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Doctor Who: The Curse of the Black Spot

May 10, 2011

Doctor Who‘s first proper pirate-themed story in thirty-odd years avoids pieces of eight, chattersome parrots, hooks for hands, or Long John Silver buccaneers… but still comes out peg-legged.

In his first script for the show, Steve Thompson — who also wrote the middle of last year’s three Steven Moffat-curated Sherlock episodes, turning a good series into an uneven one — contributes a fast-paced, enjoyable romp of a first half, followed by an unfortunately drawn-out second half. The TARDIS lands in the hold of a pirate ship at the command of the notorious Henry Avery (the excellent Hugh Bonneville, playing the second ‘real-life villain’ to be somewhat redeemed by Doctor Who in as many weeks). Initially threatened with being made to walk the plank, the Doctor soon talks the crew around, with the help of some swashbuckling from Amy, and learns the truth: the ship is stranded at sea on an unnaturally calm stretch of water, and the crew is terrified of injury. The merest drop of blood from a wound brings to the ship the Siren (Lily Cole, bright turquoise and evanescent) and certain destruction for the injured man…

This was trailed beforehand as a story of twists and turns. In some ways it plays out much like a classic four-parter — you expect the cliffhanger music to come in as Lily Cole’s Siren makes its first appearance — especially one of those ones like ‘The Stones of Blood’ or ‘Pyramids of Mars’ where the story shifts from atmospheric gothic creature-feature to a more space-opera setting in the final episode(s). What’s more, those twists and turns mean this is a story with almost too much plot in its first half, dense with guesswork, surprise appearances, and — as the nature of the Siren’s origins and mission starts to become clear to him — the Doctor’s new trademark cry of ‘Forget all my theories up until now!’ There’s a nice bit of action filming, however, as Amy grabs up a cutlass and takes swipes at the pirates who — thanks to their fear of being scented by the Siren — are conveniently cowardly in case of being injured. After this, the story’s opening up into a sort of parallel-universe space opera is almost predictable; the denouement, as others have remarked, owes a lot to showrunner Steven Moffat’s own 2005 script ‘The Empty Child’/’The Doctor Dances’, featuring an intelligent but non-sentient medical programme and an ending in which everyone lives; like Captain Jack in that story (not to be confused with the Captain Jack of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, which seem to have inspired this story… wait, do be confused) Avery heads off into space at the end, on a new mission to the stars.

Bonneville’s rehabilitated Avery — a naval officer whose greed overtook him and made him abandon his wife and son for a life of piracy — is a genial kind of villain, nowhere near as roguish as one might have hoped, even before his stowaway son returns (bringing with him alarming reminders of the terrifyingly-eyelashed boy actor in ‘The Next Doctor’). As a naval officer gone wrong, he’s quite convincing, with his honorable concern for his fellow pirates and his delightful assertion — one of Doctor Who‘s most useful fudges — that a ship is a ship, be it galleon, TARDIS or spaceship, and each equally easy to fly. (Retcon corner: this makes a lot more sense of why air hostess Tegan, in particular, seems oddly capable of piloting the Fifth Doctor’s TARDIS: passing familiarity with aeroplane cockpits has equipped her to recognise broadly similar equipment panels on the Ship’s control console: note how she’s immediately able, in ‘Logopolis’, to locate a tannoy.) As a pirate, he’s dismal, however: early in the story, the Monkey tutted and asked why the Doctor didn’t simply load the pirates into the TARDIS and make off — a legitimate question to ask of ‘base under siege’ stories, and one which this script goes out its way to address (before Avery accompanies the Doctor on board the TARDIS I scoffed and said it was because it’d end the story too soon). But while the TARDIS being grounded, a function of the ‘overlapping spaceships’ which seems to have paralysed the pirate ship too, is a neat trick, Avery’s failure to try to take over the Ship — even to take anything from the Ship — shows this pirate up as all tricorn hat and no trousers. That this is Doctor Who‘s Pirates of the Caribbean is fair enough — nobody expects a tv episode show named ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’ to be an exploration of modern-day piracy off the coast of Somalia — but since the Siren turns out to be the Nurse of the Black Spot, we’re left in a villain-free zone: most unWholike. Suddenly one thinks of previous Who buccaneers — Lynda Baron’s absurdly voluptuous Captain Wrack addressing the camera in ‘Enlightenment’ or Bruce Purchase’s ranting bionic Captain (with robot parrot) in ‘The Pirate Planet’ — and realises that perhaps there are some characters who shouldn’t be softened and made subtle.

Therefore, with the would-be monsters sorted out, it’s left to Team TARDIS to generate some tension for the last three or four hours of the script. Obviously Rory’s rescue and resuscitation by Amy — the utterly non-qualified Amy, rather than the person actually called Doctor — doesn’t really go on that long, but once you realise they’re going to do that thing of trying to revive him, giving up, everyone being a bit sad, then Rory coughing up water and coming back to life anyway… well, surely no showrunner really thinks this is anything other than hackneyed? Even if Rory weren’t being killed — or look like he was being killed, or being swallowed up by a crack in space and time — every other week, this would be an overlong, underwhelming scene. Then there’s the slightly heavy-handed retread of last week’s Ongoing Mysteries as the Doctor again scans Amy’s body and discovers she is/isn’t pregnant, while she and Rory are muttering about how they can’t tell the Doctor he’s going to die. As ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’ was originally intended to go out much later in the Series Six run, this is an understandable ‘hangover’ (or botched swap-around of footage from further into the Story Arc) but means that almost everything in the last ten minutes is, like the life-sapping ending to last year’s misnamed ‘Victory of the Daleks’, utterly dispensable.

This isn’t my favourite Who episode, but I’ve certainly seen worse ‘filler’ stories (‘The Long Game’, ‘Fear Her’), and once again ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’ looks amazing for the most part, with sumptuous costumes, beautifully decorated sets, and some neat low-key special effects (I like the Siren changing to attack mode and juggling lightning bolts). I’m interested in the way that the series setup now privileges two-parters over one-off episodes — the two-parters usually being publicity conductors for monsters’ reintroduction, or (as in this year’s case) the more obviously big-budget stories — which means that one approaches an episode like this expecting it to be underwhelming. This seems to remain the case even though a good whack of two-parters are stinkers themselves (‘Aliens of London’ gets a free pass for being the rebooted series’ first two-parter, but ‘The Hungry Earth’, ‘Rise of the Cybermen’, ‘The Sontaran Stratagem’ and ‘Daleks in Manhattan’ were all built up ridiculously in advance). It makes me wonder what a season composed only of single-episode stories — maybe even one without an ongoing story arc? — would mean. Is Doctor Who‘s format since 2005 now sufficiently established that it’s starting to have a negative effect on the way each series works as a whole?

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