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The New Who Top Ten: #1

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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.

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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?

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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.”

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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”.

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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

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Categories: New Who, Top 10 | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The New Who Top Ten: #4

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Number Four: ‘The Eleventh Hour’ (2010)

God, he looks young. I mean, the Eleventh Doctor always did. That was the main hook; this youthful, spritely thing, this man who simultaneously carried buckets of energy and centuries of experience. Women wanted to shag him. He would careen about the TARDIS like one of the stars of Swan Lake. He was an extremely physical Doctor, for all the verbal diarrhoea – certainly more physical than either of his immediate predecessors, and perhaps on a par with Pertwee. The karate was gone, but the dancing was a welcome substitute.

I know a number of Cambridge graduates, and it strikes me that there’s always been something quite Eleventh Doctor about most of them. They are brilliant and clever and (mostly) fun to be with, but at the same time you get the feeling that they are on a different level to the rest of us, one we’ll never quite reach. There is something almost unassailable about them. Oh, they don’t talk down to you. I never felt as if I was being patronised or ridiculed. But I always got the feeling I was in the presence of extremely clever people. They didn’t bask in their cleverness, but neither did they hide it under a bushel.

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I got that vibe about the Eleventh Doctor from the moment we saw him. There’s an immediate sense of detachment that you never felt with Tennant, who was always giving whatever was happening his full concentration. The moment in ‘The Hungry Earth’ where Elliott wanders off, neglected by a distracted Doctor, would never have happened on Tennant’s watch. He always seemed so focused. Smith’s Doctor, on the other hand, always seemed to have other things on his mind, as if constantly trying to consolidate Fermat’s last theorem, or remember where he left his passport.

This was Moffat’s first episode in charge, and it shows. Stylistically it is bold and innovative, from the Blade Runner-esque fast rewind through the Doctor’s memory as he struggles to remember what he saw on the green, through the fast cutting that would become a staple of this series, up to the moment he penetrates the fourth wall on the hospital roof. Adam Smith directs with flair, and Murray Gold introduces a whole string of new motifs. Moffat cleverly introduces the village of Leadworth (Ambridge to the Powell Estate’s Albert Square) and a whole host of supporting characters, most of whom we don’t see again, simply because this is all about the Doctor and Amy.

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The episode spawned a host of catchphrases, and is arguably most notorious for the fish custard scene – an amusing joke that, like the Weeping Angels, should only ever have been employed once, and suffered with every repeat appearance. But in this scene, in which the Doctor is basically playing Tigger, it’s quite wonderful. Post-regeneration fallout hasn’t been this ridiculous since 1974, and while Smith stops short of the clown outfit, he is still just as manic, at least until he examines the crack in the bedroom wall. It took us nearly four years to get to the bottom of that crack, and it would be lovely to say that it was worth the effort – but this was one of the few times when its appearance didn’t grate, and for that would should be grateful pleased.

If the shapeshifting monster is slightly second-rate, and the Atraxi not much better, the cast more than make up for it. Darvill infuses Rory with a genial, bumbling personality that would harden later on under the Doctor’s influence, while Gillan is a vulnerable, damaged Amy, all suspicious eyes and panic – her sense of bewildered trust / mistrust is a recurring theme throughout, and the moment in the closing scenes in which she becomes overwhelmed inside the TARDIS is genuinely brilliant acting. Supporting turns from the likes of Olivia “I’m in everything!” Coleman and Annette Crosbie add flavour, but never get in the way of Smith, who is never less than compelling in every single one of his scenes.

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I don’t want to be too hyperbolic about ‘The Eleventh Hour’, because that would imply that it was a plateau. And as great as it was, things got even better – as we’ll see over the next few days – before they slumped. But this was that rare beast, a post-regeneration story that was not only good (and they’re few and far between, if you actually look at the list) but really good. From the Doctor’s first, gasping crawl over the edge of the wrecked TARDIS, desperately seeking fruit, to the moment when he informs Amy that yes, he is definitely a madman with a box, this is an episode that amuses, delights and dazzles in all the best ways. It’s not the best episode ever, or even the best Smith episode ever. But it’s a hell of an opener.

Cameron’s Episode: Vincent and the Doctor

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Standing corrected (part two)

(For part one, see here.)

