This review may contain spoilers.
Imagine you were seeing things that no one else could see. Imagine you were plagued by a beast from another world. And imagine if a man wearing a bowtie suddenly appeared out of nowhere and promised to make everything better.
Imagine. That seems to be the key word for “Vincent and the Doctor,” as the BBC budget slash of the science-fiction series comes into full effect with an invisible alien creature that you have to imagine is really there.
As the title may give away, “Vincent and the Doctor” brings the infamous Time Lord (Matt Smith) to Paris and face-to-face with a very Scottish-sounding Vincent van Gogh (Tony Curran).
The episode opens steeped in tragedy (fittingly so given the nature of Van Gough’s final days) and that tragedy permeates the adventure from start to finish. It is almost poetic, and the episode excels at delving into the life of the modernist painter, bringing some real gravitas to the season as a whole. The taunting, commonplace ignorance, mockery, and knowledge of the artist’s future all create a very heartbreaking tale.
It was also an account of selflessness: this is an occasion where the Doctor and Amy (Karen Gillan) head off in an adventure not seeking incident, but instead to help a man through a very difficult time.
Unfortunately, the drama is flattened somewhat by the clumsy nature of the invisible beast and its need to kill the locals. In most encounters, the sound effects and shouting are more reminiscent of something you would expect to find in the middle of a radio drama.
What keeps the episode engaging is a terrific piece of casting. Both Bill Nighy and Curran are wonderful in their roles, particularly in the single scene they shared in which Van Gogh learns of his own future. Without them both, “Vincent and the Doctor” would have been a hollow affair indeed.
Bill Nighy; he may only have been in the episode briefly (once at the beginning and then again at the end), but his role leads to the most emotionally charged piece of drama this season of “Doctor Who” has produced. Given the tragic life of Van Gogh, the decision to offer him a glimpse into his role in shaping the future of art comes as a surprisingly pleasant ending.
The final ten minutes are simply stellar, featuring some terrific acting, scripting and direction all round, especially from Gillan. It is hard not to feel goose bumps as Nighy irrevocably outlines that Van Gogh is one of history’s greatest artists with the man just a few feet away. Curran was the perfect choice for the role and it is hard to imagine the episode being of such substance without him.
“Vincent and the Doctor” also included some clever quips, like the introduction of the Ministry of Art and Fartyness and the Doctor jumping out and screaming at Amy and Vincent like a madman. Plus, watching Nighy and Smith compliment each other’s bowtie is something of a guilty pleasure.
What Didn’t Work
Firstly, an invisible alien is a bitter disappointment.
Secondly, when the said invisible alien is finally revealed, it looks like a dinosaur/parrot from a badly done video game from the mid-nineties.
Thirdly, the alien turns out not to be a force of malevolence and is instead one of many that has been left behind. Not unlike the Doctor himself.
The significance of the Doctor’s visit to Van Gogh was also a miss opportunity and had so much potential that was never fully realized. For example, the Doctor and Amy could have been thought of as a manifestation of Van Gogh’s madness and there was no real connection between the impressionist and the alien itself.
Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due
“Doctor Who” stars Matt Smith and Karen Gillan. “Vincent and the Doctor” was written by Richard Curtis and directed by John Campbell.
“Doctor Who” airs Saturdays at 6.20 p.m. on BBC One in the United Kingdom and at 9 p.m. ET on BBC America.