[A revised and improved version of this essay appears in my book The Eleventh Doctor: a critical ramble through Matt Smith’s tenure in Doctor Who.]
Start with a man who sees things different from everyone else. That’s an interesting science-fictional premise. Throw in an alien that is invisible — to everyone except the man who sees differently. There’s your source of tension, maybe conflict and danger. Make the man one of the best-loved of artists, and you have immediate grounding, the opportunity to show us on film things that we’re already familiar with from paintings. And of course add in the Doctor and the freshly Rory-less Amy.
Should be all the ingredients for a classic episode, right?
I truly am not sure. I was distinctly underwhelmed when I first watched this, but having now seen it a second time, I find myself appreciating it much more. While the whole episode doesn’t really work, it still contains a lot of delicious little cameos, and I find myself feeling that I’m being churlish if I complain about the core story being rather formulaic and dull and not really making sense.
We start with Amy in The Musée d’Orsay with the Doctor, asking “You’re being so nice to me — why are you being so nice to me?” The Doctor is evasive; we know it’s because he feels sorrow for her having lost Rory — and maybe some guilt — but he can’t say so because she won’t understand or believe him. That’s disquieting: an unspoken reminder of Rory, whose ghost subtly haunts the entire episode. [Aside: I fear that I use the word “subtly” too often in my reviews. Bad habit. Gotta break it.]
We quickly find ourselves back in 1889, in Provence, and in the company of the eponymous Vincent, namely Vincent Van Gogh (who I am pleased to say gets to have his surname pronounced as we in Britain say it, and not as the American “Van Go”). For reasons that are never explained, or indeed explored, he speaks throughout in a Scottish accent.
There is lots of very enjoyable character work as the Doctor and (especially) Amy simply and frankly enjoy being with such an iconic painter. Van Gogh’s eccentricity is drawn in primary colours (appropriately enough) but not over-egged. At one point he raves at the Doctor, waving his arms wildly and crying “It’s colour! Colour that holds the key! I can hear the colours … Listen to them!” I couldn’t help giggling at the Doctor’s expression — half blankly mystified, half kindly encouraging; patronising without really meaning to be. It brings home yet again what a fine actor Matt Smith is: having recently for some reason subjected myself to The Two Doctors, I can’t begin to imagine Colin Baker ever bringing off such an expression. (Patrick Troughton might have managed it, though.)
A dead body is found, and rather pointless fight with the invisible alien ensues. Once it’s been driven off, the Doctor asks Vincent to sketch it, then takes the sketch back to the TARDIS and digs out a Seeing Invisible Things And Identifying Things Device (hereafter SITAITD). This is nicely designed, very steampunky, and the way the Doctor half-wore-half-carried it looked terribly familiar to me. It took a long while before I spotted it: it’s like bagpipes. For such a flagrant plot-engine machine, it’s easy to like. (Obviously it takes the Doctor much longer to find the SITAITD then we’re shown, as it’s night when he enters the TARDIS and daytime again when we comes out.) A rather pointless chase with the invisible alien ensues. One feels that these action sequences were included for no better reason than that someone assumed they had to be there; but actually, they didn’t.
The best moments are mostly in dialogue. As the three principals walk along a sunny road together, Vincent says he can see Amy’s sadness: “I’m not sad”, says she; “Then why are you crying?” asks Vincent. She’s not: she goes to wipe a tear away, and there’s nothing there; but this is the man who sees what’s true rather than merely what is actually there, and he understands instinctively that she has lost Rory, even though she remembers nothing of this. Later, the Doctor accidentally calls Vincent Rory; Amy doesn’t bat an eyelid. Like I said: Rory’s ghost is always there. Less poignant, but funnier, we then have the Doctor babbling aimlessly as Vincent paints: “I remember watching Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel. Wow …”; a pause, and then: “What a whinger.” Completely unexpected. The only time the dialogue clunks is when Vincent is pressed into duty to explain what the invisible alien is doing, which of course is as much for our benefit as for the Doctor’s and Amy’s. It’s pretty clumsy.
We do actually see glimpses of the alien — sometimes for a few seconds from Vincent’s perspective, sometimes in a mirror. Eventually we see its whole body, though only in semi-darkness.
Here’s my lame attempt to enhance it:
It’s been widely noted that it seems to have the head of a turkey. I won’t disagree with that, but what it really reminded me of was the quilled Psittacosaurus specimen described by Mayr et al. (2002).