“It’s the Flesh. Definitely the Flesh.”

I have to say, I don’t think I was totally off base with this one. Oh, you remember. Moffat writes himself into a corner. Just to show us he can also write himself out of it. The Doctor dies by the lake, except it turns out he was hiding inside a robotic duplicate, which also has the ability to grow facial hair. There’s a pointless wedding sequence on a rooftop and then Dorium asks the First Question, which unfortunately does not turn out to be “Rice, chips or half and half?”.

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I have whinged about the inconsistencies of the Teselecta resolution before, so we won’t dwell on it. But oh, I was so sure it would turn out to be the Flesh. Because we’d not seen them for half a series, which is enough time to leave a dish to simmer before bringing it back to the boil. You have two Doctors running around for two hundred years, taking it in turns to wave at Amy and Rory from history books. There was no way I could be wrong about this. (On the other hand, I was also once convinced that the Flesh would turn out to be somehow related to the Zygons, so meh.)

Here’s the crux of my argument: we don’t actually see the Flesh Doctor die. It’s heavily implied, but by no means established – and you know as well as I do that unless you see a corpse, you can always cheat death (and, in some cases, even a corpse doesn’t mean anything). It would have been interesting to have the Flesh Doctor willingly surrender to the Real Doctor, who shoots him in order to make the Silence happy. Except the Real Doctor probably wouldn’t have done anything of the sort, so it would have been River instead. Meanwhile the Real Doctor is hiding in the back of Canton Delaware’s truck, playing Bejeweled on his iPhone.

But that’s the thing with twists. With Moffat you’ve come to expect them. The climax of ‘The Pandorica Opens’ – that dual revelation that Rory is an Auton and that the impenetrable prison was empty, and intended for the Doctor – was extremely effective, but it’s arguably the last time that a twist of that magnitude has worked (and it’s a shame that the closing episode of that series was so piss poor). By the time we get to ‘The Impossible Astronaut’, and the realisation that there is a twist of some sort coming (because a twist is the only way you can get out of the on-screen death and cremation of the Doctor), we no longer care.

As a recently graduated student still convinced of my own importance, I can remember seeing The Sixth Sense and then bragging afterwards to anyone who’d listen how I’d spotted the plot twist coming a mile off. To be honest, this isn’t strictly true. What actually happened was that I visited the cinema knowing there would be a twist, and then tried my utmost to figure it out. Which meant that when Haley Joel Osment drops a big hint halfway through (in a line that Shyamalan says he almost deleted), I picked up on that. If you know there’s a twist – i.e. if it’s been mentioned in every single review – you’ll look for it. But if you don’t know that, say, “______” has one of the most unexpected things to happen in any movie ever, despite gratuitous (if subtle) foreshadowing, it’ll catch you totally off guard. (I am purposely not mentioning the title here, but that underscore includes an IMDB link.)

Aw, c'mon, he's just so *cute*.

Aw, c’mon, he’s just so *cute*.

Just to jump off into a tangent for a moment, I think I can speak about The Sixth Sense openly here because there can’t be that many people reading this blog who haven’t seen it. But if you’ve been living under a paving slab for the last thirteen years, now might be a good time to jump down to the next bit. See you there.

Right, he’s gone. We can continue. I can remember a conversation I had with Emily about this movie, and about how our respective parents had reacted.

“It was funny,” she said, “because mine figured it out straight away. We were watching and they had the opening bit where he gets shot, and my mother sniffed and said ‘Oh, I bet he’s dead now’, thereby ruining the film for my dad.”

“See, I had the exact opposite,” I replied. “We watched the entire film, and then they had the big revelation, and then the denouement where he says goodbye, and then the credits roll, and then halfway through the credits my mother suddenly sat up and cried out ‘Oh! So he’s been dead all the time!’. I despair of her, I really do.”

(Spoilers end here.)

Anyway, you see where I’m coming from. The first five series of the revived Doctor Who constructed their story arcs around obvious foreshadowing looming to a big climax. The sixth starts at the end and then works its way towards it in what is in many respects a colossal flashback. Moffat is essentially throwing down the gauntlet and asking us to solve a puzzle, something he’s done with increasing frequency over the years, as we ponder – even now – exactly how Sherlock could have survived that tumble from the roof. Forced to confront the issue, we find ourselves going through a myriad different solutions in order to come up with the most plausible (knowing, of course, that Moffat will then do something that’s neither plausible nor well-written). So I was convinced it would be the Flesh, and it wasn’t. But you can see how I got there.

