Doctor Who: Vincent and the Doctor


Rating 3¾

Written by Richard Curtis

Directed by Jonny Cambell

Starring Matt Smith (The Doctor), Karen Gillan (Amy Pond), Tony Curran (Vincent Van Gogh), Bill Nighy (Dr Black), Nik Howden (Maurice), Sarah Counsell (Waitress) and Nik Howden (Mother)

The Doctor takes Amy to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris to visit the Vincent Van Gogh collection. She mentions that he has taken her to many fabulous places recently and asks why he is treating her to such special attention, but he brushes aside her suspicious questioning. When the Doctor notices a malevolent face in Van Gogh’s painting of The Church at Auvers, he and Amy travel backwards in time in the TARDIS to find out what it was that Van Gogh had painted and discover that he is battling a giant invisible alien creature known as the Krafayis.


I have been deliberately keeping myself as uninformed as possible about each new episode of Doctor Who, wanting to be surprised by developments in the continuing storyline. Sometimes I have failed, such as the last episode, when I inadvertently discovered in advance that something terrible was going to happen and guessed what it would be. All I knew about ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ in advance of watching it was what I had seen in the trailer at the end of the previous week’s episode and, subsequently, the knowledge that it was written by Richard Curtis, whose work, generally speaking, I am not a fan of. I assumed it would be a jokey throwaway, perhaps along the lines of ‘The Shakespeare Code’ in the third season of the revived series. I was not expecting what we actually got.

On the face of it, ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ is a typical Doctor Who episode. There are several self-referential allusions to the past. Not for the first time in this latest season, there is a visual reference to the first Doctor (William Hartnall). The character played by Bill Nighy, an art expert conducting a tour of the Van Gogh collection, can be related back to John Cleese and Eleanor Bron, the art snobs seen in the Louvre in the famous 1979 Doctor Who serial ‘City of Death’, which was co-written by Douglas Adams.

The invisible creature, a kind of giant rooster, is nothing to get excited about and is, in itself, the least interesting aspect of the episode. However, it serves a purpose, one that I suppose draws on the influence of the classic 1956 science fiction film ‘Forbidden Planet’. In that f
ilm, the character Dr Morbius inadvertently creates a gigantic invisible monster with the power of his id. The Krafayis is not created by Van Gogh, but it can be viewed as a kind of manifestation of his illness, not least because ultimately, when it is too late, it is realised that the creature was fearful and disorientated and lashed out for that reason. The action here takes places just months before Van Gogh would commit suicide, a victim of severe depression that had haunted him for much of his life. In the episode we see his extreme mood swings, from great elation to soul-destroying melancholia.

Van Gogh is initially hostile towards the Doctor, although less so towards Amy. However, he craves companionship and people he can talk to who understand him. He soon begins to respond to them and a change can be seen in his manner, until in one tremendous scene we discover how desperately lonely he is. When he realises that the Doctor and Amy will soon leave him he immediately becomes angry and sinks into deep despair. It’s beautifully done, dealt with in a subtle and responsible way.

The episode contains many clever and nicely observed touches. Van Gogh, a native of the Netherlands, speaks in a broad Scottish accent. When the Doctor and Amy first encounter him he observes that Amy has a Dutch accent, because that is how he hears her. We, the audience, are likewise hearing Van Gogh the way that Amy, who is Scottish, does. Van Gogh, because of his acute awareness of the fragility of the mind, is able to recognise Amy’s inner sadness, something she herself is unaware of. Her conscious memory of Rory, her dead fiancé, has been erased, but not it seems her sub-conscious memory.

The episode possibly bludgeons us a little unnecessarily with the fact that Van Gogh was a genius whose paintings were unheralded and unsuccessful in his lifetime and that he was increasingly frustrated that he was unable to reproduce on canvas what he saw in the world around him and in his own head. However, this is leading up to the scene in which the Doctor and Amy bring Van Gogh forward in time so that he can see his work on display in the Musée d’Orsay and hear for himself the enormous admiration and wonder it inspires in people. This scene, complete with cheesy musical accompaniment, courtesy of a song by the dreadful Athlete, could so easily have been mawkish over-sentimental drivel, but against all the odds it works beautifully, in no small part due to the terrific performance by Tony Curran.

The closing scene, also, in which Amy insists that she and the Doctor return to the Musée d’Orsay after taking Van Gogh back to his own time, is effective and cleverly conceived. She expects to find new paintings, even greater works that Van Gogh would have created had he not killed himself when he did. Instead, she discovers that nothing has changed. Those few days of happiness and the renewal of spirit that Van Gogh experienced in the company of the Doctor and Amy were just that, a fleeting respite from his spiralling despair and mental illness.

The only jarring note for me was the “To Amy” message now appended to the painting of Still Life: Vase with Twelve Sunflowers. It was enough for us to suppose that Amy had inspired Van Gogh to create this celebrated painting, but this unnecessary addition made it became too artificial and pulled me away from the narrative.

This fifth season of the revived series is increasingly proving to be one of the best yet. It is certainly, for me, a return to the brilliance of the first two seasons back in 2005 and 2006. My rating for each episode has been deliberately on the low side. I do not want to fall into the trap of awarding a “5” based on my initial reaction after watching an episode once or twice at most. However, ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ is an episode that quite possibly will, in the fullness of time, prove to be just that.

Review posted 8 June 2010


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