I’m a Whovian. I’m pretty obvious about my love of Doctor Who most of the time, and if you’ve known me long, you also know that the Series 5 episode “Vincent and the Doctor” is among my absolute favorite episodes. It’s just so rich; full of details and layers that make it both a critical piece of the season and a fantastic stand-alone story. If you haven’t seen this episode yet, get on it! Because below you may find spoilers.
First, we have Vincent van Gogh and his monster–both the real one and the metaphorical one, though the difference between the two is often subtle. Vincent and his little village are being assaulted by a lonely, invisible creature called the Krafayis that destroys property and occasionally harms human life. The villagers can’t see the Krafayis, nor do they understand much about it (to be fair, nobody does until near the very end of the story). Likewise, Vincent is grappling with an invisible monster of his own in his severe depression, which we know will cause him to later take his life. The villagers fear him, too, and blame his madness for the presence of the physical beast that’s ravaging their homes. Vincent is the only one who can see the creature, and the only one with an inkling of understanding his own mind. In many ways, this makes him sympathetic to the beast, and though he often chases it off to protect others, we can see as he joins Amy and the Doctor in their attempts to remove it from the village that he feels an affinity toward it. When he finally does manage to kill it, it is out of self-defense and largely unintentional, and Vincent grieves.
Many (not all) sufferers of depression know the void it can leave when you’re granted a temporary reprieve, and the consequent fear that it will return. Having something to battle, even if you don’t quite understand it, is sometimes better than the blankness that comes when it’s gone. Depression is a complex and often confusing disease, one that becomes part of our self-identification and the way we live our lives. For Vincent, and for the villagers, the Krafayis is the manifestation of Vincent’s madness, of his depression, and of their own fear of the unknown. In this sense, it’s no wonder that Amy concludes that the death of the Krafayis will mean the cure for Vincent’s depression, and wouldn’t that be a nice little tidy ending? But the writers know more about depression than Amy does, and don’t take advantage of that neat little option to resolve the story. Neither do they give us as an audience any of the comfort that Amy feels about any of the things she believes will “fix” Vincent. His love for her, his appreciation of the beauty of the world, even his quick recovery from an episode that frightens even the Doctor are all things Amy takes as signs that Vincent is healing, but it’s made fairly clear that Vincent himself knows better. As they walk down the path on their way to confront the Krafayis, the Doctor mentions that he is doing better, and Vincent replies, “On my own, I fear I may not do as well.”
Amy is also grieving deeply, though she doesn’t know why, and it takes Vincent’s noticing her crying for her to even realize it’s happening. This ties to the whole season’s story arc, but it’s also a neat little nod to the distinct differences between depression and grief. Both are wounds, ones that scar and (I think I’ve made this metaphor before) often twinge when the weather changes. But while grief may eventually callous and be less prone to re-opening, depression is forever. Grief is a bullet hole that rips you open and sometimes takes years to work out the shrapnel, but depression is a roaming missing limb. Sometimes it’s your left pinky toe and you hardly notice except for a little bit of trouble with balance. Other times it’s your leg, and living with the change to your anatomy requires more drastic adaptation in your day-to-day activities. In the worst moments, it might feel like your head is missing. Vincent understands Amy’s grief, but Amy cannot understand Vincent’s depression.
Throughout the story, we also see the Doctor’s guilt about his inability to help Amy; she has lost Rory, only hours after realizing that he was what she truly wanted, and in many ways, it’s the Doctor’s fault. He knows this, knows what he’s cost her and that it was his own insecurity, manifested in the Dream Lord, that forced her into a mindset that would cause such grief. The Doctor is experiencing deep sadness, but in addition to the clear distinction between Vincent’s depression and Amy’s grief, we know that the Doctor’s sadness is another beast entirely. The Doctor feels for Amy, feels for Vincent, feels for himself, and wants to make things better in whatever way he can, but we know his sadness will eventually resolve.
In the end, we have Amy’s intense disappointment in having failed to “save” Vincent, and the Doctor’s concise little quote about what it means to help someone with depression. Throughout the episode, I’m convinced that the writer is someone who understands depression, possibly from both the inside and the outside, because he captures both Vincent and Amy’s dilemmas so well. But it’s this last few minutes that really cement that for me. After bringing Vincent to see the display of his work in the modern MusÃ©e d’Orsay, they return him to his own time and come back themselves to finish their trip through the gallery. Amy is convinced their actions will have resulted in Vincent’s long life and more works, but the Doctor is quiet. When they enter the gallery and find it unchanged, Amy says, “We didn’t make any difference at all,” and is slammed with her grief. The Doctor takes her by the shoulders and says, “I wouldn’t say that…” He continues:
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 and make them unimportant. And we definitely added to his pile of good things.
I love this line. Others have analyzed it and been less in love with it, and that’s OK, but to me it speaks perfectly to my experiences with depression, both as a sufferer and being close to other sufferers. There is never much you can do to “fix” someone with depression, and that is a very hard thing to deal with. You begin to feel as if nothing you can do, no amount of love or happiness or help, will make a difference, because the depression lives on, waxing and waning but essentially always present. On the other side of the window, though, I know that the people who keep trying even when they know they will never change the outcome mean so much more than the highs and lows. They are the waystones, the signposts, and the foundations. It’s true that the good pile could surpass Everest and still not be enough, but it matters. Making a difference doesn’t always mean “fixing.” Sometimes it just means being a hand to hold along the way.
For more thoughts on this episode and mental health, please see this older article from Disabled Feminists. Images in this article are screen shots from Doctor Who episode 5.10, “Vincent and the Doctor,” which originally aired in June 2010.