*Disclaimer and trigger warning*
The following is a newly-edited version of a review that I originally wrote in 2010. “Vincent and the Doctor” deals with issues related to depression and suicide, and my review therefore explores both of these topics in terms of their context within the episode.
It took eight years for me to really work out how I felt about “Vincent and the Doctor”, and I don’t mind admitting that it’s one of the most difficult pieces I’ve ever written. I’m still not certain that I’ve done the episode or its themes justice, but it would have been a shame not to try.
A long time ago, a young man became lord of all space and time. He saw things that no human eye had ever seen; heard what no human ear had ever heard. He danced to the music of the sunlight and stared up at the stars. He listened to songs of sunflowers. His kingdom was vast, and glorious, and dreadful. And he was alone in it.
He was alone, and so very afraid.
And so he ran. He turned and he ran, and he never stopped running, and he never looked back. Because, for all of the incredible feats he could accomplish, stopping and looking back would mean facing up to a monster that he could never defeat: the one living inside of him. So, having no TARDIS in which to flee, Vincent van Gogh painted freedom instead.
“Vincent and The Doctor”, written by Richard Curtis, is a touching, harrowing, darkly beautiful story about depression, and – even eight years on – it remains one of the greatest episodes of any television show ever written.
The brilliance of this episode lies in its honesty. Despite being ostensibly a children’s programme (or perhaps precisely because of that fact, and the importance of including young people in modern discourse related to mental health), Curtis’ script offers an unflinching look, through the lens of science fiction, at the reality of depression. Here, as in life, depression is an evil that lives inside you. It knows your weaknesses, it knows where you hide, and it can can always find you. It never leaves, either. You might as well try to outrun your bones, or sever your shadow from your skin. It howls in the darkness within you, clawing frantically at the walls inside your mind. And so you distract it. You drown it out. You make bargains with yourself. You keep running.
At the age of 38, van Gogh finally stopped running. He turned to face the monster, and he died alone, by his own hand.
It is one of the great injustices of history that a man of such fragile brilliance was denied the chance to see how the world would ultimately appreciate his life’s work. One can only imagine what peace this knowledge would have given him. What happiness, even in his final moments.
Which is where “Vincent and the Doctor” comes in. The episode poses a tantalising question: what if the artist had met a kindred spirit? What if he had found someone just as brilliant, just as alone, and just as scared as he was? A Doctor, perhaps, whose business lay in lighting up the darkness and scaring the monsters away. What if van Gogh hadn’t been alone in the dark after all?
The story begins when the Doctor (Matt Smith) and his companion Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) visit the Musée d’Orsay in present-day Paris (their tour guide is played by Bill Nighy, in a wonderful cameo). While admiring van Gogh’s The Church at Auvers (1890), they spot the outline of a mysterious alien monster in one of the church windows. Seeking explanation, the Doctor and Amy decide to time travel back to 1890 to investigate.
Matt Smith’s Doctor is barely a man. His face is young, his clothes are too big for his body, and he is prone to childish fits of anger and petulance. He is both reckless youth and cynical old man, vulnerable and vengeful in equal measure. Yet his eyes have seen the end of the universe, and his hearts bear the weight of a thousand sorrows. A thousand-and-one, in fact: one of his companions, Rory (Arthur Darvill), was killed off in the previous episode. Meanwhile, Amy (Rory’s beau) has had her memory of the incident erased, and she now feels hollow inside but does not know why. Rory’s absence weighs heavily on the Doctor, and serves as constant reminder of the wonder and terror of the universe that he inhabits. The Doctor dances, so the story goes, but only so that he may flee the monsters of his own creation.
In this context, the Doctor and Vincent (here played by Tony Curran) are strikingly similar. Indeed, it feels odd that such a meeting of the two troubled, beautiful minds has never occurred before. What we may observe in their interactions throughout the episode are touches of characterisation so multilayered and complex that van Gogh would doubtless have joyed in painting it: the Doctor is a walking metaphor for van Gogh’s loneliness and genius, while van Gogh serves as objective correlative for the Doctor’s own burdened hearts. Both, meanwhile, are hounded by the obligatory monster of the week – the Krafayis: a tragic, heart-rending embodiment of depression itself; a representation of the tortured souls of both the Doctor and van Gogh. The monster is murderous but invisible to all except van Gogh. It is also angry, alone and frightened, and attacks blindly, pacing rooms and scrabbling furiously at walls. Not since “Silence in the Library” (S408) has such a terrifying foe graced Doctor Who. The reason for this is simple – indeed, it is the very first rule of horror films: the scariest enemies are those we cannot see. And what monster is more fittingly invisible than the frightened, lonely one who consumes you from within?
Peace only comes when the Doctor and van Gogh stop running from the Krafayis and turn to face it. In a heart-rending sequence, Vincent impales the monster on an easel. The Doctor attempts to soothe the creature, which sobs its final words: “I am afraid.” The poignancy of this moment cannot be overstated.
With the Krafayis defeated, order is seemingly restored. The Doctor and Amy depart, leaving their new friend van Gogh to stare at the stars with fresh optimism.
- Matt Smith’s Doctor (right), gives Tim Curran’s van Gogh (centre) a glimpse of the future.
And then, once the action returns to the present day, the world drops out from beneath us. The gallery tour reveals that Vincent van Gogh still took his own life in 1890, despite the intervention of visitors from the future who loved him.
The final scenes of the “Vincent and the Doctor” are as bleak and as touching as as anything that I’ve ever seen. For anyone with fears about the future, or their life, or their own monsters – for anyone with a sympathetic bone in their body – the conclusion of this episode (even accompanied by the strains of Athlete) will resonate strongly. Because we all, somewhere in the bottom of our hearts, would like to believe that good people get the happiness they deserve in the end. We all want to believe that our heroes find peace.
But this episode does not shy away from tragic reality. This version of van Gogh, even in the sure knowledge of his artistic legacy, still took his own life, in a horrible reminder that there are some battles that not even Time Lords can win. Not alone, anyway.
Which is why I’ve struggled, I think, to write about this episode in the past. The episode’s strength, as already mentioned, is its honesty. The bleak conclusion – an ending that feels, on the surface, entirely bereft of hope – is part of that honesty. To suggest that this is a story about something as simple as the power of friendship risks cheapening its message.
But there is, I believe, an important message here for anyone who has ever endured the unimaginable, earth-shattering distress of knowing somebody who has taken their own life:
It isn’t your fault.
Yes, compassion is all-important and can absolutely make a difference. It isn’t the abstract promise of a distant future or the sci-fi magic of a sonic screwdriver that allows Vincent to defeat the Krafayis. Instead, it’s the simple, unparalleled power of trust and friendship. The Doctor and Amy reach out, and offer real, tangible support.
Sometimes, though, even a compassion that bends time and space won’t be enough. Sometimes people make decisions that we are powerless to prevent – and to Curtis’ immense credit, this is something that the conclusion of the episode makes painfully clear: neither the Doctor nor Amy are in any way responsible for van Gogh’s final decision. There is nothing else that they could have done.
The message here, then, isn’t for those suffering from depression; it’s for their friends and their family: it isn’t your fault. It’s not on you. It isn’t your fault.
Regardless of outcome, the actions of the Doctor and Amy nevertheless matter. Friendship matters. It deserves to be offered. Love and compassion still have a place in even the most hopeless of circumstances, and even when there’s no hope of it changing anything, we’re still better off for trying.
- Vincent van Gogh, “Sunflowers”, c.1888.