Sunday, 6 June 2010
Fear Itself (And Monsters)
You may have heard us talk about Kerrie, the sister of the podcast - especially when reading her emails. Well, she writes an exceptional blog about living with depression called Fear Itself (And Monsters). The reason we mention this is that she's recently written an impressive update about the depiction of depression in Vincent and the Doctor, as well as some other moments in the series that, intentionally or otherwise, contain mental health triggers. In fact, we liked it so much that we're going to repeat it verbatim below.
Remember to visit her blog from the link above and follow for other writing on this very emotive subject.
You'll have to excuse me, regular readers. This isn't the sort of thing I'd usually post here. This is, instead, a discussion of Doctor Who's current foray into mental health issues. Two episodes have drawn upon this area recently; one very much on purpose, the other perhaps unknowingly. And the end of another episode - not the entirety, but a fleeting couple of minutes - delivered a hammerblow to me, personally.
This isn't about geekery, criticism, overwhelming praise, or calling Richard Curtis names. It won't be a regular thing. A post about it has however been brewing for a long time.
Last night the episode Vincent and the Doctor aired, in which the Doctor meets the great artist Vincent Van Gogh. It was written by Richard Curtis, a man perhaps known for cloying sentimentality in his later career. He's certainly never written for Doctor Who before, and the result was an episode that - fittingly for this blog - was less about literal monsters than the monsters that plague the mind.
The episode didn't shy away from the fact Van Gogh struggled with mental health problems his entire life. Quite the opposite - it showed the man as one of extremes, at one trying desperately, animatedly, to explain to the Doctor how he saw the world, how he in particular not just saw colour, but felt it. At the other end, it showed him unable to move with anguish, a broken, sobbing man who couldn't bear the fact that everyone left him, speaking of being "left with an empty heart and no hope". The Doctor tried to comfort him with by explaining that, in his experience, "there is surprisingly always hope".
Van Gogh's response was an angry one: "then your experience is incomplete!"
There is indeed a literal monster in the episode but it is almost entirely inconsequential. What this episode is about, for me, is ways of seeing the world and the terrible relationship between beauty and horror. There is a wonderful, breathtaking scene where Vincent, the Doctor and companion Amy are looking at the night sky, and it suddenly becomes the painting Starry Night. "I've seen many things my friend," the Doctor remarks, "but you're right, nothing quite as wonderful as the things you see."
Van Gogh knew all too well the pain life brings, the overwhelming agony you have to go through just for existing. And yet the point was made very explicitly that he knew all this but could instead turn it into something beautiful through his painting. He channelled it into some of the greatest art ever created.
The artist killed himself at the age of 37, having famously only sold one painting. In this alternative reality, the Doctor shows him the fame he would go on to achieve, taking him to the modern-day Musée d'Orsay so he can understand his legacy. Amy believes it will prevent Van Gogh's suicide, but, of course, it doesn't. The implication is that nothing could have. This point is not skirted around, it is addressed full-on, in an exchange where Amy initially laments that they couldn't make a difference to his life.
The Doctor disagrees. "The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things... good things don't always soften the bad things, but vice versa, bad things don't necessarily spoil the good things... or make them unimportant. And we definitely added to his pile of good things."
Some may call that oversimplistic or, indeed, cloying as I said earlier. To me, that's just right. When depression hits you full-on, there is no amount of love, riches, adulation, or future promises that will buoy you up again. I've made that point before on this blog.
When you start to recover, it can be tempting to think you're fine again and that depression is something you get rid of forever. It's not. It leaves impressions upon you that you can live your life in spite of, but those impressions never vanish. That doesn't stop you from seeing the beauty in the world, or being so in love with it that it makes you weep one minute and hating it for the way it works the next.
The world is awful. The world is beautiful. You can see it both ways and they are not mutually exclusive. That was the part of the episode that hit me, that was the thing I took away from it. It was in many ways a bold piece of television.
