River wasn’t expecting this.
“I’m sorry sir, but I’m afraid I will have to ask you to move on.”
And in a back garden somewhere in Oxfordshire…
Oh, the man loved his wheatfields.
I’m no art critic, but there are two things that jump out at me every time I look at this. One is the cloud formation. I don’t know what sort of day it was when he painted this, but they’re billowing. It’s a swirling mass of cumulus, dancing in some sort of abstract Rorschach formation, enticing you to see what you want to see. To the right, there are the cypresses, tall and dark and imposing like the edges of a sinister forest, the dark against the light.
Sadly, there is no sign of a gigantic chicken. But that’s OK.
We were in the National Gallery, which (you will remember) was where they airlifted the TARDIS in the opening scenes of ‘Day of the Doctor’. The Doctor (resplendent in tweed) strides across Trafalgar Square to a slightly embarrassed Kate Stewart, who apologises, before they all go off to look at some pictures. It’s like an episode of Millionaire Matchmaker. (The gallery’s interior, I’m told, was in Cardiff. Do not make the mistake of gallivanting round London trying to find it. That’s something that happens in The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot, and that it doesn’t end in tears is largely thanks to John Barrowman.)
We’d really only gone to the National to see the Van Gogh. We were, as you might imagine after Friday, rather weary of looking at pictures. Plus it was a Saturday, and the place was crammed full of tourists all crowding round The Hay Wain. Within five minutes, Thomas had had enough. “This is boring,” he said. “It’s just paintings of people and stuff.” Call it an autism reaction: he responds better to the abstract, which enables you to form your own impressions in a way that the concrete does not. I can see his point. Even the Constable is basically a horse pulling a cart across a river, which no one wanted to buy until it was revered by a Frenchman.
It made me think about the value of art, and whether things are considered great because great minds think them great. If someone of influence and authority takes a particular shine to something that was previously considered mediocre, isn’t that a fast-track to the sort of validation that it might otherwise have taken decades to earn? Put it this way. If someone like…oh, I don’t know, Philip Pullman was to talk about the merits of ‘Boom Town’, wouldn’t that push it up the polls a bit? Or if Hilary Mantel was to tell you that ‘The Twin Dilemma’ was among her favourite stories, wouldn’t Baker’s cluttered debut merit something of a re-appraisal? If people of literary talent and assumed knowledge (and perhaps this is why I don’t listen to critics, who typically show evidence of one, but not the other) argue in favour of something, perhaps they influence our own views.
Perhaps it would explain the enduring appeal of the Mona Lisa, a painting whose reputation I’ve never really understood. There are many theories: the identity of the girl in the picture, the enigmatic smile, the eyebrows (or lack thereof). People tell me it’s because Da Vinci was doing things with form that no one had done before, which is venturing into an area of art criticism I don’t really want to visit, largely because I’ll be out of my depth. Perhaps they’re right, but I’ve never been convinced. It’s a pretty painting, for sure, and I’ve not seen it in the flesh (oil. Whatever) but I wonder how much of its immortality may be ascribed to people telling you it’s great. Art is subjective but it is generally agreed that the Mona Lisa is wonderful. Citizen Kane is similarly bold and innovative, and enormously influential, but also rather dull – nonetheless, if you tell people it’s the greatest film ever made with sufficient regularity they will, eventually, start to believe it.
The main entrance to the impressionists’ wing was closed, so we had to hunt for The Sunflowers. They sit on a wall facing north-west, this unassuming bunch of dried-up flora, a still half-life, “somewhere between living and dying; half-human as they turn to the sun”. There’s a reverence to them, something bold and tortured that jumps out as you stare at the thing, a sense of awe somewhat undermined by the people with iPhones. But I took one anyway, just to say that I’d done it.
“You should have done a selfie,” said Emily, not entirely seriously. “That way people would know you’d actually been, rather than just taking a photo off the internet.”
“I’d need a stick,” I said. “You know I can’t stand selfie sticks.”
I went to Philadelphia a few years back; did I ever tell you that? The art gallery there – arguably more famous for the ascending staircase that leads up to its entrance than anything inside – houses several Gilbert & George works, a couple of Warhols – oh, and this.
