You can almost feel his hand painting it right in front of you. Carving the colours into shapes.
The obvious Richard Curtis film to compare this to is, I suppose, About Time. Curtis was influenced by Vincent and the Doctor when he wrote and directed About Time, if only a little bit, and even without that link there’s a broad thematic crossover in terms of that time travel romcom and what Moffat had been doing on the show for a few years. When Vincent and the Doctor was announced in 2010, an episode from “Richard Curtis, writer of Love, Actually, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Notting Hill” seemed unusual in a way that “Richard Curtis, writer of About Time” wouldn’t particularly. (The unusualness is a good thing, of course, and I think something Doctor Who would do well to reach for more often – an episode from Richard Curtis brings, if nothing else, a genuinely new perspective to the show that another episode from Mark Gatiss wouldn’t. Eleven years of hindsight obscures how unusual it was a little, makes it seem like a more obvious hire – or maybe a differently obvious hire – than it really was.)
What seemed a more interesting comparison, though, watching this back in 2021, was Yesterday. Written by Curtis and directed by Danny Boyle, Yesterday is about a struggling musician who wakes up one day and realises everyone but him has forgotten about the Beatles – he then revives his career playing half-remembered Beatles songs, becoming hugely successful as a result.
On the face of it the similarities are far less overt: there’s no time travel in Yesterday, for one thing, and its science fiction contrivances are throwaway details, not really something the film is particularly concerned with. (Although really you could make the case that’s true of Doctor Who most of the time anyway.) What it is, though, is about art in the same sense – the Beatles’ music rather than Van Gogh’s paintings, and approached from different perspectives, but there’s the same sort of lens being applied in each case, the same understanding of “art” as concept (and a product) in each.
Vincent and the Doctor has taken some criticism for being overly materialist, framing Van Gogh’s art solely in terms its commercial value; it’s a very capitalist, very mercantile attitude, one that’d undercut a lot of the episode’s themes about depression. It’s a reasonable criticism, if maybe overstated sometimes – Amy’s “there’s going to be more paintings” is, I think, quite clearly moreso about saying that Vincent will have had the chance to paint more, rather than solely being an expression of desire alone.
Certainly, though, it takes a very populist view of art – Van Gogh’s art is validated by its mass appeal, validated by its enduring popularity. There’s an appreciation for his vision, yes, but that’s always hand in hand with this perception of his genius as something rooted in its reach: the fact it ends up in a museum, the fact that people will go on to love it and value it (both in an emotional way and, yes, an economic one). It’s the same underlining view of art that you see in Yesterday; you don’t get the sense that Vincent and the Doctor would value the work if Van Gogh had never found popularity, in much the same way that Yesterday can’t imagine a world where the Beatles aren’t popular. It’s telling that that’s something Curtis imposed on Yesterday when rewriting someone else’s concept, the sort of outlook you’d expect from a massively popular celebrity writer like Curtis. I don’t know that it’s a bad thing, necessarily; when you invite a new perspective onto the show, you invite their idiosyncrasies and their foibles too, and it’s interesting to engage with that critically.
(I do think the episode is invested in a genuine, if non-specific, appreciation of Van Gogh and his art. The episode doesn’t really have much of a vocabulary to engage with the art, beyond general observations about colour and passion – in fairness, nor do I – which does make me wonder how much Curtis actually likes Van Gogh himself, and how much of it is a sort of second-hand affection/sentimental attachment because he was his sister’s favourite artist. Which again might explain some of the underlying attitudes – he loves Van Gogh because his sister loved Van Gogh – or perhaps that’s just some superficial psychoanalysis.)
And of course, it’s not as though it’s just Curtis: it’s an attitude that’s inherent to the celebrity historical as a subgenre generally. They’re almost always framed in that way – there’s a similar aside in The Unicorn and the Wasp, about how Agatha Christie’s books are still being bought and sold long past the point you’d hope they’d be in the public domain, their popularity measured in sales again – which is probably as much a product of Davies’ own populist aspirations as it is that oft-criticised Great Man of History theory.
More troubling, really, is that ‘mad artist’ stuff, the way it depicts Van Gogh as a troubled genius rather than a genius who was troubled – the episode doesn’t always delineate between the art and the depression in the way you’d hope it might. There’s a careful line between suggesting that Van Gogh processed his emotions through his art, and suggesting that his art was a product of those turbulent emotions; there’s a careful line there that the episode doesn’t always manage to walk gracefully, which is a shame.
Otherwise, though, it’s deft and sensitive. Indeed, for the most part it’s deft and sensitive I think, a really thoughtfully constructed piece that has a genuinely worthwhile “message”, for lack of a better word: just because you can’t “save” people, it doesn’t mean that trying to is without meaning on its own terms, or a failure just because you couldn’t “save” them. I’m not particularly inclined to speak to how Vincent and the Doctor handles mental health and depression as a whole – that’s been covered in more depth and with more authority by other people – but it is appreciated, if nothing else. There’s something nice about its directness, about how uncompromising the episode is in this respect; certainly it makes for an interesting comparison to Can You Hear Me?, an episode nominally about a companion dealing with the lingering impact of a suicide attempt so mired in ambiguity relatively few people actually understood it that way. (Speaking of Can You Hear Me?, I’d like to see Jodie Whittaker in Vincent and the Doctor – it seems it’d play very nicely to her strengths as an actor and a Doctor.)
That sense of being well-constructed extends past the thematic content; it’s a confident, well-made piece of television, with Jonny Campbell bringing an understated flair to the direction. Tony Curran is, obviously, really powerful as Van Gogh, and Karen Gillan gives one of her best performances too; there’s a nice throughline to this episode, positioning Van Gogh’s depression parallel to Amy’s forgotten grief, calling forward to a similar technique used in Series 6 and speaking again to how well constructed Series 5 is as a whole. Matt Smith, meanwhile, gets some nice material here too (I think he’d be quite a good romantic lead in a more typical Curtis project, actually), but more than anything else you get a sense of his generosity as a performer – he gives a lot of space to Curran and Gillan, willingly and skilfully stepping back into a supporting role in his own show.
Ultimately, it’s no surprise this episode appears so often on Doctor Who Best Of lists – it’s very much the sort of thing I’d like to see more of from the show.