In the aftermath of Rory’s death and subsequent erasure from time, the Doctor takes Amy to the Musée D’Orsay and the Vincent van Gogh exhibit. On inspection of the painting, The Church at Auvers, the Doctor spots a face in one of the windows – the face of a creature the Doctor believes to be evil. He and Amy travel back to 1890 to meet Vincent and investigate.
I know for a fact that this is a friend’s favourite episodes of Doctor Who – you know who you are!
Richard Curtis is probably someone that I never expected to write an episode of Doctor Who. I can’t remember what my reaction was when the list of writers was announced in series 5, but I probably expected something light-hearted with quite a lot of pithy one-liners, with Hugh Grant making a cameo appearance. This story focuses on Vincent van Gogh and his struggles with mental health, which Curtis deals with suitably sensibly. The show has addressed the issue of mental health in Series 12, but I feel that Vincent and the Doctor has a longevity that Can You Hear Me? may struggle to challenge.
I just wondered, between you and me – in a hundred words – where do you think van Gogh rates in the history of art?
Well…big question, but to me, van Gogh is the finest painter of them all; certainly the most popular great painter of all time. THe most beloved; his command of colour; the most magnificent. He transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty. Pain is easy to portray, but to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy and joy and magnificence of our world…no one had ever done it before. Perhaps no one ever will again. To my mind that strange wild man who roamed the fields of Provence was not only the world’s greatest artist, but also one of the greatest men who ever lived.The Eleventh Doctor and Dr. Black
Curtis’s script does really well conveying the issues that dogged van Gogh in the final year of his life, whilst giving a Doctor Who spin on it by introducing the Krayfayis. It is often difficult to portray mental health issues correctly on television without making it seem like those afflicted with them have some kind of superpower, but the story largely manages it here. There is a moment with Dr. Black where it feels as though it is going to tip over the edge, but the story rows back from this. Vincent and the Doctor feels different for another reason too. As an audience, we are used to seeing the Doctor confronted with a problem and managing to overcome it, leaving the situation better than he found it no matter the odds. In the case of this story, whilst he stops the creature that is terrorising the town, he cannot save van Gogh. Curtis does not shy away from this either, and the scene in Vincent’s bedroom where the Doctor attempts to help him with one of his episodes is quite a mature and effecting one.
Vincent, can I help?
It’s so clear you cannot. And when you leave – and everyone always leaves – I will be left once more with an empty heart and no hope.
My experience is that there is, you know, surprisingly always hope.
Then your experience is incomplete! I know how it will end. And it will not end well.The Eleventh Doctor and Vincent van Gogh
I like the fact that van Gogh recognises Amy’s melancholy, something that she does not even recognise as she can’t remember why she is upset. Then we come to the return to the Musée D’Orsay scene, which could feel mishandled if it had in fact changed Vincent’s ultimate fate. In fact, this episode’s masterstroke is ensuring that the Doctor and Amy don’t change the outcome, as the scene where the Doctor and Amy return at the story’s conclusion is a real gut punch – the audience are inclined to believe Amy’s optimism that there will be more paintings rather that the Doctor’s note of caution. The Doctor’s speech at the end sums it up nicely – they did make a difference, just not the major one that Amy was expecting.
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 always spoil the good things or make them unimportant. And we definitely added to his pile of good things.The Eleventh Doctor
Director Jonny Campbell does a really good job here. It is a challenge with stories like this based on an historic figure’s life to make things feel organic, especially when scenes pay homage to van Gogh’s paintings. Campbell does this well from the beginning, when Amy and the Doctor arrive at the Place Du Forum terrace, which feels very in keeping with the fairytale vibe that continues through Series 5. The culmination of this is the starry night scene, where Vincent describes to the Doctor and Amy what he sees, which is one of my favourite moments of the episode.
The weakest part of this story is undoubtedly the monster, who doesn’t really live up to the dire introduction the Doctor gives it as a face of evil. It is not helped by some pretty shoddy CGI, but even so, the Krayfayis is not the focus here, instead focussing on Vincent, a fact made clear when the alien is dealt with by the half-hour mark. The fact that the Krayfayis can only be seen by Vincent is a thinly veiled parallel to mental health conditions, as well as a potential nod to the budget constraints of Doctor Who’s original run.
Matt Smith and Karen Gillan do well here, with this story bringing Amy more to the fore after the Silurian two-parter. Smith largely acts as comedic relief, especially when he is pretending that he can see the Krayfayis, but he does have some subtler moments, like the way he hangs back when Amy bounds off to see what has changed since they took Vincent to the future. The story has quite a small central cast, with Tony Curran doing a great job as van Gogh, believably portraying the pain and anguish he is going through in the story, especially in the scene at the Museum. Bill Nighy is a great and reliable actor and so it is good to see him in the show, even if it is only a small role – I particularly like his reaction after Vincent kisses him and thanks him for his kind words – the pause, look back and shake of the head are so well done.
Verdict: A strong story dealing with a difficult subject matter, let down only by a poor monster. 9/10
Cast: Matt Smith (The Doctor), Karen Gillan (Amy Pond), Tony Curran (Vincent van Gogh), Nik Howden (Maurice), Chrissie Cotterill (Mother), Sarah Counsell (Waitress) & Morgan Overton and Andrew Byrne (School Children).
Writer: Richard Curtis
Director: Jonny Campbell
Behind the Scenes
- One of two stories in Series 5 not to feature the crack in time or mentions of the Silence, but Rory’s erasure from time is alluded to.
- It was the intention of the production team to introduce the topic of mental health to a younger audience. The story was broadcast with a BBC Action Line tag at the end for anyone affected by the issues presented in the story.
- Bill Nighy is uncredited for his role as Dr. Henry Black. Nighy is a frequent collaborator with writer Richard Curtis, having appeared in Love Actually, The Boat That Rocked and About Time. He was also rumoured to be approached to play the Ninth Doctor in 2003, which Nighy confirmed in 2012, stating that he turned the part down due to the part coming with “too much responsibility”.
- Chrissie Cotterill would go on to appear in a different role in The Pandorica Opens, playing Madame Vernet, Vincent van Gogh’s landlady.
It’s probably a toss-up between two scenes:
- The scene with the Doctor, Amy and Vincent lying on the grass after the scene in the church, staring up the sky as Vincent describes the night sky and we start to see what Vincent describes.
- The Musee D’Orsee scene – need I say more?
Hold my hand, Doctor. Try to see what I see. We’re so lucky we’re still alive to see this beautiful world. Look at the sky. It’s not dark and black and without character. The black is in fact deep blue. And over there! Lighter blue. And blowing through the blueness and blackness, the winds swirling through the air. And there, shining, burning, bursting through, the stars! Can you see how they roar their light? Everywhere we look, the complex magic of nature blazes before our eyes.
I’ve seen many things, my friend, but you’re right: nothing as wonderful as the things you see.Vincent van Gogh and the Eleventh Doctor
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