Out of all the episodes in the series, this is probably the episode that had garnered a lot of the publicity prior to the actual series starting. And that’s because of its high-profile writer, Richard Curtis.
The second “celebrity historical” of the year, finds the Doctor and Amy discovering a monster in one of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings, leading them back to visit him and find out what happened.
What follows is a particularly powerful story revolving, not around the mystery of the monster in the painting, but instead around the character of Vincent Van Gogh. Here’s someone regarded as one of the best painters who ever lived, but in his own time, he’s a joke, thought mad by all that live around him, unable to generate even the slightest amount of interest in his work and his vision, and ultimately battling with the depression that this causes.
And its his unique vision which becomes the central conceit of the story. He sees the world in such a singular way that he is aware of the things other people miss. This is presented fairly literally (he can see the otherwise invisible monster) but also just as an eye for the details others overlook, such as when he sees the pain Amy is in, even though she herself has no memory of the loss of Rory (and there’s the wonderful look of remorse on the Doctor’s face when Vincent mentions this, a nice touch by Matt Smith).
The monster itself basically becomes an excuse for the focus on Van Gogh’s character and his struggles, although there is the nice twist that the monster itself was blind, another nod to Van Gogh’s vision being a focus of the story.
All this culminates in the great scene where the Doctor and Amy take Van Gogh back with them to 2010 to let him see his work being exhibited, and see how his art is loved and appreciated (with a great guest turn by Bill Nighy). It was a surprising part of the episode for me, as I don’t think we’ve ever really see the Doctor do this before. As Van Gogh starts to break down its hugely powerful, and then only underscored when they return and, despite Amy’s hopes that they turned things around for him, she discovers Van Gogh still committed suicide a few months later. From the expression on the Doctor’s face, I have to assume he knew this would be the outcome all along, hence his willingness to give Van Gogh the little glimpse of the future.
This episode definitely stands out in the series so far for being a bit different to what we’ve had up until now. With the monster taking such a major backseat to the guest star, it gave us a strong look into who Van Gogh was, I think this was possibly the strongest “celebrity historical” appearance to date, and it certainly gave us more insight into the man than, say, Churchill a few weeks before.
A great episode, and one that I think really stands out as a high point in the series. The specific character-focused plot I think works particularly well as it provided a shift in tone from most other episodes, and there’s that magical moment where all the characters are staring at the night sky, and see it resolve into how Van Gogh sees it.