The Pleasure of Smelling a Flower (Vincent and the Doctor)

(77 comments)

This is just showing off, really.
It’s June 5th, 2010. Dizzee Rascal is at number one with “Dirtee Disco,” with Iyaz, Eminem, N-Dubz, and Aggro also charting. In news, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig is finally capped, which reduces the spill without actually stopping it. And twelve people die in a killing spree in Cumbria.

On television, it’s Vincent and the Doctor. One of the most interesting innovations that Moffat brought to the program was his focus on bringing in what might be called celebrity writers. His first two seasons feature his most brazen attempts at this, although Neil Cross was no small acquisition and Neil Gaiman was originally supposed to be in the first season, so describing this as a particularly well-structured process might be overstating things. Nevertheless, what jumps out first about Vincent and the Doctor is that it is by Richard Curtis, writer of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, creator of Blackadder, Mr. Bean, and The Vicar of Dibley, and also the guy who wrote The Boat That Rocked if you want to make him come off not quite as well. 

He is, in other words, not quite the sort of person you expect to be writing Doctor Who. This was, of course, not the series’ first experiment with celebrity writers. Way back in the 1980s it tried to get Christopher Priest to write episodes, and of course, Priest was first approached by a before-he-was-famous Douglas Adams. Andrew Cartmel tried and failed to get Alan Moore to write for the series in 1988, and Stephen Fry’s abandoned script for the early Davies era continues to be the subject of the occasional rumor. And there certainly are cases of reasonably well-established writers making the move to Doctor Who - Philip Martin in 1985, for instance. 

But Richard Curtis doesn’t feel like any of these. He’s not a sci-fi writer first and foremost. And while Philip Martin was well-established, it wasn’t like he had an Oscar nomination to his name. Only Stephen Fry seems in the same ballpark, and Fry has always been a bit of a geek. Curtis, on the other hand, bristles with middlebrow respectability. At least in theory, he writes the sort of thing that people who hate Doctor Who like. Getting him to write an episode of Doctor Who, in other words, is both strange and a shot across the bow. 

What is remarkable about the episode is twofold. First, it works quite well. Second, it’s visibly written by someone who has seen next to no Doctor Who before in their lives. (Curtis has admitted that he was not a fan, and that it was not until seeing The Next Doctor with David Morrissey that he decided to accept Moffat’s invitation to write for the series.) In some ways this is oddly liberating - it is in many ways the first time we’ve seen a Doctor Who story conceived of entirely in terms of what the series has been since 2005. 

On the other hand, this being Richard Curtis, there is not actually anything terribly surprising. Vincent and the Doctor feels in many regards like the statistical mean of the new series - the episode of Doctor Who that would be written by someone who has only ever had Doctor Who described to them in general terms. 

Most obviously within this is the fact that it’s not really structured much like Doctor Who. There’s a monster, yes, but the monster is an afterthought and rather flagrantly an excuse to put together the elements the story is really interested in. That’s not to say there aren’t clever ideas - in particular, the decision to have the monster be blind is a lovely detail, although the subsequent attempt to equate the monster with van Gogh is, to say the least, strained. (OK, yes, the Krafayis was blind, but it’s still a member of a species described as “a brutal race,” and this is apparently normal behavior for the species, so.) But this isn’t built like a Doctor Who story, even though it’s unmistakably both the sort of story Doctor Who tells and a story that could only really be done in Doctor Who. On the whole, this feels more like a fresh take on Doctor Who than like a failure to get what the show is, and is basically a good thing. But there are moments where it is, at the very least, jarring - most notably the use of the pop song for the sequence where Vincent is brought to the museum to see his legacy.

The first thing to note is that it’s not actually much of a pop song. It’s a five year old track from a band who has only ever had one top ten single, and this not only isn’t it, it’s not even a song that got a single release. It’s not unrecognizable or hyper-obscure, certainly - the album went number one - but it’s also not an instantly recognizable, iconic song. It’s sure to date, but in a very different way to, say, the use of “Toxic” back in The End of the World. There it’s telling that “Toxic” fits in smoothly with “Tainted Love,” serving as clear stand-ins for a particular style of pop, as opposed to an era. Even just a year after release, betting on “Toxic” as an iconic pop song was safe. But “Chances” (which is what this song is called, if you were wondering) is not iconic.

The effect of this is that the sequence does not really seem to have a specific pop song so much as the general form of a pop song. It doesn’t matter what pop song is playing so much as that there is a pop song playing, and specifically one that, by 2010, already felt a bit dated - an indie rock piano ballad by a good old-fashioned four white guys band of the sort that was already going out of popular style when it was released. (Exactly no songs of that style hit number one in 2010) Its purpose is to simply be datedly poppy. 

This is, to say the least, an odd choice for Doctor Who. The use of a minor pop song as backing music for a major scene is not a new television trick by any measure, but Doctor Who has never done it. So its use here signifies that we’re in an odd sort of genre. Which, by this point in the episode, we are - the Doctor Who plot has proved to be a relatively minor part of the episode, with the monster vanquished some thirteen minutes before the end. The resolution of the episode is turned over entirely to the matter of Vincent van Gogh and the impossibility of preventing his suicide. So by the time we get to the scene of van Gogh in a contemporary gallery looking at his own art we are in a fundamentally different sort of narrative than we usually are. The pop song serves to flag this, establishing that for this scene Doctor Who is doing a type of narrative defined by self-conscious sentimentality and, perhaps more importantly, a bald-faced lack of ironic detachment. This is an episode that is going to unapologetically put everything on the line in pursuit of praising and loving van Gogh.

The use of van Gogh in the first place is telling. The story is aggressively ahistorical in portraying van Gogh’s life, which adds to the sense of van Gogh as a commoditized stand-in. There’s some off-handed discussion of what’s so good about van Gogh’s art, but it amounts to “color,” which, OK, that’s true, but almost self-consciously useless. The focus gets moved to his ineffable “vision,” which gets elevated to a literal supernatural power, and then tied implicitly to his madness in such a way as to put the artist at conscious remove from larger society. The declaration that this combination of incurable mental illness and supernatural vision were necessary conditions for being the greatest artist of all time serves mainly to reinforce the idea that nobody watching can ever accomplish anything like van Gogh ever did.

