So, the great Richard Curtis tries his hand at a Doctor Who script. When they first came up with that, it must have seemed like a really interesting idea. Less so now. [spoilery thoughts for those who continue reading. And an attempt at some 'script doctoring' if you scroll down.]
I'm guessing there's always going to be this problem when you introduce a Famous Figure from History into Doctor Who. Either they've got to be oblivious to the sci-fi going on around them - in which case they seem irrelevant and obtuse - or they are aware of it, and you find yourself with a second choice. Do you stay true to their historic persona and merely have them gawp and gasp at the sci-fi - which again makes them window-dressing rather than part of the drama - or do you have them somehow dive in among the weirdness and help with the action? I think the story demands that you choose the latter for the most part; you just have to hope that you can find something in the Famous Figure's dossier you can expand on so that they seem like a credible temporary companion (or adversary) of the Doctor. Charles Dickens's fascination with the supernatural was perhaps one of the more successful attempts. I rather think Vincent Van Gogh's ability to hit invisible aliens with a chair was more of a low point. And sadly, Mr Curtis either wasn't able or didn't try to link the story of the rampaging alien to all the talk of Van Gogh's depression, madness, legacy or creative output. So, remarkably, we're left to assume that fighting and killing an alien monster - and then regretting that killing - had no particular influence on Van Gogh one way or the other in terms of artistic output or imminent suicide. Tut tut. Failing to link the A and B stories at all means that the episode as a whole doesn't add up to much. And for a bit more resonance, the plight of the monster and the plight of Vincent should been linked as well - otherwise what purpose is the monster serving, beyond providing some boilerplate jeopardy? Van Gogh's experiences with madness, loneliness and obscurity - or perhaps his perspective as an artist - should have held the key to either eliminating or rehabilitating the monster. He could even have made some remark about how conquering external demons is easy compared to the inner ones. That way his travails with depression could have been what gave him the courage to save the town, which would have given some purpose to his torments. Without those links, or something like them, the story doesn't tie together very well. There's lots of art history and scenes of madness vying for screen time with a fight against a giant, invisible parrot. And (as Simon Pegg tweeted, there's also an abundance of hugging.) Mr Curtis didn't even play to his strengths and bung in some comedy (rubbish fighting has already been done this season and so doesn't count) or a romance. And even his regular standby, lots of swearing, was (perforce) missing. That must have really cramped his style, trying to write curse-free dialogue. No wonder it seemed a bit stilted in places. One final note: I continue to find myself gradually warming to Matt Smith. He's still not a commanding presence, but I'm finding him rather endearing. His frantic, self-absorbed thrashing from the early episodes seems to have settled down into rather sweet bumbling - and I'm laughing at the jokes he delivers now. (Karen Gillan continues to be top value throughout, in my view.)
Updated: Since there've been some really interesting and thoughtful comments on this story and its structure, I thought we could play a fun game of 'script doctoring'. I thought I'd have a go at a rewrite, at least in summary form. I'm claiming this is vaguely relevant to the SnowBlog because many of us will either write, publish or whinge about stories with roughly the same composition as a Doctor Who episode (even if it's in a different genre). So here goes. Starting from the end (as I always do with thrillers) I think it's a pity that we begin with x number of Van Gogh's paintings in the Musée D'Orsay and end with the same number. So let's start with a bit more excitement and intrigue. The Doctor and Amy are looking around the museum and they come across a lone painting by Van Gogh, of a church. Bill Nighy's curator is saying that this is the only painting this enigmatic artist ever painted before his long history of depression turned to full-blown insanity... and then he was hanged for murder. Being time travellers, The Doctor and Amy (D&A) have an outside perspective and both know that history has been rewritten. Then they notice an alien monster drawn in the window of the church. "Well he was mad," says Amy, by way of explanation. "Yes," the Doctor agrees, "True. So how come I recognise the alien he's drawn?" And so it's off to nineteenth century France. Roll credits. D&A arrive after dark and make enquiries about Vincent. We get a little background about what everyone thinks of his behaviour and his paintings. Someone points them towards his house, but on the way there, they hear screaming. Rushing to the scene of a murder, they find a wild-eyed Vincent being restrained by the constabulary and ranting about 'the beast' that's responsible. The victim's family arrive and accuse Vincent of being the beast himself because he was there at the scene of another recent murder too. Vincent is incarcerated. Meanwhile the Doctor isn't so sure. He's heard rumours that the creature Vincent drew can make itself invisible as a defence mechanism. So D&A creep into the spooky town mortuary later that night to examine the body. But something is in there with them. After a few tense minutes it turns out to be the night watchman, who they evade - after confirming that a Krafayis is much more likely to be responsible for the victim's wounds than Vincent. The Doctor thinks there's something wrong with the normally-peaceful Krafayis that's making it kill. Perhaps it's a rogue. He's also concerned that it will kill again. And Vincent is the only one