Of course it’s what we’d all do if we had a time machine: slip back in time and see history being made. The future’s a dicier proposition. On the one hand, what you don’t know is always a little more exciting than what you think you do know. On the other hand, what you don’t know could turn out to be a nuclear holocaust or a biological disaster that dooms you the second you step out the door. If you steer clear of plague years and battlefields, history’s a safer bet. 19th century France seems as safe as anything.
Unfortunately, if your time machine’s a TARDIS, there’s no such thing as a safe place or time. It turns out Earth history is riddled with alien monsters, which frankly is a bit of a bore. I’m trying to guess whether I would have needed a monster to make an episode about Vincent van Gogh exciting when I was 11 years old. It’s hard to tell; I loved Black Orchid when I was 11, so maybe not. Then again, nobody else I know loved Black Orchid. So maybe Richard Curtis was right to make sure Vincent and the Doctor centered around scenes of one of the greatest painters in history using hayforks and wooden chairs to fend off a giant invisible space turkey.
For me, though, it was bloody embarrassing. As a Doctor Who fan I can cope with embarrassment. This is a show in which one of the best monsters, a clear inspiration for (and 3 years ahead of) Alien in form, behavior, and plot, featured a larval form literally made of bubble wrap painted green. But what’s harder to cope with is the emotion anyone but an utter philistine should experience when seeing a painter’s easel used as a bayonet. I don’t know what to call that emotion, but it seems strange that none of the art-appreciating characters in the story display any of it. Nor do I understand why, when the alien monster’s last words are revealed, no one’s day really seems ruined. There’s a moment of mild regret and then it’s just “hooray us, we must do this again sometime!” I imagine we’re supposed to regard it as van Gogh’s inner demon, slain through the power of art, but during the episode all I could see was a big crude ugly distraction from the purely human story we could have had.
Richard Curtis gets all kind of slack from me thanks to Blackadder, though I can understand why people deride his movies. I didn’t see a huge difference in the quality of the writing in this episode, though, at least not on the level of dialogue. If anything it was less witty than usual, the nadirs being the running jokes of the “isn’t it a starry night?” or “hey, I brought you a bunch of sunflowers, don’t you feel like painting them?” variety. If you think of Curtis as a sentimentalist these days rather than a wit, well, check out the time-bending ending. It’s so cloying as to be nearly unbearable, making it hard to appreciate that even though it seems a spectacularly bad idea, it’s exactly what you’d want to do for van Gogh if you could.
I may have to start a regular feature of Questions I Couldn’t Answer. Here’s this week’s list, in part:
- Is this the first time the Doctor has met van Gogh?
- If so, why? The man is nearly 1000 years old, his favorite planet is Earth, and he has a time machine.
- Why didn’t they just throw paint onto the thing? (van Gogh could have bitched about how much it cost.)
In general, the episode was pretty flat for me, largely devoid of the passion or depth it seemed to be miming. On the plus side, I don’t know much about van Gogh’s life, so at least I didn’t have to spend the whole thing wincing at how inaccurate it was.
There were some bits I liked. It was interesting to contrast Eleven’s awkwardness and helplessness at van Gogh’s “mad” moment with the empathetic and comforting speech you know Ten would have made. I also enjoyed the “rear view mirror” (the two-headed “godmother” I’d prefer not to ponder too deeply), and the “starry night” special effect was pretty special, even if the scene that prompted it wasn’t. Best line of the episode, in my book: the Doctor is waiting hours for van Gogh to finish a painting, and he says “Is this how time normally passes? Really slowly…in the right order?”