Jul 14 2010 11:01am

Doctor Who S5, EP10: “Vincent and The Doctor”

Oh yeah?! Well where’s YOUR Doctor Who review, huh?! (Sorry this is so late, everyone…)

People come to Doctor Who, and science-fiction in general, for different reasons.  For some, the gadgets, space/time travel, and aliens are the focus.  As for me, I enjoy science fiction most when the science is couched within the fiction, as opposed to riding out in front, as if we’re watching a world that is like the one we live in…but just a little bit more. “Vincent and The Doctor” is one of the finest episodes of this season of Doctor Who for that reason. Yes, there’s an alien, and yes, The Doctor, with the help of Amy and a famous painter, battles it, but the real story happens in the hearts and minds of the characters, as well as ours.

The Doctor has been “too nice” to Amy in the time since Rory’s death.  He’s been taking her to a series of beautiful locations, and now they’ve stopped at the Musee d’Orsay to see the work of her favorite painter, Vincent Van Gogh. It’s all lovely, but Amy is suspicious. In any case, as they overhear Dr. Black (played by an adorably nerdy, and uncredited, Bill Nighy) leading a group around the Van Gogh exhibit, they examine the paintings, and The Doctor notices Van Gogh’s The Church at Auvers on the wall and sees something odd in the window.  Something evil-looking. Something he needs to stop. He drags Amy back to the TARDIS to take her to Vincent Van Gogh himself.

They meet Vincent (the amazing Tony Curran), a man who is not only considered mad by his neighbors, but an untalented painter as well.  His paintings are mocked, and if he’s thought of at all it is as someone who doesn’t pay his debts.  The Doctor and Amy know differently, of course. Amy, in fact, develops a bit of a crush on Vincent, which is heartily returned. As it turns out, Auvers is being tramautized by a mysterious presence that no one can see but Vincent. As The Doctor discovers, the presence is a Krafayis, a brutal race of aliens that look like a cross between a dragon and a parrot and continue to kill until they are killed. They are so brutal, in fact, that if one of them is injured, that one is left to fend for itself on whatever planet they’ve ravaged. So, this Krafayis has been abandoned, and is clearly not happy about it. As The Doctor saw the Krafayis in the window of The Church at Auvers, he wants to accompany Van Gogh when he goes to paint it so that he can be there when the Krafayis arrives and defeat it somehow. The trio do, but as The Doctor says, “Sometimes winning…winning is no fun at all.”

Writer Richard Curtis, whom you may know as the writer/director of Love, Actually among other things, tells a complex story that examines all manner of human emotions and contradictions through a sci-fi prism. In other words, he tells my favorite kind of sci-fi story. Several strong themes are addressed in his script, but the most fascinating because it’s rarely addressed this directly or this well, is Reclaiming Mental Illness.

This episode reminded me of issue #10 of the Buffy: Season Eight comic, called “Anywhere But Here,” a standalone issue in which Joss Whedon featured a real-life Buffy fan, Robin Balzer, who has schizophrenia. In that story, Robin’s character is the “minder” of an unstable reality field, which requires her to contain the instability in her brain to keep it in check. In other words, her mental illness is also her superpower.

I couldn’t help but see that in Vincent in this episode of Doctor Who. He suffers from depression, and who knows what other mental illnesses that weren’t diagnosed in his time, and yet he sees things no one else does, which not only makes him a brilliant artist, but allows him to protect his fellow townspeople from a threat, and allows him to see that Amy Pond is sad even if that sadness isn’t conscious to Amy herself. His mental illness is also his superpower.

To have The Doctor make the distinction between “madness” and depression was powerful. The Doctor is arguably one of the most trusted characters on television. Having him talk about mental illness as if it’s something that can and should be understood is extremely important beyond the story in our real lives. Doctor Who did something similar recently with dyslexia in “The Hungry Earth,” using little Elliot to illustrate it. It’s wonderful to see Doctor Who deal with issues real people actually deal with in addition to matters of intergalactic importance!

Interesting, too, is how alike Vincent and the Krafayis are. Though Vincent compares the Krafayis to the townspeople who lash out at him and his “madness,” I saw a similarity between him and the misunderstood monster who has something medically wrong with him. With the Krafayis, it is Vincent who is like the townspeople, lashing out at something he doesn’t understand until it’s too late.

Special kudos should go to director Jonny Campbell for his beautifully directed visuals that paid homage to the real Van Gogh’s work. The scene where Amy is sitting amongst the sunflowers is breathtaking, as are several others. There are also the wonderful performances he coaxed. Tony Curran was brilliant as Vincent, and my only regret is that he was brought on as a guest star to play a role that probably won’t be revisited. The intensity of the scene where The Doctor and Amy bring Vincent to the future to see his impact as an artist is palpable, and it’s all due to Curran’s performance. I don’t know anyone who’s seen this episode who didn’t cry at least a little during that.

