|This is just showing off, really.
It’s June 5th, 2010. Dizzee Rascal is at number one with “Dirtee Disco,” with Iyaz, Eminem, N-Dubz, and Aggro also charting. In news, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig is finally capped, which reduces the spill without actually stopping it. And twelve people die in a killing spree in Cumbria.
On television, it’s Vincent and the Doctor. One of the most interesting innovations that Moffat brought to the program was his focus on bringing in what might be called celebrity writers. His first two seasons feature his most brazen attempts at this, although Neil Cross was no small acquisition and Neil Gaiman was originally supposed to be in the first season, so describing this as a particularly well-structured process might be overstating things. Nevertheless, what jumps out first about Vincent and the Doctor is that it is by Richard Curtis, writer of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, creator of Blackadder, Mr. Bean, and The Vicar of Dibley, and also the guy who wrote The Boat That Rocked if you want to make him come off not quite as well.
He is, in other words, not quite the sort of person you expect to be writing Doctor Who. This was, of course, not the series’ first experiment with celebrity writers. Way back in the 1980s it tried to get Christopher Priest to write episodes, and of course, Priest was first approached by a before-he-was-famous Douglas Adams. Andrew Cartmel tried and failed to get Alan Moore to write for the series in 1988, and Stephen Fry’s abandoned script for the early Davies era continues to be the subject of the occasional rumor. And there certainly are cases of reasonably well-established writers making the move to Doctor Who – Philip Martin in 1985, for instance.
But Richard Curtis doesn’t feel like any of these. He’s not a sci-fi writer first and foremost. And while Philip Martin was well-established, it wasn’t like he had an Oscar nomination to his name. Only Stephen Fry seems in the same ballpark, and Fry has always been a bit of a geek. Curtis, on the other hand, bristles with middlebrow respectability. At least in theory, he writes the sort of thing that people who hate Doctor Who like. Getting him to write an episode of Doctor Who, in other words, is both strange and a shot across the bow.
What is remarkable about the episode is twofold. First, it works quite well. Second, it’s visibly written by someone who has seen next to no Doctor Who before in their lives. (Curtis has admitted that he was not a fan, and that it was not until seeing The Next Doctor with David Morrissey that he decided to accept Moffat’s invitation to write for the series.) In some ways this is oddly liberating – it is in many ways the first time we’ve seen a Doctor Who story conceived of entirely in terms of what the series has been since 2005.
On the other hand, this being Richard Curtis, there is not actually anything terribly surprising. Vincent and the Doctor feels in many regards like the statistical mean of the new series – the episode of Doctor Who that would be written by someone who has only ever had Doctor Who described to them in general terms.
Most obviously within this is the fact that it’s not really structured much like Doctor Who. There’s a monster, yes, but the monster is an afterthought and rather flagrantly an excuse to put together the elements the story is really interested in. That’s not to say there aren’t clever ideas – in particular, the decision to have the monster be blind is a lovely detail, although the subsequent attempt to equate the monster with van Gogh is, to say the least, strained. (OK, yes, the Krafayis was blind, but it’s still a member of a species described as “a brutal race,” and this is apparently normal behavior for the species, so.) But this isn’t built like a Doctor Who story, even though it’s unmistakably both the sort of story Doctor Who tells and a story that could only really be done in Doctor Who. On the whole, this feels more like a fresh take on Doctor Who than like a failure to get what the show is, and is basically a good thing. But there are moments where it is, at the very least, jarring – most notably the use of the pop song for the sequence where Vincent is brought to the museum to see his legacy.
The first thing to note is that it’s not actually much of a pop song. It’s a five year old track from a band who has only ever had one top ten single, and this not only isn’t it, it’s not even a song that got a single release. It’s not unrecognizable or hyper-obscure, certainly – the album went number one – but it’s also not an instantly recognizable, iconic song. It’s sure to date, but in a very different way to, say, the use of “Toxic” back in The End of the World. There it’s telling that “Toxic” fits in smoothly with “Tainted Love,” serving as clear stand-ins for a particular style of pop, as opposed to an era. Even just a year after release, betting on “Toxic” as an iconic pop song was safe. But “Chances” (which is what this song is called, if you were wondering) is not iconic.
The effect of this is that the sequence does not really seem to have a specific pop song so much as the general form of a pop song. It doesn’t matter what pop song is playing so much as that there is a pop song playing, and specifically one that, by 2010, already felt a bit dated – an indie rock piano ballad by a good old-fashioned four white guys band of the sort that was already going out of popular style when it was released. (Exactly no songs of that style hit number one in 2010) Its purpose is to simply be datedly poppy.
