When tackling the subject of depression, no episode of Doctor Who captures it better than ‘Vincent and the Doctor’. Airing in 2010 as the tenth episode in the show’s fifth season, the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) and his companion Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) visit the famed artist Vincent Van Gogh (Tony Curran) during the last year of his life to investigate an odd addition to one of his prized paintings.
This episode explores depression through numerous ways, showcasing various aspects of the monster with no face. Firstly, it explores depression literally through the character of Van Gogh, a famed artist well known for cutting off his own ear because of his inner demons. Secondly, through the monster that plagues Van Gogh throughout the episode and finally through the character of Amy, fondness and love for Van Gogh is unprecedented.
The episode’s focal point, Vincent Van Gogh, is the audience’s most literal view of the effects of depression in the episode. Van Gogh’s illness is not shown lightly, but instead shown through its torment and through its easing. Throughout the episode Van Gogh’s mood changes drastically, one moment sharing his vision of beauty of the world with Amy and the Doctor before screaming at them to leave him as his depression crushes him into nothingness.
Yet, Vincent is not his depression, and Doctor Who knows this.
“I’m sorry you’re so sad,” Amy says, speaking an apology that isn’t hers.
“But I’m not,” he replies. “Sometimes these moods torture me for weeks, for months, but I’m good now.”
Yes, Vincent has depression. He is aware of this fact, although he most likely is not aware of the name of his ailment. But in that moment, he is happy. He is himself and the burden of his illness has lifted for a little while. Like most people with depression, Van Gogh is not always sad. His sadness just seems to come harder and faster than most and is often more debilitating than what most people experience. But that is not all he is. He is an artist, and his view of the world is extraordinary. Towards the end of the episode, he shares this with Amy and the Doctor:
“We’re so lucky we’re still alive to see this beautiful world. Look at the sky. It’s not dark and black and without character, the black is in fact deep blue.”
Like the sky, Vincent is not “dark black and without character,” a slave to his depression. He is deep blue, light blue, a bright burst of colour against the windswept sky. He is more than madness. He is Vincent Van Gogh, someone who just happens to have a mental illness, and that is okay.
As in most episodes of Doctor Who, there is a foe that needs investigating. This time, it comes in the shape of a stray Krafayis, abandoned by its pack with no chance of returning to its own kind. The problem with defeating the Krafayis? No one is able to see it. That is except for Vincent Van Gogh.
It is no coincidence that Van Gogh is the only one able to see the Krafayis. As a metaphor for his depression, the Krafayis is visible only to Van Gogh throughout the episode – and Van Gogh is the only one of the three able to ‘fight’ the monster, as the only one able to see it. During its first appearance the Doctor attempts to help Van Gogh fight the Krafayis, yet unable to see the monster he instead waves a stick in the air until Vincent tells him that he is facing the wrong direction.
In the episode’s climax, Van Gogh accidentally slays the Krafayis during a fight. Van Gogh is devastated, having only intended to wound the beast rather than hurt it. As the creature lays dying, Van Gogh realises just how tight the bond is between himself and the Krafayis.
“He was frightened. And he lashed out. Like humans lash out when they’re frightened. Like the villagers who scream at me. Like the children who throw stones at me.”
Van Gogh’s depression makes him feel like a monster, and this is only reinforced by those around him who treat him as such. Yet it is the Doctor and more specifically Amy, who show him that his mental health does not make him so. Like the Krafayis, Vincent’s depression causes him to lash out through fear, distancing himself from those he cares about such as Amy and the Doctor, and the villagers that have reduced him to nothing but that of a monster. But despite his monstrous illness, hurting those around him is the last thing he wants to do – yet his depression has other plans.
“I didn’t mean for that to happen,” he tells the Doctor and Amy. “I only meant to wound it, I never meant to…”
Fortunately for Vincent, the Doctor and Amy understand. They treat Vincent, and the Krafaysis with the same respect. They support Vincent through his guilt and ease the woes of the Krafayis as it dies. They treat neither as a monster, but both as equals who are equally frightened of what they’ve become.
In this episode, Amy represents those who are mentally stable. She encourages Vincent to do what he loves: paint, and showers him with the love and care that he deserves. Yet, Amy doesn’t quite understand the complexities of mental health. This is not her fault, but rather a reflection of her lack of experience on the matter.
Amy’s naivety on Vincent’s depression is most prominent in one of the episode’s final sequences. The Doctor and Amy decide to show Vincent just how much he and his art will matter to those in the future in one of the most beautiful and poignant sequences in the show’s history. Vincent pours his emotions out into the future as Dr Black (Bill Nighy) delivers an exquisite monologue on the beauty and power of Van Gogh’s work and existence.
Van Gogh leaves the TARDIS declaring that he will “Throw my easel on my back a different man,” wearing a smile brighter the sunflowers. Seeing the new lease of life giving to Van Gogh, Amy runs back to the art gallery.
“Time can be rewritten,” she declares. “I know it can. […] Oh, the long like of Vincent Van Gogh. There will be hundreds of new paintings.”
Except, there are no new paintings, and Amy’s hopes for Vincent are shattered within seconds as she discovers that despite their time together, Vincent still kills himself the following year. Amy is visibly distraught, a stark contrast to Vincent’s tears of joy only minutes before.
“We didn’t make a difference at all,” she says to the Doctor.
“I wouldn’t say that,” He tells her. “The way I see it every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things but vice versa the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant. And we definitely added to his pile of good things.”
The Doctor’s words are a comfort to Amy, and to those she represents: friends, family and loved ones of those with mental health issues. Although not all cases of mental health end the same way as Vincent’s, it is horrible to watch a loved one be destroyed by a monster with no face. Sometimes mental health is too complex to be completely understood by those both in and out of it, something this episode captures perfectly. *
The way in which Doctor Who captures the true essence of depression in ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ is breath-taking. It doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of mental health but doesn’t make it the sole focus of Van Gogh’s character, showcasing his good moments as well as his bad. It shows the isolating fear of the illness through the Krafayis, and the sometimes more naïve view of the complexity of mental health through the character of Amy in a way which is comforting rather than condescending to those just like Amy, who only want to help but don’t know how. The layers of meaning throughout this forty-five-minute episode is extraordinary, and as a family show showcases mental health in a way that shows its extremities – but in a way that educates the audience of all ages. This in itself makes ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ such an incredible representation of depression on-screen and creates an episode that can be credited as one of Doctor Who’s best.