This one’s going to be particularly heartfelt and personal. Doctor Who is – you may have noticed – my all time favourite television show. I’ve been slavishly devoted to it all my life. Last night, it more than repaid me for my devotion. Last night, Vincent and the Doctor (BBC1, Saturday) gave something back, directly. I love it more than ever now.
I don’t say the following to extract sympathy from anyone who may be reading this. It’s just a statement of fact. Nine years ago, I was diagnosed with depression. Most of the time I can manage to live with it. At other times, my life becomes a living hell. It appears from out of nowhere, like someone has flicked a switch in my head. There’s never any reason, any trigger for it. One minute I’m fine, the next it’s like the world is closing in on me and I end up shutting myself away until it passes. I’m usually hunched on the sofa staring emptily at the world as I feel it gnawing away inside my head. It eventually passes, I know that. It’s sometimes hard to remember that when I’m in the mddle of it, a frightened and terrified wee boy who thinks there’s no way out and no end to it.
With the love and support of the people I care most about in the world (one in particular, you know who you are), I’m getting better and better at dealing with it. I do come out the other side. Others aren’t so lucky, and my god, my heart goes out to them.
Last night’s Doctor Who showed compassion, understanding, delicate sensitivity and a deep empathy which took me completely by surprise. That it was also – for roughly half of the running time – a rollicking and very silly adventure story as well was merely a bonus. At the heart of Richard Curtis’s first script for the series was an exquisite portrait (ho-ho), deftly sketched (tee-hee) with a few broad brush strokes (whooo hoo hoo!) of a man in torment.
Tony Curran’s performance as Vincent Van Gogh goes down as one of the great guest shots that the series has ever given us. From his first appearance, attempting to salvage his tattered pride as the laughing stock of his village, through his tormented lashing out at a demon that only he can see, greeting the Doctor’s slightly clumsy attempts to pull him out of his mood with helpless fury, all the way to his final appearance heading off into the sunshine with a smile on his face – Curran was magnificent.
The monster plot seemed to me at first to be totally incidental to the real story at hand. The more I think about it though, the more I realise – it’s totally integral. It all comes together in the scene at the church. As Vincent realises that the creature is scared and alone, lashing out like him, the more it becomes the personification of his own inner demons. When he kills it – by accident – it speaks for the only time in the episode, and says “I am scared”. Just like Vincent himself, lost and alone in a world which shows no understanding of him and even less sympathy. Unfortunately the monsters that are devouring the man from the inside can’t be defeated that easily. This is one battle the Doctor can’t win.
Not that he doesn’t try. He and Amy barrel into the artist’s life, adding to “his stock of good things”. For a time, they make his life more bearable. They take him to see what the future holds, giving him the assurance that what he does will be valued. Loved. Treasured. But it’s not enough, because when depression strikes, it removes your power to reason. It blots out the sun. It steals your ability to look forward. It’s no surprise to find that for all that they brightened his life, The Doctor and Amy couldn’t save him.
The simple fact that they tried is more than enough, though. Because these two are compassion writ large. They’re two decent people making their way through the universe and trying to leave it a little better than it was before. I love them for it. This series of Doctor Who has exhibited a beautiful and touching faith in the individual. The Doctor appears from out of nowhere and helps a single little girl twice in two stories. He lets Bill Patterson’s character escape to find his way back to happiness in Victory of the Daleks. He takes on Rosanna in Vampires of Venice because she can’t even be bothered to remember her victim’s names. And here, he may set out to beat the monster, but he achieves a much greater victory. He lightens the darkness for a single individual. Just for a little while. And that’s the most powerful validation of what he does that I can think of.
I could sit here and make sarcastic comments about the budget saving attempts in having a (mostly) invisible monster. I could wax lyrical about Jonny Campbell’s exquisite, sun-dappled camera work. I could talk about Murray Gold’s sensitive, sympathetic scoring of the entire episode – some of his best work. I could offer a little cheer at William Hartnell’s third appearance of the series so far, and Patrick Troughton’s second. I could certainly make noises about the delightful cameo from Bill Nighy (always a welcome visitor, so far as I’m concerned). I could do all that, but so far as I’m concerned, last night’s episode boils down to this.
If just one person watching yesterday found themselves a little more encouraged than they were before – if they thought, “I’m not actually alone in this”. If even one person was sufficiently motivated to call the numbers quoted over the end credits or check the websites mentioned – then not only did Doctor Who more than serve its primary purpose as a diverting entertainment – but it made a difference in the real world. That’s the greatest victory of all. I adored this episode as you’ve probably worked out. But I value Doctor Who even more for helping to shine a light in the dark. There have been better episodes of Doctor Who in the past. There will be more in the future. But right now, It’s difficult to think of a single episode that I love more. It was beautiful, and it should be hung in a gallery somewhere. Thank you Richard Curtis, Steven Moffat, Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, Jonny Campbell. Thank you, to all involved in putting this together. You’re on the side of the angels. Bless you all.