Vincent and the Doctor, or How I Became a Fangirl Without Even Trying: 13 Days of Doctor Who
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I am not a fannish person, unfortunately. I am often quite envious of my friends who are. Fannish people have different relationships to texts than those of us who aren’t, and I often thought that I was missing out on something ineffable because of it. It took watching Vincent and the Doctor for the first time to convert me.
Tony Curran as Vincent Van Gogh, looking like he just stepped out of that self-portrait.
A little bit of plot – and be warned, there are spoilers from here on. The Doctor and Amy Pond have decided to visit the Vincent Van Gogh exhibit at the Musée d’Orsay, and during their turn around the museum the doctor spots something off in one of Van Gogh’s paintings. A monster is peeking out one of the windows at The Church at Auvers. Clearly, the only choice the Doctor has is to go to Provence in 1890 to Fix It. The Doctor buttonholes the docent, a delightful Bill Nighy, and after a moment of mutual admiration for their bow ties (“Bow ties are cool,” he insists to an unimpressed Amy) finds out the exact date Van Gogh painted the church. Fwoop fwoop, and they are off in the TARDIS.
One of the chief joys of this episode is the art direction. The Doctor’s Provence is an Impressionist wonderland, from The Café Terrace at Night where they find Vincent, identical to the painting in Amy’s guidebook, to Vincent’s Bedroom in Arles, the room with sickening angles, Vincent’s yard full of sunflowers thanks to Amy (“I don’t even like sunflowers,” Vincent says, to their surprise) to the night sky transforming into The Starry Night as Vincent describes it. The viewer sees the setting not as it really looks but through Vincent’s eyes.
The episode’s plot isn’t anything new or groundbreaking. After finding Vincent in a cafe, trying to barter the paintings no one wants for just another drink, The Doctor and Amy stumble upon a woman who has been killed. Turns out, an invisible alien monster is rampaging through the wheat fields, killing people indiscriminately, and only poor mad Vincent can see it. (In a neat trick, occasionally the viewer can, too.) The Doctor pulls out a gift from his “smelly godmother,” an apparatus meant for him to wear with a reflective surface that identifies the creature as a Krayfis, which looks like an overgrown, horse-sized chicken. With a lot of teeth.
It’s scarier than it sounds, I promise.
The Doctor spends the rest of the episode getting tossed around by the Krayfis or fighting it with his back turned so he can see it in the reflection. Vincent descends into madness and emerges again, changing from a snarling beast who can’t get out of bed to a jovial painter out for a stroll. Finally, he defeats the invisible monster (totally not a metaphor, am I right?) with the sharp points of the legs of his easel.
(NB: This is where I begin to weep, by the way, when The Doctor soothes the Krayfis as it dies. The monster is invisible, people. And yet.)
Vincent and the Doctor could have ended there, not much more than a monster-of-the-week episode set in a historical period. (As an aside, did you know that the reason there are so many historical episodes of Doctor Who is because that helped make it more educational for children? I always thought it was because there were, like, a million historical costumes stuffed in the back of some BBC lot somewhere.) The episode itself doesn’t touch much on Series 5’s overall plot, aside from some references to Amy feeling like something was missing. (That something was her beloved, Rory, who had been sucked into a crack in a wall and subsequently erased from her memory.) But instead the episode pushes forward.
Before leaving Vincent behind, Amy and The Doctor decide to show him what kind of legacy his artwork has had. “How come I’m the crazy one, and you two have stayed both sane?” he mutters, as he realizes the TARDIS is bigger on the inside. They arrive back at the Musée d’Orsay and lead him to the Vincent Van Gogh exhibit.
It is a revelation. The camera stays close on Vincent as he tries to take in the entire scene, a spacious room full of his paintings and of people looking at them. The Doctor strikes up another conversation with Nighy’s docent, while Amy maneuvers Vincent so that he can overhear. What do you think of Vincent Van Gogh? he asks, and the docent doesn’t hold back:
Well… um… 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 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.
By this time, of course, Vincent is weeping and I have switched from weeping to the Ugly Cry. Just sobbing all over and laughing because I’m being so ridiculous. But what a gift! What artist (and by artist I’m including writers, musicians, etc etc — we are going broad here) doesn’t dream that their work will have lasting merit? Who doesn’t want to be studied a hundred and fifty years down the line?
This, of course, is what the episode is truly about. What does it mean to be an artist? What does it mean to be mad? How does one inform the other? Is there any chance to get perspective on your own work? What would happen if you did?
After they drop Vincent, happier than they’ve ever seen him, back in 1890 Provence, Amy wants a trip to the museum again, this time to see all the other works that Van Gogh managed to paint after his trip to the future. “Time can too be rewritten,” she chirps, as she dashes up the stairs to the Van Gogh room. The Doctor follows along behind her, because he knows the truth: Vincent killed himself after all. Time can’t be rewritten. Amy’s face falls as she skitters into the room and realizes that there are no new paintings. The Doctor leads her to the painting of sunflowers in a vase. Where before it had only Vincent’s signature, now it includes a small notation: “For Amy.” She made a difference, but it was not enough.
What would it matter if you knew your work had merit? That in the future, someone would call you the greatest artist in history? Would it change what you do now? Does madness always win in the end? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I appreciate that the show makes me think about them. And that is precisely why I became a fangirl for the first time.
Prizes! We’ve got prizes!
First, we have the grand prize: a box set of Series 6 (the most recent!) on DVD. I am not ashamed to say I have been coveting this for myself. But my inability to enter the contest because of fairness is your gain!
To enter the grand prize giveaway, please leave a comment with your name and email address. You may enter once at every stop on the blog tour, for a total of thirteen chances. The Grand Prize giveaway is limited to the US and Canada, due to regional restrictions on the DVD. Individual contests will close at the discretion of the author, but the Grand Prize contest will accept entries on any site until midnight CST on December 24th. We will post the winner on December 25th, and notify the winner via email.
I am also doing an individual giveaway! Any comment you leave on this entry (don’t comment twice! Your comment will count for both contests and I won’t count two entries, anyway) will enter you in a drawing for this goooorgeous necklace:
I mean, really. Could I give away anything else? The necklace came from the lovely Bohemian Craftsody on etsy. The contest for the necklace will end, like the contest for the box set, at midnight CST on December 24. I’ll announce the winner on December 25. (Edited to add: while the box set is US/Canada only, I will ship the necklace anywhere USPS ships.) Also, if you have never commented on my blog before I will have to approve you first! Please don’t panic — I’ll be approving as quickly as possible.
Thanks so much for stopping by my entry! Make sure to check out all the others as we count down to The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe.
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