Doctor Who – “Vincent and the Doctor”

“Vincent and the Doctor”

June 5th, 2010

Last week’s “Cold Blood” was one of those episodes which required some time to decompress, for us to see the consequences (or the consequences of the lack of consequences, to speak more accurately) of the events at its conclusion. Of course, the complicated nature of those events (which I’m avoiding spoiling above the fold so that those following the American schedule don’t see something they shouldn’t) means that the show isn’t necessarily going to act as if something terrible has happened, and the characters (for various reasons) will be moving on with their lives as if it hasn’t happened at all.

It puts “Vincent and the Doctor” in a legitimately fascinating position, and lends Richard Curtis’ compelling standalone story a weight it may not have otherwise achieved. While you could consider the episode’s visit with Vincent Van Gogh and his encounter with an invisible creature to be a solid little piece of storytelling separate from its place within the season’s narrative, its subtle moments of serialization and its broader thematic position within the series make it more accomplished than it may have been otherwise. It doesn’t necessarily surprise us, nor dazzle us with anything particularly amazing, but the notes it hits feel like the right ones for this stage in the series as we march towards its conclusion.

As a standalone story, Richard Curtis (who wrote for Mr. Bean and Blackadder, and who was nominated for an Oscar for writing Four Weddings and a Funeral) has crafted an intriguing bit of storytelling which shifts emphasis heavily towards the personal rather than the alien. There is, of course, the “invisible to all but Vincent Van Gogh and the Doctor’s crazy little machine” Krafayis within the story, but ultimately the creature exists more as a point of reference. Spending a lot of time focusing on Van Gogh’s depression, “Vincent and the Doctor” uses the Krafayis as an implicit argument that what plagued Van Gogh was not simply depression, but some sort of imbalance which allows him to see the world differently, inspiring both his unique perspective on the world and his unique ability to see this alien creature. That the Krafayis couldn’t actually see at all was a point of irony, the idea of this man who could see more than anyone else battling a demon who couldn’t see anything at all, both forced to struggle through life alone.

If you’re looking to this episode for a compelling image of the Krafayis as the last of its race or anything similar, it isn’t here: the series used its invisibility to cheapen out on the special effects budget (okay, and to create a bit of tension as well), and it’s not like we can hear what the creature is saying beyond the Doctor’s translations of its groaning. And while this may make the episode seem more lightweight than usual, it actually ends up being a much more intriguing story as a result. By focusing more on Vincent than on the creature, and by allowing the story to go beyond “stopping the monster” to an attempt to diagnose (or at least soothe the mind of) Van Gogh himself, the series tackles some pretty heady topics as it relates to mental illness and suicidal tendencies. When the Doctor and Amy take the extreme step of bringing Van Gogh with them to 2010 to see his paintings at the Musée d’Orsay, and then return home having given him a glimpse at how beloved he will become in the future, there’s no real mystery where the show is going, and yet there’s still an exhilarating suspense to be found in dropping a (potentially) changed man into the past and then seeing what changes have been wrought. When the shots in the museum were being mirrored, I half expected the sign leading to the Van Gogh exhibit to be gone, his legacy tarnished by his newfound self-worth having gone to his head or something similar.

Instead, of course, not much has changed at all: his Sunflowers painting, dedicated to his beloved Amy, and the Krafayis being absent from his painting of the Church are all that remains from their visit, their positivity having inspired Van Gogh without saving him. As a standalone piece, the poetry of that moment is fairly potent: the depiction of his mental illness was nicely negotiated by Tony Curran, and Curtis’ script did a good enough job of laying out Van Gogh as a character that we can imagined the period following their visit. Perhaps he was so concerned about maintaining his legacy that he became even more reclusive than before, or perhaps he became so obsessed with living up to that legacy that his final paintings became unnaturally difficult and drove him further towards his tragic end. That gap of time that we didn’t get to see, that Amy and the Doctor weren’t able to watch over, was something that they couldn’t fix, which you could either take as a statement about the struggles of those struggling with mental illness or a statement about the series’ larger view of the impossibilities of changing the past. I don’t have much to go on in terms of the show’s use of real-life figures within previous series, but the way the show built Van Gogh based on both his legacy and his actions within the episode ended up a quite intriguing glimpse into less history and more a man who struggled all his life. By removing some of those struggles, Amy felt they could cure him, but history and humanity don’t work that way, and that’s an intriguing lesson that stands on its own quite nicely.

