Review by Mark Bousquet
“VINCENT AND THE DOCTOR” – Series 5, Episode 10, Story 210 – Written by Richard Curtis; Directed by Jonny Campbell – The Eleventh Doctor and Amy are getting over Rory, which is to say the Doctor is acting really nice to Amy and Amy can’t remember anything about Rory because technically he doesn’t exist anymore. Whoops. That’s what happens when there’s a crack in the universe. They’re in a museum, listening to Bill Nighy do the Bill Nighy voice when the Doctor realizes something is wrong with one of Vincent’s paintings – there’s a monster in it. They go rushing back to 1890 because they forget they’ve got a FREAKING TIME MACHINE and find out Vincent sees monsters no one else sees. Also, he likes to paint. And drink. And cry. And everyone thinks he’s mad. Because He Paints Too Much And Drinks Too Much And Cries Too Much. Oh, And Sees Invisible Monsters.
VINCENT AND THE DOCTOR is not a perfect episode but I have no problem ranking it among my favorite DOCTOR WHO episodes of all time. I find it to be one of the most emotional stories in the history of the show and Bill Nighy’s final monologue about the greatness of Van Gogh the Artist as Van Gogh the Man is standing by listening absolutely crushes me every single time I watch it.
Tony Curran’s portrayal of Van Gogh is one of the most engrossing historical portrayals in the show’s entire run. It’s a devastating performance that brings us a Van Gogh soaring to fanciful heights and drowning in crippling depression. Beyond Nighy’s speech, Curran brings me two of my favorite moments of Series 5. The first is when he, the Doctor, and Amy are walking to the church that Vincent will turn into his painting The Church at Auvers. Vincent had just suffered one of his depressive fits, only to rebound a few minutes later. Amy tells him she’s sorry he’s sad and Vincent says a little about his condition but then tells her he can see her sadness and that’s sorry for her loss. Amy doesn’t know what he’s talking about because of the crack in the universe that enveloped the dead Rory at the end of COLD BLOOD erased him from history.
Amy keeps protesting until Vincent finally asks, “Then, Amy, why are you crying?”
The camera then takes in the Doctor walking behind them, knowing full well what Amy has lost, and has been taking her on fun trips (that we haven’t seen) instead of breaking the truth of Rory’s existence/death/erasure to her.
The second Van Gogh moment comes after the death of the Krafayis. (Do I need to explain? Krafayis is an invisible monster that only Van Gogh and the Doctor’s crazy machine can see. It’s been stranded on Earth and is lost and blind and lashing out and they kill it. Hooray?) Laying on the grass and looking up at the stars, Vincent takes the Doctor and Amy’s hands in his and describes the night sky and the stars to them. It’s a brilliant artistic moment, hearing Van Gogh passionately describe what he sees and the special effects team then brings the night sky to life, transforming it from the night we all see into the artistic vision that Van Gogh realizes on canvas in The Starry Night.
Narratively, the episode isn’t very strong. The Doctor and Amy are in a museum to see Van Gogh’s paintings and discover a monster in The Church at Auvers. The Doctor decides they have to go help him RIGHT NOW, even though, you know, he’s got a time machine. Enjoy the rest of the tour. Listen to Bill Nighy talk about art all afternoon. Have lunch. Have dinner. Raise a Sequoia sempervirens from birth to death. But no, the Doctor decides they need to go RIGHT NOW, AMY because this isn’t episode doesn’t work on narrative logic but rather emotional resonance. Emotionally they have to go now to highlight the importance of what the Doctor sees in the painting.
It kind of raises an interesting idea, too, about the fluidity of time and how it can be written and unwritten. The Doctor knows the Krafayis isn’t supposed to be in that painting but no one else does, meaning to Art Historian Extraordinaire Bill Nighy, the monster (as diminutive as it is inside the church) has always been there. So what changed? Something had to trigger something to get the Krafayis inside that church after history had gone through the first time, yes?
The Doctor has some good moments in the episode, too. Smith is wonderful at the cafe in trying to buy Van Gogh a bottle of wine, and you can see that his Doctor loves these historical moments. There’s a real joy in popping in to see Van Gogh. Tennant played this aspect of the Doctor’s personality wonderfully, too, in THE UNICORN AND THE WASP. Vincent refuses his offer but when Amy steps in to buy a bottle, Vincent changes his mind.
Because he thinks Amy is hot.
He might be a crazy-ass depressive artist, but he’s still a dude, and his flirting with Amy throughout the episode provides a lot smiles.
There’s a great moment when they’re at the church and Vincent is painting after telling the Doctor to shush and … it’s a painting, right? Painting takes time and while Vincent is working and Amy is watching him adorably, the Doctor grows bored. “Is this how time normally passes?” he asks no one in particular. “Really slowly. And in the right order?” I love it. As excited as he is to meet Vincent Van Gogh, the Doctor finds watching him work quickly lose its luster as he really just wants to get to finding the monster.
After they’ve defeated the Krafayis, and realized it was not the deadly killer that is typical of his species but instead just a physically disabled alien left behind to die alone on a strange world, Vincent delivers a wonderful line that perfectly sums up who he is in the context of what he’s just done. “Doctor, my friend,” he says. “We have fought monsters together and we have won. On my own, I feel I will not do as well.”
Then there’s the ending. Wanting Amy to have a happy ending even though she doesn’t remember her crushing ending last episode, the Doctor brings Van Gogh to the future. Vincent has been battling his depression throughout the episode and he thinks he’s a terrible painter because no one wants to buy his stuff, so the Doctor takes him into the future and back to the museum so he can see his work exhibited. Curran brings home Vincent’s confusion and astonishment at seeing this and when the Doctor asks Nighy about where Van Gogh ranks among all of the artists in history (with Amy positioning Vincent so he can hear what Nighy is saying) and Nighy begins to talk … I don’t know. There’s just something about how particular and effusive Nighy is describing Van Gogh as the greatest painter of all time and how he possessed the rare gift to transmit his personal pain into vibrant art that just kills me. Curran plays it perfectly, disbelieving what he’s hearing but also reduced to tears at the praise.
There’s something touching, too, about the Doctor standing at the edge of this scene that only he could have arranged. Like I said, I love it without apologies, though I can understand someone not liking the Doctor reduced to a secondary character in the story’s biggest emotional moment. Heck, the Doctor is really pretty much a sidekick all story long.
Amy has high hopes that this will cure Vincent’s depression but it doesn’t. He still commits suicide and doesn’t produce hundreds of new paintings. Smith plays the somber Doctor well; as Amy is exuberantly hopeful, he’s reserved, unwilling to pop her fantastical bubble but unable to play along.
VINCENT AND THE DOCTOR is not a typical DOCTOR WHO episode and I’m perfectly okay with that. Like LOVE AND MONSTERS or BLINK, I wouldn’t want to see VINCENT be a typical episode, but as the occasional change of pace episode, I think it’s a wonderful, emotionally powerful story. Full credit to Richard Curtis, Jonny Campbell, and Tony Curran for their emotionally brilliant work.
Originally Published April 21, 2011