The Arty Blogness of Ansate Jones

Vincent and the Doctor and Gauguin and Depression and the Master

I just saw tonight one of the most beautiful episodes of Doctor Who. Since it just aired Saturday in the UK I suppose there are some spoilers, but I wouldn’t be too worried since it is mainly a historical type episode and, like, everybody knows what happened to van Gogh. But still.

The premise is pretty simple: the Doctor notices something odd in a van Gogh painting and rushes off to 1890 to fight whatever evil must be there. (It’s just one of those really strange Doctor hunches. Go with it.) They find a monster, they fight a monster, the day is won, and so on and so forth. The really interesting bits, and why the episode was really written, are how it handles van Gogh himself and specifically the idea of depression, of art, of being what I like to call “differently thinking”, a term patterned after the replacement one for “disabled”. It does this amazingly well. It does this so amazingly well.

van Gogh is an outcast in the town, a heavy drinker, poor, a loser, but the Doctor and Amy, of course, knowing what they know (the whole picture, so to speak) see something completely different. They see his house full of paintings and they know exactly what it will all be worth someday. van Gogh does not have that luxury; he must live in the moment. Later that will change, but as we also see, it doesn’t really change anything.

As an aside, it’s interesting to me that van Gogh is characterized as blind to his future, especially bearing in mind his suicide. It was theorized a while ago that one of the reasons behind suicide for many teens is that they are unable to comprehend that circumstances will change for them. This is because young people in general often tend to live in the moment; they are intensely affected by the immediate situation around them, and can’t always look to the future for relief from that situation as us oldies can sometimes do. Of course plenty of older people also commit suicide, perhaps because the pain is so intense at that given moment that they are also blinded. And for people like van Gogh of course, the pain isn’t a one-time occurrence, but cyclic. So while the pain may end eventually, he has to live with the knowledge that it will eventually also return. This is a terrifying concept, and one I don’t think non- chronically depressed people readily get.

It’s established early on, in the form of an invisible monster attack, that van Gogh can see things that even the Doctor cannot. He attempts several times to explain what he experiences, how color calls to him, screams at him to listen. How the stars and the wind look and feel to him, swirling in the night sky. He’s so perceptive he can even pick up on Amy’s recent loss– even though Time itself swallowed and erased it, and nobody should have an inkling of it. He just knows. And because he can see all these things so clearly, he constantly derides his attempts at painting them. He knows he’ll never get it right.

This is the plight of the artist, but also in part the plight of the “differently thinking.” The perceptive, the overly sensitive. What makes someone insane– is it that their thinking is “wrong” or are they merely perceiving life in a different way, a way we can’t comprehend? The Doctor even hints at this, telling van Gogh he doesn’t believe the man is insane. He then goes on to try to explain his thoughts on depression, but is cut off mid-dialogue. But I believe he was going to say something extremely perceptive, because if anyone has gone through dealing with someone who’s off the beaten track, and had to understand and forgive them time and again, it’s the Doctor.

What am I saying? I think you know what I’m saying. I think there is a large part of the Doctor’s relationship with the Master wrapped up in his interactions with van Gogh. It’s subtle, it’s probably not at the forefront of his mind, but it’s there. I find it interesting the episode never directly mentions Gauguin, whom van Gogh had met, collaborated with, obsessed over, and driven away by this point (remind you of a certain relationship in Who?). The only hint we get of that is in a scene near the end.

For the most part van Gogh keeps it together in this episode but there is one scene where his depression is manifested rather starkly. The Doctor who’s staying with him, visits his bedroom and is taken aback by van Gogh’s complete collapse. He’s face down in the bed, sobbing, accusing the Doctor of being on the brink of leaving without really making him better, and that everyone leaves him in the end (Gauguin?). Then he’s angrily spitting at him to go away practically in the next breath. The Doctor readies to leave, figuring he’s done more harm than good, but all of a sudden van Gogh shows up again, practically jaunty (manic?) and off they go to fight the monster. He even waves the scene off as one of his “moods”.

