Doctor Who S5E10 “Vincent and the Doctor”

Posted: 07/13/2010 in Uncategorized

It took some doing to get me invested in the fifth season soft reboot of the modern/Welsh Dr. Who. Despite my initial reservations about Matt Smith before “The Eleventh Hour” aired, I accepted him quickly and the lovely Karen Gillan as Amy Pond has to be my favourite companion yet, but the early writing didn’t do much for me and I fell behind after the dismal two part return of the infamous Angels. To say that it picks up again after that is a mighty understatement, as Vicent and the Doctor is- in my opinion- the most powerful and important episode of the Welsh Series, with The Girl in the Fireplace being the only real competition.

What truly elevates the episode beyond the rest of the series so far is that while there have been many excellent dramatic scenes throughout each of the five seasons, the climax of Vincent and the Doctor transcends the moment and immediate context to make a beautiful and resonant statement about the nature of art, pain, and the human condition. I am willing to allow that it may have struck closer to home for me than most because of my background as an artist and my (not uncommon) habit of pouring the turmoil of my personal life into my art, but I’d be hard pressed to believe that you’d have to be an artist to be deeply touched by the episode.

The basic plot of the episode is probably the most well worn trope of the series; The Doctor and Companion travel through time to visit a notable historical figure, make references to things the famous person hasn’t done yet, and stop some nefarious alien activity that in retrospect seems to provide perspective on the figure or a notable event in history they participated in.

That’s pretty much how the whole episode goes, until the danger is thwarted and The Doctor gets the idea to bring the troubled Van Gough to the Musee D’Orsay in Paris to show him what his legacy will become. Tony Curran’s powerful turn as Van Gough taking in the impossible experience (despite the somewhat overbearing musical accompaniment) is unforgettable, but what truly makes the episode is when The Doctor asks, with Van Gough in earshot, the (inexplicably English) tour guide to explain where he rates in the history of art in one hundred words. He replies, with no hesitation and having no idea who is standing behind The Doctor:

“Well… big question, but to me Van Gough is the finest painter of them all. Certainly the most popular great painter of all time, the most beloved. His command of colour, the most magnificent. He transformed the tormented pain of his life into ecstatic beauty. Pain is easy to portray, but to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy and joy and magnificent of our world… no one had ever done it before. Perhaps no one ever will again. To my mind that strange, wild man who roamed the fields of Provence was not only the world’s greatest artists but one of the greatest men who ever lived.”

Beyond the vindication of Van Gough himself and the context of him as a character in the episode, that moment shone forth with the aspirations for and love of humanity that has always characterized The Doctor in a context where the triumph over adversity and creativity of humans as a species that he admires manifested without his intervention. That Dr. Black could understand and admire Van Gough so thoroughly across the chasm of time is both an amazing testament to the power of art and the timelessness of the human condition.

It seems somewhat rare as of late to see science fiction honoring the triumphs of humanity and it’s a more than welcome respite from the numbing vilifying of the darker tendencies of humanity. It’s one thing to use allegory to draw attention to mistakes that don’t need repeating but it’s entirely another thing to let it eclipse work that inspires us to be better and do better. It’s proof positive that Doctor Who continues to be the most indispensable science fiction series on the air today, and perhaps of all time.

  1. JOnKEnna says:

    What a stunning review of a stunning episode. I agree with every word.

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