This is the repetition of the third version (the original third hangs in Munich), while the one at the National is the (original) fourth. (In Whovian terms, that’s presumably Katy Manning impersonating Jon Pertwee.) It looks rather unassuming on screen, the oils crystallised as pixels, a tribesman missing his soul. Seeing things like this up close is unique because you can get close enough to see the brushwork, the hours of labour, the years of psychosis. And yet I wonder how much of my love of Van Gogh and his childish scribbling is thanks to Doctor Who. Is it possible to appreciate the birth of impressionism for what it is and simultaneously be indifferent to the Lisa del Giocondo? Perhaps it isn’t. It’s times like this I wish I really understood art, so I could at least make you think I knew what I was talking about.
There is something rather special about sunflowers, I’ll give you that. They are used to striking effect in the finale of Everything is Illuminated, in which Jonathan Foer arrives at his destination, deep in the heart of Ukraine, having spent most the running time searching for the woman who saved his grandfather during World War II. Emily and I saw the film back in 2005 (being perhaps the only people in the country to do so, given the box office ratings) and one thing that struck us about it was Elijah Wood, who had spent much of the last decade playing a Hobbit. We’d already seen him earlier that year in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (a film we often joke about not having seen, which you’ll understand if you know the plot) and now, it seemed, he’d finally shrugged off the last vestiges of potential typecasting, free to be his own man again. He sits in the cottage, eyes glistening a little as Augustina’s sister muses on the nature of journeys and the significance of the heirloom he carries. “The ring is not here because of you,” she says eventually. “You are here because of the ring.”
Oh, and it was all going so well.
By the time we finished at the National Gallery everyone was about ready to come home. We’d spent the morning at the Science Museum, which houses more than you can reasonably examine in a single day, so we concentrated on the home life exhibition in the basement (Betamax! Pong! SPEAK AND SPELL!) before trooping up to the aviation centre. It was humbling, somehow, being surrounded by all those ancient engines and prototypes, strolling across the shoulders of giants. Amelia Johnson was in residence; she’s looking pretty sprightly for a woman of 112.
The second floor houses technology (antique mobiles! An original copy of Windows! A DRAGON 32!). There was an exhibit about the history of TV. Daniel was watching the coronation. So naturally I did this.
I asked Daniel for his favourite part of the trip, which turned out to be a tie between the youth hostel we visited and the Tower of London, which we’d skirted the day before. It sits on the north bank of the Thames, not far from Fenchurch Street, brown and somehow unassuming. It’s not even much of a tower, really, at least not in the sense that Barad Dur is a tower, or Orthanc is a tower, or Stark Tower is – well, you get the idea. It’s more a fortress, which I suppose is the point.
“So why did you swear?” said Josh, as we strolled around the square outside.
“I didn’t swear,” I said. “That’s its name. The Tower of London, or the Bloody Tower.”
“So we can say ‘bloody’ without it being swearing?”
“Yes, but don’t make a habit of it.”
If you read this blog regularly you’ll know I have a habit of tying up entrances and exits, and you’ll also remember that the Tower is now the new UNIT HQ, as visited by Amy and the Doctor in ‘The Power of Three’, (it was actually filmed at Caerphilly, but it still counts). It’s also host to one of my favourite scenes in ‘Day of the Doctor’, in which Jemma Redgrave is seen relaxing on a bench, gazing at Tower Bridge. “The ravens are looking a bit sluggish,” she says. “Tell Malcolm they need new batteries.”
I was thinking about this as we wandered around, slightly frustrated that I seem to be the only one who remembered it. It’s an excuse to watch DOTD again, I suppose, not that I need one. It remains a high point, infused as it is with an invigorating sense of wonder, understated (but carefully crafted) narrative and the best use of eyebrows in the history of the show. It was an episode that made me appreciate Doctor Who all the more, at the end of a year of borderline overkill (let’s not discuss the after-show party, please) and given my current sense of weariness about the whole thing, it’s one I often go back to. Perhaps that’s what it’s all about: surrounded by people who watch the show but don’t necessarily understand it, who just want to take photos and run…perhaps I’m a residential bird, tired and sluggish and in need of new batteries.
“Ooh, look!” cheered Emily, as we passed by one of the best views of the Tower, with a bunch of visitors all snapping away with selfie sticks. “It’s the London ravens, boys!”
“What on earth are you doing?” I said.”Those are pigeons.”
“I know,” she replied. “I’m just trying to confuse the tourists.”
