Vincent and the Doctor

The Sower - Van Gogh, 1888

The Sower - Van Gogh, 1888

As someone who recently cried through the last few rooms of The real Van Gogh: The artist and his letters at the Royal Academy it was, perhaps, inevitable that ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ would reduce me to tears.

Recently I’ve been lukewarm at best towards the current run of Doctor Who. It’s not because I don’t like the lead actors, I really do, but I just feel like I’ve seen it all before. This was a step outside the average episode and the series truly benefited. It wasn’t perfect – I could have lived without the monster plotline – but then again it was sci-fi, not art documentary so I just had to suck that one up. The most important thing, and something I had been concerned about, was that Van Gogh wasn’t given the glib ‘Nice sunflowers, maybe they’ll catch on’ treatment.

Instead of cheap gags about ears the writer Richard Curtis went for a sensitive approach and dealt skillfully with mental illness. There were references to his suicide, there was an emphasis on characterisation, there were the heartbreaking reactions of his fellow villagers to his ongoing struggle with mental health (“You bring [these bad things] on us – your madness! He’s to blame.”) A commenter of The Telegraph’s website got it spot on:  “The monster of the week was not the parrot creature, but Van Gogh’s depression.”

The final section where the Doctor shows Van Gogh how wonderful his work is considered now is something I believe most people who are familiar with his life and work will understand. It’s something I wished he had known when I was in the exhibition, reading through his letters and looking at his works. The fact that he still went on to commit suicide was awful but necessary and I do salute Curtis for choosing that ending.

For those of you who are interested in his final days, this is the final paragraph from the last letter he wrote. It was addressed to his brother Theo and found in his pocket after he shot himself:

Ah well, I risk my life for my own work and my reason has half foundered in it – very well – but you’re not one of the dealers in men; as far as I know and can judge I think you really act with humanity, but what can you do

If you missed the episode you can catch it on BBC iPlayer here: http://beta.bbc.co.uk/i/spgsf/

If you missed the Royal Academy exhibition you can find Van Gogh’s letters, complete with translation, at vangoghletters.org. To quote W.H. Auden: ‘there is scarcely one letter by Van Gogh which I, who am certainly no expert, do not find fascinating.’

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