5.10 – “Vincent and The Doctor”
The Doctor and Amy visit the Van Gogh exhibit at the Musee D’Orsay in Paris and notice a sinister alien face in a church window of one of Van Gogh’s paintings. They travel back to meet the great artist and find out what the alien is, but find that Vincent Van Gogh is haunted by more than just a wild alien that only he can see.
A simple premise – an alien in a painting gives us an excuse to meet a famous painter. It’s always fun when The Doctor meets real figures from history. Indeed, only a few episodes ago we had Winston Churchill himself. In previous seasons of New Who we’ve come across Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria and Shakespeare. A mad but visionary artist, also famous for cutting off his own ear, is bound to give us some great material and this episode is written by Richard Curtis too.
The strength of the episode lies in how reasonably light-hearted and fun it seems, especially after the heaviness of Rory’s death just a week ago, but a second watch reveals so much more. Curtis is mainly famous, of course, for sentimental romantic comedy but there’s little of that on show here. He could have gone down the simple route of having Van Gogh feature as a novelty character in a story about an alien on the loose. Instead, this is a story concerned with one thing and one thing only; Vincent Van Gogh.
Curtis writes Van Gogh as a real person, not just a name from history. Tony Curran as Van Gogh takes a great script and creates a great character with it. As usual, Smith and Gillan provide the goods but it’s Curran who steals the show. Van Gogh has charisma, passion and pain. He hears the colours, nature calls to him, he sees what we can’t see, yet it all just serves to set him apart. In his art, there is life and joy and wonder. In his soul, there is darkness. This is a story about the pain of seeing the world in different way to everyone else; in fact, a way so different that it was only long after his death that the world managed to catch up with that vision. This is about the loneliness that comes with such vision. This is about trying to bring light to a soul in darkness. This is a Doctor Who story, right?
Damn right it is. There’s an invisible, murderous alien called a Krafayis running around and, thanks to Van Gogh’s gifts, only he can see it. Which is fortunate because it is one of the dafter looking creatures to rampage through New Who (and let’s face it, there’s some stiff competition). Essentially, it’s a huge quadruped chicken. However, like much in this wonderful episode, there is more to our rampaging space chicken than meets the eye. The alien is alone, left behind by its swarm because it was blind. Van Gogh is tortured because he sees too much. The Krafayis is wild because it can’t see at all. When they finally catch up with it and unwittingly kill it, The Doctor points out that, sometimes, winning is no fun at all.
There’s so much richness in this story. The design work is wonderful – recreating scenes from Van Gogh’s art, his cluttered bedroom, the cafe on the street. Rich, bright sunlight drenches the Provence fields (played superbly by Trogir in Croatia). There’s a beautiful cameo from Bill Nighy as Dr Black who at first seems to be an eccentric art historian but, when called upon to describe Van Gogh’s impact, Nighy soars, lending his speech passion and heart. There’s also a nice bit of mutual bow tie appreciation.
And of course there are sunflowers, lots of sunflowers. When Amy brings dozens of them to Van Gogh, it’s a gag not too far removed from Rose’s attempts to get Queen Victoria to say “We are not amused,” back in “Tooth and Claw”. Except Van Gogh’s reaction is not delight. He sees them as halfway between life and death and his reaction gains greater poignancy when we see sunflowers at the funeral. Ultimately, The Doctor and Amy fail to save Vincent Van Gogh. All they can do is give him a precious moment of undiluted sunlight in his world of stormy skies. In doing so, as The Doctor points out, it is a good and powerful thing nonetheless. Matt Smith brings all of his character to the fore here. When we talk of Smith being able to be a wide-eyed boy with the weight of ages on his shoulders, there are few better examples.
Oh hell, let’s go with the obvious then – “Vincent and the Doctor” is so much like the art that it celebrates. At first glance, it is a lovely thing to behold, a light piece between the weight of Rory’s death and the big season finales coming in a couple of weeks. But the more we look, the more we see. Rich visuals, rich scenes, darkness woven between the light. And like a Van Gogh painting, like trying to find meaning in the artist’s tragic life, the darkness is sad on its own but ultimately serves to provide contrast to the light – to elevate the merely bright and beautiful into the genuinely profound and uplifting. A starry, starry 10/10.
Written and edited by Richard Barnes