This is frustrating, because the actual resolution - the note that you can’t just magically save someone from their own demons and that this furthermore doesn’t make attempts to help them meaningless or even, for that matter, failures - is a wonderfully sensitive and deft comment on mental illness. But that genuinely moving and productive observation is so smothered in the rhetoric of equating genius and madness and in the great man theory of history that animates the celebrity historical as a genre that it becomes neutered. The focus on populist acclaim as equivalent to genius does it no favors either - van Gogh’s value is ultimately tied entirely to his artistic production, which is just as often valued in purely economic terms as artistic ones. Any answer for why Amy mourns van Gogh becomes either materialist (she wanted more paintings) or a sort of inspirational glurge. If van Gogh is valued for his art, it is only because through his art he “transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty,” which is to say, he overcame his mental illness in one sphere. The sense of mental illness as something one has a moral obligation to battle against and fight persists. No wonder van Gogh killed himself - after this adventure every painting that fails to escape his mental illness becomes a failure that reiterates the worthlessness of his life and reinforces that he can’t escape his own pain.

It’s tempting to suggest that this stems from the whole-hearted embrace of sentimentality, but that seems a stretch, or, at the very least, like picking a relatively marginal aspect of a nexus of problematic ideologies running through this. Where Vincent and the Doctor becomes worth complaining about is not in its sentimentality. The moments that trade unambiguously on sentimentality - Vincent’s “We have fought monsters together and we have won. On my own, I fear I may not do as well,” and the Doctor’s “the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things” speech - are by and large the ones that work. Rather, it’s the fact that this very moving in content is wrapped up in a trite claim about the nature of artistic genius that equates it with mass popularity and that attempts to use that popularity to justify van Gogh’s art, as though that had somehow been required. 

Which is to say, essentially, that this episode would have been so vastly better if it had been about Henry Darger instead. 

Still, despite its faults, it’s worth noting that this episode is one that shows up on a lot of people’s favorite lists - particularly, it seems, people who started with the new series. And that all the muttering above about how the kids should get off my lawn consists of ideological critiques as opposed to a suggestion that the episode is bad or doesn’t work. It very stubbornly does work, and almost every criticism of it comes down to not enjoying the thing it successfully does. Which brings us back to where we started - this episode is in many ways the distillation of a particular vision of the new series. It’s fitting that it comes right after The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood, which seem so much like the moment where the Moffat era realizes that it is not well-served by trying to be the Davies era with a few modifications. Vincent and the Doctor, on the other hand, feels like the purest distillation of, if not the Davies era itself (which was always weirder and more challenging than it got credit for), at least the popular vision of what the Davies era was. Between the two, they put the Davies era to rest.


There’s a narrative to be constructed here, if you’re inclined to, suggesting that this is good given that the series was seemingly bleeding ratings at this point. That’s not quite fair - the ratings aren’t actually any worse than they were around this time in 2006, and every season to date has had a dip in ratings once spring gives way to summer, a point Moffat bangs on about in interviews. But this dip seemed worse than others, and, notably, wasn’t arrested by a rebound for the finale as previous seasons were. This didn’t quite trigger a crisis for Doctor Who, but it’s notable that the next season was done very differently, consciously not airing during the time of the year where the ratings typically took a hit, and taking on a different narrative structure as a result. There really is a sense in which this run of episodes marks the point where the Moffat era starts to gain the confidence to be itself instead of being a series of modifications to what came before. Which brings us nicely to the next story.

Comments

Scott 2 years, 11 months ago

"But there are moments where it is, at the very least, jarring - most notably the use of the pop song for the sequence where Vincent is brought to the museum to see his legacy."

Jarring for Doctor Who, at least; the use of pop music (and usually slightly bland and inoffensive mid-level Top 40 pop music at that) at significant moments is fairly common in Richard Curtis's own works, thus adding to the overlap between the two worlds.

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Carey 2 years, 11 months ago

There's an argument to be made that series five, like series one before it, is an exorcism of what had preceded it, leading up to The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang which really are the templates for (at least) the two series that follow. Which makes series six all the more interesting, because it is a mirror of the traditional Davies season structure. We start off with the all singing, all dancing climax where the antagonists that haunts series six are defeated, before going through a couple of two part stories that set up the climax, and then journey on to a series of stand alone stories that reflect the themes of the season before ending on a relatively small scale story (albeit one with major consequences) that addresses all of the themes that will be contained within the season. Even the celebrity historical works in this when it is remembered that it was originally designed to appear in the second half of the series.

The exorcism of the Davies era is one of the reasons series five is judged so highly by much of fandom: it simultaneously gives the audience familiarity while also doing everything slightly differently. Although I do remember at the time series five was heavily criticised for being too much of a jump from the Davies era, in much the same way that series one was from the first 26 years of Doctor Who. But this time, instead of having a fifteen year break (specials not with standing), it had only a couple of years (specials not withstanding).

I love Vincent and the Doctor. And I love the rubber space chicken, and can't understand why it came in for a lot of criticism at the time. It's Doctor Who: what's more Doctor Who than making the physical representation of mental illness a Giant, Rubber Space Chicken?

Doctor Who is the intersection of many things, mostly unrelated, meeting and forming something new from the experience. As you say, there is no better representation of this in the Moffat era than Vincent and the Doctor.

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Tom 2 years, 11 months ago

As well as Richard Curtis films, the other place music like this crops up in British TV is on sports broadcasts - after England has been knocked out of a World Cup, for instance, and the broadcaster uses this kind of thing over a montage of the memorable bits. Elbow's "One Day Like This" is the current go-to example. So "bittersweet highlights reel" - as a museum is, for Vincent - is very much a use case for mopey rock like the track here.