It also, however, nicely ties in with there the series is at the moment. Rory’s death and subsequent erasure from time itself has in some ways created no consequences: Amy goes on with her life as if nothing has happened, while the Doctor is forced to move on as if nothing has happened out of fear of awakening some of Amy’s sadness. Rory isn’t completely gone from her mind: there’s that nice scene as they walk towards the Church where Vincent insinuates that he sees sadness in Amy, and she’s involuntarily crying for reasons only the Doctor understands, which means there are remnants there. The Doctor is trying to protect her, taking her to fabulous places and only heading on this adventure out of concern over the monster he sees in that particular painting. While he’s there, he falls into old habits: he bristles when Amy says she’s not the marrying type, and accidentally calls Vincent Rory in the heat of the moment. It had me on edge for the entire episode, wondering whether Vincent was going to come across Rory’s ring amidst his search through the TARDIS or wondering if something else would unearth itself.

Rory being erased from time for everyone but the Doctor is very convenient for the show, in that they can shift to standalone episodes like this one without Amy being an emotional wreck over his death, but it also contains complications that “Vincent and the Doctor” doesn’t ignore. Those brief moments indicate the Doctor’s struggles with keeping this secret from Amy and living with it himself, while the central themes of Vincent feeling like he’s been left behind, that everyone abandons him, feels like it only pours salt in the Doctor’s wound (and the wound that Amy doesn’t even know she has).

[I’m about to subtly spoil the series finale of Lost, so look away now if you haven’t watched!]

In some ways, it’s not unlike the Flash Sideways states of the various characters in Lost’s sixth season, suffering from wounds that bleed through (like Jack’s appendix scare, his neck wound) and yet for which they have no context and which they don’t understand. However, unlike Lost, I don’t think there’s going to be any sort of transcendence on Doctor Who: if (or when) Amy’s wounds return to the surface, she will be more devastated than the Doctor can imagine, which makes her emotional response to Van Gogh’s death that much more poignant (as we can only imagine the comparative magnitudes that would come with Rory’s death).

[Spoilers are done now, honest!]

The doctor is trying to protect her from experiencing grief that she can’t imagine, trying to keep her focused on the positive so that she doesn’t meet the same fate as (from what I’ve read and pieced together) many of the Doctor’s past companions. Van Gogh’s tragedy leads to the Doctor’s little speech about good things and bad things, and that every life is made up of equal parts of each. In that we see plenty of connections with Rory’s life, a way for the Doctor to try to put it all into perspective himself (since, after all, Rory died saving him, and it’s not as if he has anyone to talk to about it). In that sense, while we don’t actually see the crack in time or get any real discussion of Rory, there are plenty of signs in the episode both in terms of dialogue and in terms of theme which add to the complexity of the series thus far.

And while it’s likely not one of the most entertaining or individually complex standalones in the series’ history, I thought it did quite a nice job of fitting in at this particular juncture, which is really what’s most important.

Cultural Observations

  • And yes, I got through the entire piece without talking about Bill Nighy (who has worked with Curtis on numerous occasions) – he remains as charming as ever, but this was really a bit cameo role and not much more, so I will simply say that I was most pleased to have him on my television screen.
  • Note the bit of foreshadowing regarding the sharpness of the easel when Van Gogh puts it into the ground at the Church.
  • Speaking of which: wasn’t he a bit close to be painting such a wide angle of the Church? Just saying.
  • I noticed the camera (and the Doctor) lingering on the image above the Church door, with a man using a sharp object to slay a beast: was this some sort of sign about what was going to happen within the Church, or just some sort of subtle nod that we don’t quite understand? Either way, it was a tiny bit strange, so I’m curious to see if anyone has any theories on the subject.
  • Not entirely down with the cheesy ballad that played over the closing scenes – would have rather had it scored rather than soundtracked, but I guess Curtis is more used to the latter considering his oeuvre.
  • I’ll be curious to see if BBC America does the same, but the BBC put up a phone number and a website for those who have suffered from depression if they wish to seek help following the episode, clearly indicating its function as a way to speak to these issues.
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25 Comments

Filed under Doctor Who

25 responses to “Doctor Who – “Vincent and the Doctor”

  1. Austin

    I don’t remember where I read it, but I read that he had to rewrite some of this script because the Doctor was too chatty. I liked his line: “Is this how time normally passes? All slow and in the right order?”

