‘We have fought monsters together and we have won. On my own, I fear I may not do as well.’ This is consciously a prestige episode, most obviously because it’s by Richard Curtis and Bill Nighy is in it, uncredited. It looks as good as The Vampires of Venice (also directed by Johnny Campbell), with some efficient visual storytelling (Vincent’s easel stabbing into the soil outside the church at Auvers signals the fate of the Krafayis) it’s well performed and has a more serious approach to suicide than Amy’s Choice.
Curtis’ script leaves itself open to metaphorical readings around mental illness and depression. Vincent is haunted by an invisible monster that only he can see: the Doctor can diagnose what it is but has no effective treatment. The choice of the key painting is interesting: the church looks to be at night while the foreground is sunlit, another darkness in sunlight metaphor. The inclusion of a sinister face in shadow also reminds me of the MR James story The Mezzotint.
The Krafayis has been criticised as an inconsequential monster: but I think that’s the point. This isn’t a story about the Doctor and Amy saving the world, it’s Vincent battling his demon. My criticism is that the metaphor is muddled: Vincent explicitly likens the monster to the villagers who ‘lash out when they’re frightened’, but surely the real metaphor is for Vincent himself – who lashed out at the Doctor’s clumsy attempt to rouse him from his depression, or (historically) was known for violent outbursts.
Regardless, the death of the Krafayis is only a prelude to the episode’s most famous scenes – the starry night, and Vincent’s visit to the Musée d’Orsay, signalling where Curtis’ interest really lies. The latter scene has been criticised as “mawkish” or emotionally manipulative, which isn’t entirely unfair but again misses the bigger point that even knowing he would be remembered as one of the great artists isn’t a panacea for Vincent’s mental health. The line I think is the saddest comes as Amy rushes back up the stairs in the museum convinced there will be hundreds more paintings, and the Doctor gently says, ‘I’m not sure there will.’
Next Time: The Lodger