There are two types of people in this world: Doctor Who fans, and their friends who wish they’d shut the hell up about their fruity British space show already. It’s an understandable reaction, to be sure. In terms of persistence, Whovians fit somewhere on the nerd spectrum between pretentious goons rambling about The Wire and the white-hot unpleasantness of the fervent My Little Pony fan base. Up until about two years ago, I too was unconvinced. I felt like Doctor Who was part of some sub-set of geekiness reserved for LARPers and anime kids, and I wanted no part of it.
Then I gave it a whirl, and my world melted.
I will loudly, proudly contest to anybody that’ll listen that not only is Doctor Who the best show on television, it is one of the best that has ever existed. That’s an argument for a different article, but as an example of why I fell in love with this weird-ass show, let’s take a look at what I consider to be the best episode; Season 5’s “Vincent and the Doctor.” The episode takes us to France in 1888, and sees the Doctor and Amy encountering Vincent van Gogh. What follows is an hour of television that is both jubilant and despondent, broad and subtle, and culminates in a finale that is equal measures emotionally devastating and spiritually fulfilling.
After a trip to the Musée d’Orsay in France reveals a strange alien presence in one of Van Gogh’s last paintings, the Doctor and Amy (advised by a museum tour guide played in an uncredited cameo by the immensely lovable Bill Nighy) fire up the TARDIS and head to Arles to visit the genius and figure out what it is he saw. Right from the get-go, there is an air of tragic inevitability. Van Gogh’s well-documented mental illness and suicide are referenced in the museum opening, so that even as Amy loses herself in the beauty of Vincent’s work, the reality of the tortured man behind the brush is always hanging over the proceedings.
Doctor Who thrives on the talented day players brought in to embody historical characters, and among the throngs of phenomenal British actors who have come and gone over the years, Tony Curran‘s performance as Vincent Van Gogh stands out as one of the finest the series has ever seen. He fluctuates wildly between lovable drunk and raving lunatic, throwing himself headlong into the madness that created some of the greatest art the world has ever seen, but also drove a man in the prime of his life to become a recluse, a madman, and eventually to take his own life. Mental illness is a tightrope for an actor to walk: Too far in one direction and you’re not embracing the broken parts of your character, too far in the other and you’re a cartoon. Curran swerves deftly between the two, and the script backs him up admirably. The audience spends lots of time getting to know the man as he would like to be known, so that when he becomes a quivering mess weeping and screaming at his inner demons, the natural reaction is not one of revulsion, but of pity.
Matt Smith is in top form here as the titular Doctor. His ranking among the Doctors of the past has been hotly debated, but this episode is a pretty good argument that he’s among the best, particularly his “Pile of good things” speech toward the end of the episode. Karen Gillan, as trusty companion Amy Pond, also puts in good work here as well. While her acting chops were sporadic at best throughout her tenure on Who, she hits the emotional notes in this one pretty perfectly, never veering into the maudlin territory she’s occasionally been known to inhabit.
“Vincent and the Doctor” plays slower than many episodes. Doctor Who is known for being a fairly propulsive show-hell, one episode in Season 7 fits dinosaurs, spaceships, Nefertiti, Ernest Hemingway (basically), and a touching father-son reunion plot into an hour and is one of the high points of the season. So it’s interesting to see it pump the brakes a little and present an episode that is, mostly, a character study. Yeah, there’s an alien, and honestly, it’s one of the weaker villains in the show’s rogues gallery. But honestly, everything else is so good, it feels like an afterthought. “We just want to hang out with Van Gogh for a while. Oh, kids are watching? Fuck it, here’s a scary Martian or whatever, I guess.” The beauty of “Vincent and the Doctor” is the interactions between these characters: Vincent’s good-hearted crush on Amy, the Doctor’s impatience with something as unscientific and unrushable as art, the three outcasts holding hands in a field and seeing the world through Vincent’s eyes. It’s powerful, wonderful stuff.
The last five minutes are awe-inspiring. Before leaving, the Doctor decides to try and curb Van Gogh’s depression by taking him to the future to see how his work is loved in generations to come. As Van Gogh stands in an exhibit devoted to his own work, listening to Bill Nighy proclaim him the greatest artist that ever lived, he breaks down. It’s a moment that is nearly guaranteed to elicit a tear or two, as it rightly should. Furthermore, when Amy and the Doctor find that after returning Vincent to his own time he still ended up killing himself, the deflated look on Amy’s face is heartbreaking. As an audience, we want to believe — even though we know from episodes past that certain important points in time are set in stone — that the Doctor saved Vincent. But some monsters are too sinister even for the Doctor to stop. Still, he refuses to lose hope in humanity. His monologue about life being equal measures good and bad, and those things validating one another, is some of the best writing the series has produced, and the episode’s final image, a teary-eyed Amy walking down a hallway to find one of Vincent’s paintings inscribed with her name, is hauntingly beautiful.
Whenever people are on the fence about giving Who a shot, the most common issue they seem to have is not knowing where to start. Admittedly, when you’re dealing with a show that’s got 50 years of continuity behind it, the mythology can get a little dense. However, “Vincent and the Doctor” is a great jumping off-point. With the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it exception of a bit of business about the larger storyline of Season 5 (involving Amy Pond’s altered memories and the crack that’s swallowing all of time), the episode is a self-contained story. One of Who’s greatest strengths is its ability to balance between “Monster of the Week” episodes and larger, season-long arcs. By having episodes that don’t require homework to enjoy, they broaden the possibility of new viewers joining the fold. In fact, since showrunner Stephen Moffat took over the program at the beginning of Season 5, the show has a had an interesting tonal shift, creating a new template for Who that honors what came before and keeps the long-time fans satisfied, while also inviting newcomers to check out what the Doctor’s up to. It’s a bold move, and without that natural drift toward wider accessibility, an episode like “Vincent and the Doctor” may have been jettisoned entirely, and the world would be a lesser place for it. It’s an episode that not only soars on its own merits, but also encapsulates the central strength of Doctor Who: the ability to find the joy in sorrow, the brilliance in insanity, and the humanity in the cosmic.
Guest Review by: Keith Carey (@keithtellsjokes)