well, that alone was worth it.

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