In this penultimate “Doctor’s Greatest Hits” I am focussing on a story that not only inspires, but connects with history in a way that Doctor Who used to do more often. In doing so it brings to life a face and name we all know and opens the door to the potential man inside the myth. Vincent van Gogh is a great character to put into Doctor Who but like some of the best episodes it stands out not because of the Doctor – but in spite of him.
This episode is all about the relationship between Any Pond and Vincent – played superbly by Tony Curran – and is really character driven rather than plot or monster driven. In fact you could have taken the Doctor and the Monster out of this episode and it would have still been a beautiful drama. Of course those two elements had to be in there, but they really took a back seat to the struggles of Vincent and his demons. Suffering from severe bouts of depression and self doubt he fails to see the purpose and hope in his work that we all do now looking at it. This was Richard Curtis’s starting point with this episode because Van Gogh never saw that reaction, he only became famous after his death like so many of the world’s greatest artists.
The special effects and set teams did an amazing job as well on this episode to reproduce scenes that were set inside of his painting both in real physical settings dressed to look like his work – his bedroom and the café – and how the SFX team painted the sky as the trio of characters looked up at it’s vastness. There is a real simplicity and beauty in Van Gogh’s work that makes it so accessible and explains his continuing popularity – and the same simplicity and beauty comes through in Curtis’s script there is a great deal of humour and pathos as well as dark and troubling moments for Vincent. Curran’s performance is nothing short of brilliant. It seems to bring the best out of both Matt Smith and Karen Gillan in the episode and you don’t want the episode to end.
But it does end in an almost perfect Richard Curtis imagined way. The Doctor does something he rarely does and takes Vincent forward in time to an exhibition of his work in the future to see how loved he becomes. There is a moment when Bill Nye’s curator is talking about Van Gogh’s work unaware the artist is just a few feet in front of him that is not just emotional but hugely uplifting. The battle with his mental illness lifts for that one great moment as he sees the effect his work has on the world he is so angry at and scared of. I’m not ashamed to say that I well up every time I see it.
For me it is the best episode of Smith and Moffat’s era.
Music is “Chances” by Athlete as used in the show itself.