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Jarl 2 years, 11 months ago

The media touchstone I got from the use of vaguely indie pop music over the end of the episode was, first and foremost, Scrubs. It comes up elsewhere in american primetime shows too, Elementary being a recent case. That show can be a bit abusive of it at times, leading to the wonderfully perverse moment late in the first season of the vaguely indie pop song's slot being taken up by an Arsenal fan singing one last chant to himself before he commits suicide in his cell.

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elvwood 2 years, 11 months ago

I love this episode too (and I'm definitely not just a new series fan). The rubber chicken doesn't bother me, but I did feel they missed an opportunity. Why not keep the creature invisible throughout? Or only become visible after death? I feel that would have worked even better on both symbolic and in-story levels. Still, after being somewhat underwhelmed by the previous episode, this had me bouncing in my seat again.

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J Mairs 2 years, 11 months ago

"And I love the rubber space chicken, and can't understand why it came in for a lot of criticism at the time. It's Doctor Who: what's more Doctor Who than making the physical representation of mental illness a Giant, Rubber Space Chicken?"

Hear hear!

The day in which Doctor Who doesn't represent mental illness as a rubber space chicken is the day the show dies.

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Lewis Christian 2 years, 11 months ago

They should've had the Krayfayis remain invisible to us lot sat at home.

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David Anderson 2 years, 11 months ago

I wish the episode had been like that. The problem is rather that the episode gestures half-heartedly at representing mental illness as a giant rubber space chicken, then decides that the giant rubber space chicken actually represents a genius artist and is really just a bit misunderstood, but has to die anyway, and finally decides that it's got nothing to do with giant rubber space chickens - must be some other episode.

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David Anderson 2 years, 11 months ago

I think you're a bit kind in separating out the ideological critique and the aesthetic critique. I think the ideological critique is aesthetic. Also, I think you misplace the sentimentalism in the episode - the most sentimental bit is obviously the bit where Bill Nighy gushes nonsense about Van Gogh while Van Gogh listens. It's sentimental because it's got absolutely nothing to do with Van Gogh, and everything to do with complementing the writer and audience for being born after Van Gogh has been established as a Great Artist. It's not like Talons of Weng-Chiang where the reasons why it works are largely independent of the ideological problems. It is hard to enjoy this as a story without buying into the ideology. And the ideology replaces the real Van Gogh, both as person and as artist.

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Daru 2 years, 11 months ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

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Daru 2 years, 11 months ago

Thanks Carey - there is something to what you say, as some of the moments that seems to have set some fans teeth on edge (not mine) are confined to the oblivion of the crack in space and time. Some term this as a kind of *revenge* but I see it more as a response from Moffat with his own snarky kind of humour, to adherence to canon and previous stories and moving into exploring the malleability of narrative.

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Daru 2 years, 11 months ago

I am not really a lover of Curtis's work, I usually find it far too saccharin (except Blackadder, especially in its earlier series) but I did enjoy this in the sense that there was some element to the story that felt refreshing as Curtis had no previous baggage to do with the show.

Despite this I do find that the treatment of van Gogh as pretty simplistic and it was such as shame for me that his turmoil was represented through a space turkey, rather than maybe having conflict through the fiery figure of Gauguin for example.

Thanks for the heads up to the work of Henry Darger - I had not seen his work. As an artist I have been a lover of van Gogh since my teens, but I have never really followed the Great Man theory of such figures and try to take him as a whole person and most of all follow the visceral and direct inspiration I get whenever I see his work face to face. There are so many arts figures who come from and work on the fringes - I myself have been previously been involved with running an arts organisation supporting self-taught/ Raw / Outsider (less keen on this term) artists. And I think the thing I am never really happy with is the movement towards setting figures such as van Gogh apart as *geniuses* that we cannot touch, as sadly this separates people from simply being inspired to follow the compulsion to create themselves. As on a very simple level, van Gogh appeared to have felt something in response the world around him and expressed it. That in turn inspires me.

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Nick Smale 2 years, 11 months ago

It's worth noting that "Amy's Choice" is also an example of Moffat bringing on board a noted non-Who writer, in this case Simon "creator of Men Behaving Badly" Nye.

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brownstudy 2 years, 11 months ago

Check out the documentary "In the Realms of the Unreal" for a nice life of Darger. And an imaginative use of his artwork, also.

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David Ainsworth 2 years, 11 months ago

While mostly sharing this opinion, I also think that any attempt to represent historical figures, especially in this kind of context, is doomed to this kind of replacement. That includes autobiographies, too. The accurate claim that ideology overwrites person is a claim about how art and representation function. To my mind, the deeper question is whether the art or the ideological representation is worthy of more praise than critique. In this instance, I'm ambivalent, because Van Gogh is so much the focus and subject. I'm more comfortable with the narrative use of Churchill, in the sense that his ideological associations serve his episodes more than they shape them.

I do recall thinking at the time that the invisible monster doesn't so much represent Van Gogh's madness as represent an attempt to explain it. He saw things in the world that others couldn't see, and that drove his madness, but there was still a reality to his vision and the episode's materialist claims also represent an attempt to assert that they generated an art "more true" than mundane vision. The end result isn't simply trite, but the degree to which it is matches the degree to which it supports the ideology being criticized in today's posting.

There's interesting readings to be generated here by thinking in scientific terms. How can observational experimental results be verifiable and repeatable if some people innately possess perceptual abilities which are difficult to replicate mechanically? Is an observation wrong (or a reflection of madness) only until one can obtain a device which allows one to share in that perception? Or do the obvious effects of the invisible creature's presence undermine the point so deeply that the question ultimately becomes moot? Replace space chicken with dark matter and flavor to taste.

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Daru 2 years, 11 months ago

Many thanks - I absolutely will go and check that out, sounds superb.

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Daru 2 years, 11 months ago

One of my favourite moments was when the Doctor and Amy watched the sky and could see how Vincent saw. That felt like a lovely example of empathy and sharing of perception. A real moment of beauty and understanding (for the Doctor & Amy) that was then mirrored in the image of how the universe went out in The Pandorica Opens/ Big Bang.

