As some long term readers of this blog will know, I have been invited by my good friend Mendy to visit her in The Netherlands later this week. It’s our intention, as part of my trip, to visit the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
Whilst we are waiting for the good Doctor to return in his birthday celebration in November, we decided that it would be a great idea to tie in my visit with a review of my favourite story in the Matt Smith era, so far, in “Vincent And The Doctor”. Now, my knowledge of Van Gogh himself is shamefully meager (as somebody who couldn’t draw or paint in my school years, I didn’t get the opportunity to do art appreciation). However, I am a fan of Richard Curtis’s work on films like “Love Actually” and “Notting Hill”, so I was fascinated as to what he would bring to the Whoniverse, especially a story which featured such a human focus as Vincent’s depression, and the issue of depression and mental health in general.
The framework for this story is firmly established with the opening shot of Vincent painting the famous masterpiece “Wheatfield With Crows” which alludes to the ensuing chaos caused by the Krafrayis creature, and which segues into the opening monologue by Bill Nighy in the role of Doctor Black. This opening dialogue demonstrates the obvious admiration by Richard Curtis on a humanitarian level as Black compares the body of work in the twilight of Vincent’s life with Shakespeare creating a series of his masterpieces during a summer vacation. This dialogue also highlights cruel reality the Vincent was not recognised for the artist that he would become during his lifetime.
This opening scene also highlights the story’s other theme of people’s ignorance of the unlike. This is seen through the Doctor’s behaviour when he sees the painting of “The Church At Auvers” and immediately pre-judges the Krafayis as “evil” rather than how the viewer, along with the Doctor, Amy and Vincent sees the creature towards the end of the story.
Once the story properly commences, we are, again led into an iconic Van Gogh painting, in this case his “Cafe Terrace At Night”. However, this isn’t simply using another painting simply for iconography’s sake. We are greeted with a “living” example of Dr Black’s statement that Van Gogh’s art was not recognised in his lifetime as he is unable to sell one of his self portraits for a glass of wine due to the patron not believing that the painting has any value in addition to his assertion that it will scare off the customers.
This scene also sets the stall of what is, for me, Karen Gillan’s star turn in the role of Amy Pond in Series 5. Whereas it is usually the Doctor with his unique brand of direct action which usually leads to the guest “hero” character joining in with the adventure, in this episode it is Amy’s compassion for Vincent’s plight that opens the door to his participation, which conversely leads to Amy’s ultimate heartbreak at the end of the story.
The cafe scene also enables a clever use of the TARDIS’s translation matrix to make use of Karen Gillan’s and Tony Curran’s, the actor who portrays Vincent Van Gogh, natural Scottish accent. Whereas in stories like “The Fires Of Pompeii” we have the joke of Donna Noble being translated into “Celt” because she speaks Latin, the story uses the device of Gillan’s and Curran’s Scottish accents to be translated into Dutch – thereby building an emotional bond between pair beyond the obvious visual cue of their ginger hair.
As in all the Doctor’s adventures, death is never too far away and the death of the one of the girls in the town at the end of the cafe scene, and the subsequent reaction of fear by her mother along with her attack on Vincent, the Doctor and Amy, highlights the lack of knowledge of mental health issues and, again, mirrors the Doctor’s pre-judgement of the nature of the Krafayis as an evil creature.
The following scene in which Vincent invites the Doctor and Amy to stay at his house enables Curtis to name drop another of Van Gogh’s paintings in “The Starry Night”. This cleverly book ends the episode for an amazing scene in the story’s coda that I will speak of later. It is also in this scene where we are, again, shown that Van Gogh’s work was not seen as commercially successful in his lifetime as Vincent himself dismisses his paintings as “junk”, which could also be seen as an allusion to the low self esteem that people with mental health issues like depression have to undergo.
However, this scene also highlights the vibrancy and life within Van Gogh’s work as the character of Vincent speaks of his view of art holding “more wonders in the universe”, something like the way the Doctor behaves with his companions. Conversely though, the fact that Vincent has a passion for the way he sees the world around him leads the Doctor to see his behaviour as some form of mania, rather than any form of insight.
This leads me to the scene where Vincent, the Doctor and Amy fall victim to the first Krafayis “attack”, namely that Vincent can see the creature, whilst it is invisible to everyone else (well, until the Doctor uses his invisible monster gizmo that he holds within the TARDIS). On the one hand, it could be thought of that the fact that Vincent sees the creature could be a symptom of his condition, whilst on the other – and I feel is more credible – hand the fact that Vincent sees the Krafayis means that he has a unique gift of insight into the world around him.
Another thing that is telling in this scene is the fact that the Doctor attempts to persuade Vincent that he can see the creature and he continues to attack thin air once the creature has departed. This lack of empathy on the Doctor’s part emphasises the lack of the Doctor’s basic humanity due to the fact that he is alien to humans. Whilst on the one hand this could be seen as ignorance of Vincent’s well-being on the Doctor’s part, it could also be seen as what makes Vincent all the more human and remarkable as a person.
The following scene sees the Doctor picking up his “invisible creature gizmo” and leads to mirroring in two respects. On the one hand, the Doctor is as snobbish as the patron of the cafe about Vincent’s work when he attempts to get the device to recognise the Krafayis from Vincent’s sketch, bemoaning that it cannot recognise the creature because it was drawn by an impressionist artist like Van Gogh rather than, in his opinion, a “proper” artist like Gainsborough.
