Monday, 6 August 2018

Vincent and the Doctor

Chapter The 95th, Paris, a mystery about a work of art, going back in time to meet the painter... but not City of Death, nothing remotely like City of Death, alas.

The Doctor takes Amy to the Musée d'Orsay in present day Paris to cheer her up because her fiancé's been erased out of existence. There, the Doctor notices a creature's face in one of Van Gogh's paintings - which we're told means something very bad - so rushes them both back to Arles in 1890 to ask Vincent - who we're told is very talented and important - about it, because it's urgent and vital (we're told). They meet the painter, but he may be a parallel universe version as he seems to have both ears intact, talks about painting sunflowers like it's a new idea despite having painted them loads by 1890 (he's even been painted painting sunflowers by Gauguin two years earlier), and crucially doesn't show any real signs of his documented mental illness bar being a bit intense when he has too much coffee. But he does helpfully tell us that he's mad, so that's okay then.

The three of them effortlessly defeat the invisible alien thing (called a Zzzzzzzzz, I think, or I may have nodded off briefly). The Doctor then breaks pretty much every rule he's ever had by allowing non-diegetic modern pop music onto the soundtrack (oh, and he takes an individual to see his own future impact too). Vincent is shown that he will be successful, but this makes no difference and he still commits suicide sometime after they've dropped him back in his proper place and time, which the Doctor knew would happen all along (bit presumptuous of him that, really, though).

It has become a tradition that every year, once a year, the blog covers a story during the family holiday, and the Deeper Thoughts section temporarily morphs into something of a travelogue (previous examples have been The Leisure Hive last year, and The Androids of Tara the year before). We were going abroad this time, and several factors - luggage space being at a premium, the randomly selected tale being of 21st century vintage, and my being burned last year with the lack of a DVD player in an Isle of Wight cottage (so what chance a holiday apartment in Tenerife?) - necessitated that physical media would not be coming abroad with us. But technology came to the rescue, and I did something I've not had call to do before: I opened the BBC iplayer app, where everything from Rose onwards is available right now, and downloaded an episode of Doctor Who (two actually, but that's another story) onto my phone.

As we were in the Canary Islands, Planet of Fire would have probably been the choice had it been a non-random selection, but it's already been covered for the blog here. Vincent and the Doctor is pretty summery, though, and the crew went abroad themselves to film it. One evening, when the family had turned in, I sat out on the apartment veranda and watched with a glass of red, which chimed a bit with the European street café vibe of the early Arles sections of the story.

First-time round:
On its first BBC1 broadcast, live or probably slightly time-shifted, in June 2010. Matt Smith's first year had a few great stories, but was mostly disappointing for me. So, the only clear memory I have is the usual roller-coaster dip of repeatedly starting a story with high expectations, and ending the experience thinking "well, maybe next week's will be better". This time, it had a cameo from Bill Nighy and was being written by Richard Curtis, most of whose work to that point I'd very much enjoyed; so, the roller-coaster started higher, but ended lower, alas.

To date, this is the only Doctor Who episode to be followed on its broadcast by the BBC announcer giving it the old "if you have been affected by any of the issues in this programme" v.o. with a caption card containing a helpline number. It would be easy to scoff at this (how many people rang up to ask for help with the giant invisible alien chicken in their local church, do you think?) but the message, like the story preceding it, had its heart in the right place. It's therefore hard to criticise without seeming uncharitable, but I'm going to try my best. This is such a cautious depiction of mental illness - as it probably had to be for a family audience - that you could blink and miss that there was anything up with Vincent at all. To overcompensate, the script repeatedly talks about it: tell, tell, tell; it hesitates to show more than a glimpse. As such, it fails as a drama and damages the possibilities for engagement on the topic that presumably were the intention in the first place.

This hesitance borders on historical inaccuracy. Vincent's documented troubles amounted to quite a bit more than feeling sad that he's going to be lonely. I was distracted for a lot of the running time scouring the little screen on which I was viewing it to see if there was any make-up job on his ear, which he'd famously mutilated two years before the events of this story; obviously, the production team has decided not to go anywhere near there. So, if they couldn't really cover the complexities of the subject properly in the chosen vehicle, should they not have tried at all? Tough call. Arguably, this script raises awareness of a subject to a new audience, and that's a good thing if it's an honest depiction. But is it? I don't feel qualified to judge, and I don't know why anyone would, even Curtis with his many years working for good causes.

Every person with a mental illness experiences it differently, and history doesn't even agree on what diagnosis Van Gogh would be given today: bipolar disorder, depression, epilepsy, porphyria? Syphilis? Ah, there's the rub: the conversation about mental illness is one we need to have, but it can get difficult, it can get nasty, it can get "not in front of the children". It's a can of worms you can't put a lid back on in 45 minutes, particularly if you have to leave enough time for the sweetener of a monster subplot, and avoid scarring the children watching. I don't want to seem reactionary, but I have to spell this out: in this narrative, the Doctor, our hero, leaves his young companion for a night with a man they've only just met, who has been consistently reported historically to have uncontrollable violent episodes. Side-stepping something like that is airbrushing out realities to the point of callousness. The result is that nothing appears to be at stake on screen, even though in the real history Vincent's sanity was in the balance (and was not destined for a happy ending). The monster subplot similarly doesn't inject any jeopardy - we're never shown anything particularly dangerous that the creature can do, just told. And because it's operating mainly as a metaphor - the enemy is invisible, aggression is blind, etc. - it ends up being a rubbish foe.