who can see it, so they need him. Bluffing their way into the jail, D&A talk to a very sad Vincent through the bars, asking for his help. They explain that the monster is real and not a sign of Vincent having gone off the deep end. And only Vincent can stop it before it kills again. While Vincent is relieved to find he's not totally delusional, he points out that if the monster kills while he's in jail, he's off the hook. And since everyone in town makes his life unbearable, what's his incentive to help them? The Doctor surreptitiously sonics the cell door open and Amy pleads with Vincent to slip out with them, but Vincent calls out to the warder telling him about the door. He's made his decision. D&A give up and switch to Plan B. The Doctor spends the rest of the day rigging up something that can track the Krafayis and once it's dark they start hunting it, carrying a hypodermic that should sedate the creature if they can get close enough. After a couple of run-ins where the dangers inherent in trying to sedate an enraged and invisible alien are apparent, they follow it to... the alleyway at the side of the jail. D&A guess that the creature must have a reason for following Vincent, but can't work out what it is. As the creature starts to tear at the external wall of Vincent's cell, the warder comes running out to investigate the commotion and watches - along with Vincent who peers out from his cell window - as the Doctor tries to get the needle into the unseen beast. He is thrown aside and partly stunned, at which point Amy snatches up the hypodermic and makes an attempt to sedate it. But she is cornered and then pinned. We catch glimpses of the enraged creature as it prepares to gore Amy. But Vincent calls out to the Doctor to release him. The Doctor triggers the sonic screwdriver, choosing a powerful setting which unlocks every door in the vicinity, and moments later Vincent comes running out to confront the creature. His arrival distracts it from Amy and seems to calm it, and as Vincent slowly approaches it he explains that it is injured. He soothes the creature, and eventually gets close enough to lay his hands on it. The creature, as it calms, becomes visible and we can all see that it has a piece of metal protruding from its back. Having ascertained that it will only put the creature to sleep, Vincent asks for the hypodermic and keeps the creature calm while he injects it. The creature loses consciousness. Now that the crisis has passed, Vincent and the warder eye each other: Vincent is after all an escaped prisoner. The Doctor turns to the warder and demands that he let Vincent go. The warder suggests they take the creature to the town square to display it, proving Vincent's innocence. Vincent objects: the townspeople will kill it. The Doctor agrees. The warder, an honest man, says the best he can do is to get a friend who owes him a favour to come forward as a witness to the first murder and say he saw the real murderer run off. It won't convince most of the townspeople but it will mean Vincent goes free. It's the small hours, and D&A drag the sedated creature, wrapped in a tarpaulin, through the town towards the Tardis. They discuss how Vincent has saved the town at the expense of his own reputation. And what tipped the balance was compassion for a tormented creature. They conclude it followed Vincent because he was the only who could see it - and therefore help it - and that perhaps it felt some empathy with him too. We'll keep the scene where Vincent awakes to a garden full of sunflowers, thanks to Amy. The Doctor reassures him they've patched the creature up and returned it to its own kind. We'll also keep the scene where the Doctor tells Vincent that his unique way of looking at the world, and the way he turns his pain into beauty, is a rare gift. Vincent replies that by helping the town and the creature he's lost any chance of acceptance or recognition. There's no point in painting any more because no one will see his pictures. He hasn't the strength to go on and wants to burn what he has already painted. D&A go into a huddle for a moment. Then the Doctor says he wants to offer Vincent a deal. If Vincent will promise to keep painting and to keep battling his inner demons for as long as he can bear to, the Doctor will give him a reason to go on. But he has to promise first for the deal to work. Amy pleads with him too and, touched, Vincent promises. The Doctor asks Amy for her cell-phone, tinkers with it for a bit, and then gives it to Vincent. He tells Vincent to press the green button when the phone rings. That evening we see Vincent sitting by the fire when the phone rings - there's an incoming video call. Vincent answers it and the screen lights up showing the Doctor and Amy. They say 'hi' and pan their phone around to show that they're in Paris, at the Musée D'Orsay, in the twenty-first century. Then they go inside. We see on the screen as they reach the Van Gogh gallery: the crowds, all the paintings. Vincent is amazed. Then they corner Bill Nighy and have him give his speech about the importance of Van Gogh to the world. A tear rolls down Vincent's face as D&A sign off - with the Doctor reminding Vincent to toss the phone on the fire (which probably makes Amy cross). Vincent sits there profoundly moved and almost happy, staring at the phone, before finally casting it into the flames. Now back to the museum. The phone call ended, Amy asks the curator when Van Gogh died. Disappointed with the answer, and the fact that he killed himself, Amy bemoans the realisation that all they bought him was one more year. The Doctor gestures all around them at the walls full of paintings and the grand hall they're in and says that maybe one year was enough. End credits. There. So that's what I'd do. I think that knits the A and B stories, introduces a bit more excitement, links the monster's struggle in with Van Gogh's own, hopefully without being too OTT and keeps Richard Curtis's nice speeches and a few of his ideas.