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A Starry Night

By C. Robert Dimitri | TV Reviews | June 29, 2010 | Comments ()


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"It seems to me there's so much more to the world than the average eye's allowed to see. I believe if you look hard there are more wonders in this universe than you could ever have dreamed of."

The Doctor and Amy visit a Vincent van Gogh exhibit at the Musee d'Orsay, an art museum in Paris in 2010. Amy comments that the Doctor has been unusually nice to her as of late, as he has been taking her on particularly fun trips through space-time, and it borders on suspicious. The Doctor responds coyly and obviously cannot tell her that he feels responsible for the death of a fiancé that she cannot remember.

Bill Nighy plays an especially knowledgeable bow-tied museum docent named Dr. Black, who tells a nearby group of patrons about the humble life of Vincent van Gogh. Vincent's art was never appreciated during his lifetime. With Nighy in this fun turn and Toby Jones as the "Dream Lord" a few weeks ago, it seems that the modern success of "Doctor Who" might be upping the prestige of its guest stars.

The Doctor and Amy happen upon a portrait of a church, and the Doctor spies an alarming alien visage painted in its window that the Doctor recognizes as "evil." He urgently interrupts Dr. Black's long-winded speech to find out exactly when van Gogh created this painting. Dr. Black reveals that it was painted sometime between the first and third of June in 1890, less than a year before van Gogh killed himself. The Doctor and Amy dash off to investigate.

They arrive in the small town in France where van Gogh resided at that time and recognize a café from one of his paintings. The owner has no interest in discussing van Gogh, and the waitresses describe van Gogh as a crazy drunk that never pays his bills. They laugh at the Doctor's description of van Gogh as a "good painter."

Van Gogh emerges outside with the owner and attempts to haggle for a drink in exchange for a painting. The Doctor offers to buy the drink or the painting, and van Gogh has no interest in accepting his help. However, Amy intervenes, saying that she'll buy a bottle and share it with whomever she chooses, casting a flirtatious eye at van Gogh, who had just referred to her as cute. Over wine van Gogh and Amy flirt, van Gogh speaks disparagingly of his art, and the Doctor drives straight to the point in asking about any churches that Vincent might plan to paint. They are interrupted by screams, signaling the discovery of a dead girl in a nearby alley. Vincent tells the Doctor that there was a similar death a week prior. The Doctor invites Amy and himself to stay with Vincent for the night.

In Vincent's humble abode, the Doctor and Amy marvel at the masterworks casually strewn on the tables and posted on the walls. Vincent speaks passionately about his work and seems driven mad by the inspiration of it. Having wandered outside, Amy screams, and Vincent and the Doctor rush to help. Vincent fends off an invisible creature that threatens Amy and knocks the Doctor to the ground. Amy and the Doctor at first think that Vincent is mad, but only van Gogh can see the monster. Vincent drives it away, and back in Vincent's hut, van Gogh sketches the creature for the Doctor, amusingly overwriting another work of art in spite of protests by the Doctor and Amy.

The Doctor returns to the TARDIS to investigate alone, perhaps -- although it's presented completely innocuously -- with the intent of leaving Amy with Vincent to enjoy a romantic connection. The Doctor holds up the sketch to a contraption with a mirror that he received from his two-headed godmother, but the software does not successfully identify the drawing. Outside the TARDIS, though, with the machine and mirror strapped to his chest, the Doctor is able to identify the creature as a Krafayis, which is a lumbering parrot-dragon-like beast, when it appears behind him. The Doctor flees through the town and escapes the Krafayis, which he can only see through the mirror. Morning has arrived, and the Doctor bumps into Amy, who reveals that Vincent snores quite noisily.

Amy wakes Vincent with a thank-you gift of sunflowers for him to paint, although van Gogh tells them that they are not his favorite floral subject. The Doctor shows him a picture of the Krafayis and explains the nature of the beast; they travel in brutal packs, and this one was left behind. Typically a stranded member of this species will continue to kill until stopped, which is a difficult proposition given its invisibility. With Vincent's unique eye and ability to see it, however, they should be able to stop it. They only need visit the church that Vincent intended to paint. After Vincent leaves the room, the Doctor expresses concern that they are prematurely endangering Vincent's life and thus jeopardizing the existence of his artwork in the museum.

