Cast: Matt Smith, Karen Gillen, Arthur Darvill, Hugh Bonneville, Lily Cole, Lee Ross~ Writer: Steve Thompson ~ Director: Jeremy Webb ~ Year: 2011
The Low-Down: A lacklustre excursion into Pirate-infested waters, The Curse of the Black Spot isn’t the worst New Who episode by a long shot, but it’s certainly never in any danger of being the best.
What’s it About?: Following a distress signal, the TARDIS lands onboard a becalmed Pirate ship, but the crew are in fear of something out there in the water – a Siren (Lily Cole), who’s already killed most of their number. But, with Rory falling under the Siren’s spell, can the Doctor figure out what’s really behind this mysterious curse?
The Story: It isn’t always good to be prejudiced against certain writers – especially since expectations can often prove to be wrong – but unfortunately, there are also times when I’m proved completely right. When I initially heard that this episode was going to be written by Steve Thompson, the man responsible for the deeply lacklustre middle episode of last year’s Sherlock (The Blind Banker, aka The One With The Chinese People That Felt Like A Filler Episode), the chances of a brilliant standalone episode seemed pretty remote, and what we get is a long way from being brilliant; an episode that’s fun enough to be distracting, but never quite good enough to be truly memorable, and lacking the kind of insane invention that Doctor Who thrives on.
In fact, most of the problems with the episode can be laid at the script’s door, because after a relatively hearty start, the story soon runs out of interesting things to do with pirates (and it certainly doesn’t help that the story essentially gets smaller as it goes along – it only really feels in any way like the ‘spooky romp’ the trailers promised in the first ten minutes). The episode also runs into the problem that we’ve seen this story a few too many times now in New Who – the ‘supernatural threat turns out to have an SF explanation’ tale is almost as much of a staple as the Celebrity Historical, and while Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon subverted that kind of episode (giving us a very atypical adventure featuring Nixon), there’s no real subversion here at all. Even the leap from the boat to the space-ship (which is very reminiscent of 1978 Classic Who adventure The Stones of Blood) doesn’t carry any real sense of frisson or drama, and ultimately we spend far too long in the episode waiting to get past the ‘supernatural shenanigans’ and onto the meat of the story.
Another issue that’s rather more in evidence is that of budget. Who has, over the last couple of years, undergone some relatively strong budget cuts, and certainly isn’t quite functioning on the same scale as it was in S4, for example, but still has to somehow pull off epic adventures every week. Certain episodes are managing it, but others aren’t quite so able, and with its restricted scale The Curse of the Black Spot does feel distinctly like a ‘bottle’ show, with the regulars spending most of the story trapped in one location, while the spaceship has the same slightly threadbare feel that the Dalek craft (aka the redressed factory) had in S5’s Victory of the Daleks.
Of course, budget isn’t everything – but it does mean that you need really good writing to distract from the flaws. Robert Holmes, back in the classic run of the series, was a master at writing so well that the audience didn’t really notice that not much had actually happened in his stories, but Thompson isn’t anywhere close to his league. The script is pretty low on invention (and arguably throws in the ‘Amy in tricorn-hat-wearing swordfight’ scene a bit too quickly), and also seems unsure as to whether it’s playing it for laughs, being historically accurate, or going for all-out spookiness, ending up stuck somewhere in the rather unsatisfying middle-ground.
Indeed, it’s the kind of story where you almost wish RTD would rush back in and inject it with a bit of energy and some OTT pirate gags. Especially as it’s essentially going for the Pirates of the Caribbean route (in the same way that the Phillip Hinchcliffe era in the 1970s hi-jacked classic horror films), a little bit of exaggeration and luridness would have done this episode the world of good. Instead, there’s a deliberate ploy for historical texture rather than all-out pirate fantasy, and the results are… middling. A mildly distracting adventure that has a couple of nicely handled moments, but rarely gets the needle above ‘average’, shown by the fact that even Matt Smith can’t make the material he’s given work, sliding a bit too much into eccentric hand-waving mode here.
There is at least a fine performance from Hugh Bonneville as the Captain, giving the story more gravitas than it deserves, and while the ending is manipulative, nonsensical (exactly how is Rory suddenly drowning again?) and another example of Rory almost dying (which they could have gotten away with if they’d actually acknowledged it onscreen), I was actually surprised by how well the Amy and Rory relationship played in the latter half of this episode. It’s especially interesting to see Amy finally being unequivocally in love with Rory and letting down some of that rather brusque, inscrutable front of hers – the scene in the medical bay is surprising simply because it’s one of the first times it actually feels like Amy is Rory’s wife, and that the writers are succeeding in moving the relationship on.
Of course, there are the massive gaps in logic, the bizarre slip-ups, the strange decision to have the Siren catapult into the air every time she appears, and the frankly unforgivable error of cutting out the final fate of the Boatswain (Lee Ross), who gets deliberately injured and ‘marked’ by the Siren, and then isn’t seen again until appearing in the episode’s final scene. But these aren’t the largest problems to ever have appeared in a Doctor Who episode – plenty of RTD stories got away with a hell of a lot more, and The Curse of the Black Spot would be easier to forgive if it wasn’t quite so average.
However, for those taking this as a sign that Who’s in trouble – with a slightly overcomplex two-part season opener and a middling third episode – I’d just say, go back and look at Season 2. There, the season didn’t properly start firing on all cylinders until episode 4, The Girl in the Fireplace (and there wasn’t a huge number of highlights after that) – Season 6 has gone for the longer game, setting up stuff that will pay off later on, and while it hasn’t delivered an absolute slam-dunk classic yet, the quality is still pretty high, and if Curse of the Black Spot is the weakest episode of the season, that’s something I could definitely live with.
The Verdict: Light on the arc, The Curse of the Black Spot pulls off a few effective moments, but won’t be troubling anyone’s ‘Top Five S6 episodes’ lists. Here’s hoping that Moffat has some stronger standalone adventures coming, and that the next episode – the long-awaited Neil Gaiman-written episode ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ – sees S6 finally kicking into top gear…
Previous Doctor Who Season 6 Reviews: