Monday, March 30, 2020

Van Gogh's paintings in Doctor Who

Vincent Van Gogh was born on this day in 1853, and this evening my clever friend Emily Cook at Doctor Who Magazine has organised a special online watch of 2010 Doctor Who episode Vincent and the Doctor, with tweeting along by writer Richard Curtis, script editor Emma Freud and stars Matt Smith, Karen Gillan and Tony Curran.

The Lord of Chaos has greatly enjoyed the last two tweet-alongs, but I suspect tonight he'll want to know more about the paintings featured in the episode. So I have made a list.

1. Wheat Field with Crows, July 1890
The episode begins with Van Gogh painting what some have said is his last work, a wheat field with crows. We then cut to the Musee D'Orsay in Paris, in the present day, where the picture is part of a special exhibition of Van Gogh's work - and presumably on loan from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

2. Self-portrait with straw hat, summer 1887
As Bill Nighty's unnamed art expert expounds, we see more pictures in the exhibition. This self-portrait is now in the collections of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

3. Olive Trees, 1888
The art expert passes a screen on which can be seen this sketch of olive trees, now held by the Musée des Beaux-Arts Tournai in Tournai, Belgium.

4. Road with Men Walking etc. 17 June 1890
The screen changes, to show this sketch contained in a letter Van Gogh wrote on 17 June 1890, listed as "Road with Men Walking, Carriage, Cypress, Star, and Crescent Moon" in the collections of the Van Gogh Museum.

5. The Starry Night, June 1889
Now the Doctor and Amy breeze into shot, and we get glances at a range of paintings on display - which we'll get clearer views of later. The Starry Night, which will be a pivotal one later in the episode, is now in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

6. Still Life: Vase with 12 Sunflowers, c. 1888-89
Across the gallery, we get a glimpse of this, one of numerous paintings of sunflowers by Van Gogh. This one is now in the Bavarian State Painting Collections, Munich.

7. Wheat Field with Cypresses, late June 1889
Back in the main part of the gallery, there's this wheat field which is now owned by the Met in New York.

8. La Berceuse, December 1888 to early 1889
Next to it is one of the five portraits Van Gogh produced of Augustine-Alix Pellicot Roulin, wife of the postmaster at Arles. I'm not sure I've got the right one of the five - this one is from the Met collection.

9. Road with Cypress and Star, May 1890
Then there's this, one of a number of paintings of the same scene - as sketched in the letter (image 4, above). This seems to be the right one, with the distinctive curves of the tree and green patch of grass in the road at the bottom centre. This one is from the Kröller-Müller Museum, in the Netherlands.

10. Siesta, or Noon: Rest from Work (after Millet),January 1890
Next, there's this famous one of a sleeping couple, today in the Musee D'Orsay.

11. Wheat Field with Thunderclouds, mid to late July 1890
This one is next is thought to be the first of the sequence that culminated in Wheat Field with Crows (image 1). I wasn't sure at first as the version on screen seems to be a different shape and the clouds more grey, but the triangle of green in the middle seems to match exactly. It's now in the Van Gogh Museum.

12. Portrait of Dr Gachet (second version), 1890
This is one of two portraits of Dr Paul Gachet,  both painted in June 1890. This one is in the Musee D'Orsay collection.

13. The Yellow House, September 1888
Showing 2 Place Lamartine in Arles, this is the house Van Gogh rented - and shared for nine weeks with Paul Gaugin. The painting is now in the Van Gogh Museum.

14. Church at Auvers, June 1890
We focus on Church at Auvers because - in the episode - there's a monster in the window. The painting is now in the Musee D'Orsay. The art expert tells the Doctor it was painted between 1 and 3 June 1890.

15. Bedroom in Arles, 1888
Next the painting of the church hangs Bedroom in Arles, which the episode later recreates as a set - a joke surely lifted from the 1991 Guinness ad. The painting is now in the collection of the Van Gogh Museum.

16. Blossoming Almond Tree, February 1890
Shocked by the monster in the church window, the Doctor dashes past three paintings hanging together. We see them in a blur, but get a better look later on. This one of a blossoming almond tree is in the Van Gogh Museum.

17. Portrait of Marguerite Gachet at the Piano, June 1890
This is a portrait of Marguerite, daughter of Dr Paul Gachet (see in image 12).  It's in the Kunstmuseum in Basel, Switzerland.

18. Irises, May 1889
This is now in the collection of the Getty, Los Angeles. This is the last of the paintings shown in the pre-titles sequence.