  2. BobT

    I generally like Curtis’ work, but I wasn’t really sure how he would tackle Doctor Who.
    Most episodes focusing on a famous figure from history are also usually a little hokey.
    I also usually cringe at foreign shows/films trying to portray Dutch people, being Dutch myself.

    I cringed only one time when van Gogh asked; “The accent…Are you from Holland as well? In an obviously Scottish accent and then continued to talk english when the Doctor lied that they were.

    But nitpicking aside, I ended up loving this especially for the ending.

    Richard Curtis has this uncanny talent to put just enough earnestness in his work that makes the most sentimental things work, where in any other hand it would’ve felt contrived.

    (Which is why I can stomach his rom-coms more than others).

    So I couldn’t help put tear up at that Museum scene.
    The directing, the music and the acting were maybe hammering in the point, but for me it worked.

    I thought they did great in honouring the artist and tackle the issue of depression the way they did.
    It never got too heavyhanded or too silly.

    The anouncement for the hotline was a bit surprising, I usually only see this with very disturbing docs and dramas.

    Again, great episode and I hope Curtis gets another chance to write for Who sometime again.

    • Annie

      To Van Gogh, they were speaking Dutch (or… French or whatever Van Gogh was speaking) because the Tardis does a translating… thing. It gets into the Doctor’s and Amy’s heads to translate what they hear to what they can understand and translate what comes out so that non-English speakers can understand them. (I assume Amy wasn’t told this, that’s why she immediately said no when the Doctor said yes.) Why we couldn’t understand what the Krayafis was saying as well, uh, I don’t know. The accent thing was just a line to get around making Tony Curran speak in an accent not his natural on. I think.

  3. Eldritch

    “Speaking of which: wasn’t he a bit close to be painting such a wide angle of the Church? Just saying.”

    I don’t think too much reality is this show’s problem. I noticed the wide angle thing, but I also wondered how come no one questioned the Doctor or Amy’s clothing from the future. For one thing, she was wearing short shorts. Wouldn’t the locals have burned her for a prostitute? And when she said she wasn’t the marrying kind, back in those days, didn’t that straight out mean she was a whore?

    And like BobT, I did a double take at a Dutchman in Southern France speaking with a Scottish accent. Were the frenchmen in that episode speaking English or was Amy speaking French?

    • The TARDIS has capabilities to, at the very least, localize (if that’s the right word) foreign languages – see The Fires of Pompeii in S4. I suspect something similar applies to clothing, possibly relating to perception filters.

      (This season has had fewer historical episodes than, say, series 1 or 4, so it’s understandable questions are being raised about these sorts of things.)

      This episode had a lot more going for it than most other historical episodes in revived Who; in particular, the opportunity to present its subject as rounded and not just as a plot device (as opposed to Queen Victoria in S2’s “Tooth and Claw” or Agatha Christie in S4’s “The Unicorn and the Wasp”).

      On that basis, it passed with flying colours, especially in the depiction of van Gogh’s depression. To further the Lost comparison, this was a bit like “Expose”: a stand-alone of sorts that contributed to the reoccuring “time can/can’t be rewritten” motif.

      This will be one heck of a finale, if all this buildup pays off.

      This series has managed to, for the most part, blend fantasy and reality in a way the RTD era never quite accomplished – and I love it.
      I also loved the flirting between Amy and van Gogh; is it only now with the events of “Cold Blood” that anyone actually notices how gorgeous Karen Gillan is?

      • Annie

        I agree! RTD did well with him time on Doctor Who, but Moffatt has created a really amazing fairy tale/fantasy story that also includes the often forgotten reality of the everyday and the monsters within us. Karen Gillan has been annoying gorgeous in that sneaking up on you with approachable prettiness since the very beginning. 😀

  4. Eldritch

    “…he image about the Church door, with a man using a sharp object to slay a beast:”

    I took that image to be St. George slaying the dragon. Some kind of parallel to slaying a parrot, uh, kracken, uh Krafayis.

    • Cygnus

      I think so too.

      According to myth, Saint George slew a dragon with a lance to save a girl, a princess. When he had slain the dragon the townsfolk of the town the dragon was terrorizing all converted to christianity.