This is, to say the least, an odd choice for Doctor Who. The use of a minor pop song as backing music for a major scene is not a new television trick by any measure, but Doctor Who has never done it. So its use here signifies that we’re in an odd sort of genre. Which, by this point in the episode, we are – the Doctor Who plot has proved to be a relatively minor part of the episode, with the monster vanquished some thirteen minutes before the end. The resolution of the episode is turned over entirely to the matter of Vincent van Gogh and the impossibility of preventing his suicide. So by the time we get to the scene of van Gogh in a contemporary gallery looking at his own art we are in a fundamentally different sort of narrative than we usually are. The pop song serves to flag this, establishing that for this scene Doctor Who is doing a type of narrative defined by self-conscious sentimentality and, perhaps more importantly, a bald-faced lack of ironic detachment. This is an episode that is going to unapologetically put everything on the line in pursuit of praising and loving van Gogh.
The use of van Gogh in the first place is telling. The story is aggressively ahistorical in portraying van Gogh’s life, which adds to the sense of van Gogh as a commoditized stand-in. There’s some off-handed discussion of what’s so good about van Gogh’s art, but it amounts to “color,” which, OK, that’s true, but almost self-consciously useless. The focus gets moved to his ineffable “vision,” which gets elevated to a literal supernatural power, and then tied implicitly to his madness in such a way as to put the artist at conscious remove from larger society. The declaration that this combination of incurable mental illness and supernatural vision were necessary conditions for being the greatest artist of all time serves mainly to reinforce the idea that nobody watching can ever accomplish anything like van Gogh ever did.
This is frustrating, because the actual resolution – the note that you can’t just magically save someone from their own demons and that this furthermore doesn’t make attempts to help them meaningless or even, for that matter, failures – is a wonderfully sensitive and deft comment on mental illness. But that genuinely moving and productive observation is so smothered in the rhetoric of equating genius and madness and in the great man theory of history that animates the celebrity historical as a genre that it becomes neutered. The focus on populist acclaim as equivalent to genius does it no favors either – van Gogh’s value is ultimately tied entirely to his artistic production, which is just as often valued in purely economic terms as artistic ones. Any answer for why Amy mourns van Gogh becomes either materialist (she wanted more paintings) or a sort of inspirational glurge. If van Gogh is valued for his art, it is only because through his art he “transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty,” which is to say, he overcame his mental illness in one sphere. The sense of mental illness as something one has a moral obligation to battle against and fight persists. No wonder van Gogh killed himself – after this adventure every painting that fails to escape his mental illness becomes a failure that reiterates the worthlessness of his life and reinforces that he can’t escape his own pain.
It’s tempting to suggest that this stems from the whole-hearted embrace of sentimentality, but that seems a stretch, or, at the very least, like picking a relatively marginal aspect of a nexus of problematic ideologies running through this. Where Vincent and the Doctor becomes worth complaining about is not in its sentimentality. The moments that trade unambiguously on sentimentality – Vincent’s “We have fought monsters together and we have won. On my own, I fear I may not do as well,” and the Doctor’s “the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things” speech – are by and large the ones that work. Rather, it’s the fact that this very moving in content is wrapped up in a trite claim about the nature of artistic genius that equates it with mass popularity and that attempts to use that popularity to justify van Gogh’s art, as though that had somehow been required.
Which is to say, essentially, that this episode would have been so vastly better if it had been about Henry Darger instead.
Still, despite its faults, it’s worth noting that this episode is one that shows up on a lot of people’s favorite lists – particularly, it seems, people who started with the new series. And that all the muttering above about how the kids should get off my lawn consists of ideological critiques as opposed to a suggestion that the episode is bad or doesn’t work. It very stubbornly does work, and almost every criticism of it comes down to not enjoying the thing it successfully does. Which brings us back to where we started – this episode is in many ways the distillation of a particular vision of the new series. It’s fitting that it comes right after The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood, which seem so much like the moment where the Moffat era realizes that it is not well-served by trying to be the Davies era with a few modifications. Vincent and the Doctor, on the other hand, feels like the purest distillation of, if not the Davies era itself (which was always weirder and more challenging than it got credit for), at least the popular vision of what the Davies era was. Between the two, they put the Davies era to rest.
There’s a narrative to be constructed here, if you’re inclined to, suggesting that this is good given that the series was seemingly bleeding ratings at this point. That’s not quite fair – the ratings aren’t actually any worse than they were around this time in 2006, and every season to date has had a dip in ratings once spring gives way to summer, a point Moffat bangs on about in interviews. But this dip seemed worse than others, and, notably, wasn’t arrested by a rebound for the finale as previous seasons were. This didn’t quite trigger a crisis for Doctor Who, but it’s notable that the next season was done very differently, consciously not airing during the time of the year where the ratings typically took a hit, and taking on a different narrative structure as a result. There really is a sense in which this run of episodes marks the point where the Moffat era starts to gain the confidence to be itself instead of being a series of modifications to what came before. Which brings us nicely to the next story.