Number One: ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ (2010)
In many ways, this is a hard one to write. This is partly because I wrote about it comparatively recently, and there’s the challenge of keeping it fresh. But it’s also because there is so much in here to unpack; it’s like moving house and being surrounded by boxes, and not knowing where to start – so that, in the end, you do not. Where indeed do you start with what is quite possibly the most perfectly-constructed, moving and profound episode of Doctor Who since the show’s revival?
Last week we discussed ‘Midnight‘, a dialogue-heavy episode that dealt with an unseen adversary. And just yesterday I wrote about ‘The God Complex‘, in which the monster was purposely distorted until the final reveal at the story’s climax. ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ employs a similar conceit, the murderous creature only becoming visible in the briefest of moments. If you’re working with CG, it’s a decent cost-saving initiative, provided you have a story to go in its place. The episode in this instance relies heavily on social commentary – but once it is clear that the social commentary is the key to the narrative, rather than merely a component, things start to make sense. In other words, the horror elements of the story serve as part of its emotional core, and thus ‘Vincent’ avoids the mistakes made by ‘Kill the Moon’, which was a halfhearted abortion debate dressed up as an Aliens clone – both things at once, and neither successful.
What’s striking (if unsurprising) about ‘Vincent’ is how, given the comparative absence of the monster, the gaps are plugged elsewhere. Visual motifs of Van Gogh’s paintings are abundant, constructed carefully but by no means symmetrically, giving the impressionist eye room to work. The light from the reconstructed pavement cafe spills out into the evening, even before Vincent follows it. Shadows linger across the floor of the bedroom where the artist will eventually rest in torment. Crows take flight over a wheatfield. And, in one of the most striking moments, Amy sits outside the cottage in Arles, smiling from ear to ear even as her inner, repressed sadness gnaws away, surrounded by sunflowers, which Vincent himself describes as “always somewhere between living and dying”.
But ultimately this is a character piece, and Curtis sensibly keeps the characters to a minimum. The scholarly Dr. Black (an uncredited Bill Nighy, on fine form) is the twenty-first century enlightened human, while Van Gogh’s peers are reduced somewhat to sneering stereotypes – but this is necessary, in a way, in order to portray the pain of the artist. And even this has its subtext. The dialogue is comparatively colloquial, and Vincent’s exeunt from the cafe instantly recognisable: what future Van Goghs, Curtis appears to suggest, have we chosen to ridicule and demean in 2010?
Discourses on art aside, this is an episode about bipolar disorder, perhaps the only time the series has ever tackled such an area, and certainly the most direct. It would have been comparatively simple to take the sensationalist route, and Curtis deserves nothing but praise for managing to handle it without lapsing into the cliches that haunt some of his other work. This is one of the most sensitively observed depictions of clinical depression I’ve ever seen in a family show, and – despite the finale – one of the most satisfying. It’s interesting that Van Gogh’s mid-episode breakdown, in which he confines himself to bed and demands that the Doctor leave, is triggered not by a traumatic incident but by a single careless line of dialogue. It’s a testament to the power of words to inflict wounds, and a cutting reminder that even the best of us make mistakes. Had the words come from Capaldi, we would have put it down to his brusqueness. But the Eleventh Doctor, while remote, is still good with people even when they do not understand him (cf. ‘The Lodger’), and this knowledge somehow cuts a little deeper – even more so when he tries to comfort the artist, only to simply make things worse.
The battle with the Krayafis is the story’s McGuffin, but Curtis gets it out of the way comparatively early in the third act, allowing time for a series of emotional denouements. Perhaps the most beautiful of these takes place as the Doctor, Amy and Vincent lie on their backs looking up at the night sky, which seamlessly transitions into The Starry Night. It is clear that Van Gogh’s ability to see the world the way he does – whatever the repercussions – is unique, but it is his ability to describe what he sees with words as well as with paintings that really comes across here. “It’s colour,” he admits, earlier in the episode. “Colour that holds the key. I can hear the colours. Listen to them. Every time I step outside, I feel nature is shouting at me.”
