I’m a bit confused by own reaction to “Vincent And The Doctor.” It’s a witty, moving, ambitious hour of Doctor Who that features some of the series’ most understatedly impressive production design in its vivid recreation of Vincent Van Gogh’s world. Yet I left it thinking it didn’t quite work. Its ambition and its wit work at cross-purposes. Writer Richard Curtis wants to tell a story about crippling depression while still delivering a frothy, fun hour of Doctor Who. That’s a daunting task for anyone even if Curtis does seem like exactly the right person for the job.
I like Curtis’ work, though looking over his filmography, I find I haven’t thoroughly liked anything he’s done in a while. When he’s on, he brings a natural-seeming cleverness that’s funny without losing sight of his characters’ personalities, or the emotional stakes of his plots. That’s particularly evident in Four Weddings And A Funeral, which would be improved by the removal of its American interloper, and Notting Hill. The Bridget Jones movies—and Curtis was only part of a team of writers there—never did it for me and his directorial debut, Love Actually, veers wildly between the enjoyably arch, the genuinely romantic, and the irredeemably schmaltzy. (I have yet to catch up with The Boat That Rocked a.k.a. Pirate Radio.)
“Vincent And The Doctor” suffers from some of the same tonal problems, even if some of them are pretty essential to this season’s continuity. Amy remains chipper. Creepily chipper. She’s lost the person dearest to her but has no memory of it to drag her down. Yet something persists as Vincent (Tony Curran) notices. He’s a man well acquainted with dark feelings even when he's not being tormented by a monster that no one else can see.
Right now your metaphor alarm should be going off, but not necessarily in a bad way. Winston Churchill talked about depression as the “black dog” and the Krafayis functions as a bigger black dog with sharper teeth. It forever threatens the lives of those it torments. If left unchecked it might even end that life. As metaphors for depression go, that’s pretty airtight, but I don’t think “Vincent And The Doctor” sells it. Curran’s not bad as Van Gogh, but he’s not all that distinctive either and his plunge into despair feels forced rather than something arising from a condition he deals with every day. The actual business of dealing with the Krayafis feels a bit forced as well, and requires Smith to take the Doctor into slightly more pratfally territory than usual.
That said, I think the episode fits a recent pattern of Doctor Who episodes that truck along well enough then deliver a wallop at the end. For as long as I could tune out the song by Athlete—one of those thoroughly undistinguished, sub-Travis British bands that seem to exist for the sole purpose of turning up on soundtracks—I found Curran’s visit to the Musee D’Orsay and his reaction to unbilled guest star Bill Nighy’s effusive praise quite moving. Also moving: Amy’s reaction when she discovers that all their efforts haven’t led to Van Gogh living a longer, happier, more productive life. Sometimes the black dog wins. Sometimes all that’s left are the paintings.
So why do I still feel like my heartstrings have been pulled a little too easily? If a few more elements had worked better, I doubt “Vincent And The Doctor” would have felt quite so manipulative. As is, it’s a very special episode that isn’t quite that.
• Just because I didn’t begin this post with a no-spoilers tirade doesn’t mean the rule doesn’t apply, especially now that we’re near season’s end (or at it in the U.K.)