The Future Is Here
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Doctor Who proves that art and compassion both remain mysteries

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I'll be honest: "Vincent and the Doctor" was the first time I've fallen in love with Doctor Who this season. It had a strong emotional arc, a visceral horror, and humor that felt completely un-forced. Spoilers ahead...

(BTW I wanted to hold off posting this until our current technical glitches were behind us. Hence the delay, which I apologize for. Sadly, the glitches seem to show no sign of abating.)


I should add that I haven't disliked any of this year's Doctor Who episodes. There's been no "Fear Her" this year. It's all been quite good, and apart from minor quibbles — like, what the blazes was up with the Smilers in "The Beast Below"? — I've mostly enjoyed every episode on its own terms. I would cheerfully concede that every episode this year has been above average for the series as a whole. But still, a lot of the storytelling has felt a bit been-there-done-that... until "Vincent and the Doctor." Which I couldn't stop obsessing about, both while watching and for a long time afterwards.

At first blush, "Vincent And The Doctor" is just another one of the show's "meeting famous historical personnages" outings, which have included Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, William Shakespeare and Agatha Christie in the past. It's only once you get sunk into it that it feels like a very different beast altogether. This is entirely due to Richard Curtis' uncompromising script and Tony Curran's performance as Vincent Van Gogh. Unlike the other historical figures the show's visited, Vincent feels heart-breakingly real and complicated, and not at all a pastiche.


The "tormented genius" thing is a total cliche, but Curtis and Curran manage to infuse it with extra dimensions. This episode's version of Van Gogh isn't just tortured by the loathing of his fellow humans — although the scene where the grieving mother throws rocks at him early on is horrifying — but he's also wracked with realistically-depicted depression. And even in his cheerful moments, he's convinced that he's not a very good painter, and that anybody who claims to like his paintings is automatically suspect.

And yet, even though Vincent has a rock-bottom opinion of his own skill and talent, he's still as ambitious as hell. He wants to capture the raw energy of nature in a way that no other painter has. He feels as though nature is shouting at him to capture its majesty. And he's bursting with strong opinions about how painters should try to represent the things that normal eyes can't see. He's a huge contradiction — utterly arrogant, and yet full of self-loathing and self-deprecation. In other words, he's an artist.

And Curtis builds an entire plot around the idea that Vincent really does see the world differently, and this allows him to see the Monster Of The Week, the Krafayis. Which looks like a vengeful giant chicken, but at least it's no Ergon. It's a neat idea to turn Van Gogh's "special" vision into the crux of the plot. And then the Krafayis turns out to be blind and an outcast from its own kind, thus making it sort of the monster equivalent of Van Gogh in a sense. Van Gogh does for the creature what he'll do for himself, all too soon — put it out of its misery.

Van Gogh's impending suicide hangs over the whole thing like a shroud, and the episode takes a less-is-more approach to showing the depression that will claim him — there's really only one short scene of Vincent sobbing and screaming at the Doctor to get out, but the suicide is referred to obliquely enough times that it's impossible to forget.

The episode's themes all come together in this absolutely breathtaking clip, where Van Gogh manages to show Amy and the Doctor how he really does view the night sky. It's like his painting come to life, and it's both wild and joyful. You're left wondering how a man who can see so vividly would choose to kill himself.

And as if in keeping with the material, this is one of the more arty Doctor Whos in general — the chase scene, with the Doctor fleeing the Krafayis and only able to see it through the mirror on his godmother's old gadget, is brilliantly gray-tinged with the dawn light, and yet it feels utterly kinetic and sharp. And the splashes of color, from the sunflowers and Amy's scarf among other things, burst out of the picture.


And not surprisingly from the co-writer of every single Blackadder episode, the humor in this one is also great, including the Doctor's weird jokes about representational versus non-representational art, Gainsborough and Picasso. "If there's one thing I can't stand, it's an unpunctual alien attack." And the scene where the Doctor and Bill Nighy admire each other's bow ties. And the whole "could you breathe more quietly" bit inside the confessional.

I think one reason why I loved this episode more than most of the others this year is because it felt, effortlessly, like it was about something. I mean, "The Beast Below" was a fairly blunt political allegory, and you can pull out messages from some of the other episodes this year. But "Vincent and the Doctor" felt as though it was exploring a universal set of themes in a uniquely personal way, and it didn't offer any easy answers.

And then there's the ending, which is one of the most amazingly brave things I've ever seen. It could so easily have been a horrible, cheesy disaster — the Doctor takes Van Gogh forward to the present, so he can see how much people come to admire him. But it doesn't feel cheap at all — it's the artist's ultimate dream come to life, being able to see yourself admired by strangers long after you're gone. A kind of immortality. I can't imagine watching the scene where Nighy explains Van Gogh's stature to the artist himself without getting choked up.


And then Van Gogh goes and kills himself at age 37 anyway, because even knowing that he's destined for greatness doesn't really change anything in the end. As the Doctor puts it, they added to Van Gogh's store of good things, but that doesn't always change the bad things. The only changes they've managed to make in Van Gogh's legacy are minor ones: the monster is no longer in the church, and one painting of flowers is inscribed to Amy.

I feel like this is one of the Who episodes that I'll get something new out of every time I watch it, partly because it reflects what you bring to it. Brilliant stuff. But what did you think?