After the opening two-part story of this season launched a ton of mysteries and ongoing plot threads, the Doctor and his friends have decided to go off and have a stand-alone adventure. ’Doctor Who and the pirates’ is exactly the sort of high-concept idea that would seem ideally suited to providing a brief break from a complicated story arc. However, “The Curse of the Black Spot” is something of a disappointment, squandering a lot of the potential of its setting with a confused plot that contains perhaps one too many strands to fit comfortably into 45 minutes, and opting to spend a lot of its screen time on aspects of the Amy/Rory relationship which have already been well covered.
Writer Steve Thompson is new to Doctor Who, but had previously worked with showrunner Steven Moffat when he provided the second of last year’s three episodes of Sherlock, “The Blind Banker.” That was a perfectly serviceable mystery/thriller, but compared to its companion episodes (by Moffat and Mark Gatiss) it was the weakest of the three by some distance—especially given an ill-judged Yellow Peril backdrop which, however true to the original Sherlock Holmes stories on which it was modeled, made for distinctly uncomfortable viewing when the show attempted to fit it into a 21st-century context. I was looking forward to seeing what Thompson could do with Doctor Who; unfortunately, this episode really needed some more work on it to tighten up the plotting and pacing.
We start with a group of 17th-century pirates approaching their ship in a small boat. (Even this opening scene, wonderfully atmospheric though it is, throws up a small plot hole: given that, as we soon learn, the ship has been becalmed on the high seas for days, where exactly were they rowing from?) One of them has suffered a small cut on one finger, which according to Captain Henry Avery (Hugh Bonneville), makes him a dead man. A mysterious black spot (a cute twist on the harbinger of a pirate’s death from Treasure Island) has appeared on his palm, and as an unearthly singing is heard, the terrified man grabs a gun and runs out on deck. The others lock themselves in the captain’s cabin until they hear a scream, and the music stops. On deck, the wounded man has vanished, his gun unfired (“Same as all the others”). Then there’s a sudden noise at one of the hatches, which opens to reveal the Doctor (Matt Smith), Amy (Karen Gillan), and Rory (Arthur Darvill).
The Doctor: “Yo ho ho! … Or does nobody actually say that?”
The first few minutes pack in as many familiar pirate motifs from books and movies as possible—just about everything except parrots and peg-legs. The Doctor and his friends have arrived after the TARDIS apparently “noticed” the ship in distress, but naturally, the travelers are taken for stowaways. The crew laugh as the Doctor is forced to walk the plank (“I suppose laughing like that is in the job description”). All of the scenes on the pirate ship look very impressive, but especially the ones on deck, thanks to the production investing the time and money to film on a real ship in Cornwall. This ship interiors are also beautifully done; the already high level of design on the series has gotten even better since Michael Pickwoad came on board as production designer with “A Christmas Carol.”
Amy, having been sent below, finds a box of swords. It makes perfect sense that the pirates’ swords would all be put away, since they are in a situation where the slightest wound is apparently fatal. It also permits the otherwise unbelievable scenario of Amy managing to rescue the Doctor with her swordfighting prowess. Karen Gillan is clearly having a whale of a time swaggering around in a huge coat and tricorne hat, waving her sword around and swinging from the rigging. All the pirates want to do is keep out of her way, particularly after she cuts one of them (“What kind of rubbish pirates are you?”)—but then her dropped sword, in a somewhat contrived moment, slices Rory’s hand. The strange black spot manifests on his palm, and the mysterious siren—a beautiful young woman in a flowing dress, bathed in a greenish-turquoise light—floats out of the sea and summons Rory and the wounded pirate toward her. As the pirate touches her, he is apparently disintegrated.
The siren is played by model-turned-actress Lily Cole, who made an unexpectedly strong impression in the rather confused and patchy Terry Gilliam film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009). Her striking appearance is used to good effect here in what is a rather limited role—she doesn’t have a single line of dialogue—as the siren switches in an instant when threatened from her normal dreamy expression to a demonic visage, hissing like an angry cat.
Arthur Darvill gets the opportunity to do some very funny “drunk” acting as the siren call acts on him and Amy struggles to hold him back. “Cuddle me, shipmate” is a delight, as is his sudden desire to have a pirate’s beard. One of the pleasures of last season was watching Darvill’s performance as Rory steadily grew in importance, from a mere subsidiary character at the start to an equal partner with Amy by the end. Since their wedding in “The Big Bang,” the show has taken pains to treat them as a proper married couple, and the episodes so far this year have only increased the sense of togetherness between these two.
Rory: “She’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”
Amy: “Actually, I think you’ll find she isn’t.”
