Doctor Who and Van Gogh

This post will likely contain spoilers, so if you have yet to see Saturday’s episode of Doctor Who, for whatever reason, and don’t want an excellent episode ruined, I suggest you stop reading now.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the last episode of Doctor Who, in which he went back to 1890 and met Vincent Van Gogh.  I’ve long been into the work of this wonderful artist and have anumber of books about him, including one on his complete works and another containing his letters.  The letters in particular are an excellent insight into him as a person.  I’ve also visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the Musee D’Orsay in Paris, the latter of which was used in the Doctor Who episode.

The silliness with the invisible monster was a little over-the-top in this context, but overall the meeting with Vincent was handled very tastefully in a great script by Richard Curtis and had a masterful performance by Tony Curran as Vincent.  The scenes at the end were just wonderful and had me thinking, “if only it were possible…”

The tragedy of Van Gogh wasn’t so much that he killed himself (he was a victim of, what people now believe, some kind of bipolar disorder, undiagnosed at the time), but that he had no idea of the greatness of his talent and how much of an effect he would have on later generations of artists and the art viewing public.  If only we could go back and show him this.

But then, how would he have ever been able to carry that burden?

Part of me feels so strongly for him.  To the point where I turn it back on myself, as we are all prone to do – we are our own best frame of reference, after all.  But if such a great talent had trouble making the world see the value of his creative output to the point where he doubted his own abilities, what then of my modest work?

There are downsides to being able to see the bigger picture.  It’s like those films you see that pull out from the Earth, the Solar System, the Galaxy – in creative terms I know that I’m “an insignificant blue-green planet at the edge of the western spiral arm” *  The Van Goghs and the Shakespeares are the powerful supernovae.

When you read a great book, when you look at great art, when you see a wonderful film – it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the talent behind these creations.  However, because this kind of talent is way beyond most of us it is actually easy to manage.  Those of us who are not in that bracket can accept that we’re not destined for greatness, but we’d still like to be regarded as good, maybe even very good.  We hope that by persevering with our art, our writing, our chosen creativity, that we can become good.

But sometimes, when we’re feeling down, wouldn’t we all love Doctor Who to take us to the future and show us that we did, after all, make a significant contribution.

But isn’t that the scariest thought ever?  What if we were shown that we were complete failures?  How would we then live with that?  Or worse, we’re told that we will write the best novel of the decade.  Every little thing we then wrote would come under such self-scrutiny that we would drive ourselves into despair.

I’m feeling a little down at the moment, but nothing like the horrors that must have befallen Vincent.  I have a lot to be thankful for in my creative career, but these down times can make certain uncertainties loom very large indeed.  Hopefully, I can manage this in a constructive way.

*Not sure if the quote is right.

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4 thoughts on “Doctor Who and Van Gogh

  1. Great review. I loved the episode. I work in the mental health field and I thought this was a pretty clever way to tackle the subject without being heavy handed or preachy. Also it was funny and moving (which is quite hard to do, I understand).

  2. Thanks, Jon, I’m pleased you liked my post.

    The funny and moving comes from writing the characters so well, which is a real strength of Richard Curtis.

  3. “Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea”

    Close enough that I knew what you meant.

    I too was taken by how well the subject was handled. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we knew we would make a difference in the end but would it change the outcome or just foreshadow it. Genius.

  4. Thanks for correcting my quote. I’ve forgotten where my Hitch Hiker books are and was in full flow when writing and didn’t want to break it to go searching.

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