“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.
- 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.