The Curse of the Black Spot has a lot going for it, and a lot not, that it ends up feeling like one of the most disjointed episodes of the new series. On the plus side, it’s a base under siege drama calling to mind a classic like The Horror of Fang Rock, and one of the best stories from the Russell Davies period, Midnight. For a while it harkens back to the Hinchcliffe era in terms of style, as a period piece with a distinct gothic horror feel, but then completely shifts in emphasis and tone to become an unremarkable morality lesson.
The regulars are on their usual form, with Amy in particular getting fun things to do, as she swashbuckles her way to save the Doctor from walking the plank. So amusing is this scene, and an obvious throw back to Tom Baker’s Doctor, who frequently found himself in a hard way for appearing out of nowhere in the midst of suspicious tragedies. When he exasperatedly demands at gunpoint, “more laughter, guys”, and the pirates begin chuckling at his imminent demise, it’s hard not to do the same. The genius of this is that Amy doesn’t know jack about sword-wielding, but doesn’t have to, as it takes only a single drop of blood to make one prey for the Siren. All the pirates are genuinely terrified of her, as if she were lighting a match in a room full of gasoline.
The period feel to the story is effective as usual in Doctor Who, and the script exploits this by creating an air of mystery and intense claustrophobia, as the Doctor investigates how and why the Siren appears. Everything takes place at night and in grim isolation. The Doctor is a diligent but fallible sleuth, convincing us that water is the danger until it becomes clear that any reflective surface poses a threat. Indeed, his theories are repeatedly shown up wrong, to the extent that he has to tell people to “disregard all of his theories up to this point”, which is grandly hilarious and a far cry from the all-knowing tenth Doctor. The Siren itself is well realized, with alternating sea green and fiery orange glows, depending on her ire. With a nautical demon picking off crew members one by one, all the ingredients necessary for a solid Who story are present; then, with 15 minutes remaining, everything changes.
Though the word isn’t used, hyperspace is the punchline, this final act reminiscent of The Stones of Blood which saw the Doctor propelled away from druidical blood sacrifice and onto a spaceship where he had to play the lawyer to stop his execution. In The Curse of the Black Spot, blood is also at issue, but the shift to alternative space less satisfying, as we get a monster that simply isn’t. The Siren is really an automated medical doctor that whisks people off at the first sign of injury in order to heal them, as benign as The Beast Below, with the result that (wait for it) everyone lives — pirates, Toby, and Rory all. The draining away of suspense is compensated for to an extent by the intriguing locale, but at the same time, no one can accuse Stephen Thompson of being the most competent writer. It’s not clear how the Doctor, Amy, and Captain Avery are able to wake up and roam freely aboard this spaceship while everyone else lies comatose and immobilized on tables. Nor do I buy the captain’s turning from a greedy, murderous pirate to a concerned, responsible father. He cared more about hiding a jeweled crown than his son’s life, and his sudden altruism is inexplicable. On top of this, we get Rory almost dying, and while this played well in the contexts of Amy’s Choice and Cold Blood, it’s by now a tiresome gimmick. It would be churlish to fault the “miracle day for everyone” theme too much, for as with The Beast Below, it is much the point, involving a misconstrued creature. But last year Moffat was able to milk a philosophical purpose out of his beast that mitigated the comedown of a non-villain, and the starwhale at least killed adults if not children.
Ultimately this story feels disjointed, and is saddled with a creature that doesn’t deliver, but it does have features that on whole make it enjoyable.
Rating: 3 stars out of 5.