As episodes featuring depression go in this series of Doctor Who goes though, this wasn't the big one for me. That was three weeks ago, the episode titled Amy's Choice. It may not seem it on the surface, but look deeper. It's there. Intentionally or not, I admit to having no idea - but it's there.
This episode is even more about the figurative monsters than the literal ones - in fact the literal monsters aren't the real threat at all. A character called the Dream Lord tasks the Doctor, Amy and Rory (another companion of which a lot more shortly) with figuring out which of two scenarios is a dream and which is reality. In both scenarios, which feel equally real to them, they are in mortal danger; choose to die in the dream and they wake up, fail to guess correctly and they will simply die.
However, the Dream Lord isn't real at all. As the Doctor puts it to him, "there's only one person in the universe who hates me as much as you do" - the Dream Lord is the manifestation of his own self-loathing. Throughout the episode he picks apart the Doctor's flaws, especially the way he treats people - repeatedly putting people he supposedly cares for in danger, leaving them behind, never seeing them again.
Once you work it out it's almost uncomfortable to watch. You realise why the Doctor has no answers for this man, and that all his faults and transgressions are being paraded out for those close to him to see as well. At the end when Amy asks him if he really thinks those things, he deflects the question. There's an embarrassment at having his darkest thoughts revealed - as anyone with that level of self-hatred can identify with. You hate yourself, but you don't want anyone else seeing it.
That isn't the only thing that set this episode down the depression route, though. The entire thing feels like a metaphor for a breakdown. Not being able to tell if you're asleep or awake? That's a big one: at my lowest points, when I was awake my emotions were too blunted to feel anything but a haze; when I was asleep I had the most vivid, torturous dreams.
Dreams in which you die, indeed? Dreams in which you're hounded, dreams where you have to watch loved ones die? In my worst year, I had those every single night.
The twist at the end, where the Doctor realises neither version is reality and instead blows up the TARDIS - because the choice was, actually, between two dreams? That's ripping it all to shreds and starting again. You have the unreality of the waking nightmare of depression, or the unreality of soldiering on against it, pretending you're alright. Or you can choose giving into it and bringing it all crashing down. Because sometimes, that is the only option available to you.
Even the way the village scenario is shot brought to mind the blank slate of a breakdown. It's meant to be a sleepy village, certainly, but it's stark, silent. Even the quality of the light invokes it - it's harsh, too bright, too revealing.
I will admit I may be reading far more into this than the writer Simon Nye ever intended, but it invoked all that in me on one viewing and a second one didn't do anything to challenge those ideas. Trapped in your own unreality with only how much you despise yourself for company, though? If that isn't a description of depression, what is?
The final part of Doctor Who that gave me pause regarding my own issues involved a character death. It happened at the end of Cold Blood, an otherwise rubbish episode that had a totally compelling final five minutes. Alas poor Rory, for I had come to be fond of his character. I don't usually get that invested in fictional television shows, I should point out - this series of Doctor Who is proving to be an exception rather than a rule - but this one was different. Rory didn't just die. Rory has never existed. Nobody except the Doctor remembers him - that aside the world has no trace of him.
The day before the episode aired I said to someone. "It's not that I want to die these days. I just wish I never existed."
And so I bawled because Rory Williams has never existed. It seemed like such a cruel thing to do, and I don't know if I bawled because it was what I wished and I saw it played out the very next day, or if it was because I saw how cruel it was and still wished for the same. Or if it simply brought it home to me that I'm not all that well at the moment, which I need to deal with. I knew all that anyway, it doesn't take telly to make me realise these things. It was just a shock to watch.
The character of the Doctor is a lot of things to millions of people. To me, he represents not losing your sense of wonder at the world. Lately, there's been some interesting other stuff happening in the programme, dealing with the darker side (although he's always had his dark, brooding side) - but overall, that's still what the Doctor is to me. A reminder that no matter how awful it gets, never lose your ability to let the world take your breath away.