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Alan 2 years, 11 months ago

I must say that, given the number of redemptive readings of fairly bad episodes I've read, I was not expecting to see such tepid-bordering-on-negative reading of a Hugo nominated story. I was particularly put off by the suggestion that Amy was materialist for wanting their to be more Van Gogh paintings than there actually were. As a former music educator, I sympathize with her completely, as I have always been been haunted by the premature deaths of Mozart, Gerswhin and Jonathan Larson and have wondered what sort of amazing things they could have created that the world has been deprived of.

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storiteller 2 years, 11 months ago

I suspect that because Phil is trying to give us different readings of episodes that we might not have thought about otherwise, that his analyses often directly work against the common perspective. If you look at his "This is Not a Review Blog" posts, you'll see that his critical analyses often don't even match up with his own personal enjoyment of episodes. This episode didn't need a redemptive reading because it's already so praised.

In terms of Amy wanting more paintings, I think that's very different from you because (presumably) you have never met those musicians. She had actually met Van Gogh and had the opportunity to appreciate him as a person. Reducing that personal relationship, as short as it may have been, to a disappointment that he didn't produce more paintings is pretty shallow. Now whether you think Amy actually has that as a reason for mourning him is up for debate, but that reason alone would be pretty cold considering the circumstances.

Also, I really loved this episode when it came out. Even if it's problematic, I think it's a really enjoyable episode. I do understand the problem with fetishing Van Gogh and his work and like exhibits that show more than just "he had a lot of mental problems." The Phillips Collection's recent exhibit on him was quite good: http://www.phillipscollection.org/events/2013-10-12-exhibition-van-gogh-repetitions

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macrogers 2 years, 11 months ago

I read that element of the story totally differently. I thought Amy ran in to the gallery hoping to see more paintings because the additional paintings would serve as evidence that her friend Vincent had - through her and the Doctor's assistance - lived a happier, longer, more productive life. When she saw that the additional paintings were not there, then she knew that her friend had not enjoyed that longer life. It's been about a year since I last watched this one, so I may be forgetting something.

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Doctor Memory 2 years, 11 months ago

Everything that was wrong with this story can be summed up in four words:

A Very Special Episode

I don't mind that Doctor Who occasionally tries its hand at exploring personal themes such as mental illness, substance abuse and family relations. I do mind when it's so mawkish and ham-handed at it: next to this, "Father's Day" looked like a model of narrative restraint.

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Robert Lloyd 2 years, 11 months ago

"Which is to say, essentially, that this episode would have been so vastly better if it had been about Henry Darger instead."

"Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure with the Vivienne Girls"

You'd never get it on TV (for reasons which anyone who has seen Darger's work are obvious) but it's a fantastic idea.

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Scott 2 years, 11 months ago

That was my reading of the scene as well; certainly, I don't think it was quite as cold as this particular reading makes it out to be.

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Galadriel 2 years, 11 months ago

I'm surprised no one else mentioned. It's a beautiful scene and a reminder of how seeing the world is different than looking at it.

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BerserkRL 2 years, 11 months ago

Van Gogh's ability to perceive the Krafayis fits in nicely with Moffat's ongoing theme of perception. Van Gogh is also an inverted mirror of Amy (and the parallels between them are repeatedly stressed, with references to hair and accent): Van Gogh sees what no one else can see, and it drives him mad; Amy FAILS to remember someone everyone else remembers, and it makes her weep without knowing why. Amy's failure to change Van Gogh's past mirrors her inability to remember her own past. No surprise that they both end up being connected to the crack, or that Van Gogh's visions (both Starry Night and Exploding Box) turn out to be about the season finale, where Amy's memory problems will be resolved.

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Daru 2 years, 11 months ago

Glad you think so too! I realise that my first thoughts got caught up in some problems - but I must say that I do think this one scene is right at the top of my list of favourite moments since the show started again. It captures the whole wonder of the universe and maybe the whole reason why the Doctor may travel, all done simply through allowing oneself to see through another's eyes.. It's one of those rare times when we see the characters experiencing not the horror, but the Beautiful.

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Daru 2 years, 11 months ago

Yes! And this is mirrored also through how the image of the stars and galaxies exploding out of existence is similar to Vincent's vision in Starry Night.

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Spoilers Below 2 years, 11 months ago

I do recall thinking at the time that the invisible monster doesn't so much represent Van Gogh's madness as represent an attempt to explain it.

I rather liked this part of the episode, and its fallout. Amy's optimism about all the new paintings seems couched entirely in having gotten rid of the monster, and so of course Van Gogh won't be depressed or insane anymore. After all, it was simply someone outside of himself that was causing the problem, right? And she and the Doctor did such a good job showing him how loved and wanted he was, that there's no way he'll be able to kill himself now.

But, of course, mental illness doesn't work that way. It doesn't go away because people love you. It doesn't go away because you create beautiful things. It doesn't go away because everyone wants you to stay alive. And it doesn't stay away just because you're happy right now. It isn't always the result of some external force that can be removed or battled against.

That's an sad, but honest thing that doesn't get talked about enough.

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JohnB 2 years, 11 months ago

The vile pop song used would have been overly-familiar to a lot of viewers. Funnily enough, with reference to commodification it was used in an astounding amount of adverts (or in one invidious advert broadcast an astounding amount of times).

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heroesandrivals 2 years, 11 months ago

To a degree I think Phil is playing with the narrative dissonance of the story. It's full of symbolism that doesn't quite mesh and thus this is a perfectly valid reading of what the episode is trying to 'say.' Telegraphing "I'm saying something!" throughout the episode and then failing to follow through by ACTUALLY saying something coherent is really annoying. It comes off like gravitas-as-texture rather than having an actual message.
(I don't think that's the case here, but the episode was a bit messy, jolting between its emotional highs and Big Ideas without concern to how they fit together.)

