After the last four stories have all been pretty intense in different ways – constantly changing up the season’s status quo with unexpected swerves from the cracks in time, and constantly challenging the Doctor’s relationships with his new companions – Series 5 of Doctor Who decides to slow things down with a relatively lightweight breather episode this week. “Vincent And The Doctor”, the second ‘celebrity historical’ of the season (in which the Doctor comes face-to-face with a notable figure in European history), after the Doctor and Amy Pond rubbed elbows with Winston Churchill in “Victory Of The Daleks“.
“Vincent And The Doctor” is written by Richard Curtis, who (like several other guest writers in the show) has only ever penned one story for Doctor Who, which would explain why this episode feels quite unlike your usual installment of Doctor Who. He previously worked with Steven Moffat on the Doctor Who comedy sketch, “The Curse Of The Fatal Death”, in 1999, and around a decade later, when Steven Moffat became the showrunner for the series proper, he reached out to Richard again and asked him if he would like to write an episode for the show.
Richard was a pretty big fan of Vincent Van Gogh’s work as an artist, and he’d always taken a keen interest in the man’s tragic life, so the subject matter for his story was decided upon pretty quickly: he would write a love letter to the late painter. He wanted his episode to touch on the subject of mental health issues – the historical stigma against them, and the lasting effects they can have on someone if they’re left untreated for long enough. Basically, he wanted it to be a bit of a learning experience for the younger members of Doctor Who’s family audience and hoped it would leave it an impact on them, so they would grow to be kinder and more considerate to their fellow man. Considering the warm reception his episode got, I think it’s safe to say that he succeeded in what he was aiming for.
“Vincent And The Doctor” deals with the aftermath of “Cold Blood” in a fairly subtle way. Poor Rory is dead, and while Amy has forgotten him against her will because of the cracks in time, the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) still remembers him and is still quietly mourning one of his new friends. Feeling responsible for her loss, the Doctor has been treating Amy to a lot of extravagant trips across the universe, when they stop to have a word with Vincent Van Gogh about an alien menace in his time. Eleven is in a pretty serious mood this week: normally, he enjoys a good tourist’s trip, but a specter of death is hanging over this one like a dark cloud, tainting it – not just Rory’s death from the last episode, but Vincent’s upcoming suicide. He knows that Vincent isn’t fully stable, and that he’s risking changing history for the worse by getting him involved in their alien hunt, so one of his main priorities is keeping Vincent and Amy out of danger as much as he can. After his carelessness had plenty of unintended consequences in the last adventure, he seems to be putting in a greater effort to be a more responsible time traveler in this one.
As several days pass, the Doctor is touched by the sort of person Vincent is when you get to know him, so for once, he decides to ignore the rules and take Vincent forward in time, so he can see how much people will love and appreciate his work before he dies. This gesture of kindness has an enormous impact on the man, but it still doesn’t change the way his life ends. With this episode’s dénouement, Richard Curtis acknowledges the harsh but true reality that depression is a difficult beast to live with. Your friends can help to lighten the burden and brighten your spirits, but they can never take it away from you entirely. You and you alone have to constantly live with it at the end of the day, and what you decide to do with your life is in your hands.
“Vincent And The Doctor” serves as quite the growing experience for Amelia Pond (Karen Gillan) when it comes to her emotional maturity. Amy is quite the history buff and an art fan, so she spends the bulk of this episode fangirling over how cool it is to be meeting Vincent Van Gogh, getting to know the man behind the myth. She hits it off incredibly well with Vincent, who becomes smitten with her, and honestly, if Rory wasn’t the guy for her, I would probably ship it. Amy is full of joy and life this week, like the sunflowers Vincent comes to associate her with, but she has her own share of emotional scars, including a few that she’s not aware of.
Amy has grown a lot since we first met her in “The Eleventh Hour“. Back then, she had emotionally closed herself off to protect herself from the harshness of the world, which could have a detrimental effect on her personal relationships. But she’s grown more openly empathetic from her travels with the Doctor, and she feels a lot of compassion for Vincent, since she knows what it’s like to be shunned and treated like a freak for being weird (though not nearly to his extent). Eleven and Amy are at their best in this episode when it comes to how their friendship is portrayed: they bicker frequently (and they keep subjecting each other to comedic jump scares), but they know each other’s personalities very well, and they’re more than willing to pick up the slack when it comes to each other’s weaknesses. They also work in unison to raise Vincent’s spirits in the last act. Amy is absolutely crushed when Vincent still chooses to take his own life, though the Doctor expected such a thing to happen. They couldn’t change his ultimate choice, but they touched his heart and brought a bit of light into his life, and he never forgot them.
