To begin with, I just want to point something out. Fairly early in the episode, when Vincent is (apparently) strung out on coffee, he mentions being able to hear the colors. This leapt out at me immediately. Maybe it was added after the fact, or maybe Richard Curtis genuinely believes van Gogh may have had synesthesia. Just in case you haven’t clicked the link, synesthesia is a rather interesting condition where the mind confuses which senses go where. (In fact, I only heard of it because of an episode of House that was on the other day; really recommend it, actually, and I don’t even like House)
Now, from the get-go I was ecstatic about this episode. Way back last year when stuff was leaking about this season, the mention of a Richard Curtis episode had me giddy. Sure, I was a little wary, but I generally enjoy Curtis’ work and it was entirely possible it would be one of the lighter episodes they throw in there that has little to no mention of the series arc. Then we heard in an interview with Curtis that his episode featured van Gogh stabbing a yellow monster, and my excitement only mounted. A great writer writing about my favorite painter for my favorite show? What could possibly go wrong?
And I’m quite happy to say that did not tempt fate.
Vincent and the Doctor is by far the best standalone episode of this season. I haven’t watched the Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone in a while, so I don’t feel comfortable saying it’s better or worse than that, so for now we’ll say the two stories occupy the same space at the top of the list.
Since coming back, the New Series has been much more about grand adventures and monsters of the week than about character pieces. Even the more character driven pieces, like Paul Cornell’s two-part adaptation of his own novel, Human Nature, were much on the side of grand adventure and monsters of the week than the great character piece of the book (which, by the way, is free to read on the BBC website; another highly recommended). Vincent and the Doctor, however, really is more about Vincent van Gogh than monsters or adventure. That isn’t to say the monsters don’t exist, but the monster of this piece plays little into the story, yet at the same time plays a pivotal role.
Initially I had said I thought they only included the Krafayis because it was a requirement of the New Series, but on second viewing something occurred to me, something I’m surprised I missed the first time out. The Krafayis operates as a double metaphor. On the one hand, the Krafayis is a depiction of his madness. A beast only he can see, and only he reacts to. But then on the other hand, it’s a mirror for Vincent himself. Perhaps because it was blind, the Krafayis was abandoned on Earth by its pack whilst they ran off into the stars to go find new grounds to hunt. Vincent himself was an outcast throughout his life, in part because of his madness. (And of course, in the episode, we get the lovely line, “He’s drunk, he’s mad, and he never pays his bills”.) The one that really should have set off my senses to the Krafayis-as-Vincent bit is a little line after they return to Vincent’s home where the artist tells the Doctor that he fears he may not be able to defeat his own monsters without the Doctor’s assistance.
In one of the previews for this episode – I believe it may have been SFX’s or Digital Spy’s – this episode was called a love letter to van Gogh. I can think of no words better to describe this episode, and as a love letter, it works beautifully.
It’s also quite easy to see just why van Gogh would be chosen for a love letter of an episode. Indeed, van Gogh has gone on to become one of the most popular painters, if not the most popular (I dare you to show me someone who hasn’t at least seen some of his works), but van Gogh really was a pioneer of the art world. Prior to Vincent van Gogh, art was beautiful, but at the same time dull. For centuries, art was religious, or depicted life, or a blend of the two. Some movements, such as Romanticism (my personal favorite), are undoubtedly beautiful to look at, but they still adhere to fairly realistically portrayed things in realistic color schemes, and when there is a metaphor in the work, it’s often made fairly obvious. At around the same time van Gogh was alive, artists in Paris began to play around with how they portrayed things and thus came Impressionism (the most famous impressionist being Claude Monet). Vincent van Gogh, however, was one of history’s earliest post-impressionists. Post-impressionism, simply, is Impressionism which rejects the limitations of the form (compare a Monet to a van Gogh and you will plainly see what I mean). Couple that with what was summed up beautifully in Nighy’s speech at the end of the episode, and it’s hard to think why van Gogh wouldn’t have been chosen as the artist of choice (so many other artists, after all, have had mental issues).
Sure, this episode is not without its cheese. The end, from when the Doctor takes van Gogh to 2010 to the painting which reads “For Amy”, is one big cheese-fest. It’s a good kind of cheese though. It’s the kind of cheese that makes you smile and feel all fuzzy inside. (One thing does continue to perplex me, though. Both Irises and the third repetition of Vase with Twelve Sunflowers are in the Musee d’Orsay, while the former is in the Getty Museum and the latter is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, unless it was supposed to be a special exhibition.)
One of the nice narrative touches to this episode comes at the end, with the revelation that the Doctor can’t always save everyone. In the past, this was touched upon from time to time – such as in Warriors of the Deep, where the humans, Silurians, and Sea Devils eradicate one another – but really, in the New Series, especially over the course of Tennant’s tenure, we came to focus more and more on how the Doctor could inspire people to become something better. Even in last week’s episode we got that. And yes, the notion that the Doctor cannot always save everyone was touched upon in Amy’s Choice, but only touched upon. Here, it plays a central role, as in that earlier Peter Davison serial. That moment when Amy hurries back to the Musee d’Orsay expecting to hear van Gogh lead a long and fruitful life, expecting to see hundreds of new paintings, and then finding things exactly as they were, only not quite exactly, works beautifully.
The whole episode is peppered with nice touches. The palette of the episode looks as if it was ripped from van Gogh himself, and Confidential reveals that Campbell and his staff deliberately did everything in van Gogh colors, right down to the costumes of everyone but the Doctor and Amy. One touch I really loved, however, was van Gogh’s introduction to the TARDIS. Everything about that. For one, the Doctor finds the TARDIS covered in posters and what does he do? Create enough of a rip to open the door and carries on as is, allowing the posters to burn off in the time vortex. That’s grand. But you know what I loved even more? van Gogh’s reaction to the TARDIS. Think about it. We sort of got the “bigger on the inside” deal with Meera Syal’s character, but it never had the chance to really soak in, because it was into the TARDIS and down we go. Here, van Gogh does the usual routine, and it just made me beam. Don’t get me wrong, I like it when characters aren’t surprised by it (my favorite is still when Grace enters the Eighth Doctor’s TARDIS and immediately recognizes it as dimensionally transcendental), but like the Doctor, I do enjoy the occasional “it’s bigger on the inside”.
Of course, I would very much have loved it if they had pulled an Aztecs or a Marco Polo and made it a straight historical piece, with the Doctor and Amy just going back in time and encountering van Gogh in the final months of his life. Oh, that would just be brilliant, wouldn’t it? Of course they could never go into too much detail about certain subjects, pre- or post-watershed, given the nature of the programme, but it still would have been marvelous. That said, what we received here was equally marvelous, and much as I would have loved a straight historical piece, I wouldn’t trade this episode for the world.
I can carry on, and on, and on with the praise, friends, but I think you get the point. Vincent and the Doctor is a beautiful, brilliant episode of Doctor Who. Without a doubt, one of the must-watches for the New Series, and maybe even for the show overall.