It’s not every sci-fi series that deftly tackles themes of suicide, isolation, and artistic genius. So while Doctor Who‘s latest episode, “Vincent and the Doctor,” got a little heavy-handed in places, overall, you’ve got to give ’em points for ambition.
Goofily enough, this week’s proceedings kicked off with The Doctor and Amy pressing pause on their planet-hopping activities and paying a visit to the Musee d’Orsay and its van Gogh exhibit. The sudden and unexpected sight of “not a nice face at all” in a church window of one of the famed impressionist’s works prompted a trip back in time to 1890. There, our protagonists discovered the painter as a tortured (and oddly dashing) outcast, a man whose ability to truly see the world around him — the beauty of nature, the hidden pain of his fellow man, and apparently invisible aliens — was inspiring his genius while simultaneously driving him mad.
Turns out the invisible prawn-rooster-alien thingie (called a Grifface) had been abandoned on Earth by his own race because he’d gone blind, and his murder spree was perhaps just a roundabout path toward getting himself killed, too. Those final moments of the creature’s life, his utterance of “I’m afraid,” was one of those heartbreaking Who climaxes I’ve come to know and love. Of course, the denouement was equally moving, as the Doctor decided to give van Gogh a trip to 2010, to see the impact of his work in the future. Watching the “failed” artist realizing the indelible impact of his masterpieces some 120 years after his lifetime — in the center of so much painterly beauty, no less — was a nice reminder of why The Doctor is so fond of the Earth’s insignificant inhabitants. That this time-traveling education couldn’t prevent van Gogh’s eventual suicide, however, punctuated the mood of sadness that hung over the episode.
Indeed, Amy’s lack of cognizance about her own mourning for Rory’s death/obliteration by the crack in time reminds me a little of Donna Noble’s own unknowingness in “Turn Left.” The way Amy started when the Doctor accidentally referred to Vincent as “Rory,” and the way she got defensive when Vincent said he could hear “the song of her sadness,” makes me think that perhaps the time crack didn’t completely erase her memories of her ill-fated lover. You just know an “awakening” of sorts is destined to happen before the season finale.
Thankfully, there was a little patented Who humor to cut some of the somberness: Vincent seeing his exhibition and exclaiming “I still can’t believe one of the haystacks was in the museum. How embarrassing!” Or the Doctor referencing “the problem with impressionists” after feeding van Gogh’s painting into his alien-recognition software only to get feedback that he was tracking a polar bear or a parrot. And yes, there was even a joke about the boredom of watching paint dry, with the Doctor (rendered ineffective in the fight against an enemy he couldn’t see) whining: “Is this how time normally passes, really slowly and in the right order?” And later, “If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s an unpunctual alien attack!”
What did you think of “Vincent and the Doctor”? Did you find it stirring? And how do you feel the episode worked in terms of advancing the season-long “time crack” story arc? Sound off in the comments below, and to get all my TV musings, follow me on Twitter @EWMichaelSlezak.