He transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty.
(This is a website devoted to weird fiction and cosmic horror, true. But many people who read this blog deal with depression. I hope that this post, at the very least, reminds you that you are not alone.)
(Obviously, spoilers for Doctor Who: Vincent and the Doctor)
In the Doctor Who episode Vincent and The Doctor, Amy and The Doctor are in Paris in the year 2010 at an art museum, admiring Vincent van Gogh’s art. The Doctor notices something strange in one of the paintings: there is an alien face peering out of a church window. Telling Amy that it is evil, he asks the museum curator exactly when van Gogh painted the church, and he and Amy travel back to 1890 to investigate.
They are filled with awe upon meeting Vincent van Gogh, but it is tempered by what they know: that he will soon kill himself.
In one scene that really resonated with me, Vincent is lying on his bed, crying. The Doctor gently asks, “Vincent, can I help?” To which van Gogh replies: “It is so clear that you cannot help. And when you leave — and everyone always leaves — I will be left once more with an empty heart, and no hope.” The Doctor tells him that there is always hope, in his experience, to which Vincent replies, “Then your experience is incomplete. I know how it will end; and it will not end well.”
The Doctor tries to snap him out of it, but Vincent screams at him to get out. Refreshingly, The Doctor does not try to “fix it” or pretend that everything will be fine. Instead, he tells Amy that they are leaving: “Everyone knows he’s a delicate man. Just months from now, he will… take his own life.”
I love how Vincent and The Doctor does not try to preach about depression; to pretend that all you have to do is take the right pill, find a good counselor, or just “snap out of it”, and the depression will end. The Doctor (being old and wise) accepts that nothing ever will fix it.
But he also knows that out of this exquisite pain comes beauty, if you give yourself that chance. That if you have depression, you may not be able to heal yourself, but you can tap into that darkness and create magnificence. If your soul has been scarred, if you have been broken deep inside by life, out of that sorrow and anguish can come achingly beautiful art.
If you take your chances while you can.
Depression. Isn’t that a nice, clinical word? It has been overused, I think. It is not just a blue mood; it is a deep, dark pit that one falls into, through no fault of their own. It is a relentless monster with a life of its own, and sometimes you get away for a little while — as Vincent van Gogh does briefly in this episode — but never for long. Amy tells Vincent: “I’m sorry you’re so sad,” and he replies, “But I’m not. Sometimes these moods torture me for weeks or a month — but I’m good now.”
But it’s clear that “now” will never last very long.
In this episode, Vincent van Gogh is the only one who can see the very real invisible monster. Of course the monster is a MacGuffin, but it’s more than that: it’s a metaphor for depression. And Vincent, like a lot of artists and writers, views the world differently than most. He reaches for what others cannot even see. And I think one of the points of this story is that this sight runs both ways: He sees the exquisite beauty of the universe… but also the darkness.
It seems to me there’s so much more to the world than the average eye is allowed to see. I believe, if you look hard, there are more wonders in this universe than you could ever have dreamt of.
In one scene, Vincent, Amy, and the Doctor lie in a field at night, looking up at the sky. He says: “Hold my hand, Doctor. Try to see what I see. 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. And over there, lighter blue. And blowing through the blueness and the blackness, the wind swirling through the air and then, shining, burning, bursting through – the stars! Can you see how they roar their light? Everywhere we look, the complex magic of nature blazes before our eyes.”
The Doctor replies: “I’ve seen many things, my friend. But you’re right. Nothing quite as wonderful as the things you see.”
What do you see that no one else sees? Write it. Paint it. Show us.
Of course, this is a fictional story, complete with a time machine. After the alien is vanquished, Doctor Who asks Amy, “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” He takes Vincent van Gogh for a ride in the TARDIS back to the year 2010, telling him that he has something to show him.
In one of the episode’s most poignant scenes, The Doctor asks the museum curator what he thinks of Vincent van Gogh, as Vincent listens: “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 greatest men who ever lived.”
Upon hearing this, Vincent breaks down and weeps. The Doctor puts his arm around him and says, “I’m sorry, is it too much?” But van Gogh replies that they are tears of joy. The Doctor and Amy then take him back to 1890, and Vincent tells him that this has changed everything for him — and that he is the first “doctor” he’s ever met that has actually made a difference in his life. The Doctor replies, “I’m delighted. I will never forget you.”
Amy wants to go back to the gallery right away, because she is convinced that everything has changed, and that Vincent will now have lived a long and happy life: “There will be hundreds of new paintings!”
But The Doctor knows better. And sure enough, they arrive just in time for a new tour and they hear the curator tell the crowd that Vincent van Gogh committed suicide at age 37.
Heartbroken, Amy says, “We didn’t make a difference at all.” But The Doctor replies: “I wouldn’t say that. 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. And if you look carefully… maybe we did indeed make a couple of little changes.”
He then shows her that there no longer is an alien monster in the church painting window, and that the painting Still Life: Vase With Twelve Sunflowers now has the inscription:
Hey, you out there. You’re not alone.
Thanks for reading.
P.S. Vincent and the Doctor was written by Richard Curtis. He writes:
“So – here’s the thing – the key reason I wrote this episode – was out of love for my sister Bindy,” he wrote. “She was a gorgeous and brilliant person, 2 years older than me. She loved Vincent Van Gogh and life. She couldn’t have been more full of generosity and joy.
“But half way through her life she was hit by depression and intermittently it hurt her for the rest of her life. And a few years before this show, like Vincent, she took her own life,” he continued.
Curtis explained that, with the episode, he was trying to “show Bin how glorious she had been in our lives – and how nothing could change that”.
He added: “So taking her own life wasn’t a failure by her, or a rejection of all of us. It was, as they say on Love Island, what it was.”
Recently, Richard Curtis shared his thoughts on the effects of the Coronavirus on all of us:
Thank you for posting this. I had seen that Doctor Who episode a few years ago and it remains one of my favorites not just of that show but of any show I’ve watched over the years. It is such a powerful and important message especially in these difficult times we live in with the pandemic making simply existing day to day challenge. I and many family members and good friends have struggled with deep depression throughout our lives and it’s toll has affected us all significantly.
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Got this bang on, a stunning episode that I keep returning to, beautifully filmed as well as beautifully written and treating such an important issue with cliche-free maturity. If I had to choose one episode to show someone who was new to Doctor Who, it would be this one.
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This is such an important message. Too many people don’t understand depression unless they’ve experienced it.
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