And here we come to the most disappointing aspect of the episode. I’ve been carefully referring to an invisible alien so far, but in fact what we have is an invisible monster. In a most un-Wholike way, it doesn’t speak or listen — in effect, it’s just a big dangerous animal, like a lion or a bear. The Doctor’s first hint of the monster’s existence came way back in the opening scene, when he saw a hint of its face in one of Van Gogh’s paintings, peering out of the window of a church: “I know evil when I see it, and I see it in that window”, he says. But it’s not really evil — it’s just ferocious. And wouldn’t it have been more interesting if the Doctor had turned out to be completely mistaken? If the “monster” turned out not to be a monster at all — just a lost creature, causing trouble by accident, unable to make contact with people because of its invisibility is actually more a curse than a blessing?
I know it’s futile — worse, fanboyish — to try to rewrite episodes, and I will not get into the habit. But just think: that way we could have lost the unconvincing fight and chase scenes; we could have had exploration, investigation and insight; the Doctor could have been Doctorish; and the alien’s sense of remoteness from its kind could have been shown to resonate in different ways with Amy’s Roryless state, with Vincent’s alienation from the townspeople, and of course with the Doctor’s position as the last of his kind. There are actually a lot of ways that the Invisible Monster Who Only Vincent Can See could have been developed: I think Dangerous Animal is possibly the least interesting of them all.
Unusually, the monster is killed long before the end of the episode: the actual plot is over after 33 minutes, leaving a whole nother eleven minutes to fill. It’s pretty astonishing that a full quarter of the show’s duration is not concerned with the nominal centre of the plot, and I think that at least strongly suggests that the production team knew the monster was a clunker — that the episode’s true heart lay elsewhere.
And so it does: those last 11 minutes are filled with scenes that work well. As Vincent, the Doctor and Amy lie on the ground under a night sky, we see the stars swirl, fragment and blur in Vincent’s unique vision, as in The Starry Night. We see Vincent transported to Paris, 2010, to see an exhibition of his own paintings: the scene is wordless, over music, and his shocked but delighted response is truly moving. The Doctor encourages Bill Nighy’s curator character to make a little speech explaining the importance and popularity of Van Gogh, for the benefit of Vincent who is listening in — and even this, which could be mawkish, works well because it’s a good speech with actual content and analysis rather than merely adulation; Van Gogh’s grateful response is again moving.
Then it’s back to 1889 to drop Vincent off.
His goodbye with Amy is genuinely affectionate — there’s a bond between them which is hard not to interpret as Amy’s displacing her affection for Rory onto the nearest available candidate. That being so, Vincent’s earlier despair at the realisation that his new friends are going to leave him is validated all the more strongly: he liked Amy for herself; she perhaps liked him because of his fame and because he was a handy Rory substitute. If Vincent sees this, as he sees so much, he can hardly help but be sad.
As Amy is about to leave, he half-jokingly proposes marriage: “I’m not really the marrying kind”, she replies, but of course we known that she was when she had Rory. Only now are we seeing how much he really meant to her — and the irony of course is that she can’t see it herself. This is good, clever writing, showing rather than telling, and giving us insights beyond what the characters can know themselves.
In a final post-epilogue (in the never-ending sequence of endings that will be hauntingly familiar to anyone who’s seen Peter Jackson’s Return of the King movie), the Doctor and Amy come back for a third time to the Musée d’Orsay. Amy skips happily away from the TARDIS, keen to see what new paintings Vincent is going to have produced now that his personal history has been rewritten, now that he’s been made happy by knowing how great his legacy will be. But it’s not to be: when they get to the Van Gogh gallery, they find that even knowing this, he still killed himself at the age of 37. We’ve seen Amy skipping unselfconsciously away from the TARDIS earlier in the episode, when they first arrived in 19th-century Provence. Then, her carefree attitude turns out to be appropriate: as she’d hoped they would, they do meet and spend time with Van Gogh. This time, the playfulness and optimism that makes her skip is crushed by the reality that depression is not so easily cured. Even the Doctor can’t make everyone better.
What we have here is an episode of intriguing ideas, interesting insights and rich characters. But it’s brought down badly by an actual story that lacks inspiration, originality and credibility. It’s maybe 60 or 70% of a great episode. Could have been so much more.
Update (only a couple of hours later)
Oh, but there’s one more thing: it looked beautiful. I see it was directed by Jonny Campbell, who also directed Vampires in Venice, which, despite its various failings, was also gorgeous to look at. So I hope we’ll be seeing more of him.