Rory: “Did you see her eyes? Like crystal pools.”
Amy: “You are in enough trouble…”
In contrast to his co-stars, Matt Smith has an indifferent episode. He is never less than watchable, but this story doesn’t offer anything new for his Doctor—indeed, it makes the cardinal error of giving the Doctor nothing to do at the climax but watch while other characters resolve the plot. One particular moment that did seem ’off’ was where the Doctor burbles in delight about the ship being haunted by a “demon,” not seeming to care about the fact that Rory has apparently just been marked for death while Amy looks on in shock. It was reminiscent of “Tooth and Claw,” where the Doctor and Rose seemed to get rather too much enjoyment out of encountering a werewolf in spite of its killing people all around them.
The one thing the Doctor achieves in this episode is to strike up a nice rapport with his “fellow captain,” Henry Avery. Hugh Bonneville is perfect for the part of the naval officer turned pirate captain, his deep, rasping voice giving him a natural authority. Avery has the intelligence to keep up with the Doctor’s explanations about the TARDIS, and the two work together well as they tackle the mystery of the siren. However, the story adds another thread to the plot when in the ship’s armory, they find a real stowaway—Avery’s ten-year-old son Toby (Oscar Lloyd), coughing with typhoid fever. The inclusion of the boy results in a lot of time being devoted to the not particularly interesting question of why Avery abandoned his wife and son and became a pirate (unsurprisingly, he did it for the treasure), and also has the side-effect of reducing his crew to completely generic cannon fodder.
In a very rapid run-through of the classic Doctor Who “base under siege” plot—a small group of people in an isolated location being picked off, one by one—the cast soon gets whittled down to just the Doctor and his friends, plus Avery and Toby. Notably, the Boatswain (Lee Ross) suddenly disappears in what looks like a very poor piece of direction or editing; one moment he is barricading the door of the room in which he, Amy, Rory and Toby are hiding. The next time we cut back to the room he is just gone, and none of the others ever mention him again. I suspect that there was a scene that would have shown him running off and being caught by the siren, but that it was cut for time, leaving a very jarring anomaly.
Meanwhile, the Doctor’s investigations into the siren result in him having to modify his theories several times. (“Ignore all my previous theories!” “Yeah, well we stopped paying attention a while back.”) First, he realizes that the siren is not attracted by blood, but by any wounds or illness. Then, after thinking for a while that water serves as a portal for her appearances, he discovers that it is in fact reflections, when a polished metal crown allows the siren to emerge and catch Toby. (This is possibly a neat reference back to “The Family of Blood,” when the Doctor is said to have trapped one of said family in a mirror dimension.) The Doctor convinces Avery that his shiny treasure has to be tossed overboard, leading to one of my favorite exchanges of the episode:
Avery: “This is the treasure of the Moghul of India!”
The Doctor: “Oh good, for a moment there I thought it was yours.”
A storm suddenly rises, and there’s the opportunity for more humor as Amy and Rory have to follow Avery’s instructions to man the sails amid torrential rain. (“Heave ho, you bilge rats!” “’Rats’ was all I could hear!”) Rory gets hit by a swinging yardarm and thrown into the churning sea. The Doctor suddenly leaps to the conclusion, for no visible reason, that the siren is not actually disintegrating people but transporting them elsewhere—and therefore she’s the only hope to save Rory. Either he’s suddenly remembered that he encountered this kind of thing once before, or he’s clutching at the feeblest of straws because the plot requires him to. In any event, they release the siren to go after Rory, and then he, the captain and Amy all prick their fingers in order to let the siren take them too.
Now the story changes direction again, as the three find themselves on an alien ship occupying the same space as the pirate ship, but across a dimensional barrier. It’s very akin to the Tom Baker-era story “The Stones of Blood”—particularly when they explore the ship and find the alien crew all dead. In the ship’s vast sickbay, they find all the pirates, plus Toby and Rory, preserved in stasis. The whole deal with the siren taking people is “explained”—if that’s the right word for such a far-fetched rationalization—as the sickbay software, running out of control with the ship’s crew dead, deciding it needs to collect the sick humans it has accidentally encountered through the dimensional portals, and not being able to distinguish between trivial wounds or illnesses and serious ones. It’s yet another idea that has been used before—notably with the nanogenes in “The Empty Child,” but there are also similarities with the clockwork droids in “The Girl in the Fireplace” and the abandoned ship in “The Lodger.”
