The Curse of the Black Spot

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.

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8 thoughts on “The Curse of the Black Spot

  1. Thanks for your enjoyable review, Loren. I disagree with you on this one. This was my least favourite episode of the Matt Smith era so far and I am struggling to think of a new Who episode I am as unenthusiastic about as this one. I thought the script was poor and the direction all over the place. The actors looked like they were standing around, at points, not quite knowing what they should be doing. For the first time, Matt's performance was under poor and at points he was playing a caricature version of his doctor. Hugh Bonneville, though a fine actor, looked like he had no idea how to play the pirate.

    It is difficult to believe we had Rory dying yet again. The sub-plot about the little boy was incoherent (though the actor himself was brilliant). The idea of reflections bringing up the siren was ludicrous.

    There were a couple of redeeming features, as always. I laughed twice — “Yo ho ho” at the opening and when the doctor was trying to unpolish the pendant thing. I enjoyed seeing eye-patch lady again — that was fantastic. I quite enjoyed the last few minutes of at home in the TARDIS too.

    I didn't think the plank walking funny at all. I quite enjoyed seeing Amy wielding the sword. I think the reference was Keira Knightley in Pirates of the Caribbean, though, and not an old Who ep.

    All round, 2/5, disappointing after the stunning openers.

  2. Hey Mark,

    Thanks for the comments, but let's start right away with this one:

    I didn't think the plank walking funny at all. I quite enjoyed seeing Amy wielding the sword. I think the reference was Keira Knightley in Pirates of the Caribbean, though, and not an old Who ep.

    No, it's definitely from Tom Baker (though perhaps also playing on the source you mention), most obviously The Pirate Planet. Tom Baker is desperately trying to get the ship's captain to listen to him, but the captain and crew are convinced of his guilt, so they march him up to walk the plank, in this case a spaceship's plank which overlooks a 1000-foot drop. Baker protests, the captain fires lasers at his feet, who then indeed falls off the plank for the episiode three cliffhanger.

    Then there's The Face of Evil, which doesn't involve a plank, but something similar, with Baker again (as so often in this period) suspected of being the villain when all he's trying to do is help. He's suspended on a rope above a pit and given a crossbow which needs to be fired at a precise moment so the rope will be split without causing him to plunge — again a cliffhanger, for episode 2, I believe.

    This sort of stuff is what's deliberately being evoked in Black Spot, and I think it's hilarious, because as a kid I always got a charge out of the fact that the Doctor bends over backwards to help those who believe the worst of him so much they want to kill him by rituals like this — and it's even more funny when he self-skeweringly eggs them on.

    I agree of course that Rory almost dying is a pathetic and lazy device at this point, and the other things I mention, but it's interesting how you're seeing confused actors; I wasn't seeing this at all, not even on second viewing.

    But at least you've shown yourself capable of awarding a new-series Doctor Who story less than a 3 rating, and for that alone I'm encouraged! I remember you even giving Daleks in Manhattan a 3 (for me that was a rock-bottom 1). I'm looking very forward to the Gaiman episode this Saturday. I don't want to get my hopes up too much, but this may well be the first 5 of the season.

  3. Thanks, Loren. I hope you are right about allusions to old Who episodes. That kind of thing is fun. And we know that a lot of the writers these days are steeped in Who lore. I certainly expect lots of that from Neil Gaiman next week. I think for the modern viewer, though, Amy at that point would definitely evoke Keira Knightley.

    I enjoyed Daleks in Manhattan more than this one. At least it had a great song. I suspect the problem with this episode was that it came straight after two really fantastic episodes and seemed so much worse by comparison.

    I can't fathom why Moffat uses writers like this instead of calling on people like Paul Cornell. It's a bit like RTD calling on Helen Raynor.

  4. I'm more with Mark than you on this decidedly disappointing episode.

    Regarding eye-patch lady – if this whole series turns out to take place in Amy's head, I shall be seriously pissed-off.

  5. Yes, the genius of Joss Whedon was that he (only) flirted with the possibility that Buffy was in a mental institution and that it all took place in her head in that fantastic episode in season 6. I doubt that Moffat would quite go there and I too will be p****d off if he does. But I think my greater worry is that he sometimes tries to be too clever for his own good. Although I adored The Big Bang, it was pretty convoluted and far-fetched and lots of it was unexplained and incoherent. Either we are going to find out more that clarifies it or — more likely — we are going to be served up still more obfuscation and loose ends.

  6. Joss Whedon is far from a genius, but in any case I guarantee you this will not be all in Amy's head.

    Though I'm still trying not to set my expectations too high, the reviews I've seen of this Saturday's Gaiman episode promise excellence. Can't wait.

  7. On the contrary, Joss Whedon is a genius which is one of the reasons he has been so influential on both RTD and the Moff.

    I agree about Saturday's episode. I think it's going to be a cracker. I particularly like the hints that it is going to play with the show's history.

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