19. Cafe at Night, 1888
On arriving in 1890, the Doctor and Amy look for Van Gogh and Amy matches this painting, seen in her book of postcards from the exhibition, to the exterior set.  This is the cafe terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles, and the painting is now in the collections of the Kröller-Müller Museum, Netherlands.

When we meet Van Gogh in the episode, he is arguing over the merits of his self-portrait with straw hat (image 2). When he talks to the Doctor and Amy, he also unrolls some of the canvas for Siesta (image 10).

Amy and the Doctor follow Vincent home, and Amy looks at her postcard of the Bedroom (image 15) before entering Vincent's house. The house contains many of the pictures we've also seen - the Yellow House, both Gachet portraits, the apple blossom - as well a still life of flowers in a vase with a red background that Van Gogh will later paint over in the episode. There is one we've not seen before:

20. Prisoners' Round, after Doré, 1890.
This was inspired by an 1872 engraving by Gustave Doré of the exercise yard at Newgate Prison in London. Van Gogh's painting is now in the Pushkin Museum, Moscow.

There are also various sketches pinned around Van Gogh's home which I've not yet identified.

21. Still Life with Basket and 6 Oranges, March 1888
The Doctor chides Van Gogh for using the above as a tea tray. It's now held in a private collection.

22. Self-portrait as Painter, Dec 1887-Feb 1888
Finally, when the Doctor goes to see Van Gogh in his bedroom (the set designed to match image 15), this self-portrait is on one wall. It's now in the Van Gogh Museum.

After this, Amy fills Van Gogh's garden with sunflowers, as per his famous still lives. We then see him paint the Church at Auvers (image 14), and he shares with Amy and the Doctor his view of the night sky (an animated version of image 5). We return to the exhibition in the present day, giving us a better look at paintings glimpsed in the pre-titles sequence.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Picard: The Last Best Hope, by Una McCormack

This extraordinary novel by my friend Una McCormack is something really special: the best tie-in novel I've read in an age, a great novel in its own right, and disturbingly, horribly timely.

The brief is simple enough: to bridge the gap between our last sight of Captain Jean-Luc Picard (in the 2002 movie Nemesis) and the start of his new TV series, Star Trek: Picard, which itself follows on from the destruction of the planet Romulus in the 2009 reboot movie Star Trek. Una sets out her mission on the first page, beginning, as does the new TV series, with retired and elderly Picard at home on his vineyard in La Barre. Only Una has him picking over exactly what led to him being here.

It's so much more than just joining the dots between movie A and television series B. The prose is immediately arresting, the scene poignant and moving, the great Picard now,
"One more outcast, cast adrift. Prospero, on his island. An old conjurer, his magic spent, nursing old grievances." (p. 3)
This is a perfect association for Picard, played all these years by Shakespearean actor Patrick Stewart. There is dignity, even majesty, in his fall from grace. Having established that sense of him, Una then has Picard settle on, "the moment when everything changed" - the day he left his beloved Starship Enterprise. 

We cut back to that day, and Una swiftly lays out the Great Problem that Picard is tasked with - a refugee crisis that involves old enemies who are too proud to ask for help. Picard is promoted to Admiral and takes charge of a new ship and crew to boldy go sort things out. Nicely, Una also has him take his leave of old friends, especially those who've not (yet) had cameos in the new TV series. One conversation with an old friend is like a knife through the heart.
"[Picard] had never quite summoned up his courage, when it came to Beverley Crusher." (p. 20).
Picard must also argue the case for the officer he thinks should succeed him on the Enterprise, and much is made of the significance of Captain Worf, a Klingon, taking the helm of the Federation's flagship just 100 years since the enmities of 1991 movie, The Undiscovered Country. That works well, but oddly it's relayed through other people's responses. We barely glimpse Worf at all; he's given no dialogue. I assume there's some contractual issue, or some other spin-off has bagsied Worf's perspective, but still.

One other thing seems missing: I've still little sense of how Picard knows Laris and Zhaban, the Romulans working for him at the start of the TV series. They get no more than a name-check in the book. Again, I assume that's a story for another time - or something I missed in the series. [ETA, Laris and Zhaban apparently feature in the comic mini-series Countdown.] But that and the silence of Worf are hardly complaints, just the sole two moments where I thought, "Wait, what?"