I was also reminded of last year’s “The Vampires of Venice,” in that we’re presented with an apparently supernatural creature which turns out to have a sci-fi explanation—but that explanation actually provides only a weak justification for the supernatural traits of the creature. No real reason is given for why a hologram from an alien spaceship should appear in the form of a siren, or use music as an anaesthetic (or for how the “black spot” marker is created, for that matter). The Doctor’s description of her as a “doctor” is more confusing than helpful—she obviously can’t treat any of the people she takes, but is simply a collecting agent. Another question that arises is how come the Doctor, Amy and Avery weren’t put into stasis, but simply woke up on the floor of the ship? Of course, if they had been put into stasis like the others, the story would have come to an abrupt end, but it’s another unexplained hole in the writing.
Yet another change of emphasis now occurs, as the story pretty much drops its interest in the pirates and the alien ship, and focuses on Amy and Rory. Unfortunately, its sole concern is driving home the idea that they are devoted to each other—something which has already been thoroughly established over the previous several episodes. The siren hologram requires Amy to sign an electronic “consent form” taking responsibility for Rory before she will allow her to help her husband. When it becomes apparent, for reasons not at all explained, that he will still be on the point of drowning when removed from the machine (even though he can somehow speak perfectly clearly), Rory trusts Amy to resuscitate him, and starts to instruct her on how to perform CPR. Despite Arthur Darvill’s best attempts (“I know you can do this. Of course, if you muck it up I am going to be really cross… and dead”), the absurdity of this scenario reminded me irresistibly of that classic so-bad-it’s-good Star Trek episode “Spock’s Brain,” where Spock, in the course of having his stolen brain restored to its normal place inside his cranium, has to give Dr. McCoy advice on how to complete the operation. Some of the dialogue descends to the level of soap opera:
Amy: “Why do I have to be the one? Why do I have to save you?”
Rory: “Because I know you’ll never give up.”
Fortunately, there’s a much more affecting moment taking place between Avery and the Doctor. The Doctor realizes that the ship must be sent back into space (“Imagine if the siren got ashore—she’d have to process every injured human”), and Toby will have to remain on the ship; he’ll die if he returns to Earth. It’s a nice understated moment as Avery decides to take the helm of this new ship, and would have made a much more appropriate climax for this story. It’s a pleasingly fitting Doctor Who explanation for Avery’s fate—he is one of the few famous pirates who was never finally captured or killed, but simply disappeared one day and was never seen again.
As I mentioned above, the biggest misjudgment in the whole episode is to have the Doctor sit idly watching, literally doing nothing but chewing his fingernails, while Amy is frantically working away to revive Rory. Never mind that they are now in the TARDIS, which should have medical equipment of its own; judging by the amount of use the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver has had this episode, he should be quite capable of restoring Rory with a wave of his hand. The whole sequence is nothing but a pile of tedious melodrama; the direction and music try to convince us that it’s a huge moment when Rory coughs his way back to life, but it’s far too overblown to have the desired impact.
By contrast, the final appearance of Avery and his men is almost thrown away. We see him at the controls of the ship, traveling through the stars with his recovered crew behind him, and his son at his side. Presumably Avery signed the “consent form” to release his men, who would soon heal by themselves since they only had minor wounds; Toby is still on some form of portable life support mechanism to handle his typhoid fever. But it’s up to the viewer to put the pieces together—the Doctor and his friends seem to have totally forgotten about them, and the lengthy final scene in the TARDIS barely even mentions the events just past, in its eagerness to get back to the season arc plot which was put on hold this week.
Although it was a good idea to have a stand-alone adventure as a change of pace, it’s disappointing that the episode turns out to be quite so disposable, even emphasising the fact by replaying the very same closing moment as last week’s “Day of the Moon,” with the Doctor watching the TARDIS scanner switching between positive and negative indications of Amy’s pregnancy, thereby indicating that the season’s overall plot has barely moved at all. It’s true that Amy did have another brief dream-like encounter with the mysterious woman with the futuristic eye patch (“It’s fine. You’re doing fine. Just stay calm”)—is she a midwife of some kind? Is Amy elsewhere giving birth, and somehow reliving past adventures?
Overall, “The Curse of the Black Spot” is an unsatisfactory combination of generic pirates and ideas cribbed from previous Doctor Who stories. Let’s hope the season’s forward momentum resumes next week after this forgettable interlude.
Next week: Big events seem to be on the horizon, as famous author Neil Gaiman joins the show with the provocatively-titled episode “The Doctor’s Wife.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: For more fun with pirates, see “Enlightenment,” starring Peter Davison, with Janet Fielding and Mark Strickson.
Steven Cooper is a software developer and long-time Doctor Who fan, living in Melbourne, Australia.