Later, when the creature is dying, van Gogh having skewered it with a chair, the Doctor suddenly realizes too late that part of its vicious behavior has been because it’s blind. van Gogh is overtaken by remorse, and he suggests that it must have been frightened and lonely, “lashing out in fear and frustration, the way that humans do when they are afraid.” The way van Gogh did earlier with the Doctor. The way he did with Gauguin. You can see the understanding in him as he watches this thing die, and the sorrow in that understanding.

So here’s the thing, about this episode. What makes it brilliant. What makes it correct. It’s the ending. The Doctor and Amy decide they just CANNOT leave van Gogh thinking that he’s worthless and that his paintings will never be loved– so they bring him to the museum in 2010 where they were just viewing his works. On top of that, the Doctor oh so slyly gets the curator, a van Gogh nut, to wax poetic on why he thinks van Gogh is just the besty best artist in the history of art. The curator sums up nicely the writer’s probable views on the subject (because Rusty isn’t the only writer in the history of Who to use characters as mouthpieces trust me)– that van Gogh had extraordinary vision and extraordinary pain, and that he channeled that pain into expressive works that will probably never be rivaled, and so on. Beautiful speech. And van Gogh is just steps away listening to this, probably the first praise in forever he’s gotten, and he’s in tears. They leave him back in 1890, happy, and he proclaims to the Doctor that he’s the first that ever really made him feel better.

We’re not done yet, though. Because now Amy has an idea in her head. “Let’s go back to the museum,” she says to the Doctor, “I bet there are tons of new paintings there now!” She is, in other words, sure that they’ve not only done good here, but done so good that they’ve completely changed van Gogh’s life around with this one small encounter. That now that he knows without a doubt he is loved, and valuable, and that what he’s doing is worth the struggle, that when they get back to the museum they’ll find out he lived a much longer life. The Doctor says, tellingly, “I don’t think so.”

And when they get up there he’s proven right. There are no new paintings. Some of the paintings are slightly altered, but they were not able to prevent van Gogh from shooting himself in July 1890, at age 37. And from the Doctor’s expression, it isn’t, I don’t think, because van Gogh’s death was a “fixed event”. No, I think that the Doctor gets it, understands why van Gogh’s last words were reportedly “the sadness will last forever.” He knows very well, after all, that there are some people where no matter how hard you try, or what you try, or how well you treat them, they are going to sink. There are some people who cannot be saved. They can be loved, protected, comforted for a time, forgiven, and even redeemed. But not saved. Some things the Doctor cannot heal or fix; some battles can’t be won.

And it was his old friend from Gallifrey who taught him that lesson. I think he’s finally coming to terms with it.

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3 Responses

  1. Edzel2

    Oh yes! You summed up everything that matters about that episode. I think it may well become my favourite episode of S5 (next to The Eleventh Hour). It was beautiful. I loved the parallels you drew with the Master here, because its so, so true. Casual viewers may not see it, but fans certainly will. I thought the way Amy was crying for Rory without consciously knowing that’s what she was doing was so-oo sad, and the sorrowful looks the Doctor kept throwing her way were very telling. Y’know, I’m wondering if, come the finale, we might see Rory again…

    06.06.2010 at 12:22 pm

    • Thanks :)

      Sometimes I think the parallels with the Master are all in my head because the Doctor certainly never lets on, but I also like to think that even though the writers may forget or see it differently, that sort of relationship is integral in everything the Doctor is. So yeah, maybe it’s just a bit of fanon or over-analysis, but I’m glad I’m not the only one who sees it :)

      Anyway even if only fans get that, the overall take on depression was just wonderful, and I have a feeling that will resonate with a lot more people who’ve gone through that sort of thing personally or via a loved one.

      I wouldn’t be surprised if Rory returns. I don’t buy he’s totally gone.

      06.06.2010 at 5:20 pm

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