The Curse of the Black Spot

TARDISThis is from DWM #435.

One thing I’ve become more conscious of recently is how the reviews have been sequenced in the magazine. So, I knew this was going to run alongside my piece on The Doctor’s Wife. Now, generally, the first review in the section grabs the double-page spread, but when I realised I wasn’t wholly enthused by this story, I asked if we could flip that, and go long on the second adventure. And I’m glad we did.

DWM #435The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon delighted millions, not just with the scares and the jokes, but with the tricksy storytelling. The way they kept a dozen plates spinning while simultaneously bringing a whole new dining set of gyrating crockery into the act – quite a feat.

Nonetheless, the two-parter also perplexed and even rankled some. Critics have grumbled Doctor Who’s too difficult to follow nowadays. That’s as maybe, who am I to judge? I don’t share that perspective, cos I’m one of those viewers who’s heavily invested in the series. In fact, I’m writing for DWM; I’m immersed. I love what we’re getting right now. I’m up for the challenge. But… hasn’t ensuring the show is accessible to everyone always been the thing that ultimately keeps DW sane?

The Curse of the Black Spot is the sanest slice of Who we’ve had for many a year. In contrast to Steven Moffat’s wired and intricate two-parter, Stephen Thompson’s story is as straight-ahead as a plank (for the walking of). This is Doctor Who for everyone. But it’s Doctor Who as a little bit ordinary.

Arriving in the 17th century, the Time Lord and the Ponds eschew the responsibilities of the series’ over-arching narrative for a runaround aboard the good ship Fancy. Pirates ho! But, erm, not that many, and to a man they seem like cowardly cutlasses thanks to a plot device that outlaws any sort of sabre-rattling.

The real curse of the Black Spot is it’s a story that’s forced to hold back on the full-blooded action the set-up promises, for fear of visitation from an alien Siren. When Amy wonders: “What kind of rubbish pirates are you?” she’s chiming in with viewers at home.

What a weird contrivance. It puts everyone on the back foot and makes for a yarn that, much like the stranded vessel itself, badly needs more puff in its sails. Following a never entirely joined-up exploration of the green-eyed alien’s modus operandi (she can travel through water… no, hold on, she travels through reflections) we come to the real reason she’s been preying on the not-so-able seamen. And it’s a further moment of deflation.

Please, no more with the “automated sick bay” thing. It’s a story device that’s become an unlikely preoccupation in Doctor Who, as if plain old monsters and evil-doers are all played out (never!) and something more hoity-toity should be ascribed as motive. But something prosaic and plodding like a computer-generated thingamajig benignly carrying out a program routine? Where’s the adventure? So with that in mind…

10 PRINT “Can we please go back to having proper baddies in Doctor Who, who are bad and doing bad things out of pure badness? Thank you.”

20 GOTO 10

RUN

It’s a blessing that, uniformly, the performances are so good in this story. Matt Smith gives us his bandiest and busiest take on the Time Lord yet, effortlessly elevating rum lines such as: “Still water – nature’s mirror”. Karen Gillan, meanwhile, continues to give us a softer, more likeable Amy. She’s well-served here, gobbling up almost a whole story’s quotient of derring-do, and generally being the kind of proactive, spunky foil that marks out all the Doctor’s bestest friends. Finer still, is Arthur Darvill. Although Rory’s very much kept in the margins, he manages some marvellous things. Notably, the pre-titles sequence. While Matt’s doing all the funny stuff as the trio pop out of the ship’s hold, Arthur’s at the edge of picture, giving the limpest and funniest of waves to the beardy shipmates.

Of the guests it’s only Hugh Bonneville who gets to show us much. His Avery is solid, avoiding hoary panto pirate cap’n cliché to bring us a portrait of a good man who’s been forced into a bad place. As for the other star signing – Lily Cole – she’s suitably ethereal as the Siren, but it’s not an acting role as such. Her slightly inhuman, but weirdly perfect features, are a gift to the special effects bods. Exactly when she is and isn’t being enhanced with a spot of CGI is often impossible to tell.

The story’s conclusion, in which Avery and company zoot off for a spot of space voyaging, is meant to evoke a sense of the journey never being over. Perhaps at some point they’ll come alongside Fenn-Cooper and pals from the 1989 tale Ghostlight, still Sunday-driving around the cosmos. Or is their greater fate to be kept alive forever by the Siren, and ultimately take their place as those nautically-minded naughties, The Eternals, as featured in 1983’s Enlightenment? Who knows? But for me, that pay-off mainly prompted worry about the fate of young Toby, stuck onboard with a bunch of blackguards who, thanks to their over-zealous carer, will never see the outdoors again.

Back onboard the TARDIS, Amy and Rory are once more worrying about the Doctor’s impending death, while he’s sneakily running another pregnancy scan. It feels like a moment of recalibration, the series taking a bearing before setting sail once again on its much madder and perhaps muddling journey towards the Big Story. Argh! There be treasure!

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One thought on “The Curse of the Black Spot

  1. I’ve just gone back and had a look at my Black Spot review. I was remarkably kind, I think, but I was too easily gratified by Amy dressed a pirate, probably.

    Thank god it wasn’t in its original slot. Putting Night Terrors as the third episode would have been *weird* and I do like this surrealist fantasy trilogy which has populated the middle of the second series, even if it has alienated a lot of people.

    Incidentally you’ll pleased to know I got a funny look on the 80 bus home when I guffawed at the BASIC joke. I guess the Silence count as proper baddies now, but you’re right not one episode this series has had a flat out properly peculiar antagonist.

    Indeed The Girl Who Waited and The God Complex basically include Black Spot’s resolution split in two.

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