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heroesandrivals 2 years, 11 months ago

I would argue that "Vincent and the Doctor" is a typical 'off-screen adventure,' the kind the Doctor and his companions mention constantly in the new series.
"I met Van Gogh being thrown out of a bar and shared a bottle of wine with him. He gave me this sketch as payback!"
This is where the Historicals have gone -- pushed offscreen and reduced to references. This episode more than anything, I think, makes a compelling case for a return to once-annual historical. The Doctor could just as easily be investigating some historical curiosity in a painting instead of a monster, the threat just as easily fulfilled by a plot by a human villain or some disaster to avert. The episode commentary admitted how token the monster was and that its inclusion was a BBC mandate.

Then Lets Kill Hitler happened and any possibility of an annual historical was sunk by the new fervor of "Let's make high-concept thrill-ride movies!" (But that turned out AWESOME, right?)

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David Anderson 2 years, 11 months ago

I don't know. I'm not a fan of the episode, but I think the bits that are Very Special are the bits that would work if they weren't shoehorned into the Celebrity Historical format.
I think the thing is that the Celebrity Historical only really works if it's done in a postmodern wink to the camera way. You can't combine it with serious emotions unless you're writing The Girl in the Fireplace.

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Triturus 2 years, 11 months ago

This is nothing to to with whether or not I agree with your criticism of Vincent and the Doctor, so I'm not having a go or anything, but I am starting to wish that Tvtropes didn't exist. I think it's becoming a monster.

It seems to me that all the Tvtropes website does is break down a story or a character down into arbitrary chunks, invent sarky names for each chunk and then then sit around smugly pointing out "hey, that story / character is just a composite of this chunk and that chunk", as if that is in itself a useful criticism.

It's like saying to a carpenter "Huh. that chair you just made is just a combination of a legs, a seat and a back. How unoriginal." Or, perhaps, a combination of Vertical Weight-Supporters, a Bottom Tray and an Obvious Leaning Post.

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Alan 2 years, 11 months ago

I think it's becoming a monster. Pretty sure that ship sailed at least two years ago. It has its good points. Terms like "Spikification" and "Draco in Leather Pants" among many others have given me insight into how long form TV dramas evolve their characters in ways that could not have articulated on my own. Even here, the reference to "A Very Special Episode" serves as a contextual short hand that most people can easily grok even without clicking on the link to the related TVTropes page. That said, it's essentially Wikipedia if Wikipedia were based exclusively on the personal opinions of pop culture fans with no factual content and no citation to any authority at all. But there are less amusing ways to waste a Sunday afternoon. C'est la vie.

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Author 2 years, 11 months ago

'There really is a sense in which this run of episodes marks the point where the Moffat era starts to gain the confidence to be itself instead of being a series of modifications to what came before. Which brings us nicely to the next story.'

Which is not going to come next on this blog...I'm going to go with jane's suggestion of The Angels Take Manhattan as the next story that will show up on this blog! Which is fitting, since I'll soon be in Manhattan...I'll keep an eye out for the bridge in Central Park and the rock. And I will be in Times Square, too.

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Philip Sandifer 2 years, 11 months ago

The Lodger?

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Author 2 years, 11 months ago

Hahahaha, because the Rubber Space Chicken didn't do so well in Arc of Infinity...I am Captain Obvious right now.

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David Anderson 2 years, 11 months ago

It may be the case that ideology inevitably overwrites the real person to some extent, but one can be more or less careful and aware of how that happens. If the episode was set at an actual period of Van Gogh's life, and included e.g. his socialist ideals then it would be still not the real person but closer to the real person.
It is I suppose about how carefully we look. One could say that this story fetishises how Van Gogh looks at the world, but doesn't bother to look at Van Gogh carefully itself.

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Doctor Memory 2 years, 11 months ago

True story: I became aware of the tvtropes page on "very special episodes" when I went hate-googling for the term in the aftermath of watching this episode.

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Doctor Memory 2 years, 11 months ago

You cannot miss the rock; it is very very large and very close to any southern entrance to the park that a visiting tourist is likely to use.

It was weirdly dislocating to see the Doctor, the science-fiction hero of my childhood, hanging out where I usually had lunch when I was working in upper midtown. I imagine Londers and Cardiffians must feel like this all the time?

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Author 2 years, 11 months ago

Whoops. I got ahead of myself there. I was thinking about the finale.

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Author 2 years, 11 months ago

Well, by the time I get back, I might read about Angels in Manhattan, if that's the order of things.

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Author 2 years, 11 months ago

I agree with you there about the beauty of that moment. It also echoed the Series Five trailer where Amy and the Doctor were peacefully lying out on the grass, looking up at the stars, before the madness of the Vortex erupting beneath them disrupted that moment and sent them spiraling down, before they grabbed hold of each other. (Just a thought I had.)

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encyclops 2 years, 11 months ago

I've become used to seeing this episode lauded as the very best thing New Who has ever done with the possible exception of "Blink," so man, I can't even tell you how relieved I am that this essay expressed some reservations on that point. I didn't hate this when it aired, but as with "Ghost Light" its overhype has led me to overreact in the opposite direction.

I don't know if my criticisms are of the thing it successfully does. I mean, I don't think it successfully shows me a mentally ill character. It shows me a fairly normal, mildly depressed guy who has a brief crying spell in the middle of the episode and then is pretty much fine for the rest of it. I've known a lot of depressed people, and I've been one depressed person, and...well, I'm not going to say none of us have ever behaved like the "van Gogh" we see here, but I will say that it didn't ring true for me at all. Perhaps there were scenes that were cut, or perhaps someone on the production team reined the portrayal in, or perhaps we're just seeing a dramatic compression that convinced everyone but me. Or perhaps whatever was actually going on with van Gogh isn't something I have personal experience with. It just didn't feel real to me.

That said, I really liked the Doctor's reaction to that brief crying spell, which was the distinct sense that he was out of his depth. He's not that kind of Doctor. That realization, again marvelously played by Matt Smith, was perfect. And as Spoilers Below highlights, the point it leads up to, that it's not just a monster you can kill, it doesn't go away just because X Y or Z, that too was excellent.

