[Note: This post contains spoilers for the Doctor Who episode “Vincent and the Doctor,” the tenth in series five. It has not aired in the United States yet. Read at your own risk.]
This is going to be one of those “dark night of the soul” posts, folks. So sorry in advance. I’ve been missing thanks to a particularly rough patch of what the Elizabethans called “melancholia” and busy-ness (a combination about as ill-advised as mixing tequila and Everclear.) And then there was the moving back to New York just in time to say goodbye to one of my dearest friends who had to return to her homeland, Leeds. (In my mind, she wanders the moors like Catherine in Wuthering Heights, except less obnoxious and prettier.) And now Glee is becoming uneven and boring and even kind of problematic at times.
The good news is the essay for Smart Pop has now been proofed and sent for formatting, so you can look for the book, which is a kind of post-mortem dissection of Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse edited by (Whedon family writer and creator of Warehouse 13) Jane Espenson, in October 2010. I’m still sort of in awe about that happening, but I’m also getting all kinds of anxiety about it now. It’s stupid really. It’s just one essay in a book of 18 and it’s not saying anything (too) offensive and sometimes it’s funny, which is great, and the conclusion is actually kind of powerful (I think.) But I guess my anxiety has a lot to do with Doctor Who and Vincent van Gogh. Ready for a dramatic leap? Here we go!
The most recent episode of Doctor Who is called “Vincent and the Doctor.” In it, we learn that Amy is an avid van Gogh fan so the Doctor takes her to an exhibition (in our own time, funny that) where Bill Nighy is lecturing in a bow-tie. (I’m pretty sure only Matt Smith and Bill Nighy are bad-ass enough to wear bow-ties and still seem dashing. And don’t you dare question Matt Smith’s bad-assness if you haven’t seen his deleted scene from In Bruges where he plays a younger Harry (Ralph Fiennes) and decapitates a policeman.) Any-hoo, Amy and the Doctor notice a sinister creature in the window of one of van Gogh’s church paintings.
So the Doctor gets worried and goes back to the time that van Gogh painted it. It turns out Vincent was viewed as the town lunatic and drunkard which is silly because his paintings are beautiful and he seems very sweet when he’s not crying his eyes out in his room. That’s right, they go the depression route, which seems authentic considering the man killed himself at 37 having sold only one painting. But it turns out he’s not just depressed, he’s able to see things normal people can’t see, like an invisible alien that kills a girl in town and attacks our heroes.
[Okay now here’s the major spoiler….]
It turns out the monster, an alien abandoned by its kill or be killed race, is blind and has been wandering around alone. Vincent kills it while trying to ward off the panicked creature, and the Doctor and Amy worry about Vincent so they take him in the TARDIS and show him the exhibition of his paintings in 2010, where Bill Nighy tells him how great he is:
Van Gogh is the finest painter in the world. He is certainly the most popular painter of all time, the most beloved. His command of color, magnificent. He transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty. Pain is easy to portray, but to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy, joy, and magnificence of our world…No one had ever done it before. Perhaps no one ever will again. To my mind, that strange wild man who rode the fields of Provence was not only the world’s greatest artist, but also one of the greatest men who ever lived.
This moment is utterly heartbreaking because van Gogh really did die as a non-entity in the art world, a lunatic who had been committed to a sanitarium and had cut off his own ear after threatening his best friend with a razor. But the van Gogh that we see in this episode is a very special man who just sees the world very differently from the way that we do, who lives his life with the passion, fury, and energy of his paintings.
It’s funny because in some ways I think the episode was made to address some of these issues. After the credits the BBC put up this website that has to do with mental health.
But “Vincent and the Doctor” is about more than depression and suicide. This series (and for the Americans when I say series I mean season. This would be series five, or as Moffat would like to call it “Volume Two Series One”) has been about the Doctor really feeling his age. When Matt Smith says “I’m stupid.” it’s not with the David Tennant buoyancy or the Christopher Eccleston fire. Most of all, Smith sounds tired and frustrated. The Eleventh Doctor may run around a lot, but he is old. And he’s tired of losing people. If there’s one moment where Moffat’s Doctor gets his Super Objective (the one thing in the world that makes the character feel safe, fulfilled, and at peace, which is why you usually don’t want to let them get it) it’s “Everybody Lives Rose! Just this once, Everybody LIVES!”
“Vincent and the Doctor” was the result of Eleven being the Doctor who just manages to get by, who loses companions a lot, who can’t figure out what is chasing the woman that he (subconsciously) loves. (Yes, I went there. Deal with it.) He is a superhero who has become impotent, maybe even slightly incompetent, and that terrifies him. He restored the Daleks. That’s a pretty serious miscalculation, and it also invalidates all the sacrifices he’s made to stop them.
So “Vincent and the Doctor” asks the question how are we remembered after we die? How do we make sure our lives meant something if the best case scenario for a man like the Doctor is that the universe doesn’t get destroyed? The short answer is all those people we saw Ten say goodbye to before he regenerated. A lot of people don’t know about the Doctor. He’s kind of like a good run crew: if he’s doing his job right you don’t even know that he’s there, but a lot of people owe him. And they think he’s the greatest man who ever lived.
One of my deepest fears is that at some point I will succumb to the same fear and panic that van Gogh and the Doctor fight, that my legacy will be bad or I will have none at all. I feel it bubbling up inside of me, and I’m only 21! But it’s somewhat comforting to know that even if I succumb, there’s a chance that Bill Nighy will say nice things about me. As long as I don’t get pulled into a crack in time itself.