Otherwise, the book's use of established, TV-derived lore is exemplary. So much tie-in fiction is about playing in the margins, at a discrete distance from the primary source. But Una includes scenes that I've watched in the TV series, adding to them, extending them, offering more context and insight. It's more than simply access to the production team and the episodes well ahead of broadcast: there's evident care and trust and parity of esteem in the relationship between production team and writer for this to dovetail with the series so perfectly. The result is that I'm engaged in and am enjoying the Picard TV series more because I've read the book.

Again, it's not just about joining the dots. Una creates her own characters - indeed, a whole ship under Picard's command, the Verity. Two characters are so well drawn that we really feel their loss when they die. I also found ambitious politician Olivia Quest particularly easy to visualise, as Emma Thompson in Years and Years. Characters new and established feel psychologically real: there are few out-right villains, just people with conflicting views about what should be done in the face of vast and awful crisis.

I think there's something of the TV series Chernobyl in this response to - and denial of - calamity. We're also told that the people of Earth long solved its climate crisis, and then Picard despairs of those refusing his help:
"But there must have come a point - long past - when it was clear that something on Romulus was going horribly wrong. Yet many people - even among the elites, most of whom have been privy to the information - seem not to have believed the evidence of their own eyes. They seem to have wantonly refused to connect the dots between the increasing heat, the storms, the floods, and the freak weather pattern. I struggle to understand why. Perhaps some truths are simply too much to face." (p. 253)
Una couldn't have known it, but much of her novel feels horribly pertinent right this minute, as we square up to Corvid-19. Politicians and experts argue over the correct response to an unprecedented crisis. There's selfishness and denial from ordinary people, not sure what to believe in the calm before the storm. But, fast becoming reality, there is suffering and death on a barely imaginable scale...

We know from the opening page of the book that things do not turn out well for Picard or those he pledges himself to save. I'd already seen the episode of the TV series which flashes back to the day Picard resigns from Star Fleet. Una includes that, and shows us his resignation. He fails. Then she concludes with some thoughts, from Picard, on the cruelty of history.

Bloody hell. It's a book that's changed my sense of the TV series, and the world outside my door now.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

At Childhood's End, by Sophie Aldred

This melding of Doctor Who old and new is great fun and surprisingly moving. With help from Mike Tucker and Steve Cole, it's written by Sophie Aldred, who played Ace in Doctor Who between 1987 and 1989, and it sees an older Ace reunited with the Doctor - the current, female incarnation.

It's structured in three parts, just like one of Ace's TV stories, and includes a character from 1989's Survival and a load of references and retcons to that era, but all feels engagingly, refreshingly new. I especially liked how well the author(s) capture the current Doctor and her companions, with some credible awkwardness between police officer Yaz and explosive experts Ace.

At one point, due to quantum wossnames, Ace glimpses all kinds of possible lives, allowing her to encompass the various Aces from books and comics and audio while at the same time over-writing all that with this authoritative version. It also dovetails nicely with the trailer Aldred starred in last year for the Blu-ray release of her final season in Doctor Who, legitimising it and following its lead emotionally.

I think there's a callback to the days of Doctor Who books aimed at an adult audience when we first meet this older Ace: she's woken from a nightmare and gets out of bed; we're told on page 11 that she's naked. It's an odd, incongruous detail for an adventure aimed at the whole family.

Otherwise, the horse-like and rat-like aliens and the various scrapes and solutions make this feel very much like the TV series of today. It rattles along breathlessly, full of jokes and surprises. I find myself wondering where exactly in this year's series it takes place: after the events of Fugitive of the Judoon, given than Yaz first learns of Cybermen in that story, but chats about them with Ace here on page 137. 

Wednesday, March 04, 2020

Doctor Who Magazine 549

The new issue of the official Doctor Who Magazine includes a feature I've co-written with Sophie Iles, a preview of the animated version of 1967 story The Faceless Ones.

We spoke to producer/director AnneMarie Walsh, sound restorer and remasterer Mark Ayres, colour artist Adrian Salmon, 2D animator Kate Sullivan and character designer Martin Geraghty.

Monday, March 02, 2020

Vortex 133

The new issue of free magazine Vortex includes a feature on Doctor Who audio spin-off Susan's War, including an interview with me about the episode I wrote - The Uncertain Shore - and a picture of the splendid cast. 

The series is out next month: order Susan's War from the Big Finish website.