And so maybe the problem was that Space Turkey. I speculated at the time about whether I could have loved the episode if it had been a pure historical. I think it would have been stronger, more interesting, better detailed, if less Doctor Who as we know it (but isn't the point that Doctor Who as we know it is not Doctor Who as we know it?). There might have been more time to adequately portray van Gogh the man. Maybe the kids would have been bored?

I also felt really weird about van Gogh killing that Space Turkey by using an easel as a spear. I don't know that I can get behind thinking of the tools of art as a physical weapon, particularly when we're subsequently asked to pity and feel sympathy for the Space Turkey. Here's yet another example of where the material representation of the themes complicates things for me, and maybe it starts to seem like my problem instead of the show's...? I'm sorry. I have too much sympathy for fantastical persecuted misunderstood giant animals. I accept my flaws.

Oh, so anyway: if we were going to "attack the beast with art": why not just throw paint on it? Using art to come to grips with the shape of one's demons makes emotional sense -- to me anyway -- that turning the instruments of beauty into instruments of murder does not.

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Triturus 2 years, 11 months ago

I also felt really weird about van Gogh killing that Space Turkey by using an easel as a spear. I don't know that I can get behind thinking of the tools of art as a physical weapon, particularly when we're subsequently asked to pity and feel sympathy for the Space Turkey.

Using art to come to grips with the shape of one's demons makes emotional sense -- to me anyway -- that turning the instruments of beauty into instruments of murder does not.

Can I just say thank you for is a very thoughtful and thought-provoking comment.

If the krafayis represents Van Gogh's illness then killing it with an easel makes sense up to a point, if one assumes that the writer wanted to say something positive (albeit perhaps simplistic) about the power of creativity.

But because we know (as the episode highlights) that Van Gogh was unable to banish his demons, we know he can't be cured by killing the krafayis, and so the metaphor becomes more confused in ways that perhaps the author didn't intend.

The only other thing I would like to comment on is your statement about using the tools of art as weapons. Obviously everyone will have their own take on this, but I do think it can be cathartic to do exactly that, in some sense at least. In my case it isn't painting, but music and dissonance; making a furious row and using angry music to beat the world around the head with has been an important release for me for most of my adult life. Making a racket doesn't hurt anyone, obviously, but I do relate to the "art as weapon" theme, even if it is one only used in self defence.

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encyclops 2 years, 11 months ago

No, thank you!

I think that I could either have accepted "art helps you fight the inner demons, but you can't win completely" or "the Krafayis, too, was a poor tortured creature and we must feel sad for it," but I can't do them both together. Because either van Gogh used the power of art to kill something foul that was plaguing him, or he rather savagely murdered a thinking creature using something meant to help bring beauty into the world. I applaud the show's increasing reluctance to let monsters be monsters, but it can really complicate things.

So yes, by all means use art as a weapon, but against something that deserves it! ("The world" counts.)

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Jesse 2 years, 11 months ago

for this scene Doctor Who is doing a type of narrative defined by self-conscious sentimentality and, perhaps more importantly, a bald-faced lack of ironic detachment

And, in this scene, by such heavy-handed manipulation that my opinion of the episode never really recovered from it.

The story is aggressively ahistorical in portraying van Gogh’s life, which adds to the sense of van Gogh as a commoditized stand-in.

That was a big problem too.

(Also: What David Anderson said.)

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ferret 2 years, 11 months ago

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ferret 2 years, 11 months ago

This reminds me of John Callaghan's comment on this blog in the Kinda entry: "that it's appropriate that the Mara manifests itself as a rubber snake with painted fangs because it's an incarnation of false fears. I think this is quite a neat idea, especially if it had been taken further. "It's just a rubber snake!" says Tegan, and thus completes the character-based aspect of the finale as everyone simply laughs the Mara out of existence rather than treating it as a menace."

Throwing paint on the Krafayis would have made it visible to everyone (and perhaps to Vincent fully for the first time), revealing it to be a rubber space chicken everyone can laugh at into submission.

Quite how this could successfully play out with his depression is another matter, but I like the idea of attacking an invisible monster with paint to make it visible and perhaps less scary. A literal use of art to face of your fear.

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encyclops 2 years, 11 months ago

A great line from this episode that's fun to compare to "Time of the Doctor":

“Is this how time normally passes? Really slowly…in the right order?”

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Daru 2 years, 11 months ago

Agreed. The fact that van Gogh's illness remained with him was always part of what touched me about his story. For so many people with mental health issues (I work with quite a few) the big thing for them is the journey of accepting their illness. We live in a culture where there seems to be a tendency to want to cure everything and make it better - I think indeed there is a big need for the conversations around the conditions we can't change in us.

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Daru 2 years, 11 months ago

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Daru 2 years, 11 months ago

Yeah similar theme to the image - wonder at witnessing the beauty or raw power of the universe.

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David Anderson 2 years, 11 months ago

It's a great line, but I don't much like the scene, and even at the time I didn't consider it canonical for my characterisation of the Eleventh Doctor.
On the other hand, the scene between Vincent and Amy where Vincent tells Amy she's lost something is one of the first scenes where we see what's going to become Matt Smith's established later portrayal of the Doctor.

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Daru 2 years, 11 months ago

Good stuff heroesandrivals, yes. I was thinking that too but didn't express it, so thanks for saying it. This is the kind of adventure where they chill out a bit, meet a historical character or two (still a shame there was no Gauguin) and face not real threat whilst having kind of a nice time.

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jane 2 years, 11 months ago

That's the thing about M?TH: it serves as a mirror to the subconscious. Vincent's a mirror to Amy. The Krafaysis is a mirror to Vincent's mental illness -- but also to the Doctor and Amy, who are both as blind and alone as the monster itself. Hell, the monster is only seen and "identified" by the Doctor through a literal mirror. They all mirror each other lying down on the ground, arms extended and touching, a connected triangle.