“Matt Smith? Nooo. Way too young.”

I think it’s a coming of age thing. It’s not as big a deal as that first kiss, or a graduation – it’s a small milestone that you only really think about later on as one of those tiny moments when you realise your life is ticking away. I’m talking, if you hadn’t guessed, about the first time they cast a Doctor who’s younger than you are.

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That nose. I swear. Has its own weather system.

I was thirty when Matt Smith hit the big time. I can remember being at a petrol station in Craven Arms and seeing him on the wrinkled cover of The Sun, along with the headline “The New Doctor is Matt…Who?”. It was a fair question. He’d done his share of theatre, but wasn’t what you could call a household name. There was a lanky, floppy-haired young man grinning at me from the front page of the newspaper, and I was appalled.

“He’s too young,” I complained to Emily, when I got back in the car, carrying a crumpled receipt and the large bar of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut that would see us back to Oxfordshire. “They’re casting a hip-and-trendy bloke who’s going to be, like, the cool Doctor. I’m sure of it. He’s younger than I am!”

In one respect it turns out I was right about the ‘cool Doctor’ thing. My timing was a little off, though, because Smith – while the youngest actor to date – was only three years Peter Davison’s junior, at least with respect to the age he’d been when he got the job. So I was thirty, but Davison had been twenty-nine. Still, that wasn’t the point. When Davison was in the TARDIS I’d been three years old. He was a grown-up – a young grown-up, but still a grown-up. It wasn’t the same at all. Even after the reboot and Davies’ insistence that you have to cast younger actors because of the amount of running about, they were still looking at older, established actors for the part. (And besides, the Fifth Doctor was my Doctor.)

Things got worse not long afterwards, when the BBC released this publicity shot:

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Which only made things worse. “Look at her! She doesn’t look a day over sixteen!” I remember bleating. “It’s like they’ve left a couple of kids in charge of the TARDIS!” I must have been fun to be with in those days.

The problem, as it turned out, was that I was imagining Smith as he’d been in the Sally Lockhart stories, or at least the two that were adapted for television. There he was young, permanently sheepish and borderline cockney, or at least that’s how I remember him. I was convinced he’d bring the same approach to Doctor Who. The series five trailer – which involved the Doctor punching out Bracewell in the execrable ‘Victory of the Daleks’ – didn’t help.

Then we got to Easter 2010, and ‘The Eleventh Hour’. And I think there’s a reason why this remains in my top ten New Who episodes some three years later. Over the course of sixty-five minutes, Moffat introduces a new Doctor, one-and-a-half new companions, a whole new approach to the show, a host of gags, an unfortunate meme-that-should-never-have-been-a-meme and a cameo from Patrick Moore. And a story, of sorts. The threat of Prisoner Zero and the Atraxi were hardly among the most interesting that the show has faced, but in an episode which basically served as a game-changer I think we can let that go.

It was fast and frenetic and incredibly English, but at the centre of it all was Smith himself, who absolutely blew me away. From his exasperation at the villagers’ reaction to the eclipse of the sun (“The end comes, as it was always going to, down a video phone”) to the moment he faces Prisoner Zero’s mimicry of his own as-yet undiscovered appearance with “That’s rubbish, who’s that supposed to be?”), Smith plays a character who’s simultaneously young and old – a pattern that was set to continue. Whatever you may think about Moffat’s done to the show (and I’ve written about that in ample detail, so we won’t re-tread old ground), and however much Smith’s current performance as the Doctor seems loaded with the same gravitas and weariness that was arguably Tennant’s undoing (it’s like they’ve learned nothing from ‘The End of Time’), there is a brilliance about this opening episode that solidified the Eleventh as a Doctor who could be fun without being smug, who was as utterly alien as Baker’s Fourth, and who would take things to the brink before saving the day. And in Amy, Moffat created a lovably off-the-wall character who became my favourite companion, at least for a while. I’d got it wrong before, of course. But seldom have I been so pleased about it.

Categories: New Who | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Amy’s crack revisited

Somewhere inside this pumpkin, a TARDIS is exploding.

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