Warning: spoilers throughout.
In a way, yes. Yes they did. “Vincent and the Doctor” uses history and monsters to discuss depression in an open and honest manner – and in case the point got lost, a BBC announcer piped in over the credits to invite viewers to visit their mental wellness website and/or call their suicide helpline. But there is no schmaltz, no heavy-handedness, no awkward “gee, Doctor, I sure learned a valuable lesson!” The hallmarks of the Very Special Episode at its worst are missing here. Without them, we are left with an emotionally devastating, most admirable study of the realities of mental illness.
Which is a rarity indeed. To the bulk of film and television producers, mental illness falls neatly into the world of either a) scandalous dark side (my word! a split personality!); b) convenient plot point (my word! amnesia!); c) adorable, innocent lunkheadery (my word! Forrest Gump!); or d) award bait tics and quirks (my word! Forrest Gump again!). Realism is far, far away from such tropes. It’s also far more complex, which might explain its frequent absence from pop culture, which prefers simplicity.
Not so here. Writer Richard Curtis (yes, that Richard Curtis) uses the usual “Who” set-ups – historical figure (Vincent Van Gogh, a year before his death), fantastical monster (the dragon-like Krafayis, which only Vincent can see), etc. – as the framework for heavier issues. At first I was nervous (and if also a bit thankful) over a family-oriented show talking so candidly about suicide and depression, but Curtis’ script (and the direction from Jonny Campbell, who previously helmed “The Vampires of Venice”) offers a delicate touch.
For starters, it never uses Vincent’s illness as a gimmick. The teleplay is sincere in its treatment of depression – and clever in placing it into the little moments. Yes, we get a complete breakdown in one scene, as Van Gogh (Tony Curran, whose work here is absolutely wonderful) screams and hides in his bed. But we also get subtle touches of mood swing impulsiveness: his left-field declaration of love for Amy, his manic descriptions of the world of color he sees, his boorish attempts to smother his melancholy in booze. A less knowing script would stick to the screams and the sobbing; Curtis prefers to be closer to the truth.
The writer then uses the series’ Doctor/companion foundation to fuel the conversation. Watch how Matt Smith’s Doctor approaches Van Gogh following the artist’s latest fit. He is, in a sense, like a real doctor, informing Vincent of depression as a legitimate illness, nothing to be ashamed about. The “old man” tone in Smith’s performance adds a warm sincerity to the moment.
More important, though, is Amy’s naïveté. She spends the entire episode trying to “cheer him up,” which reveals a misunderstanding of the illness. (She can be forgiven for thinking a trip to the future to hear the praises of museum tour guide Bill Nighy is enough to change Vincent’s future; it’s certainly grander than the usual pick-me-ups.) Amy is stunned to learn that despite her best efforts, Vincent still sunk into depression and still took his life at the age of 37. Here, Amy is everyone who ever failed to see the big picture of depression. She requires the Doctor to explain it, which he does in a moment of such great beauty:
“The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. … The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant.”
The key, then, is to remember they “added to his pile of good things,” which is, barring the ability to offer medical treatment, the best any of us can do. Indeed, the key moment in their visit with Van Gogh comes not during any battles, or in any of the jokey conversations in which Amy tries to poke history by getting him interested in sunflowers (much as Rose once kidded Queen Victoria into explaining how she is “not amused”), or in our heroes’ efforts to introduce the tortured artist to their future legacy (much as the Doctor once informed Agatha Christie her novels will live on for centuries). It’s in the scene where Vincent simply asks the Doctor and Amy to hold his hands, and they do. This is a moment of quiet grace, where Vincent is content, if only for a little while, touched by the love his new friends have shown him.
It is not enough to defeat his illness, but is anything? Barring therapy and medication – both uncommon in his time – his suicide is an inevitability. This is too much for Amy (and many viewers, I’m sure) to bear, and yet it is a cold truth Curtis refuses to avoid mentioning.
There’s a deep sorrow that underscores everything in this episode, from the obvious Van Gogh bits to the pain of the Krafayis, which has suffered a long life of loneliness and persecution (a clever twist of the script which nicely mirrors Vincent’s suffering), to Amy’s own feelings, a grief she doesn’t know is there. With the Doctor eager to speed away from Rory’s removal of time and space, he’s doing essentially what Amy is with Vincent: taking her mind off. Granted, her mind isn’t really “on” Rory’s death, having forgotten all about it, but perhaps he can see, as Vincent can, the flecks of sadness that remain. Is Amy’s invisible heartache a metaphor for depression itself, bubbling under the surface even in the good times?
But there is also great joy, first in Amy’s gentle delight of meeting a someone from history, then in the Doctor’s own delight in getting to use bizarre equipment for solving a monster mystery, then in the trio’s wondrous journey through color and the starry, starry night, and finally in Vincent’s trip to the Musée d’Orsay. Campbell does not shy from Curtis’ overwhelming dramatics, and in fact encourages them, setting the finale to Athlete’s majestic pop anthem “Chances,” employing careful close-ups and slow zooms to punctuate the emotion. (These same elements return a few scenes later, as Amy and the Doctor return to the present and learn they did not save Vincent from his fate. Ah, but Amy learns how much she touched the artist’s heart, and his message in the sunflowers delivers some minor consolation.) There’s some hyperbole in the bit where Bill Nighy’s nerdish museum guide raves about Van Gogh’s importance, but it’s a hyperbole that works. Curran’s Vincent is unable to prevent himself from bursting, and neither are we.
“Vincent and the Doctor” is “Who” – indeed, science fiction – at its finest, using outlandish adventure to tell personal stories. There’s something so very winning about a sincere tale of mental illness combined with the lunacy of “Who” fantasy, both elements enhancing and complimenting each other, leaving us stunned.
How Very Special.