At  the end of the episode, The Doctor consoles Amy by telling her that “the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things and make them unimportant.” In a show with a history like Doctor Who’s, there are episodes that aren’t so great. Sometimes, they’re downright bad. But it’s episodes like “Vincent and The Doctor” that make the series what it is—a very good thing.

Teresa Jusino was born on the same day that Skylab fell. Coincidence? She doesn’t think so. Her “feminist brown person” take on pop culture has been featured on websites like,, and (edited by Kevin Smokler). She is currently working on several fiction projects, including a web series for Pareidolia Films called The Pack, which she hopes to debut by the end of the year! Get Twitterpated with Teresa, Follow The Pack or visit her at The Teresa Jusino Experience.

I agree this was a lovely episode. In fact, I enjoyed it more the second time I watched it. (That's why I cheat and watch the episodes online before they're aired in North America - so that I can watch them more than once!)

I loved the scene where they are looking at the sky and it turns into "Starry Night". That was beautifully done.

Apparently when this episode aired in the UK it was followed by a public service announcement for a suicide hotline.
Gary Schaper
3. Garyfury
As always, I'm enjoying these reviews.

One of the great things about this episode is that it actually shows us one of the incidents that the post-2005 Doctor Who is frequently rhapsodizing about. We're told that traveling with the Doctor leads you to experience a wide variety of wonderful things in between all the running and fighting for your life. All too often, the show neglects to stop and linger on those moments.

There's been some criticism here and there of the sentimentality on display here, but it's perfectly timed in the series as a whole, after Rory's death. Whether he planned it that way or not, the Doctor provides Amy a catharsis for the grief she can't feel, and that he can't show her.
Christoper Turkel
4. zizban
I found this season uneven but Vincet and The Doctor was one of the best (I also affectionately call it "Vince Van Gogh and the Giant Space Chicken") of the season. Simply a wonderful and touching episode.

I really think Matt Smith is doing a great job. He just needed an episode like this one to show what he can do with the character.
Ashe Armstrong
5. AsheSaoirse
What more can you say about this episode? It was brilliant, beautiful and poignant. Tony Curran is severely underrated in the acting world (or maybe I'm just unknowing) and the Bill Nighy cameo was fantastic and provided one of my new favorite little scenes (where The Doctor comments on his bowtie and Nighy comments back, and the Doctor says, "Keep telling them stuff" before they run off...alternately, watch).
Ian Tregillis
6. ITregillis
Writer Richard Curtis, whom you may know as the writer/director of Love, Actually among other things

You just blew my mind. I should have guessed, though. This episode was clearly written by somebody with major chops when it comes to capturing the complexity of human emotion. Very, very well done.

Also: I would watch Bill Nighy read the phone book. And I would pay for the privilege. He's one of my very, very favorite actors. I just about leapt out of my chair when he showed up. Right away I knew this had to be a special episode.
Tony Linde
7. tonylinde
Agree with everyone else. I've been disappointed in some of the stories this series considering what a wonderful character Amy is and how good Matt Smith is, but this episode restored my faith. One I've burned to DVD for keepsies.
Ursula L
8. Ursula
His mental illness is also his superpower.

Actually, what I liked is that his mental illness wasn't his superpower.

He paints on his good days, not his bad days. On his bad days, he's too consumed by his mental illness to focus on anything or anyone else.

Vincent was having a good day, a day where the mental illness was being quiet, when he recognized Amy's sadness. He recognized it because his artistic talent made him pay careful attention to the world and people around him. His common human kindness and empathy let him recognize Amy's sadness. That, and the fact that she was crying for no known reason.

Vincent was a genius and he was mentally ill. He was not a genius because he was mentally ill.

And that is a good thing, because the stereotype of the "mad genius" and the idea that mental illness or depression causes genius adds an unnecessary stress on people who are mentally ill, but not geniuses.
Teresa Jusino
9. TeresaJusino
Ursula @8 - I disagree. Yes, he was a good, empathetic person. Yes, he was talented on his own. But being mentally ill is a part of who you are. Even on your "good days" it colors everything you do. "Quiet" doesn't equal "gone", especially if you're not on medication. You can't separate it out. It's impossible to say if the real Van Gogh or the one in this episode would have been a genius without the mental illness. How would a non mentally ill Van Gogh have seen the world? Would the colors have "screamed" at him the same way? If he didn't have the same level of sadness, would he have even wanted to paint all he painted?