      Funny thing is, there are similarities between this myth and the myth of Perseus, whose statue was at the Musée.

      • fivexfive

        I didn’t know that connection of St. George and Perseus… possibly foreshadowing for the episodes to come?

  5. I was 100% bawling for the last few minutes. That was excellent.

  6. Me, too, Lauren… Really got to me. This episode just *worked*. I’ve been a bit down on this season and a lot of its choices, but I feel reenergized after this one. Truly the ultimate wish fulfillment fantasy for any artist of any discipline: to know and see and hear and feel and understand that your work has had any impact at all, no matter how great or how small.

    I loved this episode. I could just feel the love in it.

  7. Phil

    I really loved this episode – I’ve been lukewarm for most of this series despite loving the two leads so this was a very welcome (but emotionally shattering) breath of fresh air.

    Curtis handled the very difficult issue of mental health problems sensitively and appropriately for a family audience – something I think is no mean feat – and I must confess I cried more than I have in a very long while over a television show.

    My personal interest in Van Gogh may have had an effect on how much I enjoyed the ep though. I’ve seen a fair amount of talk amongst others who have no interest in his art who felt the ep was more than a little indulgent and sentimental – a criticism I really don’t see myself, especially bearing in mind some of RTDs output.

  8. Gill

    I like Van Gogh, and recognised some of the little sketches from the recent Royal Academy show, but I still found it a touch sentimental – very Richard Curtis, in fact. His best work is when he has a partner who can rein him back, as Ben Elton did for most of Blackadder.

    The purist in me was irritated that they implied the church “near Auvers” was in Provence, when it so obviously wasn’t and couldn’t be; they played fast and loose with the time scale and chronology of the paintings. And where exactly did Amy get so many sunflowers from?

    That said, this was very enjoyable and carried on threads of the major arc quite neatly. My gut feeling is that we may well not have seen the last of Rory, since the fate of the Tardis is bound up in the time crack as much as his. Very few of the Doctor’s “assistants” and “companions” have died, and each one was a tremendous shock, even with Adric who was not exactly popular. (I’m talking 25 years or more ago here. This show has not so much mythology as geological layers of architecture.) And playing with people’s memories rarely ends well – ask Joss Whedon!

    I loved a lot of the tiny details – Vincent’s hat, the room spinning as he listened to Bill Nighy, the comparing notes on bow ties. Yet again the “Confidential” stressed that the show is for children. I would prefer to say “families”, but I think it’s important to realise the target audience is not the same as “Lost”. The handling of the topic of acute depression was the most impressive aspect of the episode for me, therefore – enough to offer a good route for families affected by it to open discussions, a helpline to signal that it’s a serious issue and yet an ending small children would have seen as actually happy. The BBC has a helpline for many shows, BTW, though more on the radio than TV, so it was sensitivity rather than overreaction to offer it for this show.

    Side-note @Eldritch: I also wondered how come no one questioned the Doctor or Amy’s clothing from the future. For one thing, she was wearing short shorts. Wouldn’t the locals have burned her for a prostitute? And when she said she wasn’t the marrying kind, back in those days, didn’t that straight out mean she was a whore?

    The costume is no more out of place than Martha’s leather gear in the Shakespeare episode. I don’t think the Doctor’s assistants have ever gone into full costume for a time travel episode or sequence, unless some indigenous inhabitant has taken them away to dress up in local clothes. And I am fairly sure that they had stopped burning people even in rural Provence long, long before the late 1880s anyway. Characters in the world entered by the Tardis rarely note anything odd about the Doctor and his companions, so I think we can assume the chameleon field, which has failed to mask the Tardis itself properly since 1963, does actually work when its passengers need to melt into the background.

    And, yes, I watched the first episode in 1963, the day before Kennedy was shot. I was extremely young at the time, though!

    • Annie

      The only time I can remember a companion (of new Who, at least) purposefully dressing up in time-appropriate regalia was Rose in the Charles Dickens episode with the Gelf. In the Shakespeare ep, the Doctor told Martha that she’ll find that if she acts like it’s not an issue, it won’t be. But there have been times when a companion’s clothing has been noted, so who knows?

      • Evamarie

        Yes, like when Rose met the Queen and they kept calling her “the naked girl”.

