A few weeks ago, my best friend attempted to indoctrinate me into her current obsession with Doctor Who. I’ll admit I’ve enjoyed a few late nights catching the old skool reruns on PBS with The Boy, so I wasn’t necessarily opposed to getting sucked into the newer doctors. Plus my bestie has never steered me wrong, be it tv show or young adult book. She has quite the nose for YA books, let me tell you! I would never have read Harry Potter if she hadn’t forced me to and then where would I be? In a life with no Harry Potter, that’s where!
Anyhow, the episode she selected for my indoctrination was called “Vincent and the Doctor,” the titular Vincent being Van Gogh, of course. I was excited because I love Van Gogh’s work, but nervous because I knew that Doctor Who had a reputation for moving into the silly or saccharine often and with glee. An episode featuring an emotionally volatile and famous artist seemed like just the type of episode to veer that direction. I couldn’t have been more wrong. In fact, I was literally moved to tears by this episode and have to say that, except for Dirty Filthy Love, this episode is the best portrayal of mental illness I have seen on tv or film. Ever.
The episode begins with the Doctor taking his companion Amy to see an exhibition of Van Gogh’s work, in order to cheer her up from some sad stuff that had happened in earlier episodes. At the museum, the Doctor has a fun little chat with the always excellent Bill Nighy about bow ties and then spots the episode’s !DANGER! in the form of a monster captured in one of Van Gogh’s paintings, The Church at Auvers. The Doctor and Amy head back in time, quickly befriend a poor and maligned Van Gogh, and, with his help, eventually kill the alien of the week. However, it becomes clear that the alien (a Krafayis) is not the most important monster in this episode. No, it is Van Gogh’s eventual suicide and his very present depression that preoccupies much of The Doctor and Amy’s attention. In fact, as Anna at Feminist With Disabilities Forward notes, the monster is actually a stand-in for the artist’s battle with depression:
As a metaphor for depression and other mental health conditions, an invisible monster that no one else can see to help you fight, and one that makes other people distrustful of you because they can’t see the monster, only what it does, is a pretty good one. I admit to having been a bit uncomfortable with it at first – oh, I see, a monster that only the crazy person can see. How stereotypical. And yet, the episode didn’t really go in that direction. The monster was real, it was serious, and the Doctor couldn’t defeat it – only Vincent could, with the help of others.
As I’m not super familiar with the Doctor Who canon, I have no idea how much experience the characters have with mental illness. But from this episode, it seems that their experiences are either very limited or they both still hold a lot of mainstream assumptions about mental health. For example, when Vincent lapses into one of his “fits,” interrupting the alien-catching schedule, it becomes clear the Doctor has little understanding of how to sooth or speak to someone experiencing such distress, falling back on the horrible “buck up” strategy.
The Doctor: Vincent, can I help?
Van Gogh: It’s so clear you cannot help. And when you leave—and everyone always leaves—I will be left once more with an empty heart and no hope.
The Doctor: My experience is that there is, you know, surprisingly always hope.
Van Gogh: Then your experience is incomplete! I know how it will end. And it will not end well.
The visibly shaken Doctor leaves Vincent alone, unable to “fix” him with logic. However, when Vincent appears in the doorway, dressed and ready to go, both the Doctor and his companion are still worried about him.
Amy: I’m sorry you’re so sad.
Van Gogh: But I’m not. Sometimes these moods torture me for weeks— for months. But I’m good now.
What I loved about this scene is that it illustrates how moments of utter despair pass and our true moods appear in their place. Depression is not the same as sadness, though you do feel sadness. Anxiety is not the same as being stressed out, though it does cause a lot of stress. Living with a mental illness means we have moods, both outside and inside of us, completely random and also reactive, all at the same time. The truth is that Vincent had a ‘fit’ (as both he, my Grandma, and I call these moments) and then it was over. No amount of “buck up” from the Doctor was going to end it, nor did the all-encompassing sadness and hopelessness mean Vincent wouldn’t feel happiness when it passed. Obviously, depressive and anxiety fits aren’t always so cut and dry, or as short-lived, which Vincent notes. Sometimes my anxiety and depression last for weeks and is punctuated every now and then by evenings with friends or something funny on tv. Sometimes nothing breaks through and I feel as if I will only ever live a life filled with these moments and thoughts. But sometimes I wake up with a raging OCD monster in my head, but somehow something switches off and by afternoon I’m out doing something fun and it is all a distant, if painful, memory. Mental illness makes no sense sometimes. It just is.
Still not quite understanding the complexities of depression, after the defeat of the Krafayis the Doctor and Amy set their sights on the monster inside Vincent. Hoping that showing Vincent how important his art becomes will also show him how important his life is, the time traveling duo take the artist to the exhibition of his work. This scene is definitely meant to pull the heartstrings of those among us who are easily emotionally manipulated, a group of which I am a proud card-carrying member.
See for yourself…
It is clear that Vincent’s spirit has been salved by witnessing his impact and how much his art is beloved. However, as is true for many of us struggling with mental illness, our moments of happiness, of knowing our worth, can in a moment be overcome by our depression, our anxiety, our illness. So, when the Doctor and Amy return to the exhibition, thinking they will see new works by their friend, they instead find that he has still committed suicide. Amy is distraught by this, feeling as if nothing that they did mattered at all to Vincent. The Doctor, however, has come to a better understanding of depression through knowing Vincent and says to Amy:
The Doctor: I wouldn’t say that. 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 or make them unimportant. And we definitely added to his pile of good things.
What I love so much about this speech is that it expresses, better than I have been able to, that my friends’ and family’s love and kindness and understanding is not negated by my anxiety, by my “fits.” Some critics of the episode felt that Vincent’s suicide was “nonsensical,” once he knew his future impact on the world. But I would argue that the ending was completely sensical to the experience of mental illness and is part of what made this episode so wonderful. Depression can’t be cured by suddenly discovering people love your art. Vincent didn’t have depression because people didn’t like this art: he had a mental health disorder. It can’t be cured because there are those that love us, though my life is made better by them and the resulting happiness is immeasurable. But that happiness doesn’t mean that my dark days go away. And on those dark days, I might have a hard time recalling what happiness and calm and peace even feels like…. and on the worst days I have a hard time even recalling what my friends’ love feels like. But that’s not because I’m failing at managing my disability or that those who love me have somehow failed. It’s because there’s a Mental Illness Monster living in my brain, just like the Krafayis lived in The Church at Auvers. And until science or therapy or magic somehow kills it, I simply have to live with it and fight it the best I can. And on some days the monster is busying itself elsewhere, and my brain and my heart and my life are free to feel as it is ought to feel: happy when good things happen, bored when boring things happen, and sad when sad things happen. But other days, there is nothing I can do to avoid it and it consumes me…
Unfortunately, for both the fictional and real Vincent Van Goghs, there was a moment in his life where this monster consumed him so fully, he believed the only way to escape was to end his life. I will admit that I have had those moments before. And I can’t guarantee I won’t experience another one in the future… But, hopefully with episodes like ‘Vincent and the Doctor,’ more people will understand what mental illness is really like and have more compassion for those people in their lives that live with it.
Or for themselves, if they are currently battling their own Mental Illness Monster.
If you or someone you know is experience suicidal thoughts or feelings, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255