I have to admit, I don’t know the first thing about Vincent van Gogh. I’ve never been particularly interested in art, although I appreciate beauty, and know shite, when I see it. Likewise, I think, for many laypeople watching this episode. Vincent and the Doctor, to this end, does a wonderful job of portraying the story of the great and tragic artist Van Gogh to an audience who might otherwise never have known his name. I found that I cared about Van Gogh, and knew him intimately, after watching this episode, from having scarcely known who he was prior to viewing. This episode was a poetic and poignant tribute to an extraordinary artistic genius, conceived by a writer, Richard Curtis, who clearly appreciated Van Gogh enormously. Few of the uninitiated, myself included, who watched this episode could say that it did not inspire in them at least a special appreciation for the talents and the life of the eponymous artist. To this extent I think the episode did a much better job at showcasing Van Gogh than other episodes did in the Doctor’s visits to other historical figures, such as The Shakespeare Code and The Unquiet Dead.
Aside from showcasing the extraordinary artistic talents of Vincent van Gogh, the episode dealt with the artist’s infamous depression, and with mental illness more broadly. It was a delicate but confronting appraisal of the nature of depression as seen in Van Gogh’s erratic behaviour. I’m fortunate enough to have never experienced depression, and thus know little about it, so I have to be careful here and I can’t really comment on how accurately the episode portrayed depression, but it seemed the episode provided a sympathetic but penetrating portrayal of the state of mind. We saw how a casual, seemingly innocent offhand remark from the Doctor, “We’ll be out of your hair by this time tomorrow,” triggered an intense depressive episode in Van Gogh. We saw how Van Gogh still succumbed to his depression and took his own life after everything the Doctor and Amy had done to help him. It was an intelligent but sobering metaphor, that the Doctor could save the universe, defeat monsters and change history itself, but the spectre of Van Gogh’s depression was beyond even his powers. Thus the Krafayis visible only to Van Gogh. All this used to go over my head, and for a long time I honestly couldn’t see the appeal of the episode, but, after understanding this aspect of the story, I now see it for the intelligent, poetic masterpiece it is.
There’s so much more than a clever metaphor to like in this episode, though. It carries an emotive power which makes it hard to watch again without putting a long period of time between one’s last viewing. I’ve known devoted fans who’ve said they’ve only seen the episode the one time because it’s such an intensely emotionally affecting story. The scene where the Doctor takes Van Gogh to visit the gallery in Paris to see his works on display, and to hear Bill Nighy pronounce upon the great legacy of his work, to a weeping Van Gogh, overcome with emotion, truly pierces the heart. That was a truly beautiful, memorable scene, as was the more bitterly poignant subsequent scene, viz. the Doctor’s speech about the bad things not necessarily spoiling the good things. Apart from that, this episode was just visually stunning. The direction was masterful, and the episode easily stands out as one of the most aesthetically beautiful stories of the Doctor Who canon. The episode was a fitting tribute to Van Gogh’s work in the way it beautifully recreated scenes from his paintings in “real life”. The visual tribute par excellence in this episode was the scene where Van Gogh, the Doctor and Amy lay beneath the starry night sky, and Van Gogh made them, and us, see the world the way he sees it—vibrant and utterly magical. “I’ve seen many things, my friend. But you’re right. Nothing quite as wonderful as the things you see.” Indeed.
I could pick holes in this episode. I could mention that the metaphor was just a little too subtle to register for many, thus my original bafflement over the appeal of this episode. I could mention that, even given the metaphor, the Krafayis was a bit of a distraction—the giant chicken in the room, to coin a phrase—from what should have been the overwhelming focus of this episode upon Vincent van Gogh, his genius and his life. The episode might have thus worked better as a pure historical, where the Doctor and Amy visit Van Gogh, stay with him, admire him, but realise they can’t help him, and are forced to leave him to his demons, real or figurative. Indeed, these are valid critiques which not only I make of the episode. But I’m so overcome by the beauty and artistry of this episode as it is that I find it hard to entertain these criticisms when it already achieves so spectacularly what it sets out to do, and when it inspires the profound response it does in many. By no means is it perfect, but true beauty rarely is.