Doctor Who, "Vincent and The Doctor": invisible monsters and black dogs

BBC airings of Doctor Who run a bit ahead of premieres on BBC America. So if you're on the North American side of the lake, fair warning that spoilers lie below! – Eric TVGA

Quick Take: Doctor Who, "Vincent and The Doctor"
One of the greatest episodes of Doctor Who.  Of. All. Time.

Review: Doctor Who, "Vincent and The Doctor"
(S0510) Every once in a while Doctor Who has an episode that spins in an unexpected direction, one that doesn’t really fit the traditional episode mould the show tends to conform to. In the past this has included episodes like "Father’s Day," "The Girl in the Fireplace" and (of course) "Blink" (the episode everyone should watch, even if they never watch another episode of Doctor Who in their life).  But many, many episodes instead either turn out to be rather humdrum (like the last two weeks) or even total stinkers ("Love and Monsters"... anyone?... Anyone?....  Bueller?... Bueller?... Bueller?). 

Last week’s episode saw the end of the rather short lived time Rory spent in the TARDIS, ending first of all with his death and then with his existence being completely erased from reality, leaving only the Doctor with any memory of Amy’s fiancé in the entirety of history.  This was pretty much the most total and complete annihilation of a character in Doctor Who, well, ever.  He’s not just dead, he was never born – there’s only one person who carries anything of Rory with them now and that’s The Doctor’s memories of him.

It did seem in some ways like a risky manoeuvre to pull, leaving no room for any mourning – both with the characters and the viewers.  It could also be seen as something of a copout, because now that Rory never existed Amy doesn’t have to deal with his death and the show can keep a light tone.

Then along came "Vincent and The Doctor."

It’s difficult for a television show like Doctor Who to visit a historical character; in order to keep a sense of reality the show can’t alter the major details of that character’s history, and the more known about an individual the less wiggle room there is for the show to keep up a real and meaningful narrative. 

So what do you do when you’re dealing with an individual with as much impact on society as Vincent Van Gough? 

You write it the way Richard Curtis has written "Vincent and the Doctor."

The episode opens with The Doctor and Amy visiting the Van Gogh collection and noticing that one of the paintings contains something that is best described as “a face, and not a nice face.”  This prompts The Doctor and an enthusiastic Amy to travel back in order to unravel the mystery of this face at the window of the church. 

Initially Vincent is portrayed as something of a joke – the locals have nothing but contempt for the man – but we are talking about someone who couldn’t manage to sell more than a single painting in his lifetime and the early scenes depicting Tony Curran and Matt Smith waving implements about while fighting an invisible monster (the Krafayis) make the pair of them look exceptionally goofy. 

Tony puts in an exceptional performance as Vincent, and he certainly looks the part – and his rather inappropriate accent is subtly waved away as a TARDIS translation malfunction.  Perhaps a little too subtly for some: I know I didn’t immediately get the reference that both Amy and Vincent’s Scottish accents actually sounded different to Vincent.  But whatever, I think if you have a problem with incorrect accents in Doctor Who you’re watching the wrong show.

The Krafayis was actually a pretty incidental element of the episode, and it’s easy to dismiss the story as being a rather lacklustre “hunt the monster” episode with a famous character from the past and a few neat tricks (like the Doctor’s chest mounted mirror McGuffin).  The issue with that is, if you’re taking the episode at surface value you’ve really missed the point.  The Krafayis is partially there to provide some valid physical threat to the characters – people expect monsters when they watch Doctor Who – but it’s also an eloquent reference to the mental condition this episode is entirely about, the one which Vincent suffered with and sadly succumbed to.

You see, the Krafayis is ‘the invisible monster’, a condition that Sir Winston Churchill called ‘The Black Dog’, and it’s no coincidence that only Vincent can see it as it’s a metaphoric representation of his battle with his own ‘invisible monster’ that is: depression. 

And that’s where the brilliance of this episode lies.

Seriously, enough dancing about it, I’m just going to out and out call it as I see it.  "Vincent and the Doctor" is one of the greatest episodes of Doctor Who.  All time. 

All.

Time.

Yes, I said (well wrote) it and I’ll stand by that statement for years to come.  "Vincent and The Doctor" is a wonderfully crafted piece; it’s filled with beauty and ugliness; wonderment and sorrow; sweetness and bitterness; light and dark.  It’s an enchanting look at a man who seemed to achieve almost nothing in his own lifespan but became one of the greatest men who ever lived after his passing.  It’s a heavy and serious examination of the illness that ended up overcoming his life, while it’s also a light-hearted and fun romp through the landscape of Van Gogh’s life.

It’s an episode that (at its peak) “gifts” the artist with a look into the future, saying ‘Vincent, how we all wish you could have known just how important you are to humanity’ in its climax. 

This is followed with a parting of the ways, and then a return to the Van Gogh gallery with an excited Amy – looking forward to seeing all the new works Vincent will have created now that he has ‘a reason to live’.  Even at this point you can see The Doctor’s reticence at her attitude and his comforting of Amy after her hopes are shattered by the reality that their experiences with Van Gogh did not alter the facts and time of his death is a marvellous piece of writing and acting. 

At this point I want to return to the Krafayis. It’s a complex creation with a great deal more subtlety than most Doctor Who monsters have.  As I mentioned previously it symbolises Vincent’s major depression, but the ties between the illness and the creature are more than just them both being ‘invisible monsters’.  The Krafayis was left abandoned by its fellows; alone and lonely it was lashing out at others.  Also, not only was it invisible and thus unable to be seen, it was also blind – it couldn’t direct itself or experience its surroundings.  Finally, when slain it turned out that the creature was not a true monster as such, instead it was frightened and afraid, lashing out at others in fear and anger rather than any real form of menace. 

These are all characteristics of depressive episodes and intelligently dealt with, just like Tony Curran’s own performance throughout the episode as Vincent.  Visually the episode was a feast for the eyes, drawing heavily on Van Gogh’s paintings and as such providing a range of rich colours and familiar sights – this built on the beauty of the episode and balanced some of the sadness out.

Richard Curtis is an exceptional writer and the body of his work (which includes Love Actually, Black Adder, Mr. Bean, Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill) speaks of a writing talent to be reckoned with, but "Vincent and The Doctor" should be considered as one of his greatest.  It displays a great deal of affection for its characters; a realistic portrayal of a great (if tragic man), an intelligent and low key examination of depression and finally “Vincent and The Doctor” stands not only as a tribute to the artist, but it also provides the viewers with that period of mourning for Rory.  The Doctor overtly calls Vincent ‘Rory’ at one point to bring this home for us, but even without the connection it's clear.

For all of these, and many, many more reasons beside I have no problem in calling this the best episode of the season so far.

Other observations on "Vincent and The Doctor":

  • I didn’t reference Churchill’s description of his own depressive illnesses by accident. Churchill of course appeared in (the relatively weak) “Victory of the Daleks” and along with The Doctor and Amy was another character who either displays depressive traits or historically had depression.  Could a sub-theme of this season be depression?
  • The scenes of Amy and the Doctor running up the steps past the statue of Perseus holding Medusa’s head and as such all of the interior museum were filmed at the National Museum of Wales.
  • How great was Bill Nighy as Doctor Black?  Loved the bowtie, really brought out his ears.  His presence was a nice tribute to the past rumors that he might succeed Tennant as the Doctor and he also added a great deal of gravitas to the museum scenes.
  • By Fen

    About the author

    Used to blog over at http://rev-views.blogspot.com/ but have since migrated here to TV Geek Army!

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