The new series has made a sub genre of the Doctor encountering famous historical figures while fighting an alien threat, and this episode slots neatly into that sub-genre, but for me at least is by far its most successful example.
The alien threat is genuine but also small scale and local, a dragon menacing the local villagers, meaning that the focus is allowed to rest far more squarely on the titular Vincent Van Gogh and the Doctor, and of course Amy. There’s a broad streak of comedy running through the episode, but it’s never allowed to overwhelm or undermine the characters. Van Gogh is larger than life, but he’s also humble, he’s flirtatious but lonely, ‘mad’ but never caricatured. Indeed one of the episode’s more remarkable feats is that for a lightweight froth it carries a real emotional punch. So much so that when the BBC announcer comes on over the end credits to say”If you’ve been affected by any of the issues raised in tonight’s episode” it feels neither absurd nor bathetic but absolutely right. The script and performances (particularly Tony Curran as Vincent) tread perfectly the fine line between having fun with its historical character and treating his mental illness with humanity and respect. And it does so with an elegantly light touch. It’s something writer Richard Curtis is noted for, but he pulls it off perfectly.
The ending won’t be to all tastes, but I was really moved by Vincent seeing the acclaim that he’s achieved in the future. On some levels it’s crude wish-fulfilment, but it really satisfies. The poignancy of his subsequent suicide more than offsets any saccharine notes.
I was utterly charmed by Matt Smith’s performance. The script could be accused of being a composite of the Eleventh Doctor’s defining lines and quirks (bow ties, very not good, growing old, snaps of William Hartnell, an eccentric relationship with the Tardis console) but the references really help to bring his Doctor into focus and define what sets him apart from his predecessors. I lost count of the number of witty and charming lines, and Smith does a fine job of owning the part. He’s always been good, but he’s beginning to inhabit the character in the way that iconic Doctor Who actors do.
Amy is also very well characterised here. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of references to her loss last week, many of them far more touching than Rory’s actual death. The Doctor’s quiet guilt comes across very clearly without Amy ever having to become improbably perceptive. Her relationship with Van Gogh works well too (great, if nonsensical gag about their scottish accents). I was concerned last week that we weren’t getting much of a sense of what drives Amy, but she works very well here. It’s simply that some writers are able to write for a headstrong, snarky woman and make her human and real, while others never get past her surface glibness.
The production values are first rate, with location filming that really convinces and some good CG for the glimpses of the alien. I also adored the starry night sequence in which Van Gogh spins out his view of the heavens. Very well realised, capturing a real sense of magic.
In many way this is a little episode. No epic threats, a small cast, and a focus on personal relationships, problems and aspirations. For some that will relegate it to a mild time-waster. But at the same time it’s interested in big themes about self-esteem, art, and the huge importance of small moments. Above all it treats its characters and their problems humanely.
A very pleasant surprise.