But the Krayafis – orphaned and blind and fearful – itself becomes a metaphor, a testament both to the power of depression and those who do not understand it. As the three companions gather in silent homage over the creature’s unseen corpse, Van Gogh remarks “He was frightened, and he lashed out…like humans who lash out when they’re frightened”. Curtis fashions a monster that is both victim and antagonist, and as much a part of Vincent, in many ways, as his talent with a brush. It would have been comparatively simple to explain away the monster and, by turns, the artist’s mental state, with pseudoscience, but the writer does neither. There is a rational scientific explanation for the presence of the Krayafis – just as the rational scientific explanation for depression is a chemical imbalance – but this does not detract from its power to torment, or the fact that Vincent is the sole character who is fully aware of it.
Most tellingly of all, the Doctor is not able to ‘cure’ Vincent – nor, it seems, does he particularly want to. His decision to give the artist such a concrete vision of his future seems, at first, more than a little out of character, until the final scene in the gallery where it is revealed that the revelation has made only cosmetic details to Vincent’s life, with his suicide (and eventual legacy) untouched. Amy (and, by turns, the audience) is forced to learn the hardest of lessons: that the differences we make do not always amount to more than the sum of their parts. Crucially, it is Van Gogh himself who foreshadows this, when he admits that “On my own, I fear I may not do as well”.
Perhaps one of the nicest things about the episode is the reverence with which Amy and the Doctor greet Van Gogh, without ever lapsing into sycophancy. Even in the final, rather overstated gallery sequence, they’re content to allow Bill Nighy to do the talking. There is none of the giggling of Rose’s encounter with Queen Victoria, or the name-dropping in Donna’s meeting with Agatha Christie. Indeed, for a Curtis script it’s comparatively light on humour, which is perhaps sensible. Smith blunders in and out of the situation with customary Doctorishness (is that a word? It should be a word), making all the usual mistakes that people make when they don’t know how to talk to people with depression. Gillan is sensitive and radiant, although it’s Amy’s inner, unspoken turmoil in this first post-Rory episode – an unspoken sense of grief, without knowing why – that enables her to handle Vincent as well as she does.
I’m sure I’ve said it before, but the fact that ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ manages to tackle such heavy subject matter and escape with its dignity intact is a credit to absolutely everyone concerned. It’s a credit to the designers and production team, who visualised nineteenth century France so vividly. It’s a credit to Richard Curtis – and Steven Moffat, who knew how to fashion and evolve his ideas into a script that delivers. Perhaps most of all, it’s a credit to the series regulars, and also Tony Curran, whose portrayal of Vincent is breathtaking. It’s an episode that paints the stark sadness of loneliness and juxtaposes it with the brilliance of inspired creativity – as Dr. Black says, “Pain is easy to portray, but to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy and joy and magnificence of our world…no one had ever done it before. Perhaps no one ever will again.” ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ is a reminder that the world is more wondrous than we could possibly hope to imagine – but most of all, it’s a reminder of exactly what it means to be human.
It’s my favourite episode since 2005, and I love it.
Cameron’s Episode: ‘Rose‘
Today is Time To Talk Day. The idea is that you take five minutes out of your day to talk about mental health issues with anyone, in any capacity, whether you’re personally affected, are close to someone who is, or just want to know more.
I do not ask you to do this. But I ask you to take five minutes to read something I wrote a couple of years back, that I’ve neglected to publish until now. And in answer to your question, in my own case, looking at the list above, you may pick the second option.
Joshua sits on the blue armchair. On screen, a young British actor, younger than me, playing a character of incredible age. Each time I see him I remember my sense of outrage when he was cast, that self-righteous indignation that comes when you get older. I remember how wrong I was. Sometimes it is good to remember that you were wrong.
The Doctor is visiting Vincent Van Gogh. They have defeated the week’s monster, which turned out to be blind, lashing out in panic, not because it wanted to kill. The Doctor comforts the dying beast, and remarks “Sometimes winning is no fun at all”. Joshua frowns. This was not what he expected from the trailer: this quirky, seemingly fun instalment, rendered darker when seen in full. I recall that conversation in a harshly-lit study, my eldest son only just shaking off the drama of the previous episode and its death and commotion to ask about the next.
“What’s the monster?” he’d asked.
Here I hesitated, because I wanted to tell him the monster is depression. But perhaps this is too heavy a burden to bear for a child of seven. And he has his own burdens, my son, as elder brother of a child with autism. The worries of the world weigh him down, although we do our utmost to cast them off. I have taught him, over the last few months, the value of not taking things too seriously. We walk a fine line between telling him what he needs to know, ushering him in gently to this world in which he must ultimately play a role, and forcing him to grow up too quickly. Sometimes the line slips, and sometimes it moves, first one way and then the other.
