The Curse of the Black Spot
07 May 2011
On the high seas of the 17th Century, a crew of pirates are stuck on a cursed vessel. A beastly creature swarms the waters waiting for the right time to appear and snatch another soul into her grasp. When a strange trio of travelers appears out of thin air, Captain Avery is not sure what to make of the event, but he knows that the Doctor cannot save his ship from its curse or stop the deaths of his crew. When Rory is marked for death and the TARDIS itself proves unreliable, the Doctor realizes that this is not just a game of playing pirates, it’s something much more dangerous.
After a head trip two-parter involving the death of every cast member on the program, an alien invasion and President Nixon, I was expecting a light-hearted adventure featuring pirates and rum and maybe a bit of spookiness. Stephen Thompson (familiar to some from his work on Moffat’s other award winning program Sherlock) does deliver a rollicking adventure but it has plenty of twists and turns that keep not just the audience guessing but the Doctor as well.
The Doctor, Amy and Rory materialize aboard a cursed pirate ship just as a bizarre creature appearing to be a siren is gobbling them up one by one. Each victim is marked with a black spot cannot help but to answer her call. The Doctor’s flippant behavior fails to win over the Captain who orders the Time Lord to walk the plank while Amy and Rory look on, helpless. Stowed away for later, Amy finds a cache of weapons and is inspired to briefly play the role of the pirate and save the Doctor’s life.
In the ensuing tussle (that the Doctor can only watch through his fingers), Amy is surprised that the pirates seem mortally afraid of her despite the fact that she has no idea what she is doing. When she mildly wounds a crew mate the others enter paroxysms of grief. Just one drop of blood is all that is needed to mark a man as a victim of the siren. Lesson learned, the stakes are understandably raised much higher than usual. Any wound at all is fatal. Unfortunately, Rory becomes nicked as well and receives a back spot on his hand spontaneously. The Doctor struggles to figure out the mystery of the siren and how the ‘curse’ works, but each moment proves him wrong and he is back to square one.
It’s rather thrilling to see the Doctor out of his depth (so to speak) and desperately trying to figure out what the threat is and how it functions. Part of the appeal for the Eleventh persona of the Doctor is that, though he is a genius, his mind is operating at a higher speed than the rest of him can catch up to. Most of the time he is developing a scheme of some sort with no idea how it functions. In the case of The Curse of the Black Spot, he begins the adventure in a state of whimsy only to see it all spin out of control before his eyes.
The setting of a 17th century pirate ship is rather clever and offers plenty of atmosphere for the traditional ‘base under siege’ story that has become so familiar to veteran Whovians. The visual effects department did a superb job in representing the vessel and its interior, giving a rich sense of realism, if through a fantastic lens (this is, after all, the Moffat era of Doctor Who which fancies itself a fairy tale). The siren is, to be honest, not that interesting which is an oversight on the program’s part but luckily the script is full of engrossing material, well defined characters and plenty of fine actors to play the supporting cast. Still… I would have preferred a new monster to an ethereal Lily Cole… but I’m in the minority on that one, aren’t I?
Hugh Bonneville of course has to do much of the heavy lifting in this adventure as the dread Captain Avery. After establishing himself as a desperate and dangerous man upon discovering the Doctor, his rough finish is softened when he finds that his abandoned son had stowed away on board. It’s a touching story and blends effortlessly into the main body of the plot involving a cursed vessel preyed upon by an otherworldly threat that even the Doctor cannot understand. Sure, it could be seen in a cynical light as a shorthand manner in which to gain the audience’s acceptance of the Captain and involve them in caring for the boy, but it worked for me due to the strong performances.
The real sparkle of The Curse of the Black Spot comes when the entire crew, Captain Avery’s son, Toby and Rory are subsumed by the Siren and the Doctor throws caution to the wind and submits to the creature’s attacks. It’s a wonderful moment straight out the classic series when an idea is stood on its head and what appears to be one thing is in fact something wholly other.
The resolution aboard the alien freighter is a bit too quickly told for my liking, especially as so much has been theorized about the Siren then cast aside as nonsense. Being told that the pirate ship shared the same space as an alien vessel where the entire crew died from human germs and the sick bay is full of the missing crew is a LOT to swallow very quickly… then it gets complicated. To find that the siren is a malfunctioning sick bay program is a bit odd but it fits the rest of the story and also my notion of a classic Doctor Who story where a threat can be mainly due to a misunderstanding or just technology gone wrong.
The conclusion is poetically whimsical and once more relies on love solving all problems, but I prefer the defiance of Amy Pond to a magical wand putting everything right any day. It’s at least better than getting a Dalek-created robot to not explode by making him remember someone he fancied. The relationship between Amy and Rory was given ample space to grow once more, showing that it’s not just up to the Doctor to set things right (I hope we get more of that).
There are a few points of series-long continuity squeezed in such as the eye-patched woman appearing to Amy while she tries to sleep on the pirate ship and the Doctor still unable to confirm Amy’s pregnancy that bothered me some, mainly because I felt that these plot points could have been conveyed better without interfering in the main plot. But it’s a slight problem in an otherwise fine episode.
Next time: The Doctor’s Wife