Doctor Who (2005 – ) has a unique ability to transport itself not only anywhere in space and time but also in terms of dramatic shifts in genre, style, and content. Towards the end of the first year of the Eleventh Doctor‘s (Matt Smith) remarkable era, his encounter with celebrated but troubled painter Vincent van Gogh (Tony Curran) remains a stand-out instalment.
Notably following an adventure in which companion Amy Pond‘s (Karen Gillan) fiancé Rory has been swallowed by a crack in the universe and therefore ceased to exist, the Doctor takes Amy to meet van Gogh after seeing a monster lurking in his painting “The Church at Auvers“. They encounter Vincent as a man vilified and outcast by his peers, befriending him as they seek out the creature, which turns out to be invisible to all but the painter’s unique visual perspective upon the world.
Vincent Van Gogh was undoubtedly a man misunderstood in his own time: his paintings unappreciated, and his suspected bipolar condition unrecognised. He died aged just 37 from a gunshot strongly suspected to be self-inflicted, his suicide coming at the end of a profoundly creative period during which he completed many of his best-known works. The Doctor and Amy encounter him a matter of weeks before the end of his life, and soon see him at his lowest ebb. The Doctor tries to encourage him to come to Auvers and paint the church so they can find the monster from the painting, but finds the man bed-bound and distraught. Van Gogh’s emotional response puts the Doctor uncharacteristically on the back foot and not at all in control of the situation:
The painter does join the Doctor and Amy soon afterwards, however, and if his violent shifts in mood are perhaps too frequent to represent anything but rapid cycling or a mixed state, they do offer an informative cross-section of symptoms characteristic to bipolar disorder.
What Richard Curtis‘ script so masterfully achieves is a story rich in content but with a unified theme. Chiming with the series’ arc, Amy retains no knowledge of Rory now that he has ceased to have ever existed, with only the Doctor doing so and seeking to compensate (hence their visit to the gallery in the first instance). Yet, in conversation together on the road to Auvers, Vincent is shown to have a strong empathic sense of her inner sadness, even as it sits just beyond her own understanding:
This tender moment is also insightful in terms of human psychology. As any psychiatrist will attest, we are often unaware of the driving forces underpinning our own moods and behaviour. Rory’s apparent death and his absence from Amy’s memory is utterly supernatural and beyond her comprehension, yet it reflects an everyday truth common to us all.
The aforementioned monster of the episode, the Krafayis, also fits perfectly with the focus upon mental health. Invisible, misunderstood and feared—like so many mental illnesses—the creature is ultimately revealed to be alone and itself afraid. Blind, it has been abandoned as weak and of no further use by others of its kind. The Doctor, Amy and Vincent discover this too late, after the creature has been mortally wounded in their final encounter with it. Again, it is Vincent’s dialogue that frames the comparison between their behaviour towards it and the villagers reaction to him:
A further area of focus in the episode is, understandably, van Gogh’s creative genius. Background information for the episode reveals that Curtis’ original concept was to suggest that certain people—including great painters—had a heightened perception and ability to see monsters, and that these monsters are more common in the world than most of us realise. Again, this can be seen as a comment upon mental illness, given that one in four of us is affected in any given year.
His idea does still persist in the episode, to a fashion. In a beautiful sequence Vincent, the Doctor and Amy lie on their backs and gaze up at the night sky and, as the painter describes how he perceives it, masterful effects transform the heavens into a version of “Starry Night“. Even as the scene plays out, it is easy to relate van Gogh’s elegant dialogue to some of the heightened senses associated with hypomania:
In another uplifting and emotional sequence typical of Curtis’ work, the Doctor and Amy resolve to bring Vincent van Gogh to our time and the museum exhibiting his art so that he can appreciate how beloved his body of work came to be posthumously. As the painter lurks within earshot, the Doctor finds museum expert Dr. Black (Bill Nighy) and asks him to sum up the painter’s career:
Black’s dialogue here is again beautiful, and also nuanced. All too often, though, sufferers of mental illness are shown onscreen to merely benefit from their condition: they have insight and abilities that set them apart from and above the rest of us. Whilst perhaps of comfort to fellow sufferers, it can offer an unhelpfully one-sided perspective. Not so in this instance, though, as “Vincent and the Doctor” has a sting in its tale yet.
After returning a newly invigorated and inspired Vincent van Gogh to his own time and place, Amy is eager to return to the exhibition to see the new paintings that he will have produced in his longer life on a newly revised timeline. The Doctor, wisely, is less convinced, and his fears are borne out when it becomes clear that the painter still took his own life at the same time in history, his career still ending just as prematurely. Amy is forlorn, yet the Doctor seeks to offer her words of consolation:
This is confirmed when Amy finds one of his “Sunflowers” series of paintings now dedicated to her. Yet, in truth, the story ends on a remarkably downbeat note for Doctor Who. In comparison to the resolution in most episodes, here the Doctor is hardly victorious at all. He and Amy have succeeded in ensuring that van Gogh was not killed by the Krafayis, and were able to comfort the unfortunate, misunderstood creature in its death throes. The duo got to spend some time with the great painter, to inspire and be inspired by him, but otherwise the lesson is that not everything can be fixed.
Herein is a powerful and truthful message. There is no miracle cure for mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder: no drug, no therapy that can take it away permanently. For some it can be managed successfully in the short or longer term, but for others it leads to a tragic loss in quality of life, or of life altogether. The Doctor adds words of hope and encouragement, broadening the context to talk about everyone’s life having its ups and downs, albeit less dramatic or potentially harmful for most. To bring such a perspective to the fore in any drama—let alone a family show with all its trappings and high entertainment remaining intact—is a bold move, and one to be resoundingly applauded.