It's not about the "stereotype" of a "mad genius." Obviously, not all mentally ill people are brilliant at something the way he was at painting. Just as not all non-mentally ill people are. But there's a difference between being a good, solid painter, and being a genius, and genius happens when you see the world and what can be done in it differently than most other people. And how Van Gogh saw the world, for better or worse, was entirely due to how his brain worked. And his brain was ill.

What I saw in this episode was that, for a moment, he owned his madness. With The Doctor and Amy, he knew he was "mad" and he didn't care, because he wasn't being judged for it. That was the key. The Doctor and Amy, because they knew what a genius he was, didn't treat him the way the townspeople did. They knew that even though he was mentally ill, his mind also produced exquisite works of art, and they focused on that bit. And like Doctor Black says when praising Van Gogh's work at the end, pain is easy to capture, but he took his pain and made something beautiful.

What I loved about this episode was that for a moment, Van Gogh was OKAY with what his illness made him see and feel. He saw it as a strength, not a weakness, and THAT made it a good day. That's what The Doctor and Amy gave him. The knowledge that there was a way in which he didn't have to look at what was going on in his mind as a negative thing.

But sadly, he wasn't able to maintain that perception of it on his own.

Also, with regard to Amy: he recognized her pain not just because of common human empathy. Often, it takes someone who's experienced a certain profound level of pain to be able to see it in others. After all, SHE didn't even realize she was crying until he told her. He was a kind of perceptive that was above and beyond simple human decency and kindness, and that had everything to do with his illness.

I'm not saying mental illness is a good thing. But I AM glad that in this episode it was allowed to be more than just a handicap. It was the thing that saved the day numerous times.
Chris Meadows
10. Robotech_Master
Teresa @9: Terry Pratchett did something similar in Making Money—the tortured genius artist who von Lipwig rescued to produce the engravings for his new paper money turned out to have no artistic talent at all after a well-meaning Igor cured him of his depression.
Mara Shepherd
11. ladyaife
@ 1 Not quite what they actually do quite often is say "If you are affected by any of the issues raised in the programme please call ...."

Thanks for the reminder of what a great episode this was. It's been 2/3 weeks since the finale aired here and sometimes episodes get lost in all the ooohhs and arrhhhs and the shinies.

I personally loved when Vincent asks Amy if she is also Dutch (since both actors have Scottish accents) class :-)
12. a-j
Actually I found it a rather bleak episode, and appreciated that. I 'read' the Doctor's line about not allowing the bad to overwhelm the good as a reminder that while van Gogh suffered from depression, depression was not all that van Gogh was. I liked the portrayal of depression as being sobbingly ugly and crippling, rather than the gazing into the middle distance with an expression of mild regret that is usually used.
I am uncomfortable with the tortured genius trope which I suspect has more to do with making non-sufferers feel more comfortable than an accurate representation of mental illness. The foulness of depression is that it leeches the positive out of everything and so Amy's attempt to 'cure' van Gogh by showing him that his work will be loved in the future was always doomed to failure and I appreciated the bravery of the programme makers in acknowledging that.
On the other hand, Stephen Fry, who is bi-polar, has stated that if there was a button that he could press that would cure his condition he would not do so as he accepts the downs in return for the ups and knows that his condition is a major part of what he is. It is a difficult and potentially thorny area with no easy analyses.
Oh, and the episode looked beautiful and was brilliantly acted.
13. Dr. Thanatos
I also heartily approve.

Being old enough to prefer my Doctors to be wearing scarfs and floppy hats I have to admit that Matt Smith has brought a new aspect to an old trusted character. I like this guy!
Sandi Kallas
14. Sandikal
This is my favorite episode yet. It hit all the right notes.
Stephen W
15. Xelgaex
I liked the portrayal of depression as being sobbingly ugly and crippling, rather than the gazing into the middle distance with an expression of mild regret that is usually used.
I am uncomfortable with the tortured genius trope which I suspect has more to do with making non-sufferers feel more comfortable than an accurate representation of mental illness. The foulness of depression is that it leeches the positive out of everything and so Amy's attempt to 'cure' van Gogh by showing him that his work will be loved in the future was always doomed to failure and I appreciated the bravery of the programme makers in acknowledging that.


The whole madness as a superpower thing was my least favorite thing about the ep. (Otherwise I really enjoyed it, one of my favorites.)

I won't attempt to speak for anyone else's experience, but my illness is not a superpower. The sadness I feel doesn't help me to create more. It mostly makes me hate what I'm writing at the moment, despise what I've written before and despair that I'll ever improve.

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