Doctor Who, believe it or not, can be a tough thing to write about. The excitement of the ideas, humor and storytelling can get lost in the written word, and television can only do so much with the same group of characters from week to week (or month to month or year to year). Steven Moffat has his themes, his marks, he likes to hit as often as possible to establish his “style” and particular voice, and there’s only so much one can do with it.
Such is the torture of art. Oh, could Is There A Doctor In The House? reviews be considered “art”? OK. Maybe not art, but definitely a “craft,” a commentary designed on a regular basis to communicate a particular opinion or observation. (If I hope to have – or keep – any readers, those opinions and observations had better be clever, yes?) Really, Doctor Who is the art, and we’re just talking – or writing – about it.
But. What if we weren’t talking, or writing, about it? What if there was an unknown writer out there somewhere – maybe Steven Moffat, or Richard Curtis, in the case of Vincent and the Doctor, the tenth episode of series five – slaving away unappreciated? They craft rich characters – time travelers from other planets, or fiery Scottish lasses – and no one was around to comment on it? And, what if, in some strange way they were aware of their own thirst to write about the world around them, and were acutely aware that no one cared?
Vincent and the Doctor begins with Amy (Karen Gillan) and the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) visiting the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, with Amy mentioning how nice he’s been to her. She doesn’t remember Rory, lost to the crack in time and space, and never seems to understand why she occasionally has tears streaming down her cheeks. When the Doctor notices something amiss in Van Gogh’s painting The Church at Auvers – something that’s not supposed to be there, something “evil” – he consults the erudite tour guide (a politely perplexed Bill Nighy, one of the considerations for the role of the Eleventh Doctor, if the rumors are to be believed) and tears off to 1890 to find out what this dark thing is, and why it touched Van Gogh’s life.
Interestingly enough, Vincent and the Doctor makes Van Gogh’s demons – he committed suicide at the age of 37, in 1890, and was potentially schizophrenic or bipolar – into something tangible, at least for the science fiction of Doctor Who. There’s an “invisible” monster, the Krafayis, killing innocent people in the French village of Arles, where Van Gogh spent his final days, and only Vincent van Gogh (Tony Curran) can see it. He’s disrespected as a painter, less respected as a citizen or café patron, and generally disliked, toiling away in obscurity.
Again, Curtis’ script plays to Moffat’s fascination with the world that exists in the corner of our eyes. The Doctor is able to see the Krafayis only though a Gallifreyan contraption consisting of a mirror allowing him to see behind over his own shoulder. (Using the device to successfully identify the Krafayis, there’s a good bit of comedy when the Doctor must first identify himself, and a picture of William Hartnell prints out as the result.) The Doctor respects Van Gogh; his way of seeing the world with all of its color and light is so powerful, he’s capable of perceiving something the Doctor can’t. Van Gogh, lonely in this tortured perception, is used as a reflection for the Doctor, who sees a world in need every second of every day, a “madman with a box.”
Figuring the Krafayis is somehow aware of Van Gogh’s ability to see him, the Doctor pushes Vincent to finally paint The Church at Auvers – the evil thing is revealed as the Krafayis in the window – and lure the monster out. Facing the creature down, the Doctor realizes it – a member of a pack-hunting race left behind on Earth – is now blind, only hears the world, and is tormented by it. The Krafayis, lonely and alone, struggles through its existence doing only what it knows how to do before two other beings – Vincent and the Doctor – struggling through their own existences doing only what they know to do, must defeat him.
Van Gogh’s real demons – his mental illness and supposed alcoholism – are addressed intelligently and thoughtfully. Curran creates an angry, excitable Van Gogh forever exiled to live in a world not quite ready for him. The Doctor and Amy open up a new world for him, a world of alien monsters and travel through time and space, but he’s still not able to conquer the darkness within himself.
Believing Van Gogh deserves a glimpse of the recognition that awaits his work, the Doctor – in what of the more emotionally devastating sequences of all of the new Who, let alone series five – takes Vincent and Amy back to the modern Musée d’Orsay where he sees his work beloved by the masses, and listens as Nighy’s tour guide muses on the greatness of Vincent Van Gogh, not only as an artist, but as a man. He receives the recognition all those who see the world just slightly off kilter wish for, but it’s not enough. Placing Vincent back in his time and returning for a third time, Amy hopes to see years and years of more art from an invigorated Van Gogh, but sometimes – as the Doctor reminds her – the bad things in one’s life can outweigh the good.
It isn’t the promise of boundless imagination that enlivens art and emboldens artists, at least not always; it’s the limitations that imagination faces – the marks creators like to hit, the demons they must tangle with now and again – and how creators overcome those limitations to create something special, something called art. B+
Behind the Sofa: The Krafayis is large, and scary, but acts more as a metaphor for the struggles of art and loneliness than pose a real threat. It’s more scared than scary, and makes for an interesting addition to the Doctor Who menagerie because of its emotional significance.
Next week: The Doctor guest stars in his own British sitcom (sort of) in The Lodger.