To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the revival of Doctor Who, some of TGT’s writers will be chatting about an episode that they love – it may be a fan favourite, or it might be an under-appreciated gem. We continue today with TGT writer Andrew discussing an episode like no other – Vincent and the Doctor.
This is a stand alone episode very close to my heart, and is from Matt Smith’s first series, series 5. It has the quality of giving us both a heartwarming and painfully heartbreaking glimpse into Vincent Van Gogh’s ultimately tragic final days.
Van Gogh (played by Tony Curran), despite being widely acknowledged as the finest and most recognised artist there has ever been, received no reward or praise for his astonishing work during his own lifetime. These thoughts were very much in Richard Curtis’ mind when writing the episode – regarding the sadness of Vincent’s ignorance about his own influential talent, Curtis talks about ‘whether or not we could use time travel to put that right’
The episode shows us something about the incredible visual imagination Van Gogh possessed together with the intense suffering he endured throughout his life, aspects which many now understand to have been exacerbated by a latent psychological disorder. Essentially something that cannot be seen but is all too horribly real for those afflicted.
This concept of an invisible torment is core to the episode, and part of the outwardly irrational fear Vincent suffers is given a tangible form in the Krafayis, a type of alien beast invisible to most people’s eyes, which persistently haunts Vincent, and who the Doctor learns is often deserted on random planets by it’s own kind, and left to attempt survival alone, lashing out at it’s surroundings in the desperation of abandonment.
At the beginning of the episode, the Doctor, with Amy, spots the Krafayis as a disturbing detail within a painting at a 2010 Paris Van Gogh exhibition. The Doctor asks a tour guide the date of the painting, then considers the timeframe in regard to Vincent’s life, and quickly realises urgent action is needed. (Although there is just time to have a bow tie mutual appreciation chat with the guide) He and Amy hurtle back to 1890, the year of Van Gogh’s death, to search for and to assist Vincent.
Happily the Doctor and Amy are able to bless Vincent with some joy and clarity, and to give him some respite towards the end of his life. They help Vincent defeat the Krafayis, the main focus of his torment. We see Vincent range in highs and lows mood wise, the polar opposites of recognised mood disorders well depicted.
If I had to pick one, then the moment that gets me most is when the Doctor goes to Vincent’s room to get him ready for action, but finds Vincent curled up and sobbing into his pillow in a state of extreme hopelessness. The Doctor gently asks if he can help, at which point Vincent wildly turns around, looking like he’s doubled up in agony practically screaming ‘it’s so clear you can’t help, and when you leave like everyone always leaves, I will be left once more with an empty heart and no hope’ . At this point all the Doctor can do is back away. For me this is a real demonstration of how it feels when there’s no hope, when not even the Doctor can assist you, the man that can, will and does help anyone.
On a couple of lighter occasions we see the Doctor and Van Gogh compare notes about the universe, the irony being Vincent passionately believes (without being sure) that if you ‘look hard, there are more wonders in this universe than you can ever have dreamed of’. The Doctor wryly smiles and mutters ‘you don’t have to tell me’. Later though, whilst the Doctor, Amy and Vincent are holding hands and star gazing, Vincent describes how he sees the night sky, in a torrent of vivid observation – at this point the onscreen visual effects start drifting into a formation of Van Gogh’s most famous painting ‘Starry Night’. I think the implication is that only Vincent can see this at this point, and the Doctor concedes ‘I’ve seen many things my friend, but nothing quite as wonderful as the things you see’
The episode peaks as the Doctor has an inspired idea to treat Vincent to the experience of a lifetime, a ride in the Tardis, arriving at a jaw dropping scene for Vincent (And a moment where I well up every time!) as he sees his own work displayed in the current day, in all it’s glory, at the prestigious Paris art museum where the adventure began. In kindness, the Doctor gives Vincent all this to help combat the abuse inflicted upon him by everyone he encountered, local people in his own time writing him off as crazy, and as someone who brings a curse to their environment. Again, in this scene, it looks as if Vincent is in physical pain, but he is actually weeping with happiness whilst the Museum’s awkward tour guide (played exceptionally by Bill Nighy) describes Van Gogh and all that he achieved, particularly emphasising the feat of using ‘passion and pain to portray the ecstasy and joy and magnificence of our world’
The Doctor and Amy return Vincent to his own time and place. Upon saying goodbye, Amy becomes nervous and excited thinking that because of their intervention in Vincent’s life, he would now go on living as a new man, and there could be no way Vincent would die in the way that he did. She is desperate to get back to Paris 2010 to see all the new paintings Vincent will now have created. But it seems all along, through Matt Smith’s brilliant acting of a Timelord knowing of a negative outcome, that the tragedy will remain despite all that’s positive in attempting to stop it. In reality, for the Doctor and Amy, it just feels an even deeper hurt. There’s comfort though for Amy as there is just one new painting in the gallery, Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’. With poetic licence the vase is inscribed ‘For Amy’, a cool reminder of the day Amy bought Vincent sunflowers to cheer him up.