THIS EPISODE TAKES PLACE BETWEEN THE
TV EPISODES "DAY OF
THE MOON" AND "THE
'THE COMPLETE SIXTH SERIES' BLU-RAY DVD
LIKELY TO BE RELEASED IN NOVEMBER 2011.
The Doctor must solve the mystery of the disappearance of a pirate crew at the hands of a beautiful Siren.
7TH MAY 2011
Sherlock scribe Stephen Thompson’s brief for this episode can be summed up in a word: pirates. Executive Producer Steven Moffat wanted this story to lift our heroes out of their heavy arcs and cast them adrift on the high seas, substituting the opening two-parter’s head-scratching and soul-wrenching for every fun-filled pirate staple imaginable. However, whilst The Curse of the Black Spot does boast treasure, mutiny and even the walking of the plank, there isn’t a wooden leg, hook-hand or parrot in sight, and the only eye patch on parade isn’t found on a pirate.
“Sorry, but he is spoken for!”
The look of the episode is similarly disappointing. Despite being shot on a very handsome sailing ship moored in a Cornish dock, the abounding darkness and mist eliminate any sense of scale from the production. Indeed, for the most part, The Curse of the Black Spot feels cramped and studio-bound, which doesn’t do it any favours at all when most of those watching will inevitably compare it unfavourably to Disney’s lavish Pirates of the Caribbean movies. That’s the danger, I suppose, in attempting something so zeitgeisty – “like for like” doesn’t really come into it in an age where it’s just as easy to pop on a Blu-Ray as it is to turn the telly on.
Of course, had Thompson’s plot been dynamite, then this would have more than made up for any perceived shortfall in the visuals. It’s unfortunate, then, that The Curse of the Black Spot is an unusually bland and laborious example of modern Doctor Who, full of more holes than Blackburn Lancashire. Its only scenes of significant swashbuckling are over with in the space of just a few minutes, and whilst the mystery that follows them is moderately alluring, its scenes of horror are all too quickly undone. I love the chilling conceit that the slightest cut will see a man – or even a child – marked for death at the hands of an ostensibly-traditional Sea Siren, but having the speciousness of this proven so early on in the episode effectively kills any sense of gravity or momentum thereafter.
“A green, singing shark in an evening gown...”
The Curse of the Black Spot is not without any merit, however. The regulars revel in their remarkable surroundings, particularly Karen Gillan who, once again, seizes the opportunity to show off Amy’s pluck. Furthermore, despite ultimately lacking menace, Lily Cole’s Sea Siren is at least a visual success, and Lee Ross’s dastardly performance manages to single-handedly tick most of the episode’s piratical cliché boxes. Most impressively all of though, the series once again offers us a pleasing tie-in to real world history, at the same time allowing Angel of Scutari veteran Hugh Bonneville to really go against the grain and sink his teeth into a surprisingly thoughtful chief buccaneer. Fancy.
But alas, these things weren’t enough to win me over; not even close, in fact. Almost all the way through I found the episode to be aberrantly poor, to such an extent that, even as a dyed-in-the-wool fan, my attention waned the longer the episode ran. Poor Rory may have been able to come back from the dead (again) at the forty-two minute mark, but by that point, the same could not be said of my dearly departed interest.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2011
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
There’s something to be said for a straightforward adventure, and it’s certainly what was needed after the complexities of this year’s opening two-parter. A good spooky yarn is just what the Doctor ordered; something to coast along with while we rest our brains. While it has its flaws, The Curse of the Black Spot succeeds in providing an enjoyably rum old tale.
Curse’s greatest asset by far is its thick, salty atmosphere. While Jeremy Webb’s direction is at times a little functional, he succeeds in bringing to life the beautifully utilised sailing ship exterior and its perfectly-matched studio mock-up. A classic, piratical character perv-ades the production, largely thanks to Hugh Bonneville’s excellent performance as Captain Avery. At times an untrustworthy rogue, at others a weak, regretful old man, this version of Avery is a fascinating character, and Bonneville brings real conviction to the role. It’s a fine chance for Doctor Who to create a fictionalised version of a historical figure; someone who has a stirring enough biography but is obscure enough to allow generous mythologising. In true Who style, the genuine mystery of Avery’s disappearance, at the height of his bountiful piracy, is even given a thrilling - if rather implausible - explanation.