The other way that he mirrors is in the way he externalises his thoughts about returning the Krafayis to a home. This compassion for the well-being of the creature mirrors Amy’s compassion throughout the episode for Vincent which leads to her surprise for him by flooding his courtyard with sunflowers, a visual cue to the end of the episode.
Once the Doctor persuades Vincent to paint the church to set up the painting at the beginning of the episode, there is, to my mind a cheeky steal from the film “Field Of Dreams”. Whereas Ray Kinsella, portrayed by Kevin Costner, is told by a mysterious voice that “If you build it, he will come”, the Doctor says that “If you paint it, he will come” – meaning that it is pre-destined that the Krafayis seen in the painting will be noticed. This also leads to a regular topic in the current incarnation of “Doctor Who” of time having fixed points as well as fluid points – in this instance that if Vincent gets killed during the course of the adventure, the body of work that Dr Black spoke of at the start of the episode would no longer exist. It also leads to a second issue regarding time that I will point out later.
Following this scene comes a powerful, yet sensitive portrayal of Vincent at his lowest ebb within the story as Tony Curran sells the point that despite the intervention of the Doctor who, despite the darkness that he has seen, happens to be the embodiment of the eternal optimist, Vincent can see no possibility of hope beyond his illness. It also highlights that even with the Doctor’s lack of knowledge of the human condition, he realises that people can only be pushed, prodded or cajoled so far before they have a breaking point. It also points towards Amy’s stubborness in refusing to accept that she is unable to make a difference to Vincent’s ultimate fate – again, more on this later.
Amy becomes the focus of the following scene as Vincent shows his skills of perception with his assertion that “Amy Pond can soldier on” despite her sadness. At this time, Amy does not know that she is sad as she has had the memory of Rory’s death and existence erased from her timeline in the previous episode “Cold Blood” as a result of the ongoing “Crack In Time” story arc which dominated Series 5.
The following scene at the church leads to a couple of great examples of “Who” lore. The first is the way that the Doctor names drops figures from history – in this instance Michelangelo and Picasso whilst he waits for Vincent to carry out his painting. This painting leads to the second point, which is referenced again in the Series 7 episode “The Power Of Three” being the Doctor’s impatience at the nature of linear time (in the “Waiting is for Wimps” scene). Whilst the Doctor can jump in and out of time at will through the use of the TARDIS, he is unable to accept or tolerate that there is a linear progression in time which needs to be played out.
The scene also enables the Doctor and Vincent to relate to the Krafayis. With the Doctor, he uses the fact that he is alone as the last of the Time Lords as way of trying to get the creature to empathise with him. Vincent empathises that the creature’s affliction of a lack of sight leads to it being seen as a monster, whilst his own mental health leads him to be seen as a monster by the less enlightened townspeople.
Ultimately, the creature’s lack of sight and fear because of it is realised too late by the Doctor and once the creature is accidentally killed by Vincent, it is the Doctor who observes that “Sometimes winning… winning is no fun at all.”
Which leads us to the coda of the story, which is in itself broken into three parts.
The first part refers back to the “Starry Night” reference at the beginning of the story when Vincent persuades the Doctor and Amy to see the night sky as he sees it, full of vivid swirls of yellow, purple, blue and black. Is this because the Doctor and Amy have come round to Vincent’s way of thinking, or is the Doctor using his telepathic abilities as an enabler for him and Amy to be granted access to Vincent’s idea of the universe around him?
This scene could also be seen as a parallel to an additional scene that was released on the Series 5 box set where the Doctor admits that he has to travel with companions because he no longer sees the wonder of the universe, unless it’s through the eyes of a companion, because it has become his “back yard”.
The next scene which leads to the trip to the Musee D’Orsay, sees a demonstration of how the Doctor empowers people for the better as Vincent admits that he doesn’t think that he will be able to cope without the Doctor’s and Amy’s intervention into his life. The demonstration of empowerment comes in the form of the trip to the exhibition at the start of the episode and leads to the most powerful scene in the episode and, for me, one of the most – if not the most – beautifully written and played out scene in “Doctor Who”‘s fifty year history.
The way this scene works is through a fantastic combination of Richard Curtis’s dialogue, masterfully allied with Bill Nighy’s well nuanced performance as Doctor Black, where he explains Van Gogh’s importance to the art and human history through the use of his pain of his mental health condition to show the absolute vibrancy and beauty of the world in which he lived. This dialogue alongside Tony Curran’s perfectly pitched reaction, the camera work to emphasise Vincent’s disorientation and the use of the track “Chances” by Athlete all combine to make this a perfect scene. (I’ve never been able to listen to that track in the same way since and I still get a lump in my throat when I watch the scene or hear that track).
The fact that the trip into the future imbues Vincent with a new found confidence leads to the second trip to the art museum to have the right level of emotional punch as the viewer, alongside the Doctor, that Amy’s optimism that time can be rewritten is ill founded despite her best wishes.
However, ultimately, this story isn’t about changing or interfering with history, albeit with Amy’s friendship being acknowledged in the famous “Sunflowers” painting which is alluded to in the scene where Amy fills Vincent’s courtyard with the eponymous flowers, it is summed up in the Doctor’s words that an individual has the gift to help other people by adding to their “pile of good things” and using that power to help people see the beauty in the universe around them.