      • fivexfive

        Rose also dressed up in 50’s clothing in the episode “The Idiot’s Lantern,” although so did the Doctor and I think they were really doing it just for the fun of it. God, that was a fun episode. It has all these sneaky, silly moments that made me roll on the floor laughing.

  9. Eldritch

    “…I am fairly sure that they had stopped burning people even in rural Provence …. so I think we can assume the chameleon field.. “

    I’m new to Doctor Who, despite it’s being old enough to have geology instead of mythology, so I’m may be noticing some things a bit more than a seasoned fan. I’d never heard of a “chameleon field” before. So at least, the clothing and language issues have been addressed in some fashion.

    As for burning people, I mean that in the sense of friendly hyperbole. I’m sure you caught my meaning that I just meant people would react to her as though she were a prostitute. I don’t actually recall any society burning prostitutes. A witch here and there perhaps, but not prostitutes. 😉

    • Evamarie

      True, but in the episode’s defense – she spends most of her time just with Van Gogh – she interacts with the people very little.

  10. Evamarie

    This was my favourite episode of the season. I cried at the end, too. The whispered comments about the red-haired children killed me.
    I like that the show went with this sad episode following Rory’s death – I was worried they’d switch right back to early happy stuff. I also loved watching the Dr. watch the man’s mental illness. He saw he was sort of “mad” (or actually not mad as the Dr. tried to say) but had this respect about him still. This is a side we don’t often see from the Dr. Usually, he’s a tad clueless about ppl and flitting about and such. Here was caring, strong, wonderful.
    It kind of reminded me of Girl in the Fireplace with the sad love story.

  11. Caravelle

    I loved this episode too. The whole Van Gogh thing going to the museum took me by surprise; I was thinking “Oh no they di’n’t” the whole time and thought it was a bit much. However it was completely paid off by the scene where Amy’s running back to see how time changed, and the Doctor is following her and you can tell he knows what she’s going to find. So that was great.

    And although the episode was very bittersweet (I don’t want to say “sad” about an episode that’s so much about seeing the wonder of the world around us) there were seriously hilarious scenes. Austin already mentioned the whole “Is this how time normally passes? All slow and in the right order?” scene. I also loved the detecting machine showing him a parrot and he’s “This is the problem with the Impressionists !”

  12. Joe

    I thought Curran’s performance was absolutely terrific; he really captured the tortured artist. The story had me tearing up when Vincent visited 2010 and saw that his work would be understood one day. After he was returned to 1890 and saw the TARDIS disappear, I interpreted Curran’s expression to imply that Vincent chalked up the excursion as some hallucination or delusion, and perhaps that is why he still killed himself within the year.

    High marks also to Smith, whose Doctor clearly understood that he was not going to be able to talk Vincent out of his depression with a few words of encouragement. It really is a complex issue. I mean, even time-travel is no sure cure.

    A wonderful, outstanding episode.

    • High marks also to Smith, whose Doctor clearly understood that he was not going to be able to talk Vincent out of his depression with a few words of encouragement. <— Very well said.

  13. fivexfive

    After reading the comments, I pretty much see my friend’s impressions of this episode mirrored. I heard so much hype from them, and they all LOVED it, since they’re watching on the UK schedule and I’m on the US one, that I think it might have ruined the episode for me. I still like it, but I didn’t get all moved and emotional by it, which is odd because I’m a sucker for schmaltz. Also, I thought I’d relate to the scenes about van Gogh’s depression since I suffer from depression myself, but the whole thing moved so fast for me. It was one scene, some witty banter, some other scene, some action, back and forth in time, ballad, and done! How did this episode just go right over my head?

  14. Lynn

    The image above the door of the church appears to be Saint Martha slaying the Tarasque, in the town of Tarascon is named near Arles. She tames the beast and brings it home, but the townspeople are afraid and kill it in the night.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarasque

  15. I enjoyed your take on this episode. And I don’t usually pimp my personal blog, but I wrote about this ep as well, and I’d love to know what you and your readers think of it:

    http://onlyautumnthoughts.wordpress.com/2011/05/19/transforming-pain-into-beauty-vincent-and-the-doctor/

    I do think one of the major points of the episode was depression, how horrible it is… but that Vincent’s special “sight” allowed him to see not just the darkness, but the beauty of life as well.

    Thanks.

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