“Not much of a captain without a ship, are you?”
While most of the pirates remain as spirited extras, Lee Ross is a suitably unpleasant yet charismatic foil as the Boatswain. Both he and Bonneville have their finest scenes opposite the young Oscar Lloyd as Toby Avery, whose naivety and belief highlights the honour that the pirates have lost. Lloyd puts in a fine performance against his heavyweight elders. Bonus points too for getting to say “blackguard.”
The regulars all fair pretty well too, although there is naturally less far-reaching development for their characters than in recent episodes. The arc plot simmers away in the background, remaining in view but never overtaking the episode’s own events. Matt Smith is clearly having a whale of a time, and the piratical environment throws his mad professor persona into sharp relief, bringing the Doctor’s spirited eccentricities to the surface with great comic effect. I love that the Doctor’s on the back foot for most of the story - it’s satisfying to see him at a loss and working things out on the hoof. “Ignore all my previous theories” has the makings of an unexpected catchphrase. It’s also a nice touch that the Doctor intends to get everyone off to safety in the TARDIS, but is prevented from doing so - many stories simply ignore the fact that escape would be the best option for everyone.
“You killed him!”
It’s Amy who get to swashbuckle, however, showing herself to be rather more proficient at sword fighting than we might have expected, even when allowing for the fact that all the pirates were terrified of getting even the smallest nick. Karen Gillan is, of course, gorgeous in her pirate gear. Arthur Darvill is relegated to comic relief for the most part, so it’s a good thing he can pull it off so well. Thankfully, Rory gets a more sober moment at the end of the story, however it’s probably time that the writers stopped killing him off and bringing him back, because it’s becoming hard to give a damn.
This episode gives us not one, but two red-headed models-turned-actresses, as Lily Cole takes the part of the Siren. She’s a perfect choice for the role, her beautiful yet very unusual features exactly what is needed for this otherworldly maiden. However, although the visual effects and soundwork combine to create an haunting vision, the Siren never really comes across as much of a threat, and once both Toby and Rory have felt her touch, you know for a fact that they’ll be safe and sound somewhere.
“Ignore all my previous theories...”
The big twist here - that the Siren is not a spirit but some alien technology - is a hoary old cliché, yet that seems fitting in what is, essentially, an episode composed almost entirely of hoary old clichés. I’d hazard a guess that writer Stephen Thompson used to watch Star Trek: Voyager - not only does the holographic Doctor hint at the link, but the alien sickbay also looks remarkably like the array from that series’ pilot episode (although that set was itself a reference to the movie Coma). It’s a bit of a con ending, but it does at least allow the mystery to be solved and the characters to be rescued. In fact, the clue was there right from the start - the TARDIS is responding to a distress signal - of course it couldn’t be Avery’s ship, so there had to be another source.
There are some big plot holes, however. Just as it’s hard to believe that Amy’s a natural at sword fighting, it takes a lot to accept that Avery could just pick up the technique for flying a starship, regardless of the cute “a ship’s a ship” idea. Why are the Doctor, Amy and Avery allowed to wander around the starship, instead of being trussed up like all the other crew with minor injuries? The Doctor goes from fearing the Siren to realising that they must allow her to take them without learning or deducing anything new, or even having any real time to think. The Swain vanishes partway through the story, only for him to re-appear on board the alien ship without us seeing how he got there. And why did the aliens die of a cold, if the virtual doctor was capable of putting them into stasis - unless possibly they were able to override this and sign their own “consent forms.”
“She’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen...”
Still, plot crevasses and implausible twists are hardly new for Who. The Curse of the Black Spot is great fun - a simple, fun runaround of a story that it’s hard not to like. While it may seem a little flimsy and lightweight following the last two big, tense ‘event’ episodes, it’s just the ticket for relaxing in front of on a storm-lashed evening. And it contains one whopper of a terrible pun: How do you know an ambulance is coming? You hear the Siren.
Copyright © Daniel Tessier 2011
Daniel Tessier has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
Unless otherwise stated, all images on this site are copyrighted to the BBC and are used solely for promotional purposes.
‘Doctor Who’ is copyright © by the BBC. No copyright infringement is intended.