Tuesday, July 06, 2010

At Eternity's Gate

I'm not sure if I'd give Vincent and the Doctor a perfect 10, but it's pretty close. It's at least a high 9. At this point in a decidedly variable series of DW, it's very welcome.

I've only seen four real criticisms raised about the episode, and can only see the same four myself:

- Everybody except the museum curator – even Vincent himself – pronounces his name “van Goff”.
I suppose old linguistic habits die hard. The authentic Dutch pronunciation of “Gogh” would sound more like the German “hoch”, I'm told. Still, it could've been worse – we could've had the American (and somewhat word-associational) “van go”.
- The monster's just a big four-legged chicken.
My first thought on hearing this was, “Sounds like a gryphon – it's just a bunch of fans being silly about a gryphon.” But no, it really is a big four-legged chicken. Eh well. It's not the first time DW's featured a silly-looking monster – this series alone we've had giant flying eyeballs and shambling evil pensioners – and it really wasn't all that bad. Besides, it's strictly a secondary concern in this character-driven episode.
- That scene near the end is a bit trowelled on.
Well, a teensy bit maybe. The music is surplus to requirements (just be thankful they didn't use that Don McLean song). Perhaps the rave about van Gogh is a bit overdone, although we can argue till we're blue about personal artistic preferences, and to be honest I'd expect the curator of a van Gogh exhibition in the Musée d'Orsay to be enthusiastic on the subject. It's also a rather lovely opening up of the curator's character, tucked away underneath the much more visible opening up of Vincent. So on the whole I'd stand by that scene.
- He'd actually already painted the Sunflowers two years earlier.
Oh, shush, you.

There may be an element of sharp relief here, coming after two weeks of the Chibnall Devastation, but it's surprising just how much of this episode works and how little of it irks.

It's a wonderful character piece, a “historical celebrity” episode that – very unusually, these days – develops the character of the famous guest personage in some depth. Pretty well all the other “historical celebrity” episodes since Easter 2005 have simply caricatured their focal characters, camping up their dialogue and sticking them into situations that spoof the works they're known for. They've been like little video souvenirs from the gift shop of the Extruded Historical Experience Theme Park (“titles available in this range include Dickens, Shakespeare and Christie”). Vincent and the Doctor has an element of this, granted, but it goes beyond it and resists the urge towards egginess as far as it can. The Doctor and Amy don't merely gawp at the famous person and get him to do his party pieces – they actually get to know him as a person. That this is a story about an artist rather than an author may possibly help – better suited to the visual media, y'see. But there's really no excuse why other episodes of the type shouldn't strive to be at least as rounded as this one.

It's only right at the very end that Richard Curtis really lets the cheese out, with a dedication to Amy appearing on the Sunflowers. But that's set against a broader ending that's emotionally honest and extremely uncheesy – a couple of days of adventure and friendship haven't magically sorted out Vincent's problems, and the last weeks of his life play out as before. There's just a pile of good things and a pile of bad things, and the Doctor and Amy can console themselves that they've added to the good things.

That said, there isn't really enough room in the episode to properly explore Vincent's madness/depression, and a Saturday evening family show probably isn't the best place to try either. I understand that an “If you've been affected” message was run after the UK broadcast – I wouldn't have thought the issue was handled strongly enough for that to be necessary, although presumably the Beeb would rather be on the safe side. I didn't feel that Vincent's depression (if such it was in reality) was handled badly or dishonestly, just ...lightly.

Which brings us to the notion of the monster as a metaphor for Vincent's mental illness. Or is it? Yes, there's something to be made out of him fighting his literal invisible demon, but killing the monster doesn't actually do anything to help Vincent psychologically. And for all that it's a thing composed in equal parts of brutality and hurt, it's also a literal invisible alien creature that kills a number of rustic French girls – a part of the plot that wasn't addressed in any great detail – and there's no reason to believe that anyone around the real van Gogh ever died because of his issues, literally or figuratively. It seems unlikely that Curtis would have written the story this way and not intended us to read this into it, but ultimately it's... well... only partly successful? pleasantly ambiguous?

(One small side thought occurs to me about the invisible chicken monster. It's interesting that the Doctor is (nearly) able to understand it, and vice versa. Presumably this ties in with the usual business of a “Time Lord gift” or the TARDIS' telepathic circuits translating for everyone in the vicinity, although on this occasion Amy and Vincent seem to be left out. But then again the Doctor can't exactly hold a conversation with the monster. Perhaps it's awkwardly positioned on the threshold between translatable sentient creature and untranslatable animal. I imagine there's a fanzine article in this, for the enterprising fan who (unlike me) has the time and the videos to check back through the old series for instances of the Doctor apparently communicating with animals.)

But as I've said above, the monster is secondary to the real focus of this episode, the characters. With some nice location settings and minimal special effects – and how about that Starry Night? Eh? How about that?! - the Who team have presented us with a simple but affecting tale of three friends (one of whom happens to be a manic depressive Impressionist). Really great script, too, and tip-top acting throughout. This is the episode that's charmed me most this series, and indeed it's the first episode this series to really do so.

Next week, it appears that the Doctor lands in the middle of a romantic sitcom – could be interesting.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The attempted portrayal of depression for what it is - more than the usual depiction of someone glumly staring at the TV who just needs a good shake - was brave and should be applauded.

After all children are as likely to be affected as adults by proxy, a family member's behaviour may suddenly become explainable in this way.

Even if just one person recognised themselves and rang the helpline number then its inclusion is justified.