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Doctor Who: The Curse of the Black Spot (Review)

Arriving just in time for the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie (On Stranger Tides), Doctor Who has decided to go all pirate on us – even adopting the episode title The Curse of the Black Spot, to mirror The Curse of the Black Pearl. What we get feels genuinely like “Old School” Doctor Who, with the action confined to a very tight remote location, some corny (but effective) special effects and advanced technology masquerading as superstition. I suppose it was inevitable that a “monster of the week” episode would feel like a bit of a letdown after the superb Day of the Moon, but – while fun – The Curse of the Black Spot never really feels essential.

Not quite a wash-out...

Perhaps it’s the fact that the story is one that we’ve seen on the show countless times before, in many different forms, filtered through the familiar lens of a  pirate tale, but the episode didn’t really grab me. Perhaps it was the use of technobabble to mask a fair straightforward reveal (indeed, “rogue medical equipment run amok trying to fix things” was a great concept when used the first time, but it doesn’t feel quite so clever here). Perhaps it’s the fact that the episode feels strangely incomplete, with a blacked out set and a very small bunch of pirates helping make a pirate adventure on a television budget (all explained in the episode, but feeling no less convenient for that).

The problem was that the episode didn’t explain a lot of key moments. The most obvious gap occurring when Amy and the Doctor and Captain Avery somehow wake up after being whisked away – which we can assume that none of the other abductees did (because Rory at least should have had the common sense to run and hide, like a good companion). There were other things which seemed quite strange to me – for example, the Doctor leaving Avery to care for his son, immediately after Avery had demonstrated that he cared more about the gold on the ship (hiding a crown) than the safety of his own child. It isn’t as if the character had an epiphany after that point either.

The audience was never board...

I think a lot of the episode’s appeal rests on Captain Avery as a supporting character – in much the same way as, for example, The Unicorn and the Wasp was based around Fenella Woolgar as Agatha Christie, or The Next Doctor around Neil Morrissey as… well, the eponymous imposter. However, as charming as Hugh Bonneville was in the role, I just couldn’t warm to the character. Part of it’s the fact that he’s a fundamentally flawed human being who gets a huge break without any real sign he’s going to mend his ways (plus, there’s the suggestion that he’s also a mass murderer… even if his crew were exaggerating, I’m less inclined to believe in “all around nice guy pirates” than magical sirens).

It just seems strange that the show suggests his arrogance costs him his son, directly as a result of his own avarice. Then he gets the son back. The only sacrifice or choice he has to make is to fly a cool space ship with his son and crew, instead of going back to an old ship stranded in the middle of an ocean where (even if he gets to land) he’s destitute and poor. While the image a bunch of pirates flying a space ship is cool (what do you bet they show up in the finale?), it doesn’t really feel like an appropriate conclusion to everything we’ve seen.

Amy's one half of a swinging couple...

Don’t get me wrong, I’d be hesitant to describe it as a bad episode. Seeing Amy play a pirate was cool, and I love the dynamic of a married couple in the TARDIS. Rory and Amy have great chemistry, and it continues to offer something a bit different than the type of group relationship we’ve seen among those travelling in the TARDIS of late. In fact, I compared the presence of multiple companions here to the abundance of supporting cats members during the Davison era, and the whole episode has a very “Fifth Doctor” vibe to it – perhaps calling to mind the space-faring classical boats from Enlightenment. Given Moffat is such a fan of Davison, it seems that perhaps it’s intentional.

Speaking of which, I love the Doctor’s interplay with his mode of transportation. It’s always been fun hearing the character talk to his ship, or stroke her suggestively, but here he accuses her of having a “tantrum”, only to practically give her a great big hug when he finds her again. I’ve always liked the idea that the TARDIS is sentient enough to have an unspoken bond to the Doctor (which has been developed throughout the series, like when it dies with him in Turn Left), and it’s kinda cute to think of them as an old married couple – it casts a wonderful light on all those old school adventures where the ship never used to pay any heed to where he wanted to go, instead landing him where he needed to go.

Lady in red...

The cryptic hints continue. Amy’s pregnancy and the weird eye patch lady look to be this year’s crack in space and time. I have to admit, I do like Moffat’s building of these arcs better than I did with Davies. Rather than taking a bunch of words which mean nothing out of context, there’s a genuine sense that something is happening and developing. I imagine we’ll get some answers soon enough, with the big reveal planned for the season finale – much like the crack was somewhat explained in Time of the Angels last year, but fully explored in The Big Bang.

So, there’s lots of running, a strange new setting rendered efficiently on a BBC budget, and a nice cast putting in good work. It’s very much traditional Doctor Who, even if it never manages to do anything particularly special or grabbing – the monster is straight-forward, the supporting cast are fairly predictable and the explanation is functional. Monster of the week episodes are great fun when they can shake up one of those three elements, delivering even one stunningly effectively. I don’t expect the show to reinvent the wheel week-in and week-out, but that doesn’t mean that a regular episode shouldn’t be an exceptional piece of television.

The crew get Amy's point...

While the episode carries the weight of following an expansive and impressively explosive two-parter, that’s not really an excuse for a mediocre hour of television. Regardless of how big the budget, or its place in the over-arching season, every episode should be an event of itself.

Check out our reviews of the current season of Doctor Who:

7 Responses

  1. I’d have to agree it was disappointing. Somehow it never took off and too many elements were too familiar, not least Rory popping his clogs and coming back yet again.

    • Yep. It just seemed to tread water. Which isn’t bad, but it wasn’t necessarily good. The Idiot’s Box might be the best monster of the week plot the show’s done since it came back, and it’s just an ordinary episode done extraordinarily well. This was an ordinary episode… done ordinary.

  2. Well, I had fun with the episode but even in my very favorite TV shows, there have to be less than stellar episodes packed in with the grade-A materials. The tidbits like the Eye-Patch Lady and the pregnancy were nifty teases. Next episode looks to be a step up.

    • Looking forward to it, but I’m a long time Gaiman fan. Watchmen brought me to comics, but The Sandman kept me there.

  3. Rory is a nestene duplicate now. How can he bleed, drown or respond to CPR?

    • I think that was rebooted in Big Bang II. Hence the reason why Rory has the memories of “Rory the Roman” locked away behind “a door” in his head. He’s human now, and he isn’t the Rory who waited, even though he remembers it.

  4. “…it casts a wonderful light on all those old school adventures where the ship never used to pay any heed to where he wanted to go, instead landing him where he needed to go.”
    It’s funny how even though you hadn’t yet seen “The Doctor’s Wife” when you wrote this, you still managed to quote the episode.

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