It was a cold day in Kew Gardens when Steven Moffat got a call from Richard Curtis. Moffat, the new head writer on Doctor Who, had wanted Curtis to write an episode in order to help heal the “titanic loss” of Russell T Davies’ departure from the show. Curtis had had precisely one idea, he told Moffat. It would require time travel. And it was about depression and suicide.
“I said, ‘Richard, obviously that sounds great,’” Moffat tells RadioTimes.com, “’but it’s basically an early-evening Saturday adventure show mainly for kids.’”
Curtis’ story idea was Vincent and the Doctor, one of the most enduring episodes in the show’s modern incarnation. The story is about the Doctor and Amy meeting van Gogh and helping him kill a monster that only he can see. For Curtis, however, it boiled down to one scene. He explained to Moffat – who is adamant that Curtis, not he, had the idea – that the Doctor could take van Gogh to the future and “show him what he would be”: demonstrate that even if he was not appreciated in his lifetime he would be appreciated in other people’s. Having a sister who died of suicide after suffering with depression, Curtis wanted people to understand that you cannot take people’s depression away, but you can give them a good day.
This was the origin of the scene in which the Doctor takes Vincent from 1890 to the Musée D’Orsay in 2010, where hoards of visitors are enjoying his paintings more than a century after his death, and the painter is gushingly described by the museum’s curator (Bill Nighy) as “the world’s greatest artist”. In its various locations online the scene has been watched millions of times and still has the power to immediately bring people to tears. “I came here because I wanted to cry,” reads one YouTube comment.
And on van Gogh’s birthday this year the scene again went viral, prompting the internet to remember just how startlingly beautiful those three-and-half-minutes had been originally. “Tell the people you love not only that you love them, but how they bring brightness to life,” said one of the responses. “[ugly crying]”, said another.
Around the filming of the episode, Tony Curran, who played Vincent, had dinners with Curtis and director Jonny Campbell and discussed how poignant the scene could be. “I was pleased that they wanted to go down that path,” he says. “It was the darker side of him as well as the love that was in his paintings. For him to come back and actually see his work and the emotional toll it takes on him – it’s very powerful.”
While much of the episode was filmed in Croatia, the gallery sequence was filmed in Cardiff. Campbell says that to create the exterior of the Musée d’Orsay, they used a combination of the Wales Millennium Centre entrance and, for the upper half of the building, real shots of the Musée d’Orsay gathered on a trip to Paris. All of the interior footage was shot in the National Museum of Wales. “All eyes were on that particular scene,” says Campbell. “I think everyone was probably aware that it was a really big moment in the story. They all had to be on their top game.”
Curtis mentioned to Campbell that he had used a turntable in a previous film to rotate an actor while the camera stayed still. Campbell used a large version on which he placed Nighy, Smith and Gillan, so that they could revolve around Vincent and be in his ear as he was struck by the emotion of the moment. Curtis had always known that he wanted Athlete’s song ‘Chances’ in the scene, and Campbell played it on his iPod while they were filming.
While the episode and the scene went down well when they aired, Moffat is overjoyed that the sequence shines more brightly in the long term. “It takes you a moment to get the full size of that story, I think,” he says. “I think it’s one of the greatest scenes that Doctor Who’s ever done.” One of the reasons it is so treasured, says Campbell, is that time travel is often used by writers in quite a perfunctory way. “Here it felt like it was really being used for a good intention and not just as a story device that was helpful or convenient.” It had transcended the story and, as the thousands of comments prove, conveyed something powerful to people whether they were fans or not. “Doctor Who has never been so beautiful,” reads another of the comments.
Curran often receives messages about the scene. Once he got one from a girl who had been contemplating suicide and had watched the episode. “She was obviously very emotional,” he says, “but it gave her hope.” He is still in awe at the artist’s influence: “His spirit lives on. His legacy still inspires. It’s only in hindsight now that I see the enormity of what van Gogh has done for the world.”
And, though the episode was appreciated in its own time, Moffat likes to imagine a future in which Curtis is taken 100 years into the future to see how it towers above all of the other Doctor Who episodes. “I think that’s very funny,” he says with a chuckle.
Vincent and the Doctor is available to watch on BBC iPlayer, and Doctor Who returns for a new series later this year. Want something else to watch? Check out our dedicated Sci-Fi page or our full TV Guide.