“Vincent and the Doctor” is one of the episodes this season that I was particularly looking forward to. It’s not often that a writer as prominent as Richard Curtis gets involved with the show, and having the man behind Blackadder (as well as several highly successful feature films) contributing an episode was a prospect to savor. And I wasn’t disappointed—the result is a complete success. While a bare plot summary—the Doctor meets Vincent Van Gogh and helps him defeat a giant chicken from outer space—might suggest a less than serious episode, “Vincent and the Doctor” is in fact a deeply felt piece of work, with a wonderfully complex portrayal of its central character and plenty to say about topics that Doctor Who doesn’t normally touch.
We open in the Van Gogh collection in the present-day Musée d’Orsay, in Paris. A guide, Dr. Black, provides a tour group (and, of course, us) with some necessary exposition about Van Gogh—principally, how he was almost completely unappreciated during his own lifetime. I wonder if it was Richard Curtis’s involvement that led to this character being played by an uncredited Bill Nighy (Love Actually). It’s a lovely cameo, and giving the part to an actor of such stature ensures that the audience pays attention to what he’s saying, both here and at the end of the episode.
The Doctor and Amy enter during Dr. Black’s talk, simply wandering through the back of the shot in a very nice low-key way. They come to Van Gogh’s painting The Church at Auvers, and the Doctor spots a strange element in it—the head of an alien creature is looking out from a window of the church. The Doctor decides a trip back to 1890 is in order to talk to Vincent Van Gogh and find out what’s going on. This first section of the episode is extremely straightforward; it’s simply designed to get the Doctor and Amy together with Van Gogh as quickly as possible. They arrive in 1890 and almost immediately track down Vincent, in a cafe which looks exactly like another of his paintings—The Café Terrace. As usual with period episodes of Doctor Who, the BBC design, costume and makeup departments have done outstanding work. Director Jonny Campbell and his team have made just as good use of the Croatian town of Trogir here as they did in “The Vampires of Venice” a few episodes ago.
When their talk with Vincent is interrupted by an attack on a local girl by the mysterious unseen monster, the Doctor and Amy are soon inviting themselves into the artist’s home. From this point, the episode is pretty much entirely a three-hander between the Doctor, Amy and Vincent. Matt Smith and Karen Gillan are both excellent this week, enjoying playing with the dialogue Curtis has written for them. The loss of Rory at the end of last week’s episode is clearly weighing on the Doctor, but he has to avoid showing it because Amy has no memory of the event. Indeed, she’s in a cheery, playful mood, as we saw earlier in the museum:
Amy: “You’re being so nice to me… why are you being so nice to me?”
The Doctor: “I’m always nice to you.”
Amy: “Not like this. These places you’re taking me… I think it’s suspicious.”
The Doctor: (quickly) “What? It’s not. There’s nothing to be suspicious about.”
Amy: “Okay, I was joking… why aren’t you?”
As good as they are, though, the show belongs to Tony Curran, who puts in a spectacular performance as Vincent. Given the opportunity to present this great but mentally fragile artist as a complex, fully realized human being, he seizes the chance with alacrity. He is thoroughly believable as a man who sees the world in a very different way, rising to heights of passion as he tries to communicate his experiences:
Vincent: “It’s color. Color that holds the key. I can hear the colors… Listen to them. Every time I step outside, I feel nature is shouting at me. ’Come on. Come and get me. Come on! Come on! Capture my mystery!!’”
The episode doesn’t shy away from Vincent’s struggles with depression; indeed, without in any way forcing the parallel, a monster which is visible only to him, strikes without warning and can’t be reasoned with makes an ideal metaphor for the demon within, while ensuring that the story remains accessible to the children which make up a crucial part of the show’s audience. And as for his physical appearance, that’s simply perfect—at one point he’s holding up an actual Van Gogh self-portrait next to his face, and the resemblance is amazing. The one obvious divergence from the real Vincent—Curran’s Scottish accent—is elegantly covered with a good joke implying that the TARDIS is translating him for Amy’s benefit.
The actual monster-chasing plot is kept extremely simple. The creature attacks again at night outside Vincent’s house; Vincent draws a picture of it so the Doctor can identify it as an alien creature called a Krafayis; they go to the church where they know it will shortly arrive; there’s a brief chase and a fight, and the creature is killed. Around this straightforward plot, though, are arranged many moments of comedy, beauty, depth, and tenderness. There are some gorgeously composed images, such as in a scene on the morning after the attack, when Amy has filled Vincent’s garden with sunflowers and is sitting among them:
Amy: “I thought you might like, you know, possibly, to perhaps, paint them… or something? Might be a thought.”
Vincent: “Yes, well, they’re not my favorite flower.”
Amy: (astonished) “You don’t like sunflowers?”
Vincent: “No, it’s not that I don’t like them. I find them complex. Always somewhere between living and dying. Half human as they turn to the sun. A little disgusting. But you know, they are a challenge.”
The Doctor: “And one I’m pretty sure you’ll rise to…”
I’m almost taking it for granted now, but Matt Smith is yet again brilliant as the Doctor. This episode lets him demonstrate that he doesn’t even need anyone else on screen to play off, as he’s given a great solo comedy sequence when the Doctor takes Vincent’s drawing back to the TARDIS and uses its computer to attempt to identify the creature. (“This is the problem with the impressionists. Not accurate enough. This would never happen with Gainsborough, or one of those proper painters.”) From out of the TARDIS storage cupboards he digs out a hilariously clunky contraption to use as a portable monster detector, and there’s another mainly comic sequence as the lumbering Krafayis pursues him back through the town. (As for the appearance of the aforesaid space poultry, it’s not the greatest piece of design, and the CGI is never totally convincing, but since the monster is definitely a subsidiary part of the story, and spends most of its time invisible, it does the job quite adequately.)
