Monday, April 4, 2011

Vincent and the Dweller (Doctor Who spoilers ahoy)

I started this blog, what, two days ago, and already it’s having an effect. Okay, so the effect is on my son who doesn’t know I have blog and likely wouldn’t or couldn’t read it even if he did, but it’s still pretty cool.

Graeme, my oldest boy, has been interested in Impressionists and Impressionism lately. He describes as, “painting what your mind remembers and not just what your eyes are seeing,” which is a pretty darned brilliant way of summing it up. He just likes looking through books of art right now and isn’t especially interested in knowing about technique and art history and such, which is fine as I’m pretty poor at both and I’m just happy that his interest in art is expanding out from comic books.*

In the interests of furthering his artistic education, my wife and I decided to watch “Vincent and the Doctor,” an episode from last season in which the great Vincent Van Gogh** teams up with the Doctor and his companion, Amy Pond, to stop a rampaging alien. No, really, that’s the plot.

As with many of the “Doctor Who Meets Dead Famous People” episodes, this tends to be either a much beloved or greatly hated episode without a great deal of middle ground. After about half a dozen viewings, I find myself occupying that rare middle ground – the pacing is wonky in spots and, given how few episodes they had to work with, it would’ve been nice to see the episode tie into the season’s overall plot at least a little bit. I do still love this as a portrayal of an emotionally damaged and reclusive artist, complete with depressive and manic episodes, and thought it would be good for Graeme to be able to see someone like this – talented, but deeply flawed.

He enjoyed the episode immensely, more for the Doctor’s funny lines and the alien monster than anything else, and has asked to watch more, which is something I’ll definitely consider.

Last night, as I put him down to bed, I noticed that he seemed quite upset. He wasn’t crying or anything, just a little misty-eyed and distant. The monster was decently scary and he has a limited tolerance for such things, so I began by dealing with it as directly as I could: “Graeme, was that monster a bit too scary for you?”

“No,” he said, “He was just so sad.”

I really hadn’t expected this, so I asked him to explain. Graeme did, recapping the climax of the episode when the Doctor uses his sonic screwdriver to stop the creature. The creature is weak, though, and old and blind besides and his attempt to stun it proves to be a fatal blow. As the creature lies dying, it says that it’s scared and along and both Vincent and the Doctor try to comfort it as it dies.

I hadn’t thought too much of the scene at the time – it’s pretty much standard, “’Twas beauty that killed the beast,” twaddle that conveniently ignores the grief felt by the families of those slain by the creature – but the Doctor’s actions had more than one unintended consequence. Graeme had a “Maris moment.”

He knew that the creature was vicious and violent, but he also knew that it was intended to be vicious and violent. It was a predator, a hunter, a killer, and when it killed it was just doing the thing that its physiology and inner nature demanded of it. He talked at some length about how the creature’s death made him feel, and talked in the manner of eight-year-olds with long run-on sentences and awkward, fumbling efforts to clearly explain complex moral conundrums, all while trying not to cry, but two things stuck out.

First was his idea for a movie about a pack of troodons being unleashed in a mall at Christmas time. This move NEEDS to happen, people. I’m thinking Corin Nemec in the lead. Working titles include “Jurassic Mall” and “Dino-Christmas.”

Second, at one point he said, “Even if it was a monster, it shouldn’t have to die alone and scared like that.”

I don’t what to do with that. As an ethical statement, it’s simplistic and naïve, but there’s no real substantive argument against it that I’ve been able to find. I know for myself that there are certain people that I feel, in the darker parts of my heart, should die alone and afraid, but when I look closely at those people and those feelings, I find I can’t really sustain it with anything other than the simple desire to see someone else suffer as I believe I’ve suffered. It’s transparently either vengeance or bloodthirstiness.***

I think knew this already, but it was old knowledge, the sort of thing that gets dusty and underused when one lives in a society where vengeance and bloodthirstiness are hardly a part of one’s daily waking life. I’m not talking about wanting the college kids next door to get tinnitus as punishment for their raucous, late-night festivities or your sincere desire that your neighbour’s lawn should be infested with a rare and vicious species of weevil when comes and yells at your lawn being in disrepair. I’m talking eye-for-an-eye stuff where the actual loss of eyes might seem legally appropriate.

Still and all, my desires for vengeance may be petty, but they are still desires I would like to expunge. Or, failing that, understand and control. Thanks, Graeme. I look forward to learning more from you.

* Not that there’s anything wrong with liking comic books or comic book art – I am a fan myself, but comic books are only one kind of art and it’s a bad thing to be limited in one’s vision.

** Yes, Van Gogh's an Expressionist. You're very clever. Now shaddup.

*** Incidentally I understand and respect that monsters, of both the human and alien varieties, will often die alone and scare because of their nature. It’s hard for others to get close to these rude beasts, and as a consequence, they often meet their end alone. And I can’t help but think that someone truly monstrous, who regards all of reality as something that exists just for them, could be anything but terrified when their time comes. After all, if they are all that matters, then when they die, it’s the death of everything that’s real.  I’m not proposing a national Hospice for Hitler program, but someone being horrible shouldn’t automatically mean that you receive no compassion in death.


  1. This post reminds me of Voltaire's (erm, the musician, not the intellectual) "Goodnight, Demon Slayer." Good song.

  2. I think I'm going to have to play that for Graeme. He'd get a real kick out of it.