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Doctor Who reviews: The Curse of the Black Spot


"Yo ho ho...? Or doesn't anybody actually say that?"


Doctor Who S6 E1, 'The Curse of the Black Spot'

'The Curse of the Black Spot', the first episode of the season not written by showrunner Steven Moffat, slows things down a bit after the hectic opening two-parter (because otherwise our brains would probably explode from too much awesome), but nonetheless sends witty one-liners coming thick and fast, along with a spooky atmosphere and some mind-boggling twists with implications for the rest of the season arc.

The Tardis gets stranded (or “becalmed”—nautical term) aboard a pirate ship, captained by Hugh Bonneville's Captain Avery, that’s seemingly plagued by a ghostly Siren (Lily Cole). Whenever anyone becomes injured (even just a scratch), the Black Spot appears on their palm, they go slightly mad, and the Siren’s haunting call beckons, on which they go to meet it, and promptly disappear.

The episode is written by Steve Thompson, who’s worked with Steven Moffat (and Mark Gatiss) before on Season 1 of Sherlock (which is back for a second season later this year). While Sherlock’s a very good show, Doctor Who is much pacier. Perhaps this is because Doctor Who has to cram a whole story into 45 minutes, whereas Sherlock can stretch it out over an hour and a half.

Although he works out the mystery eventually, and proves how au fait he is with the pirate genre with his meta-textual jibes that seem to puzzle the pirates themselves, The Doctor seems almost constantly on the back foot here, which is interesting (and often amusing to watch, with Matt Smith playing several variations of 'worried Doctor face'). His efforts to throw himself into adventures, as proposed at the end of last week’s episode, don’t seem to be working.

He uses the excuse, “I have good days and bad days,” several times in this episode, continually revising his theories of what’s going on.

The Doctor: “Ignore all my previous theories.”

Captain Avery: “What, again?”

It’s unlikely that the Siren mystery’s done this to him, as he’s experienced a good 31 and a bit seasons of similarly bizarre situations so far. Much more likely, The Doctor’s still thrown by Amy’s pregnancy/non-pregnancy, the mysterious (to him) invitation, the fact that the others know something about his future that’s troubling them but they can’t tell him, and (if he hasn’t forgotten them) the Silence. And, while he’s continually seeking new adventures, The Doctor is not one to leave mysteries unresolved (and nor is Steven Moffat).

Amy: “You only call me Amelia when you worry about me.”

The Doctor: “I always worry about you.”

Standalone adventures are all well and good, but sooner or later the season arc will need to be addressed, by the characters and the show. As with the best shows that balance the two kinds of storytelling (such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer), even the standalone episodes have elements of the bigger picture, offering tantalising hints (and some key clues) as to the overarching mysteries.

(Of course, quality shows can vary in exactly how much emphasis they place on each. For example, former Doctor Who showrunner Russell T. Davies, though he weaved in the ongoing mysteries, didn’t place quite as much emphasis on them as current showrunner Steven Moffat does. One can argue over which approach is better, but to my mind at least, they both told tremendously entertaining Doctor Who stories.)

Here, we (and the characters) are definitively made aware of the existence of parallel universes, and the possibility of travel between them (with reflections being the way that the Siren does this). (Potential paradoxes ahoy!)

(This brings to mind the Jet Li sci-fi action movie The One. Maybe multiple Eleventh Doctors will fight each other. Matt Smith’s Doctor trying to do martial arts would be hilarious to watch, perhaps kind of like the Pink Panther franchise's Inspector Clouseau.)

Amy also has a couple of flashbacks to the events of the last two episodes; specifically, to the creepy one-eyed woman from the children’s home (who may not have been ‘there’, and hence is probably in another, parallel universe), and to the (future) Doctor being killed.

As I speculated before (don’t ignore all my previous theories—at least not yet, anyway), this season seems to be setting up parallels with last season’s episode 'Amy’s Choice', with there possibly being two Amys (or more), one pregnant and one not, and characters ‘dying’ in one universe to get to another (though here it’s The Doctor’s idea rather than Amy’s).

(The Comic Relief mini-episodes also perhaps support the idea of multiple Amy Ponds, though in that case time rather than separate universes differentiated the two versions.)

There are also other hints as to The Doctor’s impending death, such as when he says, “If you’re going to be killed, it’s nice if someone at least gives you a note telling you about it”.

It’s also a good episode for Amy and Rory’s relationship. Despite Rory being bewitched by the Siren (giving Arthur Darvill the opportunity for some nicely subtle comedic acting), and making Amy jealous, Amy also gets to be heroic and protective of Rory, ultimately resuscitating him (instructed beforehand by Rory, who’s a nurse, that it’s basically just like on TV—it’s shame the same doesn’t apply to time travel) and thus saving him from drowning in a moving scene reminiscent of James Cameron’s underrated underwater thriller The Abyss.

The fearful Amy’s initially reluctant to take the risk rather than leaving it to The Doctor, asking, “Why me? Why not him?”, to which Rory responds, “Because I know you’ll never give up.” It’s a fist-punching-the-air moment.

