Doctor Who #852: Vincent and the Doctor

"I've seen many things, my friend. But you're right. Nothing quite as wonderful as the things you see."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Jun.5 2010.

IN THIS ONE... Vincent Van Gogh vs. an invisible monster.

REVIEW: Going purely by the plot, Vincent and the Doctor is pretty standard celebrity historical fare. There's big guest-star from History, and plenty of over-top hero worship. The alien threat is inspired by the artist's own life, and the script goes out of its way to reference his work. In the Whoniverse, artists drew on life more than imagination oftentimes. There are some notable differences, however. Instead of a writer like Dickens, Shakespeare or Agatha Christie, we have a tortured painter, whose work is thus much harder to adapt. They manage it beautifully. The episode is lush and visual, from the first close up shots of wheat to the beautiful Croatian-as-Provencal countryside, and to the wonderful sequence in Van Gogh-vision where the sky becomes a painting before our very eyes. Tony Curran isn't just a dead ringer for the historical personage, but also gives a sensitive, moving performance, equally sad and joyous, which is the core of the mental health issue portrayed. In another twist, though the Doctor and Amy bring some light and wonder into Vincent's world, they can't prevent his suicide, and the episode doesn't gloss over that. It's rather dark and mature subject matter for the program, but a topic that deserves more awareness.

So while the monster - just as wounded and isolated as Vincent himself - is an obvious metaphor for the painter's depression or bipolar disorder, invisible and violent, but essentially sad and afraid, it's not the cause of Vincent's madness. That would have been a cheap cop-out. It's merely a thematic motif, and one that also connects to Amy's own loss. She's sad too, sad of having lost Rory, even though she can't remember him having existed. That reinforces the theme of mental illness' irrationality. We know why she's crying, but from her perspective, there is no reason. And so it goes for Vincent who, despite having been shown his posthumous success, still commits suicide on the correct date. It's not worth looking for a rational answer, and that was Amy's mistake. Vincent didn't kill himself because he thought of himself as a failure, no more than he did because - we can have our theories - he later decided this episode was all a dream, or that there was too much pressure to become the "great man" described by the tour guide, and so on. His suicide was pointless, and that's the point.

If the plot is, on the surface of it, pretty standard, and there are, inevitably, historical inaccuracies, everything is forgiven for the sake of those last 8 minutes or so. I simply can't get through the sequence without massive eye leakage. Vincent overwhelmed by Dr. Black's evaluation of his work is so powerful (and isn't Bill Nighy great?), I'll even allow the rare use of a pop song in Who (if a lot of shows use them, it's because they give emotional end montages some punch; Athlete's "Chances" isn't a song I know any other way, but it works for the sequence). Amy's hope that she'll have Quantum Leaped the artist's life - and we know she'll be crushed - ending on a bittersweet note as she discovers (and this time, it's Murray Gold's cue that's providing the punch, one of his prettier tunes) the Sunflowers dedicated to her. The Doctor's speech about adding to a person's good pile of things is a potent one as well. I'm a big fan of this episode, and it strikes me that I haven't even mentioned all the bits I like the Doctor's impatience at watching Vincent paint, or his comical despair at Vincent white-washing an unknown work for a blank piece of canvas, or the visual references to the first two Doctors, or the posters burning off the TARDIS' shell in transit...

SECOND OPINIONS: My original review, 10 and 1 Things About Vincent and the Doctor, is just as glowing. It also includes a Van Gogh anecdote from my life.

REWATCHABILITY: High - Deeply moving, and not at all hurt by the fact that there's a giant invisible dino-chicken in it.


Jayunderscorezero said...

This was the first episode of Smith/Moffat Who that I really couldn't stand. I guess it all depends on one's tolerance for that scene with Nighy/the pop music: is it touching or incredibly naff?

Siskoid said...

See, I still find it strange this was a polarizing episode.

Toby'c said...

For me, it's one of my five favourite stories of all time.

Siskoid said...

See what I mean?

Anonymous said...

I love this episode for many reasons, both from a production standpoint (gorgeous visuals, excellent performances) and a personal one. We lose people we love, and not always fairly. Ultimately, we have to figure out a way to live with that and realize we did what we could to be a positive presence in their lives. I'm not a fan of "message" stories, but as Siskoid pointed suicide is not often properly touched upon or dealt with in popular fiction.

Also, the idea that VanGough getting validation appealed to me. I've seen this episode twice and couldn't keep my eyes dry either time.

- Mike Loughlin

Siskoid said...

Recently lost an old friend to suicide and it didn't make any sense there either even if he'd always been prone to dark thoughts. Even when you can explain it, it never makes sense because it's a permanent solution to temporary problems (at least, in most cases).

We hadn't been close in decades, but it still took the stuffing out of me. I dedicate this blog post to his memory.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry to hear that, Siskoid. I lost someone to suicide a long time ago, but a lot of old feelings resurfaced when I watched the end of the episode. I kept thinking "why" and "how could I have stopped it?" and came up with "bad things happened that the person could not live with" and "I don't know."

- Mike Loughlin

Andrew said...

Not just one of my favorite episodes of Who, this is one of my favorite episodes of ANYTHING.

LiamKav said...

From loving Richard Curtis when I was younger (mainly due to Blackadder), I've found myself getting more and more annoyed by his writing tics as I've gotten older. Mainly that his films boil down to "upper middle-class white people pursue younger women while saying things like 'fuckity fuck arse'", and it gets a bit tiring (seriously, do a comparison between the ages and salaries of the male characters in "Love Actually" and the ages and salaries of the female characters. It gets uncomfortable pretty quickly). That all said, I love this episode. I don't know if it's just because he couldn't fall back on his usually writing tropes, but I think this episode is beautiful. The Starry Night sequence is one of my favourite things that television has ever done.


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