9. Vincent and the Doctor: A Compassionate View of Mental Illness

I’ve chosen to list my favorite episodes from earliest to latest, (example, The Beast Below was shown before Vincent and the Doctor and certainly before the Day of the Doctor, therefore it is listed as number eleven). I mention that because although for the purposes of order this episode is listed at number 9, in reality this episode is definitely one of my top two favorite episodes of Matt Smith’s era and is one of my top two favorite episode of NuWho.

See my previous articles:

11. The Beast Below

10. Amy’s Choice

9. Vincent and the Doctor

Now this certainly isn’t’one of my favorite episodes because of its CGI-which in my opinion was a bit cheesy, but for the fact that the writer, Richard Curtis, tackles mental illness in a beautiful and ultimately respectful manner. I’ve heard the episode disparagingly referred to as a “Mental health commercial” with some insisting that Doctor Who should not have dealt with mental illness at all. However, Doctor Who in general has never been afraid of tackling weighty subject matters such as oppression and slavery, and while it never lets the subject matter distract too much from its lighthearted tone, neither does the show stick it’s head in the sand and avoid uncomfortable subject matters. And it’s that ability to balance lightheartedness with fearless examination of difficult issues that I think has contributed to the show’s success.

Mental illness and its suffers are still often misunderstood, probably not to the same extent as during Van Gogh’s time, but mental illness is at best viewed with a collective yawn of disinterest and at worst believed to be the result of the personal and moral failings of the individual sufferer.  For example, depression is often ridiculed as being “less serious” than other health issues and is believed to be simply a matter of rearranging one’s thinking to be more positive. Those who suffer from depression are characterized as weak and it seems, at least from my personal experience, that depression is only taken seriously not when a person attempts suicide but when he/she completes it. The more ‘serious” mental illnesses such as manic depressive illness, schizophrenia, etc tend to be viewed with disgust. Those who suffer from such illnesses are ridiculed as “crazy” and are to be avoided. And of course mental illness exists in a spectrum with reactions varying depending on whether or not the suffers’ symptoms can be easily hidden or ignored. (My use of ‘less serious’ or ‘more serious’ does not designate my personal opinion nor are they meant to minimize the pain and suffering of said illnesses, however, they reflect how I’ve heard others, including mental health professionals characterize said illnesses.)

Because of the stigma of mental illness and the fact that a large portion of the population suffers from a mental health issue (Mental health statistics in America, and in the UK ) I believe it is vital for it to be discussed and for mental health issues to be humanized  and treated with compassion and I believe Vincent and the Doctor succeeded on all fronts.

Through Tony Curran’s brilliant acting we catch a glimpse of the suffering and pain that those struggling with mental illness (in this case either depression or manic depressive illness) may experience. In the episode Van Gogh is portrayed as a talentless drunk, disparaged by the locals and blamed for any strange or unusual deaths.  His illness frightens the other villagers and turns him into a laughing stalk.

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And his loneliness, anger and self-loathing are palpable. Amy and the Doctor recognize his talent, as well as the major impact Van Gogh would go on to have in the art world, but because of his illness and his ostracization he is unable to see the value in his work and he refuses to believe Amy and the Doctor’s compliments. He tells the Doctor and Amy, “I’ve come to accept the only person who’s going to love my paintings is me.”

While one does not need to suffer from a mental illness to experience self-loathing and social isolation, those are experiences some of us know all too well.  In my case, depression renders me unable to love myself. In fact, if I were honest, and those who read my writings know that I am honest to the point of extreme self-disclosure, I would have to say that I hate myself. I find myself to be a talentless hack and a burden. Now I don’t say this to seek compliments, because quite frankly even when I receive them I tend to not believe them. In my case, my depression makes it hard for me to believe that I have any value as a human being which in turn causes me to isolate myself. My ability to relate to others is severely impaired. Yet, I have been lucky. Any isolation has been self-imposed, unlike in Van Gogh’s case, where it is thrust upon him.

In the episode we witness the Doctor’s and Amy’s attempts at trying to soothe and comfort Van Gogh. Attempts that seem to fail. How does one comfort someone in the throes of deep depression? What can one say? What can one do? Often times, the best one can do is to stand by that person. The Doctor and Amy treated him with compassion, not as a freak, not as a drunkard, not as a crazy person but as a human being with a great mind and brilliant talent, who was suffering from a powerful illness. They helped him defeat the Krafayis, a monster whose destruction and devastation were very real, but the monster was invisible to everyone but Van Gogh.

Furthermore, Amy and the Doctor take Van Gogh to the future so that he could see the major impact his work has had and so that he could be aware that his work is loved and valued and that his life mattered.

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Amy of course, thinks that’s enough to rewrite history and convince Van Gogh not to kill himself. After all, isn’t that all it takes to defeat mental illness? The knowledge that one is loved and matters? Unfortunately, not always. Sometimes mental illness, especially during Van Gogh’s time period where treatment was primitive, requires more than the knowledge that one is loved and talented. Sometimes we do all we can to help someone struggling with mental illness and he/she battles bravely and yet the illness still wins. Does that make that person weak? A coward? Certainly not.  Does that mean that Amy and the Doctor failed because they could not prevent Van Gogh’s suicide? Of course not.

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This episode, I believe deals with the issue of mental illness in a compassionate light and it encourages discussion. While some might simply view it as a “mental health commercial” others might be able to take comfort in the fact that they aren’t alone and that they matter. Everyone deserves to be told they matter and are loved, no matter what inner demons and health issues they struggle with.

For those interested in reading a bit more about Van Gogh and his struggles check out this 2004 article in the Journal of the History of Neurosciences.

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10 thoughts on “9. Vincent and the Doctor: A Compassionate View of Mental Illness

  1. Spot on post. Thanks so much for your honesty. I too found the episode quite beautiful – it captures the Van Gough I imagine. Perhaps you are familiar with the Don McLean song “Starry, Starry Night”? It also catches something of the beauty and passion of Van Gough.

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