Like “The Time of Angels,” this story begins with the Doctor (Matt Smith) in a museum – this one the Musee d’Orsay in Paris – enjoying an exhibit of the work of Vincent van Gogh, where the Doctor notices some “very not right” about one particular painting. Church at Auvers featured a sinister face in one of the paintings. “I know evil when I see it,” the Doctor declared. “And I see it in that window.” So he and Amy (Karen Gillan) set off for 1890 to find out what happened. There, they find the revered artist was not held in high regard by his contemporaries. “He’s drunk, he’s mad, and he never pays his bills,” remarked a waitress at the local cafe (as depicted in Cafe Terrance at Night). Amy, however, totally lit up and even did a little dance when she saw the great painter. But van Gogh is having problems of his own: He sees a monster that no one else can – not even the Doctor!
As van Gogh, Tony Curran gave an energetic performance, highlighting the painter’s hands as he made gnarled, twisted gestures, waved his arms and hopped about his home. As he ranted about hearing colors and nature calling him out, the audience got a glimpse into the mind of mad genius. (Kudos to the script from Richard Curtis, of BLACKADDER and Love, Actually fame. He can totally be forgiven for taking…er, artistic license when he condensed and rearranged some of van Gogh’s life and the sequence of his paintings; he did it to tell a better story.) When van Gogh brandished a pitchfork at the invisible monster, even the Doctor feared the artist was suffering “some kind of fit.” Curran really made viewers see the tortured portion of the tortured artist. Consider how van Gogh cowered on his bed, sobbing that he was without hope. The Doctor wanted to buck him up, however the Time Lord knew it was van Gogh’s fate to die alone and penniless, completely unrecognized and unappreciated. “Sometimes these moods torture me for weeks or months, but I’m good now,” van Gogh cheered only a short time later, with Amy on his arm. Yet, van Gogh could sense Amy’s sadness. “You’ve lost someone,” he suggested, pointing out that she was crying. And she was! Clearly Amy is aware of the loss of Rory (in “Cold Blood”) on some level, but how? Since Rory now never existed, there’s no reason for her to be sad about losing someone she never knew. It must have something to do with being a time traveler. The look on the Doctor’s face indicated that he knows he must tell Amy about Rory at some point…
“I may be mad, but I’m not stupid,” van Gogh insisted to the Doctor. Proof? He was instantly smitten by Amy; and what thinking person hasn’t been completely enchanted by her? Gillan has made Amy the ultimate cool audience-identification character. She boggled upon meeting the famous artist. “Wow,” she marveled when she saw the hovel matched his painting, Bedroom in Arles. “I mean, really, wow.” And did you notice how Gillan let Amy’s jaw drop, just a little, as van Gogh discussed his disgust with sunflowers. The artist made her see the flowers in a new light.
As for seeing, this episode was quite a challenge from a visual perspective. After all, one doesn’t want a story about a painter to look dull; especially not a story about van Gogh, who was all about the power of color. So this episode had to look almost like a painting itself. And it did. Kudos to director Jonny Campbell and director of photography Tony Slater Ling for brilliant visuals. The breakfast sequence with Amy smiling amid the sunflowers was particularly ravishing. Gillan looked even more beautiful than usual. The location shooting was marvelous; the stone huts were very atmospheric, as were the narrow cobblestone streets of the town. And when the real sky morphed into the celestial vault as van Gogh painted it…well, even the widely traveled Doctor had to agree, “I’ve seen many things, my friend, but you’re right. Nothing quite as wonderful as the things you see.”
Van Gogh told the Doctor, “I believe, if you look hard, there are more wonders in this universe than you could ever have dreamed of.” (Sounds a bit like Shakespeare, eh?) “You don’t have to tell me,” the Doctor smirked. The Time Lord pulled the same wink-wink antics with dialogue that his 10th persona did with the Bard in “The Shakespeare Code,” such as calling the night “very starry.” Smith made the Doctor particularly fidgety in this tale; he constantly fussed with the straps and dials of his Species Identifier, and stroked his face and hair more than usual. He also had trouble sitting still long enough to let van Gogh actually paint, preferring to “regale” the artist and his companion with tales of watching Michelangelo and Picasso create. (Though he curiously neglected to mention that sordid business between his fourth incarnation and Leonardo da Vinci with the multiple versions of the Mona Lisa, as seen in “City of Death.”) “Is this how time normally passes — really slowly?” he grumbled. “In the right order?” (Think about it, he was literally watching paint dry – albeit Vincent van Gogh’s paint!) Yes, Doctor, there’s a reason Mme. De Pompadour (“The Girl in the Fireplace”) called living day after day “the slow path.”
Sure, the creature was only visible to van Gogh, but luckily, as an artist, he could sketch it! Everyone who reads me knows I love the Doctor using a gadget, and we got a fun one in this story: the Species Identifier, a gift from his godmother that was basically a mirror that…er, identifies whatever it reflects. (Think about what this means: The Doctor packed this goofy present from a “smelly” godmother when he fled Gallifrey? Or perhaps he picked it up on one of his subsequent visits…say, during a lull in the action when the Fourth Doctor was home for “The Deadly Assassin”?) He used the device to identify the Krafayis, a sort of cross between a parrot and a tiger. How brilliant is the idea of an invisible creature that you have to turn your back on in order to see in a mirror?
The Krafayis was left behind by its pack, so it was alone and lashing out. And what’s more, the creature was blind! (Kind of makes the Doctor look silly for declaring the creature “evil” on sight at the beginning of the story.) The Doctor, being the Doctor, tried to talk things out with the Krafayis, appealing to it as a kindred lost soul; a fellow castaway on Earth. And then he comforted the poor, blind brute as it died. Awww. Similarly, the Doctor tried to convince van Gogh that he could have hope for the future. But the way Smith played the sadness in the Doctor’s eyes, he knew there was nothing he could say to save the artist from the real monsters: the demons inside him.
Still, the Doctor tried his best. I got downright teary when the Doctor brought van Gogh to 2010 to visit Musee D’Orsay and see that his work will, one day, be appreciated. Worshipped, even. “Time can be rewritten; I know it can!” Amy cheered. Oh, Amy; not all of it. I felt for her when she realized that their intervention did not rewrite this particular history and extend van Gogh’s life and artistic output.
I have to give this story props for avoiding the obvious by not addressing the issue of van Gogh severing his ear. And I laughed out loud when the Doctor moaned, “In the future, I’m definitely just using this screwdriver for screwing in screws.” (Wishful thinking on my part, as I am sick to death of the sonic deus ex machina.) The other great, winking exchange came when the Doctor formulated his plan for using van Gogh as monster bait: “This is risky,” the Doctor mused. “Riskier than normal?” Amy replied. Also? The Doctor has totally won me over: “Bow ties are cool.” (A tip of the hat to the unbilled Bill Nighy as Dr. Black, the art expert.)
“You’re being so nice to me – why are you being so nice to me?” Amy demanded. Perhaps a better question is, How did we fans get so lucky as to have DOCTOR WHO being so nice to us?