However, it’s after Amy has seemingly given up, and is comforted by The Doctor, that Rory gasps back to life. (But maybe she was just despairing for a moment, and was going to try again; it’s not quite clear. Although he did wait 2000 years for her; the least she could do is not give up for a couple of minutes.)

Fittingly, parallels are drawn between Captain Avery and The Doctor. They get some amusing banter about who’s in charge, and whose ship is better. The Doctor has to simplify things, using analogies to explain his usual technobabble, but Captain Avery catches on fairly quickly (“A ship’s a ship…”)

Avery's son, whose mother died of fever, has stowed away on board the ship, believing his father still to be an officer in the Navy, and is shocked to learn that “Your father killed a thousand innocent men”.

After the Captain (seemingly, but fortunately actually not) dooms them all by failing to throw overboard the last piece of shiny, reflective treasure (thus allowing the Siren to zap his son), The Doctor reflects that he became a pirate and “abandoned your commission, your wife and son waiting for you at home…because you couldn’t resist the gold”.

Captain Avery repeatedly says that his son doesn’t belong there with him, as he’s not the man he used to be, and “once you’ve chosen a course, you have to stick to it”. Finally, on learning that his son will die if he’s removed from the life support on the spaceship in the other universe, he decides to stay on board with him and pilot the ship. While on one level, this is a meaningful and touching reconciliation, it still doesn’t address his need for redemption from his sinful ways.

There are also some other interesting parallels. For instance, the Siren is not a monster, but actually a (holographic projection of a) doctor. Is this is simple subversion of expectations, or is it meant to parallel The Doctor, with his enemies seeing him as a threat to the universe that needs to be sealed inside the Pandorica, at the end of Season 5?

The Siren’s efforts to maintain human life, but without being able to heal people properly, seem (perhaps) to foreshadow the upcoming Torchwood: Miracle Day (which, being a spin-off from Doctor Who, is set in the Whoniverse), which apparently concerns what happens when, all of a sudden, everyone all over the world stops dying.

The presence of pirates, spookiness, and a quirky genius who has a penchant for getting himself into complicated situations, making witty quips, and then somehow getting himself out of them, sets up obvious Pirates of the Caribbean parallels, especially since the first film is subtitled The Curse of the Black Pearl. The only trick that the episode misses is not featuring a Captain Jack.

However, the episode is good enough, and Doctor Who enough, to stand on its own, rather than being overshadowed by the awesome and underrated Pirates of the Caribbean films. (Yes, even Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End, imo. And the upcoming On Stranger Tides, despite lacking the original trilogy’s director Gore Verbinski, is (ship)shaping up to be a worthy instalment of swashbuckling as well, judging by the trailers and TV spots we've seen so far.)

And, not paralleling anything as far as I can tell, but my favourite dialogue of the episode:

“She can smell blood. Like a shark…”

“Like a shark… A shark that wears a dress, and sings, and is green. Yes, totally like a shark.”

In summary, 'The Curse of the Black Spot' is an entertaining, quotable episode with some intriguing, possibly highly significant hints as to the season’s overall mysteries. But there’s still plenty of room left for speculation, and as such, the episode deliberately leaves lots of things frustratingly unresolved, though for dedicated viewers (and, after this season’s opening two-parter, who wouldn’t be?), patience will no doubt pay off. Until then, fans will have to furrow their brows like The Doctor, and speculate away.

The episode is available to watch on BBC iPlayer here.

4 stars

See also:

Doctor Who complete reviews: The Curse of the Black Spot

Doctor Who reviews: Day of the Moon

Doctor Who reviews: The Impossible Astronaut

An appraisal of Matt Smith on the eve of Doctor Who season 6

Doctor Who: Matt Smith - the best 'Doctor' since Tom Baker?

Picking apart The Doctor Who season six trailer

Doctor Who S5 credits Buffy style


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#1 RE: Doctor Who reviews: The Curse of the Black Spot Blackbeard 2011-05-08 08:14
Overall an entertaining episode. While many elements from the story had already been seen in other episode, it was still a fun stand alone episode of Doctor Who. The eye-patch lady makes an apearance again and this element is a lot more interesting than those cracks in walls from last series. What did bother me, though, was the disappearing pirae. I mean seriously, did I miss something or did one of the pirates really just vanish, without anyone even mentioning it? (I'm talking about the pirate who was cut by the boy after his attempt at mutiny.)
#2 prof prof 2011-05-08 11:54
I don't know why, but I'm addicted to reading comments on Dr Who. THIS is by far the best. You should be everybody's port of call - though maybe it's as well to keep a low profile rather than be swamped by the weird persons who are filling the world with moaning thread comments. (By the way, having watched Dr Who since episode 1 - that's 1963), I'd like to point out that it has never ever been remotely in the league it is now, and that Moffat is probably the best writer on English-language television in the world. We are so lucky - and this blog's a worthy guide!

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