Note: The following review contains spoilers for all aired episodes of Doctor Who, including the most recent, “Vincent and the Doctor.”
“Vincent and the Doctor” is an absolutely lovely episode of Doctor Who–simple, kind, and bittersweet–featuring an extremely moving performance by Tony Curran as the greatest painter to ever live and an uncredited cameo by the great Bill Nighy as a museum curator. What it lacks in plotting complexity, it makes up for in characterization and sheer artistry. For example, the scene in which Amy and the Doctor lie on the ground in a circle with Van Gogh and look up at the sky, in order to discover the colors and patterns that make up the world that otherwise only he can see, their shared view bursting into the dazzling colors and swirls of “Starry Night,” is one of the most profound and beautiful moments in the new series’ history, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this were true for the entire span of Doctor Who. Meanwhile, the sets, which recreate landmarks of Van Gogh’s life depicted in some of his most famous paintings, are lovingly detailed and beautifully executed.
On the surface, the plot is fairly straightforward. In a Van Gogh painting of a church, the Doctor notices a monster that isn’t supposed to be there, so the Doctor and Amy travel to the final year of Van Gogh’s life, in order to discover what caused this creature to appear. The Doctor enlists Van Gogh’s help, and they solve the problem. As I said, relatively simple. There is, however, much more underneath the surface. A haze of sadness overhangs the episode, even in its lighter moments, because we know that in less than a few handfuls of months, Van Gogh will succumb to madness and take his life at the age of 37, having only ever sold one painting and having no clue what a genius he is. When we watch him treat the currently world-famous paintings that clutter his apartment as if they are trash, setting his coffee cup on one, and hastily slapping white paint over another in order to sketch the monster he saw, we instinctually wince and feel deep sorrow for a man who died thinking he was a failure, never knowing that the world would one day come to consider his practically revolutionary paintings to be world-class masterpieces.
Vincent is someone who sees the world as no one else can, who sees rare, hidden beauty in what others think to be commonplace, who many have labelled a madman due to his unique vision (represented both literally and metaphorically here), and who longs for companionship. In many ways, he is a great deal like the Doctor. It is a credit to both Curran’s delicate performance, as well as to Curtis’ delicate writing, that Vincent emerges as both a three-dimensional, exquisitely portrayed character in his own right, as well as a great thematic parallel to the Doctor. Also, like the Doctor, he can perceive that something is wrong with Amy on an emotional level, that she has experienced a great loss and doesn’t even realize it. Vincent and the Doctor are the rare people who can see beneath the facade of the world to what is obscured from everyday sight.
This concept of sight vs blindness recurs throughout the episode. Amy is blind to her own history and nature, having forgotten Rory and the fact that, if only for a short time, she wanted to marry someone (and, again, one has to wonder what Amy’s new version of her own memories, at this point, is). The people who surround Van Gogh in his day-to-day life are blind to his talent. Van Gogh is blind to his own worth. Everyone but Van Gogh, the Doctor, and Amy is blind to the existence of the creature. Even the Doctor and Amy are technically blind to the creature, not being able to see him. And, in a sad but fitting additional layer, the creature itself is blind, in both senses of the word. It has either lost its eyesight or never had it to begin with, but either way, having been abandoned in a foreign environment, it is alone and scared (like Vincent, and like the Doctor, to some extent), its violent actions the result of panic and fear, not intentional cruelty.
Vincent and the Doctor discover the poor creature’s true nature too late. In the end, however, the Doctor decides that it’s not too late to make a difference in Van Gogh’s life. The Doctor takes Van Gogh into the TARDIS, accurately realizing that if anyone in history could deal with being confronted with a machine that calls all common sense and understandable science into question and turns the established rules of the universe, or at least as humans have come to believe it, topsy turvy, it is Vincent Van Gogh. In a truly gorgeous scene, the Doctor and Amy lead Vincent into the Van Gogh gallery in which the episode began and show him what an enormous impact he will have after his death.
Since the episode has finished airing less than three hours ago, I have already read a negative review that claims it to be “nonsensical” that Vincent could ever be believed to have still committed suicide after being taken on this voyage by the Doctor, an attitude which utterly misunderstands and disregards one of this episode’s main points. As the Doctor tells the heartbroken Amy, “The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things…The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant. And we definitely added to his pile of good things.” It is naive to expect that someone suffering from deep depression and/or other psychological disorders–of which the episode clearly depicted Van Gogh as being a victim–could be instantly cured, even by the Doctor. We have no way to see or to truly understand what is going on inside Van Gogh’s head, and so it’s impossible to say why he finally commits suicide, and the same could be said for anyone suffering similarly. That does not mean that, in showing Vincent that his life has enormous worth, that the Doctor and Amy did not have a profound effect on him. Without them, he may never have come to have the most prolific year of his–or, as the episode argues, any–artist’s career. They seem to have inspired this burst of unparalleled creativity in him. His end remaining sad does not negate the great beauty and joy he brought to the world.
Throughout the episode, the Doctor is worried that his actions might accidentally wipe out the existence of some of the greatest artwork to ever be put to canvas, a concern that mirrors the effect of the Crack that has been practically stalking him throughout the season. Therefore, the gallery full of Van Gogh paintings at the end (as well as a new dedication on one, to Amy) can be seen as nothing short of a triumph, as well as perhaps an indication that the universe isn’t doomed. After all, the Crack hasn’t caught up with the Doctor yet.
“Vincent and the Doctor” is reflective of Van Gogh’s artwork. Like an Impressionist painting, it deliberately avoids filling in and explaining every single detail–for example, we never learn why Van Gogh commits suicide or a scientific (or even quasi-scientific) reason for why he can see the creature. Instead, it uses thematic nuance to hint at the characters’ complex emotions, woven throughout an installment of Doctor Who that is far more about the impressions with which it leaves us than such technical concerns as plot.