Curtis is good for DW, not only because he’s a big name and they clearly gave him the best of everything, but also because he’s the right kind of writer.
Spoilers up to 5/31/episode 10.
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I loved Vincent and the Doctor. For the first time since the opening minutes of TEH, we seemed to be looking at real people rather than two-dimensional stereotypes. What a difference some decent writing makes. Amy’s question, “Why are you being so nice to me?” said more about her emotionally barren childhood than the nine preceding episodes. The Doctor showed warmth as well as genius, Amy actually cared about someone other than herself and Tony Curran did a wonderful job conveying the complexity of Van Gogh’s emotions in a way that children could understand. The direction was a delight, with almost every frame beautifully composed and lit.
Curtis is good for DW, not only because he’s a big name and they clearly gave him the best of everything, but also because he’s the right kind of writer. He has a lovely feel for the quirky and offbeat, and unlikely alliances between people who don’t quite fit into mainstream society, and he can make the most unpromising characters sympathetic. All those qualities were on display in his last movie, The Boat That Rocked, which I loved regardless of its faults – the bit where they decide to defy the authorities and stay on-air brought a lump to my throat, as did the little flotilla of fans’ rescue boats appearing Dunkirk-style over the horizon – and in both cases laughter quickly followed tears. Anyone who understands how to do that is probably going to write good Who.
In fact I think Curtis was somewhat subversive – he respected the Moffat brief to connect with classic Who with a very Tom Baker kind of humour as the Doctor grumbled about other great artists and the difficulty of doing an identification based on an Impressionist work. The spirit of Four and Romana II touring the Louvre in City of Death was never very far away, though Curtis managed to pack a bigger emotional punch. To bring Vincent back to 2010 was a risky move and I’m not entirely sure the soft rock background worked for me, but the scene was beautifully played by Bill Nighy et al and Vincent’s tears of joy were meaningful despite, or possibly because of, the inevitability of his suicide. It would have been clever plotting to have shown the gallery cleared of his later and more tortured work, but that kind of thing can safely be left to Moffat et al.
Ever since DW was rebooted fandom has been divided between the Head people who want more cleverness and less emotion, and the Heart people who want the opposite – the extremes of both positions are represented by Moffat and RTD respectively. In fact, extremes are rarely an ideal and one fan’s emotional depth is another’s revolting sentimentality. Curtis, of course, is firmly on the heart side of things and coaxed some lovely performances out of Matt and Karen in particular – it’s frustrating that the potential has been there all along and to see Matt’s features soften with compassion is an unexpected pleasure.
In some respects I think it’s more helpful to judge DW as a cartoon rather than a live drama – not necessarily a trivialisation since graphic novels, anime and comic books have become sophisticated and influential art forms. The point I’m getting at is that we tend to judge animated drama by different standards of realism, or rather the lack of it. I’m not the person to speak for Watchman or Scott Pilgrim – I’m thinking more in terms of Pixar movies, as it happens. Pixar movies are technically brilliant with wonderful scripts, but I don’t think that’s what makes them enormous hits. The reason for that is that every one of them is the story of an absolutely fundamental human fear and its resolution. It’s the problem that draws us in and the resolution that puts a smile on our faces as we leave the cinema. Get that right – the emotional question – and the details are irrelevant.
For example, when we see Up we can ask, “How could all those balloons make a house float?” or we could ask, “Can an elderly widower get over his grief and pursue the dream he once shared with his beloved partner?” And when we watch Ratatouille, we can say, “How could a rat ever become a chef?” but it’s a lot more important to say, “Can somebody who marches to a different drum follow his dream without losing his family?”
And because it’s a ‘toon, chances are that people won’t carp too much about Question One so long as they’re satisfied by the journey towards the answer to Question Two.
Now it seems to me that somehow, for all its totally ludicrous premise, DW has acquired an awful lot of fans who have a preconceived idea of how the show should be, and they will fret about the balloons, or whatever, whether the canon is consistent and if we ought to let the TARDIS tow the Earth home. But this tends to be the kind of question that rears its ugly head when other things aren’t as they should be. In the best episodes, it really doesn’t matter that much. And the job of a show runner is to decide what fundamental emotional question DW is going to ask. RTD did it very clearly – “How can the Doctor deal with being lonely when his people are gone and he loses everybody in the end?” He treated the show as a big movie spread over five years, and ultimately it failed artistically on those terms because he didn’t answer that question in any satisfactory way. He should have followed his instinct and found a way – straightforward and not too clever – for the Doctor to stay with Rose. That would have been consistent with where he was taking the franchise and I don’t think it would have been impossible, but that’s water under the bridge for now.
Problem was, the show isn’t a movie, it’s a long-running, continually reinventing TV phenomenon and he had to hand it back in a healthy state, more or less as he’d found it. Ultimately the two narrative forms turned out to be incompatible and the only way Moffat has tried to move things on is to handwave the emotional story of the RTD years. He might do that literally by having Nine and Ten vanish down a crack in time, or aesthetically by just having Eleven behave as if they never happened. A lot of us are finding that difficult to swallow, particularly those of us who fell in love with New Who rather than the Classic brand. So we’re picking at it and saying, “But toys aren’t really alive!” And the people who hate having a Doctor who shows his feelings are having a ball.
I do think that the long-term future of the franchise depends on bridging that gap, however, not coming down one side or the other. The Specials year showed that the RTD approach had gone into a dead end, just an endless revolving door of love and loss and a Doctor that wouldn’t grow or learn from his mistakes. But take out the emotion completely and you lose precisely what made the reboot so successful and compelling. DW is a big, Impressionist canvas where the picture is made up of swirls and bright blobs of colour and there’s always a risk of tipping over into the gaudy and the tasteless. It’s a risk worth taking – Vincent was pilloried in his day for his swirling skies and starry nights but, as the Bill Nighy character observed, he is now not only revered as a brilliant artist but beloved. And we have to remember that, at its heart, this is a show aimed at children and the child in all of us. Some children will crouch in the corner of the playground obsessing about the latest collectible cards or whatever, and moan if any tiny little thing isn’t precisely as they like it. But most kids have a part of them, at least, that lies on the ground holding hands with a friend or two and just looking up at the sky and thinking how wonderful the world is, how very little of it we really know. That scene said everything that really matters about DW – that it’s the story of a man who loves life so much that he keeps travelling on through unendurable physical hardship and emotional pain, because there’s only one thing he loves more than sharing that wonder with companions – and that’s when he learns a new way of looking at the universe from somebody else. It’s a miracle that after 900 years that still occasionally happens to him. It can happen through the eyes of a 19 year old shop girl, an old soldier in a beanie hat or a great and tortured artist. And in all three cases he can say, with absolute sincerity, “You made me a better person.”
That’s what Curtis captured – and I love him for it. For one brief shining moment at least, I got my show back, and that’s all that matters right now.