The Doctor finds Vincent in his bedroom crying. Vincent laments the fact that the Doctor and Amy inevitably will leave him and that life is devoid of hope. The Doctor tries to lift Vincent's spirits, but van Gogh angrily orders him to leave. The Doctor tells Amy that Vincent is in predictably delicate and unstable shape; they will need to attempt to find the creature at the church on their own. As further evidence of van Gogh's instability, he then appears behind them ready to paint.

On the way to the church, Amy apologizes to Vincent for his sadness. Van Gogh indicates that he is able to weather his mood swings, and he observes that Amy has sadness of her own. He says that she has lost someone and observes a tear on her face. This confuses the seemingly carefree and happy Amy, and the Doctor changes the subject. Along the way they pass the funeral procession for the girl who was killed by the Krafayis; they stop to silently pay respect.

At the church Vincent takes up his paintbrushes and begins his work. The Doctor nervously and impatiently jabbers about run-ins with Michelangelo and Picasso as they wait for Vincent to complete the painting and for the creature to appear.

At one point the Doctor quips, "Is this how time normally passes? Really...slowly. In the right order."

Eventually the "unpunctual alien attack" arrives, and Vincent spies the Krafayis looking out the window of the church, just as had we seen earlier in the painting. The Doctor heads inside with his godmother's contraption, his sonic screwdriver, and his usual dose of overconfidence.

As he departs, he says, "Amy, only one thought, one simple instruction: Don't follow me under any circumstances."

"I won't," she assures him.

After the Doctor leaves earshot, Vincent asks her, "Will you follow him?"

"Of course."

"I love you," Vincent says.

The Doctor tries to find the Krafayis using the mirror, but it finds him first and smacks him to the ground. Amy rushes inside, and she and the Doctor hide inside a confession booth. Van Gogh follows them inside and distracts the creature with a chair. The three of them futilely attempt to fend off the alien and barricade themselves behind a door in another section of the church. (At this point the Doctor mistakenly calls Vincent "Rory.") The Doctor tries to talk to the Krafayis, telling it that he also is alone.

It bursts through a window into the room and begins to measure the room by walking along the walls. The Doctor realizes that the creature is blind, as it does not eat its victims, it was left behind by its brethren, and it has uncanny hearing. He chastises his own stupidity.

The Krafayis charges them, and Vincent, now armed with his easel, assumes a defensive posture that impales the beast. It falls to the ground with a mortal wound. Vincent immediately regrets killing this creature that was without sight rather than mercy. The Doctor recognizes its death warbles to mean "I'm afraid," and the Doctor comforts it as it dies. Van Gogh comments that it had merely lashed out in fear as so many misunderstood humans (including himself) have.

The Doctor, Amy, and Vincent lie on the ground in a circle together looking up at the night sky, and as Vincent describes its colors and details, bits of "A Starry Night" appear before us. In the morning, van Gogh offers the Doctor a famous self-portrait as a gift, but the Doctor must decline and leave it for Earth's appreciation. As for Amy, he tells her that if "you tire of this Doctor of yours, return, and we will have children by the dozen."

"Doctor, my friend, we have fought monsters together and won. On my own I fear I may not do as well." The Doctor gives him a speechless hug. As Amy and the Doctor take their leave, the Doctor hesitates, calls to Vincent, and takes him with them to the TARDIS. Inside, Van Gogh wonders at the technological marvel and is astounded that he's the crazy one, while the Doctor and Amy have remained sane. With the TARDIS wheeze as accompaniment, they travel back to the museum in Paris in 2010, and they lead Vincent inside to the exhibit of his art.

