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Doctor Who: Vincent and the Doctor (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Vincent and the Doctor originally aired in 2010.

But you’re not armed.

I am.

What with?

Overconfidence, this, and a small screwdriver. I’m absolutely sorted.

– Vincent and the Doctor

One of the strengths of the revived series has been a willingness to engage with a variety of writers. While Andrew Cartmel may have tried in vain to convince Alan Moore to write for the final years of the classic show, Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat have managed to draw a wealth of diverse talent to write for the revived series. Sometimes this didn’t always work out (Life on Mars creator Matthew Graham wrote Fear Her), but it did mean that the series could boasts scripts from figures as diverse as Neil Gaiman and Richard Curtis.

There’s something to be said for the diversity the format of the show allows. Vincent and the Doctor is really unlike any other story the show has ever tried to tell, but it still manages to feel like Doctor Who. Which is something pretty spectacular, and worth celebrating. Doctor Who works best as a vehicle for any and all kinds of stories, where the audience isn’t always exactly sure what it is going to get.

An artist's eyes...

An artist’s eyes…

On one level, Vincent and the Doctor is pure Richard Curtis, right down to the casting of Bill Nighy as a nerdy bow-tie-wearing art museum tour guide. This is especially obvious in the episode’s final ten minutes, when we’re treated to an almost emotionally manipulative sequence where the Doctor gets to show Van Gogh just how wonderful he truly is, and to demonstrate that the world doesn’t forget him. It’s even underscored by one of those annoying generic pop songs, Chances by the band Athlete. We’ll talk a bit about that sequence later.

On another level, it’s also pure Doctor Who. And – despite appearances – it has nothing to do with the insertion of an invisible monster. Well, not too much, at any rate. When Amy and the Doctor step back in time, the show makes it clear that we’re not really venturing into France in 1890. Rather, we’re venturing into the realm of fantasy and imagination – a story rather than a history. As such, we’re treated to a heightened sense of reality, as if Amy and the Doctor are stepping into a world made of Van Gogh’s paintings rather than the real world.

Three of a kind...

Three of a kind…

It’s telling that they arrive at the café from Cafe Terrace at Night to find it looking exactly like the impressionist rendering of it. There’s nothing else on the street, it’s not so busy that it seems like a real and tangible place. Inside, like a lot of the locales in Moffat’s first season producing the show, it’s almost as if we’ve stepped into a fairy tale or a fantasy. This is a world where Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings seem to mirror reality, and where the artist can co-exist with an invisible monster.

This does raise some interesting ethical points, and Vincent and the Doctor works well enough that it avoids feeling too awkward. After all, Vincent Van Gogh was a real person. He actually existed. He struggled with depression, and eventually committed suicide. That’s a very tough thing for a fantasy television show to deal with. To be fair, Curtis’ script doesn’t skirt the issue, or pretend that it doesn’t exist.

Painting a pretty picture...

Painting a pretty picture…

Von Gogh’s insanity is mentioned in the opening scene in a casual way by children at the museum. “He was the doctor who took care of Van Gogh when he started to go mad,” they note as they pass one painting. His suicide also confirmed in that same sequence, as Mr. Black assures us, “Less than a year before, before he killed himself.” Curtis’ script is remarkably up-front with the audience, and makes it clear that it won’t gloss over these points.

It’s very difficult to write about incredibly talented people who suffered from mental illness. It’s logical to argue that their illness affected how they perceived and interacted with the world around them, perhaps informing their incredible gifts. As such, it’s very difficult to acknowledge the fact that the illness might be intertwined with their talent, without accidentally or indirectly glorifying the illness – presenting the idea that perhaps this illness is somehow a “gift” in disguise. Because of course, it isn’t. It’s something people suffer with, and something that made Van Gogh’s life very difficult.

Portrait of the artist as Tony Curran...

Portrait of the artist as Tony Curran…

Curtis’ script does brush against that line a couple of times. “It seems to me there’s so much more to the world than the average eye is allowed to see,” Van Gogh observes at one point. Mr. Black tells us, “He transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty. Pain is easy to portray, but to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy and joy and magnificence of our world. No one had ever done it before. Perhaps no one ever will again.” These comments seem to position Van Gogh’s mental illness as a key part of what made him so special and so great.

