Image courtesy the BBC.
Maybe after the confusion of the opening two parter, the showrunners decided we needed a bit of a breather before diving into the mayhem of the mid-season finale. Maybe some ideas just didn’t pan out. The third episode of the sixth season of the revival, entitled The Curse of the Black Spot, doesn’t disgrace. The acting is good, the direction is fine, and the set design and the special effects meet the episode’s needs. Unfortunately, Stephen Thompson’s episode coasts on its plot. It aims low, and it achieves little. As a viewer, I was happy enough to watch, but it didn’t excite me nearly as much as the preview for next week. I was well disposed enough to give it a 7 but, honestly, it probably deserved a 6.
A full spoilery review can be found after the break.
April 1, 1699 finds the good (pirate) ship Fancy adrift on still ocean waters. Captain Henry Avery (played by Hugh Bonneville) can do little but pray for a favourable wind as a mysterious siren picks off the crew, one by one. The slightest cut or pinprick is enough to attract the demon, who marks her prey with a curious black spot on the palm of their hands. Her siren song befuddles them, attracts them to her like moths to a flame, and they vanish with a scream and a burst of smoke.
Into this mix the Doctor, Amy and Rory arrive, claiming to have heard the Fancy’s distress signal (of course, the Fancy never sent any signal and, in 1699, what’s a signal?). Dismissed as stowaways, the Doctor and Rory are made to walk the plank, while Amy is sent below decks to work as galley slave. Left to her own devices, she finds the store of swords and, better yet, a coat and a tricorn hat. Amy can’t help but smile: she’s going to save the Doctor pirate-style!
I think this scene epitomizes what is wrong with The Curse of the Black Spot. It represents missed opportunities. If Amy was being sensible, all she’d borrow would be a sword, but no, she has to get in costume for the occasion. I don’t have any objection to that; this is a vacation, so why not have some fun? Unfortunately, that’s the only time the episode plays up its swashbuckling themes. For the rest of the episode, the writer pulls back and tightens the focus of the episode. The Doctor, his companions, and the diminished crew of the Fancy have to hide below decks, away from any polished surface, lest the siren materialize through it like a portal. Director Jeremy Webb delivers some good creepy scenes (such as when Amy does exceptionally well swordfighting against pirates who are terrified of getting the slightest scratch) as well as some genuine frights. It is, however, out of tune of audience expectations for this episode, I suspect.
Pirates are supposed to be fun. Where’s the grog? Where’s the ‘Arr’? Where’s the swashbuckling adventure? Instead, writer Stephen Thompson delivers a story that is surprisingly earnest, and not particularly ambitious. Is there any reason why this story has to be set in a pirate vessel and not, say, a group of people trapped in an elevator? Because that’s what this episode amounts to. Worse, the plot doesn’t so much develop as it gets pulled along by authorial fiat. The Doctor just suddenly switches gears and decides that the siren’s touch might not be killing the stricken sailors after all (conveniently when it’s Rory who’s about to suffer the chop, and immediately after the Doctor berates Avery for getting his son killed). The Doctor leaps around on his explanation of what delivers the siren to the scene, but his understanding does not appear to develop naturally. And while the final explanation for what the siren actually is and how she came to be there is nicely prepped (ask yourself, just what distress signal did the TARDIS home onto?), the final resolution feels far too Star Trekky for my taste, and not in a good way (I half expected someone to say ‘please state the nature of the medical emergency’).
But there are a lot of good things here too. Thompson’s plot may be unambitious and have holes in it (just why does the siren snatch the TARDIS? And was it as difficult to release the stricken pirates from their comas who, unlike Rory and the captain’s son Toby, suffered from little more than booboos? And why, if she could put Toby in stasis while he has typhoid fever, couldn’t she rescue her own crew from the common cold?), his dialogue sparkles. The Doctor and Captain Avery in particular have a good captain-to-captain repartee, and the actors deliver excellent performances that are worth the price of admission alone.
It’s worth noting that The Curse of the Black Spot was pulled from its original slot as the ninth episode of the season, and shoehorned in directly following the season premier. I think it says much that very little of this episode suggests that it was originally intended to appear far later in the season than it did. Either the intrusion of the season-spanning plot elements (just who is that woman with that prosthetic eye?!) were added later as pick-ups, or this episode was able to avoid describing most of the major developments that took place mid-season. This episode is as stand-alone as you can get in this day and age, and that ultimately makes it innocuous and forgettable.
Still, it served as a decent way to spend an hour on the couch, and it was a decent placeholder until we get to next week’s episode, which appears to be making a lot of promises.
- I think I’ve found a point of commonality between this episode and the two parter before it: note how the crew of the piggybacking spaceship was killed by a human-transmitted virus. Well, what did the Doctor end up doing in the previous episode, except turn the humans forevermore into a mindless army out to kill the Silents? As mindless as a virus, perhaps? Are humans being set up as a plague species, here?
- The woman with the prosthetic eye clearly isn’t going to go away. As she’s centred around Amy, it seems likely that poor Amy will find herself in an intergalactic mental institution, receiving treatment for her bizarre ‘dreams’ of travelling space and time. Who wants to lay odds on that?
- My friend Cameron notes some issues with this episode that I’d missed. For instance, what happened to the pricked boatswain after being left in the hold with Amy, Toby and Rory? We never see him again. This is probably a case of bad editing. And, if the only way for the siren to manifest herself was through reflections, how was she able to apply the black spot in the first place?
- Cameron also notes: Henry Avery was a real pirate, and possibly also the inspiration for Avery’s treasure in the 1966 Doctor Who episode The Smugglers…