The Doctor pulls Dr. Black over to them and asks him within one hundred words where van Gogh rates in the history of art. He replies, "Well, big question, but to me van Gogh is the finest painter of them all, certainly the most popular great painter of all time, the most beloved, his command of color the most 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 and 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 roamed the fields of Auvers-sur-Oise was not only the world's greatest artist but also one of the world's greatest men who ever lived."

Vincent breaks down in tears of joy and kisses Dr. Black. Amy, the Doctor, and Vincent disappear. Dr. Black does a double-take over the incident and dismisses it with a stodgy shake of his head. Back in 1890 they bid van Gogh another farewell. Vincent promises them that he has a new resolve for painting. He proposes to Amy once again, but she tells him that she's "not really the marrying kind," a final unknowing reference to the loss of Rory.

The Doctor and Amy return to the gallery, as she is certain that the gallery will be filled with hundreds of new paintings. She is disappointed to find that van Gogh still commits suicide just as he did before at 37. The Doctor gives her a comforting hug, assuring her that they did add something good to Vincent's life. The Krafayis is no longer in the window of the church, and a painting of sunflowers now has a small written dedication to Amy on the flowerpot.
"If we had gotten married, our kids would have had very, very red hair," Amy muses.

"The ultimate ginger," the Doctor replies.

******************

Upon watching "Vincent and the Doctor," it was immediately evident that I had a new favorite episode of this season. This is an extremely worthy addition to the Doctor Who canon, powerful in both its sadness and its inspiration.

The guest spot by Bill Nighy is an obvious highlight, as I mentioned, but journeyman actor Tony Curran's performance as Vincent van Gogh is the centerpiece of the program and its primary strength. He smoothly combines all the elements of van Gogh that the Doctor Who universe demands of this version of him: wit, genius, self-deprecation, tragedy, and a matter-of-fact madness in the face of his new time-traveling friends.

What truly amazed me about this episode, though, is the interweaving of its themes. Viewers were still reeling from the death of Rory at the end of "Cold Blood." The Doctor's attempts to make amends with Amy are never going to truly find closure as long as Amy is unable to recall what happened. To allow us to deal with that loss via this story is not simply a clever bit of transference; it's a means of confronting the universal reality of death and what it means to be appreciated during our lives and to be remembered afterward.

I'm no van Gogh, and it's likely that you are not either. Still, I felt an emotional swell in response to Vincent's realization at the museum that he was a great artist, something that in an unchanged history he never would have begun to suspect. Each of us might not have "A Starry Night" to offer the world, but the lesson here is that one never truly knows. It is impossible to recognize the full consequences and value of our actions and endeavors.

Even the token alien adventure plot in this episode has a tragic resonance and universality to it. In the end the Krafayis was alone, afraid, and misunderstood. Killed by a great visual artist, it did not have the ability to see and appreciate the universe through its own eyes as he did. In spite of the attempt by Amy and the Doctor at instilling some self-faith in van Gogh, in the end Vincent similarly is still blind to his own brilliance.

Perhaps the demons of van Gogh's depression when placed in the context of an infinite universe were too powerful for him to vanquish, but his legacy was assured, and we are better for his existence. Additionally, it was not simply the paintings on the wall that made the Doctor and Amy care so much for Vincent's impact on the generations to follow. For them his decision to end his own life had greater meaning because of their personal ties to him.

It is easy to recommend this episode to any writer, artist, dreamer, or person with a grand ambition. I would go further, though, and recommend it to anyone undergoing this thing we call the human condition.

C. Robert Dimitri spent many of the prime Saturday nights of his youth staying home to watch syndicated episodes of Doctor Who on PBS, and his social skills might be beyond repair as a result. He's not the most hardcore Whovian, but he's a respectable representative. The first episode he remembers watching was Tom Baker's "The Creature From The Pit." At one point he obsessively watched all the Hartnell, Troughton, and Pertwee episodes that were available to him, and sometime around the age of 14 he dragged his mother to a Doctor Who convention. All he truly has ever wanted for Christmas is Perpugilliam Brown, but he would be almost as content with K-9.

He once viewed an extensive van Gogh exhibit, but sadly there was no sign of the TARDIS.







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