However, Vincent and the Doctor is also surprisingly candid about the nature of his suffering. It’s not something that the Doctor can magically show up and deal with. When he finds Van Gogh suffering horribly, he offers to help – in the way that the Doctor does. Unfortunately, there are limits to what the Doctor, as a fictional character, is capable of. “It’s so clear you cannot help,” he responds. “And when you leave, and everyone always leaves, I will be left once more with an empty heart and no hope.”

Nighy perfect...

Nighy perfect…

Of course, a cynic might wonder why the Doctor can’t travel back in time with depression medication or use any of the advances in psychiatry to try to help Van Gogh deal with his illness. This is a fairly significant gap, but it’s easy to excuse on the basis that Vincent and the Doctor is just a story, and not a treatise on mental health. Although it does suggest that Vincent Van Gogh is a somewhat awkward subject for a time travel plot.

There’s a nice scene where the Doctor tries to be sincere with Van Gogh, only to come across as patronising in the way that it is very easy to be when dealing with mental illness. “And,” he states, “to be honest, I’m not sure about mad either. It seems to me depression is a very complex–“ Before he can turn into a well-intentioned after-school lecture on the subject, Vincent decides to cut across and shut him up. “Shush. I’m working.” There’s nothing worse than being patronising, even with the best intentions.

The poster child for how to do a "historical celebrity" episode?

The poster child for how to do a “historical celebrity” episode?

The monster itself is something of a clumsy afterthought, relatively undeveloped and existing simply to provide a plot around the character work. To be fair, it works reasonably well as a not-especially-subtle metaphor for depression, an invisible demon that is shunned and ignored by its fellow creatures. It’s interesting that the creature’s murders cause the crowd to turn against Van Gogh. “You bring this on us. Your madness! You!” It reflects the sadly common idea that all those suffering with mental illness are potentially dangerous or psychotic.

I also kind of like that Curtis appears to be having a bit of an affectionate go at Doctor Who as an institution here. An invisible monster is a fairly effective way of keeping the budget under control, and it’s not too difficult to imagine Tom Baker taking on a similar creature when the season came in significantly more expensive than previously anticipated. Of course, modern Doctor Who can render all sorts of monsters convincingly, as demonstrated with the creature’s reflection, so it’s clearly a nice in-joke, acknowledging the show’s past limitations.

A sunny disposition...

A sunny disposition…

The character work with Van Gogh is great. Tony Curran does a great job, despite obviously not being Dutch. Curran is one of those character actors who tends to pop up in the strangest places, and I have a growing fondness for him. The script makes a conscious effort to portray Van Gogh as a three-dimensional character rather than a collection of broad stereotypes. I love, for example, Amy’s attempts to manipulate him, force him to conform to her idea of him by purchasing a shedload of sunflowers.

“I thought you might like, you know, possibly to perhaps paint them or something?” she suggests, after filling his backyard with sunflowers. “Might be a thought.” She looks positively heartbroken when he replies, “Yes, well, they’re not my favourite flower.” It is terrible when your idea of somebody turns out to be quite different from who they actually are. It’s nice to see Amy’s awareness of Van Gogh evolve over the course of the episode.

Sketchy at best...

Sketchy at best…

It helps that, as with the above example, the script is wonderfully witty – filled with a dry sense of humour that is quite clear Richard Curtis, but could also be that of Steven Moffat. At one point, the Doctor finds the TARDIS covered with posters. At another, Van Gogh’s sketch of an alien menace proves completely ineffective. “This is the problem with the impressionists. Not accurate enough. This would never happen with Gainsborough or one of those proper painters. Sorry, Vincent. You will just have to draw something better.”

All of this is just a little undermined by the aforementioned Richard Curtis scene where the Doctor and Amy take Vincent to the future to prove that he’s actually pretty brilliant. It is – just barely – sweet enough that it doesn’t stray into overly sentimental. After all, wouldn’t it be nice to pick somebody great from history and have a chance to tell them “you know what? you’re great!” so that they might actually know? I think everybody’s had that feeling reading a biography or an article about an influential past figure who struggled a bit in their lifetime.

