Just this once, everybody lives! This is the story of alien medical technology malfunctioning and creating terror in the process. There is also a young boy whose relationship to his parent needs to be healed. So, superficially we have the same basic plot as The Empty Child, but thematically it could not be more different. Rather than some nanobots, which are so small that they are invisible, we have a very visible representation of the medical tech, in the form of the Siren.
There’s a stroppy homicidal mermaid trying to kill us all.
Of course, she doesn’t look much like a mermaid, but it’s all a bit more clever than that because she has the characteristics without the appearance (or at least without the tail!): the dangerous beauty, luring men to their deaths on the ocean. She can emerge from any reflective surface, which plays on the theme of magic mirrors in Doctor Who, something that goes right back to The Evil of the Daleks (or The Girl in the Fireplace if you want a more recent example). Like the nanobots in The Empty Child, this med tech misunderstands the nature of its patients, sounding a Siren when medical help is needed, which might just be the cleverest pun hidden in plain sight we have ever seen in Doctor Who.
We have had pirates before in Doctor Who, in stories such as The Smugglers, The Space Pirates, and The Pirate Planet. Then again, we have had just about everything in Doctor Who before. This feels strongly like a prequel to The Smugglers, but it’s not quite right because writer Steve Thompson was unaware of that story and consequently the Avery stuff doesn’t fit. It’s a shame Steven Moffat didn’t make the few very minor changes (e.g. the name of the ship) necessary to make it work, because it would have been a nice little bonus without spoiling anything within the episode itself. It is simply the case that Thompson and Smugglers writer Brian Hayles took inspiration from the same historical figure: Captain Henry Avery, the richest pirate in the world in his day, whose ultimate fate remains a mystery. How very like Doctor Who to offer us two completely different explorations of a historic mystery. If you’re interested in Atlantis there are three of those.
Just about every pirate cliché gets thrown in for good measure, but the logic here is sound. There’s not a lot of point doing a pirate story if you’re not going to actually do a pirate story, and those clichés are all actually a lot of fun, especially the obligatory walking the plank. The pirate treasure is used to teach exactly the lesson we would expect it to teach: people are more important than money. The black spot itself goes back to Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, in which it signified guilt, but also plays into the fear of spots as indicating serious illness, such as plague.
As an episode this is all very straightforward and undemanding, but as a breather between big dramatic important episodes it needs to be. Most importantly for this kind of episode, it is a lot of fun. We need light and shade within a series, and when the light is the light of a Siren we are happy to be drawn in. RP
The view from across the pond:
Yesterday, I wrote my review of The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon and mentioned that I could not find anything to complain about; not a single nit to pick! Unfortunately, it’s hard to maintain that level of quality. Just one story later, we dropped from “epic awesomeness” to “some pirate fun”. That’s not to say Curse of the Black Spot is bad.
I will give credit where due. The mystery of Amy’s eye-patch woman is certainly intriguing and to have to wait to find out what’s going on gives this season another arc like we’ve seen in previous seasons of New-Who. Hugh Bonneville is terrific as Captain Avery and it’s also a nice throw-back to Hartnell’s Doctor with The Smugglers, finally learning more about Captain Avery. When a visitor to the TARDIS actually comprehends what they are seeing, that’s a recipe for a character we can admire. Just because he’s from a time before ours, does not mean he’s incapable of understanding advance temporal engineering, huh? Then there’s Lily Cole as the Siren. This is what elevated the episode to something more. Her unspeaking role is carried by her expressions and the color of the glowing light around her but it’s done incredibly well. Her look of anger is very scary. While she’s at ease, she’s angelic.
The idea of luring people in with hypnotic suggesting is also appealing especially when we realize that the “threat” is not actually a threat. Again, this is mature storytelling. There is no “enemy”, per se. There is just a misunderstanding between advanced technology and a less advanced crew of a pirate ship. So in that way the story works well. But then there are things that are too contrived. The Doctor sneezing into a tissue is a clever way to find out what’s going on, but he never sneezes otherwise so something is taken away. There’s no indication that he ever sneezes! And it’s not just that he sneezes, it’s the convenience of the discovery. Had Rory sneezed, it would make sense since he found himself in the water. The Doctor suddenly being all sneezy on a sterilized ship just screams convenience.
The titular black spot itself is clearly an ink mark. It lacks anything forbidding. When a similar effect was used during the Pertwee story Inferno, we accept that it was 1970; special effects were harder to come by. For 2011, I expected more than an ink mark. I get them frequently enough and no space siren has come for me, damn it!
The biggest problem Curse of the Black Spot suffers is that trait that I’ve referred to before when you park your brand new Toyota in a spot to show it off, only to have more exotic cars park on either side of it. Coming off The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon it was going to be hard to equal that. Then The Doctor’s Wife by Neil Gaiman followed it. Steve Thompson isn’t to be blamed; he had a good story. He just couldn’t compete with the greatness that sandwiched it. ML
The voice from the balcony:
“Yo Ho Ho! I squandered the pirates fortune again!”, said the Captain as his gold sunk into the deep depths. This particular pirate ship is just as cursed as everyone’s beloved Abbey but who doesn’t love a high seas adventure with pirates, a sexy siren, and the Doctor? The Curse of the Black Spot is a lighter hearted story compared to The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon.
Men aboard the pirate ship that get injured or sick get a visit from the siren and she turns them into dust. Our friend, the finicky TARDIS, decides to go joyriding leaving the Doctor, Rory, and Amy to fend for themselves. The Pirate Captain’s greed leads to peril but also to an adventure within an adventure. The siren turns out to be even more interesting then what she appeared to be at the beginning of the story.
In the end, Amy saves the day and the Doctor does what the Doctor does best. The Pirates of the Caribbean turn into The Pirates of Space and everyone embarks on a new adventure. I thought this episode was ARRRR-ight and I recommend it. As light hearted as it seemed to be, the story has darker undertones and helps set overarching storyline for the season. Now bring me The Doctor’s Wife and a bottle of rum! PR
Read next in the Junkyard… The Doctor’s Wife