Review by Mark Bousquet
“THE CURSE OF THE BLACK SPOT” – Series 6, Episode 3, Story 215 – Written by Stephen Thompson; Directed by Jeremy Webb – Stowaways! The Eleventh Doctor, Amy, and Rory end up on a becalmed pirated ship in 1699. These rough and tumble pirates freak out when anyone gets a paper cut because being injured means a spooky beautiful bluish-greenish-skinned woman is going to show up and turn you into dust. Except she’s not killing you, she’s transporting you to an alien ship where she can hold you in stasis until you get better. Maybe. Someday. Because She’s Not Really Super Good At The Healing Thing.
I had high hopes for THE CURSE OF THE BLACK SPOT because the commercials and prequel foretold that this was going to be a pretty gorgeous looking episode. We’ve got pirates, a pirate ship, a becalmed ocean, fog, heavy moonlight, a glowing bluish-green siren, and Amy as a Pirate. Unfortunately, when the best thing you can say about an episode is that Amy looks hot as a pirate … yeah, duh. I need more than that and BLACK SPOT doesn’t deliver.
I like pirate stories. Have I mentioned that?
The problem with BLACK SPOT is entirely with the script, which jams everyone on board a tiny ship and then has them tripping over each other in tight spaces. Tight spaces are great if you want to heighten suspicion and fear because it forces you into close contact with the people and things you’re feeling unsure about, but BLACK SPOT doesn’t effectively use it’s cramped locations to ratchet up anything. Director Jeremy Webb (making his WHO debut, I believe) does what he can and it all looks wonderful but it beats with an empty heart.
The pacing of BLACK SPOT seems designed for a classic Russell T Davies run and shout episode, but there’s no room for anyone to run anywhere – even the deck seems small and cramped. There’s a line where the Doctor is on the plank and he wonders aloud, “Where’s the rest of your crew?” but my immediate response was to ask back, “Where would you put them?” When Amy dons her pirate gear to save the Doctor and starts swinging around, it looks like she’s swinging just far enough to need to hold on to the ropes.
There’s a disconnect, too, between the temperament of the pirates and of the TARDIS crew. The pirates are FREAKING OUT at their situation and the TARDIS crew is like, “Aren’t pirates cute?” It’s too jarring a juxtaposition because one side is going to lose out and, well, we’re not tuning in to watch an episode of BLACK SPOT about some time travelers who pop in for a visit, are we? The big problem with this is that everything about the set says that the freaked out position should rule the day, so again we have a script working against itself.
Rory gets nicked by Amy’s sword, which causes the black spot to appear on his hand and signifies the siren is coming for him, but he gets all lovesick when the siren arrives and it’s played for a laugh. Even when the siren makes a pirate turn to dust, there’s no real fear.
It’s quite a feat. We have the best spooky set-up possible (short of the story taking place in an abandoned, haunted mansion) and the story generates no tension, no fear, no sense of unease. While everyone is trying to find a place to hide (the Doctor’s theory is that the siren is traveling via the water that on board the ship) and allegedly afraid (you know this because they’re screaming and running and not because you feel any real tension), the Doctor and pirate Captain Avery trade barbs about who’s in charge and who’s ship is bigger.
Unfortunately, too, this is one of those episodes where the Companions are next to useless. Pirate Amy gets the early moment of glory, but when they get shut inside a locked room to keep the siren out, the story basically leaves them with nothing to do. There’s a stowaway kid (the Captain’s son) who insists his dad is a Naval Captain despite all evidence to the contrary (making him officially the dumbest person on a ship since Cabin Boy) and Amy and Rory protect him a bit, but there’s nothing to any of it that adds to the story.
Oh, and Rory “dies.”
And then he gets better.
And then he “dies.”
And then he gets better.
He gets swept over the edge of the pirate ship and the Doctor decides to put everyone’s life at risk RIGHT NOW by inviting the siren to kill them, too. His theory is that the siren is intelligent, which means it can be reasoned with, and so he lets the siren out to go get Rory before he drowns to death, and then pricks each of their hands so the siren comes back and kills them, too. Great plan. They all get whisked away to Never Never Land and wake up on a space ship that occupies the same space/time coordinates as the pirate ship.
The Doctor, Amy, and Avery discover that the spaceship has been looking out their windows at the pirate ship and the siren is actually the ship’s medical program who comes to rescue anyone injured that she sees. Yeah, so why do the Doctor, Amy, and Avery wake up on the ship’s bridge? Rory was taken seconds before them and he’s already plugged into the ship’s Make-You-Better Machine.
Or something. The ship can’t cure you because we have to sit through another “Is Rory gonna die?” moment but it can make you better enough to walk around as long as you stay on board. Yeah? I don’t know. By the end of this episode I was so checked out by Rory’s “death” scene again that the only thing that could have left me with good feelings was if they started to call Rory, “Kenny.”
There’s some actual chemistry between the Doctor and Avery, but it’s largely wasted. Because of how Smith plays the Doctor (“throwing away lines,” according to Moffat, in order to show that the Doctor is thinking three steps ahead of whatever’s coming out of his mouth), the fun little exchanges slip into the cracks of moments rather than becoming the moment. It’s a technique that rewards repeat viewing and it’s a technique that helps to propel the plot forward, but here we need things slowed down. This is a creepy story, so let it be a creepy story.
I did enjoy the moments between Avery and the Doctor inside the TARDIS. The Doctor is trying to get the captain to “skip to the end” of the whole “it’s bigger on the inside” bit, but Avery adjusts really quickly to the TARDIS and to the control console (“a ship’s a ship), proving himself a capable captain and pilot. I generally like when scenes occur inside the TARDIS but I am getting worn a bit thin on the “new person pops in the TARDIS” bit. How many stories is this in a row now where this has happened?
We had Canton in the season opener, Kazran and Abigail in A CHRISTMAS CAROL, I think we were spared this in PANDORICA/BIG BANG, Craig didn’t enter the TARDIS in THE LODGER but he did get a view of it inside his head so we still got the moment even without the physical entrance, Van Gogh in VINCENT AND THE DOCTOR, Ambrose, Mo, and Elliot in COLD BLOOD, and Nasreen in THE HUNGRY EARTH.
Enough’s enough for a bit, eh? How about taking us deeper into the interior of the TARDIS with the three people we’ve got every week?
There’s a cameo from the Eye Patch Lady (is that really what we’re calling her?) from DAY OF THE MOON, who again appears to Amy as a woman peering in through a slit in a door. Amy is sleeping (or almost sleeping) when this happens and just like last time the woman is there for a moment and then gone after she shuts the eye slit. The inference seems to be that Amy is in a medical facility or, more likely, a mental facility. I’m guessing at some point we’re going to be tempted to think that Amelia Pond was actually checked into a facility by her parents back in the day and this is all some imagined ADVENTURES OF THE RAGGEDY DOCTOR fantasy playing out in her head.
I kept thinking how much fun River would have in this story and how out of place Amy and Rory were the whole time. Now, that’s sort of the point of Companions (to help the Doctor see things “fresh”), so I’m not suggesting I would want River around all the time, but it’s clear that Alex Kingston and River are much more the equals of Matt Smith and the Doctor than Karen/Amy and Arthur/Rory. When Amy and Rory don’t have much to do but stand around and play victim, I’m going to get bored with them.
Much as I’m bored with THE CURSE OF THE BLACK SPOT, a disappointing if not outright terrible episode. It’s not hyperbole to suggest that this could very well be the worst episode of the Moffat Era, but it is a sign that the show is in pretty good hands if a bland, conflicted, but not crap episode manages to be the worst of the lot.
Originall Published May 8, 2011