Looking back...

Looking back…

And, of course, the scene avoids becoming completely absurdly manipulative because… well, it doesn’t work. Even after all the Doctor and Amy do, Vincent Van Gogh kills himself. Because he has a mental illness, and you can’t magically fix that simply by telling him he’s great – even if you tell him that he’s great in the best possible way. It’s a very real and a very sincere moment, and one that excuses the excess of sentimentality in that trip to the future. After all, even that couldn’t make things magically better.

And we get a nice, nuanced bit of life philosophy from the Doctor as well, which feels a bit more than a trite moral handily stuck on the end of a story. “The way I see it,” he tells Amy, “every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant.” Even if they couldn’t cure Van Gogh’s depression by making him happy, because mental illness does not work that way, making him happy was a good thing to do.

The invisible enemy...

The invisible enemy…

It’s a nice moral for the show to embrace, not the notion that good and bad are co-dependent in that we need the bad to balance the good or any nonsense like that, but rather the idea that good and bad are both very different and that neither can somehow magically negate the other. It’s great that bad cannot cancel out good, but there’s an obvious flip-side to that particular coin. It’s a nice nuanced moral for the show, and one that refuses to take the easy way out and assure the audience that everything will always be okay.

Vincent and the Doctor also features some nice Doctor development as well. We’re really getting a feel for the Eleventh Doctor’s character at this point, as we get a sense that he’s really not suited to ordinary life. Even watching Vincent Van Gogh work, he’s easily bored. “Is this how time normally passes? Really slowly? In the right order?” It’s pretty much the exact same behaviour he’d demonstrate in The Power of Three.

Stopping to smell the flowers...

Stopping to smell the flowers…

We also see the re-emergence of the Doctor’s manipulative side, first hinted at when he hid the details about why he took her on the trip in The Eleventh Hour. However, it’s now clear that the Eleventh Doctor is willing to manipulate Amy for what he perceives to be her own good – that he will lie to her for her own protection and well-being, rather than because he’s treating her as a pawn in some grand design. This distinguishes him from the manipulative Seventh Doctor.

In a way, this fits with Moffat’s characterisation of the Eleventh Doctor as Amy’s imaginary friend, a figure from her childhood who returns to her in later life to prove that there’s more to the universe than she might suspect. Losing Rory, it makes sense that her imaginary friend would turn into a sort of coping mechanism, making a conscious effort to distract her from what she has lost, especially when she lost it because of him.

Curran affairs...

Curran affairs…

Of course, there’s something quite dubious about the Eleventh Doctor assuming that he knows what is best for Amy. The show is smart enough to concede this, acknowledging that it’s morally questionable at best. “You’re being so nice to me,” Amy notes. “Why are you being so nice to me?” It’s clear that Amy on some level knows that she is missing Rory, and it seems like the Doctor is avoiding the issue for his own well-being as much as hers.“I think it’s suspicious,” she comments, making it clear that this isn’t an entirely pleasant experience from her point of view.

You could argue that the Eleventh Doctor is keeping this from her because he couldn’t cope with her pain. After all, while the Doctor has always been a bit emotionally awkward, the Eleventh Doctor seems to have inherited and expanded upon his predecessors’ inability to confront complex emotions. Seen in that light, with Amy’s lack of knowledge treated as fundamentally unfair to her, you could make a case that the Doctor’s decision is essentially selfish.

Getting the picture...

Getting the picture…

Vincent and the Doctor is a pretty great piece of television and one that feels quite unique in the history of Doctor Who. It’s a thoughtful, emotional and affective piece of television.

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4 Responses

  1. I love this episode , my dad is an artist and van gogh is his greatest inspiration. when we watch it we cried . it was a big moment for an unemotional man.

    if any one is interest a run a doctor who blog featuring reviews , top ten lists and fan fiction.

    http://doctorwhotoptencanada.blogspot.ca/

  2. this is one of my favourite eleventh doctor episodes. I cried too, and cry more on every rewatch. I love the beautiful humour that is sprinkled through it, such as the look of horror on the Doctor’s face when Vincent paints over one of his paintings to draw the monster.

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