And we are invited to view ourselves through that same lens. At the beginning of the episode Amy and the Doctor turn to the painting of the church, and suddenly they're looking straight at the camera, practically breaking the fourth wall. "I know evil when I see it," the Doctor says, as we, the viewers, were the monster on the other side of the "window."

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jane 2 years, 11 months ago

@encyclops: "Because either van Gogh used the power of art to kill something foul that was plaguing him, or he rather savagely murdered a thinking creature using something meant to help bring beauty into the world."

But no one knew that these two very different things were in fact exactly the same. It ends up being played as tragedy -- everyone's appropriately sad for the monster in the church. To me it comes off as implicating those who would use art for violence. (Interestingly, the first thing we see in the museum when they take Vincent to the future is a work of violent art: Perseus holding the head of the Medusa. The Doctor even strikes this pose. And of course, this imagery will inform The Pandorica Opens.) "Sometimes winning is no fun at all," the Doctor says. So it's not like the text is asking us to revel in this murder.

It's also, however, alchemical -- in the sense of fusing together two opposite perspectives. As the Curator suggests, a union of pain and ecstatic beauty, or as Vincent describes a sunflower participating of both living and dying. I think we can also make something of the fact that the tragedy occurs in a church, given the kinds of gestures Moffat's made towards religion during his run.

Funny enough, they first attack the monster with a Chair, which has become a symbol of Ascension in this era. This attack fails; there is no ascension here, only pathos.

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jane 2 years, 11 months ago

What about the TARDIS ending up covered in advertising posters? It's like the story is acknowledging a crassly materialist dimension to art itself.

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Archeology of the Future 2 years, 11 months ago

An under discussed aspect of this episode is that it represents a 'nightmare brief' imposed from outside upon the programme.

From 2007 to 2010 the BBC ran an initiative called BBC Headroom, which was an attempt to insert mental health themes into mainstream programming both through traditional documentary and current affairs and through introducing mental health themes into drama.

This was supported by a website and various other bits of campaign activity. This ran parallel to the development and first phase of Time to Change, a national mental health anti-stigma campaign funded by Comic Relief and delivered by a coalition of mental health charities Mind, Rethink and the Institute of Psychiatry.

This is an example of what a public service broadcaster like the BBC can do if it wishes: implement edicts about a range of programmes it makes for itself.

The broad purpose was to raise awareness of mental health difficulty amongst people who might other wise have considered themselves to hold stigmatising attitudes. It thus made sense for Richard Curtis to be brought in to deal with this particular brief, as he had written previous issue led (didactic?) dramas for the BBC.

I think it may be the first time that Doctor Who had tackled a social issue to order. I've not really read much that looks at Vincent and The Doctor in this light; as a specifically commissioned work meant to tie into a broader social action campaign.

I'm guessing from most of the comments and Phil's post that this aspect of the episode has probably been lost to the sands of time. On other work commissioned to tie in with Headroom there was consultation with people with direct experience of mental health difficulty and, I imagine, many meetings with the team working on the broader cross channel/cross platform campaign.

It would be fascinating (to me at least as someone who does mental health stuff) to know what other scripts/creators were in the pot for this brief given that it had to be about mental health.

Has anyone read or heard much about this aspect?

(For what it's worth, there was a lot of people with mental health difficulties who weren't hugely keen on the episode, as the 'tortured artist' trope ran very close to a stereotype of it's own. It did, however, win a Mind Media Award for that year as best drama)

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Froborr 2 years, 11 months ago

For all that this episode's portrayal of Van Gogh is oversimplified rubbish that reduces him to a commercial product (plus they mispronounce his name constantly, the closest English sound would be to make "Gogh" rhyme with "loch"), this episode DID get my then-four-year-old niece interested in his art, which is pretty cool.

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John 2 years, 11 months ago

It is unbelievably pretentious for an English-speaker to pronounce Van Gogh's name as one would pronounce it in Dutch. Complaining about it is like complaining about people pronouncing the capital of France phonetically, or about people calling Cleopatra's lover Mark Antony rather than Marcus Antonius - pedantry taken way too far.

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Daru 2 years, 11 months ago

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Daru 2 years, 11 months ago

Yes totally agree Jane, that moment of them gazing upwards together is pivotal. The best of M?TH call us to an experience of empathy, to understand others and even to understand the monstrous. The synergetic form of the triangle opens up - pointing below into the subconscious & above to the heavens - the possibility of perception being opened up - and when we see what Vincent sees through the Doctor and Amy's eyes, we see also the possibility that his pain could also be ours.

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Whittso 2 years, 11 months ago

Hmm. Interesting. Richard Curtis is one of the driving forces behind comic relief. I suspect rather than him being picked to do something he was actively in the market to contribute something and cooked up the idea with Steven Moffat who he'd probably know via CR if nothing else as well.

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Philip Sandifer 2 years, 11 months ago

I've looked at the production history of the story, and I admit that I don't think Archeology is describing it accurately. I believe that the story was ultimately transmitted under the banner of BBC Headroom - at the very least, the decision was taken to end transmission with a message about helplines for those with mental illness.

But in terms of how the story was conceived, Moffat used his contacts with Curtis back from Curse of Fatal Death to invite him to write for Doctor Who. It was, as befits an invitation to someone of that prestige, a pretty open-ended one. Curtis came back with a desire to do a story about Van Gogh and depression, and Moffat, after some misgivings, agreed. If it was put under the Headroom banner, it was a matter of Curtis's idea fitting well under that banner, not a matter of Curtis writing to a brief.

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Seeing_I 2 years, 11 months ago

"Who wrote this thing, Henry Darger?" ~ Sgt. Hatred, watching a movie about androgynous elves.

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Aylwin 2 years, 11 months ago

What is this "mpste" (or "mpsti") of which you speak so highly?

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Leslie Lozada 2 years, 11 months ago

Oh come on, it didn't look that bad.

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Leslie Lozada 2 years, 11 months ago

I, in fact made reference to this, in my comment for "Time of the Doctor"

Or will make

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heroesandrivals 2 years, 11 months ago

M?TH is a narrative dark mirror.