In contrast to this fooling around, a dramatic high point comes with a powerful scene as they are getting ready to go to the church. The Doctor finds Vincent lying on his bed, sobbing, and gently approaches him.
The Doctor: “Vincent, can I help?”
Vincent: “It’s so clear you cannot help. And when you leave—and everyone always leaves—I will be left once more with an empty heart and no hope.”
The Doctor: “My experience has been that there is, surprisingly, always hope.”
Vincent: “Then your experience is incomplete! I know how it will end. And it will not end well.”
Unwisely, the Doctor tries to snap Vincent out of his depression, but Vincent yells at him to get out. Shortly after, though, he rejoins the Doctor and Amy as they are about to go to the church, his black mood having dissipated. He is in his hat and coat, and picks up his brush like a gunfighter in a spaghetti western arming himself for battle. On the way to the church, there’s a clever moment as Vincent realizes that Amy has her secret sadness too. He notices that she is crying without realizing it.
Vincent: “It’s all right. I understand.”
Amy: “I’m not sure I do.”
As with the moment later when the Doctor accidentally blurts out Rory’s name to Vincent, the season arc story is kept bubbling along underneath without needing to be brought into the foreground. It’s been rather prominent lately (especially, of course, in last week’s episode), so it’s nice to have it recede again for a bit.
There’s some more fun dialogue as the Doctor has no choice but to wait for the monster to appear while Vincent is painting the church—he can’t stop himself making jokes about Michaelangelo and Picasso, and complaining, “Is this how time normally passes? Reeeeeally slowly. In the right order. If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s an unpunctual alien attack.” Eventually, to his relief, the monster arrives, and they corner it in the church. In a twist, the Doctor realises that the Krafayis is blind as well—they are just as invisible to it as it is to them. There’s a struggle, which ends when Vincent, intending only to ward off the monster, accidentally kills it by impaling it on the legs of his easel.
The monster plot may have ended, but there are still ten minutes to go. The extended epilogue which follows is, in many ways, my favorite part of the episode. It starts with the Doctor, Amy, and Vincent, lying on the ground and looking up at the night:
Vincent: “We’re so lucky we’re still alive to see this beautiful world. Look at the sky. It’s not dark, and black, and without character. The black is in fact deep blue. And over there—lighter blue. And blowing through the blueness and the blackness, the wind, swirling through the air. And then shining, burning, bursting through, the stars—and you see how they roar their light. Everywhere we look, the complex magic of nature blazes before our eyes.”
The Doctor: “I’ve seen many things, my friend. But you’re right—nothing quite as wonderful as the things you see.”
Illustrating Vincent’s words, the view of the night sky morphs beautifully into Van Gogh’s famous Starry Night. It’s a moment of pure magic. What follows is also magical, as the Doctor and Amy, rather than simply taking their leave of Vincent, decide to give him a trip in the TARDIS to the modern-day exhibition where we started. Looked at realistically, this is a very uncharacteristic thing for the Doctor to do—there’s not the slightest worry expressed about affecting the course of history or anything like that. But really, this is just a wonderful bit of wish-fulfillment—given a time machine to play with, who wouldn’t want to go back to visit their heroes of the past and show them how they would be famous and revered in the future? Vincent gets to experience the success he was denied in his lifetime, and is reduced to tears of joy as he overhears Dr. Black deliver a passionate encomium.
The only thing I didn’t like about this sequence is the decision to use a rather saccharine ballad on the soundtrack, which tips the scene over into unwanted sentimentality. I would have preferred Murray Gold (who has been a much reduced presence this season compared to previous years) to have been given the opportunity to score this scene. Fortunately, it’s not the end of the episode; there’s still more to come. The Doctor and Amy deliver Vincent back to his own time, make their farewells, and return to the museum, with Amy expecting to see many more Van Gogh paintings.
But the episode finally brings us back to reality with the reminder that a condition like depression is not to be negated by one moment of joy. As Vincent said, “Doctor, my friend. We have fought monsters together, and we have won. On my own I fear I may not do as well.” Amy is distressed to discover he still took his own life at age 37. After she bitterly says they didn’t make a difference at all, there’s a lovely bit of philosophy from the Doctor:
The Doctor: “I wouldn’t say that. The way I see it, 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, and make them unimportant. And we definitely added to his pile of good things.”
Murray Gold’s music finally comes to the fore in an intensely emotional ending, as Amy discovers there has been one tiny change after all. Vincent’s painting of a vase of sunflowers now has a dedication—”for Amy.” A final grace note in a masterpiece of an episode.
NEXT WEEK: There’s no new episode next week since it’s the Fourth of July weekend. The season enters the home stretch in two weeks time with “The Lodger.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: There’s only one classic series story that comes close to equalling this episode’s saturation in the world of art, and that’s “City of Death,” starring Tom Baker and Lalla Ward; one of the best stories in the entire series. Written by Douglas Adams, it has a brilliant Steven Moffat-style time-twisting plot, lovely location filming in Paris, and any amount of great dialogue, all topped off with a surprise cameo from John Cleese. Do yourself a favor and check it out.
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