Number 9: Vincent and the Doctor
I’m as surprised as you are, really. “Vincent and the Doctor”, coming toward the end of Matt Smith’s first season, is among the most polarizing episodes in Who history. Some love it for daring to wear its heart on its sleeve and largely succeeding, while others deride it for its overwhelming sentimentality and shaky plot.
I was in the latter camp at first, as the episode does poorly as a piece of straight science fiction. The Krafayis is an unconvincing monster that, for basically no reason, is portrayed as a genuine threat against a Doctor who has faced Silurians, Daleks, Weeping Angels, and other assorted alien armies in this season alone. As gimmicks go, “it’s invisible and very violent” is a rather unimaginative concept, and it’s not like we can empathize with a creature that does little more than some implied thrashing (the CGI is a real limitation here) and angry roaring. Smith is given very little to do other than waste time, and he plays most of the episode in full tilt spastic teenager mode. While the previous three episodes in this season—“Amy’s Choice”, “The Hungry Earth”, and “Cold Blood”—managed to weave together their monsters of the week with their moral quandaries, the Krafayis feels like an afterthought. You can summarize the action beats of this episode as “Vincent Van Gogh fights an invisible space chicken.”1
However, this episode is a personal favorite of a friend of mine, who forced me to sit through it again. I don’t know what happened between the first and second viewings (spoiler alert: you’re about to find out), but it was like watching a completely different episode. That second chance revealed three things that make “Vincent and the Doctor” worthy of the #9 spot.
First, the episode harkens back to Doctor Who’s roots as a sort-of-educational program. The series' very first story, “An Unearthly Child”, found the Doctor and his companions in the paleolithic era, helping cavemen rediscover the art of fire, while the second story, “The Daleks”, featured the Doctor expounding on the particulars of static electricity to explain how Daleks move. In much the same way, we are educated on the life of Van Gogh in the academic sense (courtesy of Bill Nighy, in an uncredited role as the Van Gogh exhibit’s curator) and in the personal, as we get a glimpse of the artist’s daily struggles and inner torment.
Second, this episode is chock full of wonderful performances. Granted, Smith isn’t given much to work with, but Tony Curran does an amazing job as Van Gogh, keeping his appearance memorable without descending into caricature. It’s easily one of the best guest roles in the entire series.2 Nighy is terrific in his small role, as he tells the audience why Van Gogh is considered to be one of history’s greatest artists, and manages to sell every word. Karen Gillan, for her part, has a chemistry with Tony Curran that she never really developed in all her time with Arthur Darvill. Amy Pond usually comes off as an overly aggressive combination of sassy/sexy/pixie, but here Gillan dials it back enough to affect genuine charm. Amy becomes increasingly concerned for Van Gogh’s wellbeing as the story progresses, and really seems to want to make his life better than history had left it. Where Gillan usually places Amy at some remove from the historical figures she meets (“Oi! Churchill!”), here she seems emotionally invested. You can almost believe that she might have stayed behind to become Mrs. Van Gogh.
Third, this episode really lays on the shlock,3 and yet somehow doesn’t collapse under all of that emotional weight. This is the key thing to understand about the episode: the Krafayis really is an afterthought, and it’s all about Van Gogh. More specifically, it’s trying to answer the question, “Why art?” The show makes the case that Van Gogh was especially perceptive (he’s the only person in the world who can see the Krafayis, and he senses Amy’s sadness over an event that she herself cannot remember), and that this enabled him to paint things in a way that no person before him had ever mastered. “Vincent and the Doctor” lays out, pretty explicitly, what made Van Gogh’s art so true and resonant for the ages. To review: this episode explains art, for God’s sake, and does so successfully!
Then there’s Van Gogh’s trip into the future, where he learns, in no uncertain terms, that his life’s work, the source of so much humiliation and anguish, was worth it after all. This is pretty big philosophical territory. How many of us have grappled with that question ourselves? Is what I’m doing important? Does it matter? Will it matter? Here, Doctor Who was brave enough to imagine what would happen if someone worthy of the question found out the answer. The consequences are decidedly Who-ish; a few small tweaks to the timeline, but things stay mostly the same. The Doctor and Amy gave Van Gogh a moment of beauty (after all, what is art if not that?), but it wasn’t enough to vanquish all his demons or prevent the inevitable. As the Doctor says, putting perhaps too fine a point on 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 necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant. And we definitely added to his pile of good things.”
So, what changed between my first and second viewings? The first time around, I wasn’t willing to see the episode on its own terms. It wanted to tell a story from the heart, a weird yarn that begins when the Doctor spots a monster in a painting and ends when we learn why art matters. I just wasn’t in the mood for it, couldn’t tune in on the emotional frequency the episode asks of the audience. But that is exactly the type of show Doctor Who can be, if you’re willing to let it. Bear in mind that this episode came right after “Cold Blood”, in which the Doctor faced off against a civilization of intelligent lizards (and racism) and lost Amy’s fiancé to a crack in the universe. That the show could successfully shift gears to a big-hearted flight of fancy like “Vincent and the Doctor” is a testament to Doctor Who’s flexibility and nerve as a storytelling vehicle. What other show could have possibly pulled off an episode that tackles these types of artistic and philosophical aspirations? And that’s why “Vincent and the Doctor” makes the #9 spot.