The regulars are curiously unlikable here: I've never warmed to Amy's shouty unearned confidence, but can usually rely on Matt Smith no matter what the material; but, his relentless focus on a harmless seeming monster rather than what the audience knows is the real story makes him seem uncaring. Plus, no matter what 'everything sounds like Coldplay now' tune is ladled over it, the ending is wrong: it's supposed to jerk tears, but it just elicited anger in this viewer. The Doctor has no right to take Vincent into the future of his own legacy, and the script has no right to presuppose what this might have meant or done to him. Lots of people really love this story, so maybe it's just me. There are some things to recommend it: there's a great performance from Tony Curran, a little too self aware I think, but that's the fault of the script not him; it's shot well in sumptuous locations; the recurring moments of tableau where the on screen visual matches a famous Van Gogh painting are also nice, and there are some good gags here and there. That's not enough, though, to save it; the underlying script is too flawed - it needed extensive work, or abandoning all together.

Very tough one this: I can't really see much of a link between Vincent and the Doctor and The Ark in Space. The monsters have a very loose connection being both based on exaggerated examples from nature (a parasitic wasp and a crazy chicken). There's mention of the Krafayis creatures travelling through space in groups and not making planet-fall often, which is similar to the Wirrn too.

Deeper Thoughts:
Adventures in Holiday Parenting (Part 1). We've put off taking the kids (boys of 12 and 8, girl of 6) on a foreign holiday until now. We wanted them to be old enough to enjoy it, remember it, and - to be frank - be old enough not to be a nightmare on a plane or in an airport. In the meantime, we've had some great adventures in the UK (the break spent in Leeds Castle was a definitely highlight, and not just because Androids of Tara was filmed there, honest!). But it was long past due to roam a little wider, not least as there's still a customs union and free movement, who knows how they'll remain. It was only on the plane - upon which, all three kids were good as gold, by the by - that I realised my eldest was the same age, give or take a week or two - that I was when I first went on a foreign holiday. In 1984, I travelled with my mother, grandfather and sister to Malta. I'd been concerned with what my own children would remember from this trip, so cast my mind back to see what I recalled of my first jaunt, and it mostly involved Fighting Fantasy novels.

City of Thieves (Malta)
Malta was not then the tourist haven (nor tax haven) that it has become since; I don't remember beaches, I just remember rocks. We weren't lucky with the weather either - there was quite a bit of rain. So, I mainly remember sitting around the hotel keeping myself busy playing the aforementioned game books, which were popular (certainly popular with me) at the time. City of Thieves is the one that I definitely remember having with me, a rather good example of the genre by Ian Livingstone, one of the two founders of the range. For the uninitiated, these are books divided into 400 numbered passages, where you can make choices - to go east, turn to 268, that sort of thing - plus use dice to simulate sword fights, luck and tests of strength. If you make it through these, you reach the end (which is always passage number 400) and win. I was almost as keen on them in those days as I was on Doctor Who.

It's curious that I have no memory of taking any Doctor Who novelisations on that holiday, though I remember The Awakening by Eric Pringle getting a bit water damaged when I read it poolside on holiday in Spain with my Dad the following year (the rest of that holiday I remember mostly drinking Fanta Limón while playing a Popeye arcade game, battling with a German teenager for who had the high score that day). So, the little minor entertainments can end up being the most memorable things. This makes one wonder whether it's worth spending so much money. I don't know how much Malta would have cost, but enough to want myself to remember more than rocks; I could have read that book anywhere, after all.

City of Thieves (Tenerife)
Maybe this trip would be different, though. For my 2018 excursion, I'd selected my holiday reading carefully; having not had a chance to read Robert Webb's How Not to Be a Boy since it was published last year, but hearing many many good things about it, I'd got myself a copy. I was concerned though, that I might finish it before the trip was out, so I ordered another book too: a recently re-released edition of City of Thieves by Ian Livingstone. As I said, the parallels between my first ever foreign holiday and this 2018 trip only occurred to me when I'd already left England, so this was not deliberate. But maybe my subconscious was trying to clue me in. I'd picked it as I wanted something light - I'm not one who can handle Proust when I've got sand between my toes, but I don't object to packing dice. I also thought (hoped?) one of the kids might want a go of it after me. I've previously had some success introducing the kids to these books, which of late have had something of a renaissance. But, as many will know, sometimes too much parental enthusiasm can be the kiss of death to a child's curiosity.

I'd also not factored in modern technology. A holiday let doesn't come with a DVD player as standard, but wi-fi is definitely expected. The same kind of streaming services which allowed me to take a Doctor Who story with me to Tenerife, meant the kids could watch all the Netflix shows and youtube videos they watch at home on their tablets (which were also definitely expected, and had to be brought with us). Even if it had rained (it didn't) there was minimal chance of them getting bored for one second. But also, there was minimal chance of them discovering anything new, or just savouring a small amount of something familiar, as I had with my Fighting Fantasy book. I tried in vain to explain how, when I was their age, you couldn't access much of back home when you were away, and it couldn't access you. You drank Fanta Limón because you literally couldn't get it in England, and parents read British papers that were a day old, because they couldn't read the news at the touch of a touchscreen. But I had no luck persuading them to pry themselves away from their screens to try City of Thieves. They all liked Fanta Limón though.

The blogger abroad (Fanta Limón not pictured)

So, how did all this lead me to question myself and my parenting? If you want to know more, turn to the Deeper Thoughts section of the 'Sleep No More' blog post when I get it published (it's coming next); if you'd rather not, then turn to... well, whatever you want - can I recommend reading a good book, perhaps? Till next time.

In Summary:
Not everyone, however talented and well-meaning elsewhere, can write Doctor Who.

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