Naturally, Vincent Van Gogh is the star of the hour, and this episode manages to craft a pretty complex portrait of him in just forty-five minutes. Vincent is a proud man who’s stubborn to a fault, and he seems to have developed a drinking problem as a way of coping with his problems. He gets offended easily, and he won’t tolerate people talking down to him, or trying to force charity upon him. He’s mentally ill during a period in history when everyone around him is ignorant about his condition, so instead of getting the treatment he needs, he’s shunned as a madman and made into a social pariah who’s blamed for all of his neighbors’ ills. He’s a solitary bachelor, with nary a friend in the world when the Doctor and Amy meet him, so his self-esteem is pretty much non-existent: he’s constantly making self-deprecating remarks about himself and his art.
He seems to have made peace with his lot in life, and he pretends it doesn’t bother him, but the villagers’ abuse cuts him deeply. For quite some time, he’s afraid to get attached to the Doctor and Amy, since they’re the first people in years to show him kindness and really try to understand him without being condescending to him. He has a larger-than-life personality, and he’s very passionate about his work – sometimes a bit too passionate. Like every good artist, he wants to capture the way he sees the world and depict it on a canvas, preserving its memory forever, though he’ll take a few liberties here and there and wander into some abstract territory with his vision. Vincent makes absolutely no attempt to hide his attraction to Amy, flirting with her freely, and compared to his usual fiery and blustery personality, we get to see a softer side of him during his scenes with Ms. Pond, since he often feels sheepish and flustered around her.
Vincent can certainly be courageous, and he steps up as an unlikely hero multiple times in this episode: helping the Doctor and Amy fight off the Krayfayis when nobody else knows about it, and rushing to their rescue a few times – though, to his surprise, the Krayfayis turns out to be a kindred spirit, a fellow outcast who never really stood a chance in a world it didn’t fit into to. When it comes to his depression, that omnipresent voice in his head that’s always cutting away at him, Vincent has his good days and his bad days, his peaks and his valleys, where he pivots between trying to maintain a hopeful outlook on life and succumbing to fits of despair, drowning in his sorrows. He soldiers on with his life because he must, trying to make do, until one day, he just can’t do it anymore.
A pretty common theme in these ‘celebrity historical’ episodes has been the character of the week wondering about what their legacy might be – whether it’s Charles Dickens or Agatha Christie – and that theme has never been more stirring and impactful than in the final fifteen minutes of this episode, when the Doctor takes Vincent into the future and makes sure he receives some vindication before the end of his life. Tony Curran delivers a beautifully understated performance as the walls Vincent built around his heart start to break down for once and he’s beside himself with pure, unbridled, teary-eyed joy. He never imagined anything like this would ever be possible, and for a few moments, it threatens to overwhelm him. Rather realistically, Vincent’s ultimate fate remains unchanged – spending a few great days with friends you’ll never see again won’t make much of a difference when you have to go right back to living in a harsh and abusive environment on your own – but the Doctor and Amy always held a special place in his heart for the rest of his days.
The alien antagonist of the week is the Krayfayis, a beast running loose in France, killing people wherever it goes, and since it’s invisible, only Vincent (who sees the world differently than everyone else does) can see it. The Krayfayis is pretty easily the weakest part of this episode: the CGI that’s used to create it has to be some of the least convincing work we’ve seen all season, and whenever we’re given a glimpse of it, it sticks out like a sore thumb compared to the rest of the setting. The creature’s reign of terror is brought to an end when Vincent accidentally kills it, defending the Doctor and Amy, and once the final truth about the alien is revealed, the A-plot is thematically tied together with the B-plot. The Krayfayis was blind and abandoned on Earth by the rest of its herd. Ironically, the creature that can never be seen could also never see the rest of the world because of its disability. So it lashed out chaotically, to protect itself from the unknown: like Vincent, during some of his worst moods, or like the villagers, when they shun the man as a threat to them. Vincent only realizes the Krayfayis was a kindred spirit when it’s on its death bed, and he’s pretty heartbroken by this outcome.
