Every so often, Doctor Who scores a creative contributor who pulls the show slightly off course. You may have justifiably expected Richard Curtis, writer, producer and director of many classic UK romcoms, to have produced a merger of our favourite show and his previous work. Who Actually perhaps. Or Four Doctors and a Funeral. He brings with him a reputation for quick fire humour, fish out of water heroes, unlikely love matches and conspicuous use of pop music.
There are bits of all that going on in Vincent and the Doctor, but in the end, Curtis produces something much more contemplative and sober than his usual fare, although just as sentimental. He uses a story about post-Impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh (Tony Curran, a very Scottish actor for a Dutch artist) to illustrate how useless the Doctor (bandy Matt Smith) is when dealing with any of the personal, earthly concerns of day to day life. In this way, it’s a little like its Series Five running mate The Lodger, but where that episode indulged in some Curtis-like light comedy at the Doctor’s hopelessness in dealing with everyday life, Vincent and the Doctor shows how inadequate he is when dealing with an individual’s personal demons.
In Van Gogh’s case, that means his mental illness. It’s never named, though the highs and lows Vincent experiences seem to suggest bi-polar disorder. (His ability to hear colours is not a side effect, though. It suggests he had synaesthesia). Vincent and the Doctor doesn’t shy away from showing Vincent’s problems on screen, as the show had done in the past; only a few episodes previously Winston Churchill’s depression was left unmentioned in Victory and the Daleks. Nor is it a character footnote in an otherwise standard Doctor Who runaround. It’s something Vincent must deal with before the story can be resolved. It’s intrinsic – a threat, as potent as any monster, to overcome.
The monster of this week, at least corporeally, is the Krafayis, a more successful space chicken than the last one the series experimented with in Arc of Infinity. Aside from the odd glimpse here and there, the Krafayis is budget-savingly invisible to all but Van Gogh. It would have been too gauche to make it a big, black dog, but the implication is clear. An invisible monster which only Van Gogh can see is the manifestation of his personal depression.
It’s the Doctor who first diagnoses the Krafayis, by using a comedy tech jacket with a handy rear vision mirror. It is he who sets up the confrontation with it at the church, but he proves hopeless and either capturing, reasoning or fighting the creature. It’s Van Gogh himself who has to tackle the birdy menace and finally skewer it on his own easel. Vincent has to face and defeat his demons himself. The Doctor is there to carry his paint box and look interesting.
The Doctor flounders when dealing with the Krafayis, and also with Van Gogh’s depression. The episode has two pivotal scenes exploring this.
The first is when, upon realising that the Doctor and Amy’s (Karen Gillan) visit is temporary, Vincent retreats to his room, distraught. The Doctor comes in to try and cheer him up and basically encourage him to carry on, but Van Gogh’s distress is too powerful. He cries and screams at the Doctor with such vehemence that it forces the Doctor from the room, defeated. This Time Lord’s got no defence against the unbearable torment of Vincent’s anguish.
The second moment is when a recovered Van Gogh sits down to paint the church, and the Doctor chooses his moment to directly address Vincent’s mental illness. But Van Gogh quietly silences the Doctor mid-sentence:
DOCTOR: It seems to me… depression is a very complex…
VINCENT: Shush. I’m working.
Quite right too. No-one wants to hear the Doctor opine on depression. That would be a terribly mawkish part of the episode, doomed to fall clunkily on the floor. Curtis makes the right choice by allowing Vincent to speak for the audience and say, “Hush now. You stick to the sci-fi.”
Because he’s good at the sci-fi and that’s about to become useful. In an unusual structural quirk, the Krafayis is defeated a bit earlier than usual, at the end of the second act. The third act is where the Doctor and Amy decide to take Van Gogh to Musée d’Orsay in 2010, to show him a blockbuster exhibition of his work. There, a helpful gallery guide (Bill Nighy, a very British art expert for a French museum) explains that his work will eventually be celebrated as that of the greatest artist the world has ever known. In one of the show’s greatest ever scenes – one that’s uniquely Doctor Who – Van Gogh is moved to tears, finally validated, finally celebrated. The Doctor can’t deal with mental illness, but he at least has a time machine.
And strangely enough, in this moment, which finally shows us why this story had to be a Doctor Who episode, it becomes more like a Richard Curtis film than ever before. It’s partly the presence of Nighy – a frequent Curtis collaborator – partly the sudden arrival of an anthemic pop song by Athlete, and partly the big moment of emotion by the story’s hero. It’s sentiment writ large, in a way which Doctor Who has rarely pulled off before. Only if you add a frantic race to the airport, a heart-rending speech and a last minute decision by Amy to actually stay and marry Vincent could it be more Notting Hill.
If there’s a slight misstep, it’s at the end. The Doctor and Amy return Vincent to his time, forcing a second farewell scene. Then, they return excitedly to the Musée d’Orsay and Amy expects to see a slew of new paintings, prompted by proving to Vincent his future adulation. Instead, the Doctor has to break it to her that Vincent’s timeline stayed largely unaltered and his suicide at the young age of 37 still occurred. The Doctor’s confident that whatever happened, they have added to the pile of good things in the artist’s life.
Geez, I hope he’s right. It would monumentally suck if he finally was driven out of his senses by, oh I don’t know, a mind-blowing trip into the future?
LINK TO Time and the Rani: They share the same title structure. And very little else.
NEXT TIME: Hello, you stupid old man. It’s back to the South Pole for Twice Upon a Time.