On the face of it, Vincent and the Doctor could be described as just another Doctor Who story that visits a famous person from history, adds a monster and calls it a day; but this time it’s more of a personal story, more relevant to Vincent van Gogh’s life and experiences. The monster, it could be said, is a metaphor for the monsters in Vincent’s mind, the crippling bouts of depression that sent him into madness and despair. It would be all too easy to make light of this and handle it badly, but for the most part it works.
The monster, an invisible alien called a Krafayis, is not even that important to the plot, merely serving to get the Doctor’s attention and give Amy, Vincent and he something to do for half the episode. The emotional core of the story is in this world-famous artist being unappreciated in his own time and feeling worthless and irrelevant, and what could happen if he were brought into the future to see his own legacy. The ending certainly brought a lump to my throat, as Vincent’s life and work are praised by the museum curator. Naturally, this being an episode written by Richard Curtis, the curator is played by Bill Nighy. Classy.
Tony Curran’s likeness to the famous artist is fortunately excellent, although his Scottish accent is hand-waved as (presumably) a quirk of the Tardis translator. The performance is also excellent, and although the scene depicting Vincent’s bout of anguish is short-lived, it’s also believable and maturely handled. His falling for Amy is similarly quick due to the time constraints of the episode, but similarly believable as well.
Granted, this is an impressionistic take on van Gogh’s life, painted with broad strokes for the sake of a story about an abandoned invisible alien, but it’s undoubtedly written with reverence for the artist and his work, even more so than The Shakespeare Code was for William Shakespeare, or The Unicorn and the Wasp for Agatha Christie, and without resorting to mockery. The sets have been built and decorated to look like his paintings and the episode is more colourful than the usual desaturated style, with vibrant blues and yellows aplenty. The painted sky sequence is a treat.
This is a heartwarming story with a bittersweet ending. Vincent’s fate couldn’t be averted, but what the Doctor says about adding to the amount of goodness in his life is very true. Life is a complex thing and there are some monsters that even the Doctor cannot defeat.