Sunday, March 01, 2020

The Painted Banquet, by Jocelyn Rickards

Subtitled "My Life and Loves", this gossipy autobiography by costume designer Jocelyn Rickards is great fun. From an early age, crises never get in the way of her having a good time. She tells us on page 9 that the sight of her as a baby stopped her father killing himself after being declared bankrupt.
"What to this day I don't understand is how, when we were in severe financial straits, I had a nanny until I was three and I was in no way aware at any time that the quality of life was less than carefree; nor do I know why, from the very beginning, I was allowed to go to only expensive private schools, which must have been a severe financial strain."
If there's no sense of the sacrifice and effort from her parents in getting her that education, we see the result of it: having joined an artsy, well-off set in her native Australia, Jocelyn follows them to London on a one-way ticket, and rather strolls into a world of connections with leading artists and directors. She takes pride in how few of them can trace Australian in her accent. She glides through love affairs, parties, digs, picking up plum jobs painting and designing for the great and good. She almost gets into the movies by accident.

Jocelyn is snobbish - "For the first time ever I was in an hotel where I didn't have to hide something from sight" she says on page 148 - and often bitchy (she herself refers to having "bitched" on p. 158), and there's a sense that she skims over her own bad behaviour. There are passionate affairs and friendships here, but also bitter rivalries - which she seems to relish.
"Oscar Lewinstein, talking to Evangeline Harrison, announced quite simply that I was the 'wickedest woman in the world,' a view shared with Renee Ayer and Stuart Hampshire. I can't think of three more desirable enemies." (p. 93)
There's lots of what X said about Y, or how Z was indiscreet, and times Jocelyn said or was heard to have said something mean. She rubs a lot of people up the wrong way without ever quite saying why. Of course, the chief appeal is what she can reveal about the famous names she courted and worked alongside. For example, she worked with Marilyn Monroe on The Prince and the Showgirl:
"God knows whether she herself wished to project an image of such blazing sexuality. But I do remember Bumble [Beatrice Dawson] bringing armfuls of wool jersey dresses for her to try on, all the right size, which Marilyn then changed to two sizes smaller." (p. 52)
Or there's the glamour of making a Bond film. In Istanbul on location for From Russia With Love, Jocelyn and director Terence Young had,
"two plates each of exquisite trip soup before separating - he to search for locations in a small boat, and I to do the same by car with the art department. It's difficult to say which of us had the worse afternoon - Terence, dragging his bare arse through the Bosphorous, or me without a blade of grass behind which I could conceal myself at all too regular intervals, as the tripe soup made its logical progress from entrance to exit." (p. 82) 
And there's what now feels extraordinary, in the midst of production on Blow-Up:
"the dark green corduroy jacket which David Hemmings had worn throughout the film had been stolen by some light-fingered passer-by. To anyone not used to working on movies such a loss would seem merely an irritation. But with four months of film shot in which the star was dressed in this particular jacket, it was a disaster; and we had only until eight o'clock the following morning to come up with another exactly the same. I rang Bermans, and told the man who'd been with me when I first found the jacket, at the Shaftesbury Avenue Cecil Gee, that I'd send him a car and would he please scour London. For four hours Rebecca Breed, the wardrobe mistress, as I waited in a state of depressing inertia. Then our misery was relieved, at least partly. The colour of the jacket we were given when the car got back was a perfect match; the pocket details were all different, however. Rebecca didn't think we'd get away with it. But a little subtle stitching of the pockets so that they didn't gape made it fairly unlikely that anyone would notice. They didn't. Of such minuscule details are the crises of film-making made up." (p. 101)
Today, a lead actor in a movie would have multiple sets of the same costume on standby. But Blow-Up wasn't alone - I know from my work on Doctor Who Figurine Collection that, for instance, the Second Doctor had only one version of his outfit - all of it second-hand and unique. Even by 1975, Tom Baker's first outfit as Doctor Who was a one-off. (As far as I can tell, the first time they had a spare set of his costume was when they needed a duplicate of him in The Android Invasion, by which time he'd been in the role for more than a year.)

The book ends with Jocelyn's marriage to director Clive Donner - though earlier chapters deal with filming on Sunday, Bloody Sunday, which took place several years later. The sense in closing is that she's no longer so restless, and no longer so keen on working in film. There's nothing on the 17 years between that moment and the time she wrote the book. Her 2005 obituary in the Guardian is culled  from details in her book, as if little of note came afterward. So there's the feeling that, even for her, this is an account of a bygone age: elegant, wild and carefree - even in a crisis.