A First-Timer Watches Doctor Who: “Vincent and The Doctor”
How do you fight a monster you can’t see?
How do you win if all you can do is lash out blindly and aimlessly at a problem you don’t know how to solve?
In this episode of Doctor Who a Krafayis—a huge alien with the head of a parrot and the body of a giant reptile—serves as an allegory for depression in a story that see the Doctor and Amy travel back in time to visit with Vincent van Gogh.
After promising Rio and delivering Wales (and a completely-erased-from-history fiancé), the Doctor decides to treat Amy to a Paris vacation where the pair spend the day wandering the galleries of the Musée d’Orsay (and comparing bow ties with Bill Nighy). But peace and tranquility don’t make for a good Who episode so, of course, something interrupts their trip. That something is a little face-shaped smudge glimpsed by the Doctor in van Gogh’s painting The Church at Auvers. The seemingly innocuous detail sets off alarm bells for him and before you can say “Dutch post-impressionism” Amy and the Doctor are back in the TARDIS and on course for late 19th-century Provence.
There they meet an angry and harried van Gogh, hated by locals who blame his madness for the mysterious murders occurring in their town. Thanks to Amy’s charm (and red hair), the travellers manage to cozy up to the then-unsuccessful artist, giving them an in to find out about that face painted in the church window. It’s this guy:
And only van Gogh can see him. (Although the Doctor has a pretty neat rear view mirror device, given to him by a smelly—not fairy—godmother, that allows him a glimpse).
Vicious as the creature may look (and here, their reputation precedes them as brutal wandering hunters who abandon the weaker members of the herd), like van Gogh and his depression, this one is also misunderstood. Its arbitrary attacks stem from fear, because the Krafayis is blind.
Just before he kills it in self-defense, Vincent sees it. He sees a lot of things no one else does. Like Amy’s sadness.
And the night sky’s beauty.
He can’t see his own talent though, and has no idea the kind of success the future holds for him—until the Doctor decides to to show him via a quick jaunt aboard the TARDIS.
Deeply moved by the experience, van Gogh returns home seemingly a changed man. Amy rejoices that when she and the Doctor return to the Musée d’Orsay, they will find hundreds of new paintings because the artist will have decided not to kill himself so early in his career at the relatively young age of 37. But it isn’t to be. Some works have been altered (the Krafayis is gone and Vase with 12 Sunflowers has been dedicated to Amy) but the time travellers’ visit didn’t change the outcome of history. Like the other doctors that had tried to treat van Gogh’s mental illness, this Doctor also failed to cure him. Amy’s belief that he could is evidence that in the 21st century, we still struggle to understand and treat mental illness.