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Doctor Who: "The Curse Of The Black Spot"

Illustration for article titled iDoctor Who/i: The Curse Of The Black Spot
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Hello, everyone. Keith Phipps is otherwise occupied tonight, so I’ll be your Who reviewer for the week. And I kind of wish I’d gotten to do part of the two-part season premiere, because while “Curse Of The Black Spot” was harmless fun, there wasn’t really a lot TO it. I always think the third episode of the season—when the Doctor inevitably visits some long past time period and does battle with monsters and aliens—is going to be more exciting than it is, and I’m inevitably let down. This was probably one of the better examples of the form, honestly, but these episodes always feel like they’re awkwardly tossed in as a sort of hat tip toward the show’s educational roots. Still, there was fun to be had here, and pirates are always a good time, right?

Let’s start with the bad. The climax of the episode—basically everything after Amy disconnected Rory from the respirator thingy—was pretty bad. Not only was it yet another “Rory’s in danger, oh no!” ending, but it also relied too heavily on the idea of someone having to perform CPR on a character who should be dead, dissolving into tears when it seems like it doesn’t work, then looking shocked and thankful as the character wakes up. (For a while there, I half-expected Amy to give up, then start pounding her fists wildly on Rory’s chest like she was in a J.J. Abrams show.) I didn’t mind the ultimate fate of the pirates—to head off into outer space so Captain Avery and his son could have the father-son bonding moment his pirating career had prevented up until that point—but at the same time, it sort of felt like the episode got to this point, then realized it needed a resolution for this storyline and slapped one together. Finish that up with a scene that reminds us the doctor died two weeks ago, and you’re done.


It wasn’t TERRIBLE (outside of the CPR scene, which was a lot of drama over nothing), but all of this felt like the show just going through the paces and checking its watch while waiting to get to the next bit piece of the serialized puzzle. That’s always the danger with a show like this: The standalone stories can feel like they don’t really have much to do with anything else, and the writers’ interests can fade. (In this case, the script hailed from Steve Thompson, and it was filled with lots of little touches the show has returned to time and again since its reboot, like the idea of a small, trapped group of characters getting bumped off one by one.) But one of the biggest strengths of Doctor Who is that it’s, essentially, an anthology show with regular characters. We’re interested in the Doctor solving the problem and in Amy and Rory’s marital trouble of the week (well, maybe not so much in the latter), but we’re also meant to be invested in whatever the guest stars are up to that week. While I appreciate Moffat’s shift to a more heavily serialized structure than the show has used before, it all but begs some of the standalones to feel even lazier than they might have in the past.

Granted, there are hat tips to the ongoing storyline throughout here. The Eyepatch Lady makes an appearance to tell Amy she’s going to be fine (and I kind of wonder if she wasn’t Amy’s maternity nurse in some sort of alternate timeline), and we get a nod to what’s been the most popular fan theory about what’s going on with the pregnant/not pregnant state of Amy with the Doctor waxing rhapsodic about alternate universes and how there are places close enough to step between them. (Correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t this contradict the Davies run on the series? Wasn’t the Doctor and Rose’s separation there more or less permanent—except for all of the times the show found weird ways around it—because alternate timelines were kept so separate from each other?) And, of course, we get that final scene where Amy thinks about what happened to the Doctor in the premiere, and both he and she are keeping a secret from each other.

But for the most part, the strengths of this episode relied on how much we were invested in the pirates and their plight with the siren. And I’ll admit that this simply didn’t interest me all that much for quite a while, though I found the ultimate reveal of who the siren was pretty cool. One of the weird things about Doctor Who’s ultimate goal as a kids show is the fact that it will occasionally pause to tell these little domestic drama stories, like the one about Avery and his son, and while these stories are FINE, it kind of undercuts the fact that Avery’s a, y’know, PIRATE. The son being disappointed in the dad and the dad fearing for the son is also such a rote plot device, but I thought Hugh Bonneville played it well, and the ultimate twist of the son having typhoid fever, while obvious (since he wouldn’t stop coughing), gave the final moment as they head off into space together a bit of poignancy.

Still, I rather liked the siren, and I thought the moments when she would pop up in a room where the Doctor assured everybody they were absolutely, completely safe were often very funny. (I also found the fact that the Doctor and Amy only seemed terribly concerned with holding Rory back amusing.) The ultimate reveal that the siren could only appear via reflection seemed a bit odd, a way for the show to abruptly change the rules so it could threaten the characters who were nowhere near water AND toss a giant rainstorm at the ship without anyone worrying about why the siren wasn’t popping out of the raindrops or the puddles on deck. But when everybody found their way to the siren’s ship and the puzzle pieces clicked into place, I thought the solution was mostly satisfying.


The siren, see, is a kind of virtual doctor onboard a long-dead spaceship that got caught in some sort of temporal sticking point (explaining why both the pirate ship and the TARDIS got stuck in that point in space and time). Thus, when the pirates cut themselves accidentally—as pirates are wont to do—the siren comes to collect them and make them well. The only problem is that she’s not always entirely sure HOW to make them well, and the treatment ends up being worse than the initial affliction. It’s a pretty cool idea (if similar to things that have been done before on the show), and it allows the show to keep everybody alive—something it loves to do—while also creating a nifty sci-fi mystery. Plus, it allows plenty of opportunities for the Doctor to joke around, and there’s nothing Matt Smith excels at more than cracking wise.

“The Curse Of The Black Spot” is, ultimately, a bit of a mixed bag, but there’s enough good in it that I didn’t roll my eyes at watching it. The show’s essentially anthological nature means that it’s, by design, more hit and miss than almost any other genre show on the air, but in the Moffat era, even the biggest misses have one or two intriguing scenes in them. And the serialization of the storyline from earlier continues, leaving us with a few big questions: Just who is that Eyepatch Lady? What’s up with the Doctor’s death? And how is Amy Pond both pregnant and not pregnant? I can’t wait to find out, but I sor of suspect next week’s episode (by Neil Gaiman!) isn’t going to be where we get the answers.


Stray observations:

  • Initial pirate-y sword-fighting and swashbuckling and plank walking: Lots of fun or went on too long? I always enjoy Amy making up a way to take charge of the situation as she goes along, but this one felt like it lasted a bit too long. Granted, kids would probably feel very differently.
  • I’m a little tired of the minor beats each week where either Rory or Amy says something that makes the other feel they’re not really in love with each other. Dude waited 2,000 YEARS for her, and she pretty definitively chose him in the end. There are other stories to tell about a married couple.
  • I really liked the scene where the Doctor and Captain see the siren attack from around the edges of a closed door. Nifty way to use what we know against us.
  • Even if the show’s budget is so much bigger now than it even was a few years ago, it’s still limited by the fact that, well, it’s a TV show. I was amused by just how quickly the show shuffled everybody off below deck, where the show could more easily control costs, and just how little the pirate ship ever felt like it was actually on water. (I don’t hold this against the episode; keeping costs under control is tough, and the storm sequence, especially, was convincing.)
  • "If something's gonna kill you, it's nice that it drops you a note to remind you."
  • "A green singing shark in an evening gown!"
  • "Alien boogies!"

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