The Krayfayis is dealt with a lot earlier than you would expect, which frees up the entirety of the third act for Richard to resolve the real emotional core of this episode: Eleven and Amy’s newfound friendship with Vincent. As it turns out, the Krayfayis was a pretty late addition to this episode. “Vincent And The Doctor” was originally meant to be a pure historical, like the ones from the William Hartnell era of Doctor Who, where the Doctor and Amy spend a week with Vincent. However, executive meddling led to the Krayfayis’ creation, because the higher-ups insisted that every episode needed to have a monster in it, which explains a lot about why it feels so out of place compared to the rest of the plot, and why it’s dispatched so quickly to focus entirely on the character drama in the last act.
“Vincent And The Doctor” is helmed by Jonny Campbell, who previously worked on “The Vampires Of Venice“, and he does a solid job of bringing this story to life: showing us the Doctor’s fantastical world through Vincent’s eyes. Like “The Vampires Of Venice”, “Vincent And The Doctor” was filmed in Croatia to capture the look of 19th century France. From Vincent’s humble abode to the little neighboring village with stone streets, there’s all sorts of beautiful, rustic scenery that’s presented in a very tasteful and refined manner throughout the hour – particularly the luscious wheat-fields in an orange, autumn countryside during the cold open. Throughout the episode, the production team tries to recreate the inspiration for several of Vincent Van Gogh’s most iconic paintings, by dressing up a street to match “Café Terrace At Night“, or using CGI to turn a regular, chilly night sky into the gorgeous vista from “The Starry Night” when it’s seen from Vincent’s perspective (which is easily the most visually stunning scene in the episode).
Murray Gold leans heavily on the strings section of his orchestra to create, sweet, tender and romantic music that’s perfect for an episode that’s set in blustery old France. “A Troubled Man” is a darkly somber take on Eleven’s theme, to accompany the Doctor’s secret predicament in this episode, while “Hidden Treasures” and “With Love, Vincent” are two pieces filled with whimsy and affection, capturing Vincent’s passion for his art and the special connection he had with his friends for a short time. “Chances” by Athlete is a rare example of a contemporary rock song being used in Doctor Who, for the now famous art gallery scene in the climax, but it surprisingly enhances the mood of Vincent’s discovery well as the past meets the present day in wonder and ecstasy.
“Vincent And The Doctor” is a very touching and surprisingly beautiful character piece that manages to do something profound with Doctor Who’s usual formula for a celebrity historical episode. It tells a sweet and poignant human story about art, depression and imagination that only occasionally feels at odds with the show’s usual sci-fi trappings.
* “What about the other pictures?” “Art can wait, this is life and death. We need to talk to Vincent Van Gogh!”
* “Get that madman out of here! You bring this on us! Your madness! You! He’s to blame! Get out!” Hot damn, lady.
* “What are you interested in?” “Well, look around. Art. It seems to me there’s so much more to the world than the average eye is allowed to see. I believe, if you look hard, there are more wonders in this universe than you could ever have dreamed of”.
* “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!” “….Maybe you’ve had enough coffee now. How about some nice calming tea? Let’s get you a cup of chamomile or something, shall we?”
* “Don’t worry, I’ll be back before you can say where’s he got to now? NOT THAT FAST! But pretty fast. See you around”.
* ” Never do that!!! You scared the living daylights out of me” “Sorry, I got bored. As much as you admire his command of color and shape, it’s hard to get fond of Vincent Van Gogh’s snoring”.
* “You don’t like sunflowers?” “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”.
* “If Amy Pond can soldier on, then so can Vincent Van Gogh” “I’m not soldiering on. I’m fine” “Oh, Amy. I hear the song of your sadness. You’ve lost someone, I think” “I’m not sad” “They why are you crying?”
* “Will you follow him?” “Oh course!” “I love you”.
* “Could you breathe a little quieter, please?” “No“.
* “I am really stupid” “Oh, get a grip! This is not a moment to re-evaluate your self-esteem!”
* “Hold my hand, Doctor, try to see what I see. We are so lucky we are 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. Can you see how they roar their light? Everywhere we look, the complex magic of nature blazes before our eyes”.
* “How come I’m the crazy one, while you two have stayed sane?” Vincent, my good man, whoever said they were sane?
* “Well, big question, but to me, Van Gogh is the finest painter of them all. Certainly, the most popular great painter of all time. The most beloved. His command of color, the most magnificent. 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. To my mind, that strange, wild man who roamed the fields of Provence was not only the world’s greatest artist, but also one of the greatest men who ever lived”.
* “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 or make them unimportant. And we definitely added to his pile of good things”.
* “If we had gotten married, our kids would have had very, very red hair” “The ultimate ginger” “The ultimate ginge. Brighter than sunflowers”.