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encyclops 2 years, 11 months ago

David Anderson, it's interesting what we connect to and what we don't. Whatever you're seeing in the "lost something" scene is a bit subtle for me, unless maybe it's the tendency to bluff through a potentially damaging/dangerous emotional moment. But that's cool.

For me, that line is absolutely my Eleventh Doctor. As I've mentioned -- or maybe Leslie has, or will?! -- I link it most explicitly to his behavior in "The Power of Three," and less overtly to what I see as his tendency to zip around in time and wander off at a moment's notice like a reader skipping around to the good parts. It probably also helps him forget (see "Day of the Doctor").

I think that's what makes "The Snowmen" such a jarring about-face -- losing Amy and Rory (the Girl and Boy Who Waited, something the Eleventh Doctor to this point has not been especially good at or eager to do) gut-punches him, changes him, and suddenly sitting on a cloud doing nothing is all he wants to do. Maybe that's when he learns the patience he'll need in the "Time of the Doctor" to wait out the siege.

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dirkmalcolm.com 2 years, 11 months ago

Maybe they were pronouncing it correctly but the TARDIS translation circuits translated it back to English...

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Anton B 2 years, 11 months ago

It may be useful, when considering the way Vincent Van Gogh is written in this story to consider the very deliberate way in which Moffat has chosen to use historical figures and settings in his Doctor Who. The aesthetic decision to make the Eleventh Doctor's story be about narrative itself, the stories we tell and the way stories are told about us both informs and directs the, if you like, Nu-Historicals. Moffat telegraphed his intention as far back as The Empty Child/Doctor Dances with his evocative London Blitz landscape. This was a fictionalised (though, rather importantly, not idealised) mise en scene within which the characters could play and interact and most importantly, tell their stories. He does it again with Reinette and more recently, though seeded way back, with Queen Elizabeth I. Note how often Moffat makes children and issues around absent or otherwise changed or 'monstered' grown-ups central to the narrative. When the adults are away the children will play and make up stories. "We're all stories in the end" became Eleven' s mantra along with "The Doctor lies" or in other words makes up stories. Moffat's take on the TARDIS visiting 'history' (and the quote marks are important), is that 'history' to the Doctor is the same as 'another planet', it's a place to visit, a story to explore. It harks back to the classic series' attitude to the 'historicals'; the revolutionary France or ancient Rome visited by the first Doctor were never intended to be anything but versions of history informed more by existing narratives such as A Tale of Two Citiesor Julius Ceasar than any serious historical research. Was the 'King Richard' portrayed in The Crusades intended as an accurate description of a real man or as an analogue of the character from the the histories Barbara would have taught at Coal Hill school, themselves biased by 1963's post-imperialist viewpoint. In Doctor Who, particularly under Moffat, the characterisation of the historical setting or figure is always secondary to and in the service of, the story being told. The portrayal of Winston Churchill is indicative of this. There is no way the Churchill shown in Victory of the Daleks and in later cameos is supposed to be an accurate rendition of the 'real' man who we as 21st century viewers can never know. Rather we are presented with a simulacrum, a fictional construct made of stories we have heard second hand and countless wartime anecdotes and myths. This is where the TARDIS has taken us and where it always takes us. The Land of Fiction. It is interesting that it is this 'Churchill' who will take possession of 'Van Gogh' s' painting of the exploding TARDIS (not the last time incidently that a, painting will provide the information the Eleventh Doctor needs to save the universe. I'm thinking of Gallifrey Falls No More).

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Anton B 2 years, 11 months ago

Which brings me, in a roundabout way to the Van Gogh portrayed in Vincent and the Doctor. Not the 'real' Van Gogh but the fictionalised (though, rather importantly, not idealised)Van Gogh of the Land of Fiction. The Van Gogh perhaps of Don MacLean' s Vincent or Vincent's Minnelli' s Lust for Life or perhaps the collective pop culture image that western society 'knows' about Van Gogh. Whatever, his role is secondary and subservient to the story which, yes, is about a tortured artist haunted by a space chicken which is a metaphor for his depression. Could have been any tortured artist but Van Gogh is well enough known by the general public that Curtis, under Moffat's show-runnership can use him without too much exposition. The irony comes in the addition of that slightly patronising but oddly moving 'modern art for dummies' speech about Van Gogh given by the curator which Curtis perhaps thought necessary to add in case anyone was in any doubt as to the 'importance' of this guy who painted flowers. Ironic because it was unnecesary to the story but becomes oddly weighted with 'importance' due to its placement within the traditional 'summing up' section of the story's denouement. However this is mitigated by Nighy's fantastic hesitant delivery and, for me at least, the delicious head-cannon retcon (post Name of the Doctor ) of considering this 'Curator' to be another future incarnation of the Doctor, impressive bow tie and all, who is merely remembering and repeating what he heard himself say all those years ago.
As to the depiction of mental illness in this story. I suffer from depression and a former long term partner of mine is diagnosed as bi -polar so I can speak with some personal authority. I found both Vincent' s depressive phase and the Doctor and Amy's frustrated but sympathetic reaction as depicted in the narrative to be rather moving and achieved as tastefully as could be managed in an early evening family entertainment sci-fi show. I in no way felt it qualified as a tv tropey 'Very Special Episode' and appreciated he thoughtfulness of the helpline number given after the broadcast.

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Leslie Lozada 2 years, 11 months ago

On the whole, I liked this episode. Like most of the season (series?) it's slightly uneven, but the good stuff outweight the bad.

Also, fun fact, this aired on my birthday.

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Allyn Gibson 2 years, 11 months ago

Paragraphs three and four, about celebrity writers and an unfamiliarity with Doctor Who, could just as easily go in a "Time Can Be Rewritten" entry on Michael Moorcock's The Coming of the Terraphiles. :)

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Anton B 2 years, 11 months ago

Agreed. Very disappointing novel from my favourite author which I still can't be bothered to finish reading.

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