“The monster…you’ll see the monster next time,” I said. “Sort of.”
“But what is it?”
“You really want to know?”
“Oh, please,” he says, his hands clasped, “please let it be a cat eating cake.”
My response is “Actually, Joshua, it’s a gigantic invisible chicken.”
To prep him for this story, I have showed him images of Van Gogh’s most important work and explained that he was a troubled man who cut off his ear and then ended his life early. I explained that Van Gogh did not believe his work had any value because no one liked him. This is a simple way of looking at things but it is enough to satisfy him. We have seen an episode where the Doctor’s self-loathing is made flesh and this was a good beginning.
At the end of the episode, the time travellers take Van Gogh to the present to show him the depths of his legacy. The scene in question is drenched in saccharine and is emotionally manipulative, but the moment in which Van Gogh hears himself described as “one of the greatest men who ever lived” is one of pure joy. On the armchair, Joshua is squirming because he worries that this revelation will change the future and that the universe will come undone, which is the sort of thing that happens quite a lot in Doctor Who.
It changes nothing. Van Gogh still takes his own life. The Doctor talks about good things and bad things and about how “the good things don’t always soften the bad things”. The credits roll. And Joshua cries.
“I don’t understand,” he says. “Why did he still die?”
“Because,” I say, swallowing hard, “he was very sad. And even though the Doctor helped him, sometimes when you get very sad you just don’t want to live anymore.”
“But why not?”
“Because if people tell you you’re rubbish and worthless often enough, you probably start to believe it. And – ” and here I pause again – “and because, Joshua, Van Gogh had a monster inside his head. Something that’s probably more frightening than anything the Doctor’s ever faced. And sometimes the monster wins, and sometimes he doesn’t. OK?”
A nod. I pick him up and carry him down to the bedroom. Jesus, kid. You have no idea how hard this is. And you may never know why. Or perhaps one day you will. But not today. That’s a monster that, for the moment, at least, I will not allow you to see.
Yesterday, my inbox sang of novelty Halloween costumes.
To be fair, they’re not specifically touted as Halloween costumes, but it’s two weeks until the 31st and that’s probably what at least some of you were thinking. Such diversity is to be applauded, I suppose – not every kid wants to be a werewolf or a vampire. On the other hand, why go as a pale-skinned ghoulish freak when you can go as Dracula?
It was the Van Gogh one that stood out, simply because the ear patch is in questionable taste, and therefore exactly the sort of thing I’d love to see Joshua wearing. I mentioned it to Laura, and she said “Plus it has a werewolf beard!”.
“It is amazingly bushy,” I said. “But speaking of, that episode is coming up in a few weeks. And I’m not sure how I’m going to tackle it with Josh. It means talking about things we’ve never discussed before. It’s the whole bipolar thing.”
“It is fairly full-on, isn’t it?”
“It’s my favourite episode in the New Who canon, if you don’t count ‘Blink’. But it was bad enough having to watch ‘Flesh and Stone’ in the hope that he wasn’t going to ask why Amy was flinging herself at the Doctor. Now I’m going to have to talk about Van Gogh fighting the monsters in his head and ultimately killing himself. That’s more frightening, really, than anything that the Doctor has ever faced.”
Laura nodded. “When you think about it, series five went into some pretty dark territory.”
“Talking about Van Gogh and why he was brilliant is relatively simple. I’ve got a book that we’ll look at and I’ll encourage him to spot the paintings. I do think, having watched that episode, that I actually get Van Gogh now. I never really did before.”
“It’s basically a question of comparison,” said Laura. “You look at what he was doing versus what was actually going on around him, and the fact that what he produced was just so different.”
“It’s just the rest of it. Anyway,” I said, “next week we have ‘Amy’s Choice’, which deals primarily with self-loathing. So I suppose that’s a good way in.”
There was a mutual pause.
“Plus ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ has a gigantic invisible chicken.”
“Yes, that helps.”
A friend of mine has just shared details of a framed print of Van Gogh’s exploding TARDIS portrait, which is really rather lovely.
It is not, however, the coolest thing I have seen today. This is.
Said ski mask is available from Cthulhu Lives for the bargain price of $60.