Season 32 Episode 3 – The Curse Of The Black Spot, by Steve Thompson

May 8, 2011

Review by Martin Odoni

Okay, fair’s fair. Given I feared this would be a shabby retread of Pirates Of The Caribbean, this wasn’t too similar at all. It was still not quite up to the standard of last week’s fare, but the series has at least managed to keep itself in the same kind of street, in sharp contrast with the same stage a year ago (the childish nonsense of Victory Of The Daleks).

Having said that, there still was a substantial amount that was lifted from Walt Disney. Amy was shamelessly dressed up as Elizabeth-Swann-as-Pirate-King, and the opening shot of the pirates in the jollyboat was an exact clone of a shot in The Curse Of The Black Pearl, just before the pirates’ closing battle with the Royal Navy. Also, the son who idolises his mariner-father and then finds great trouble accepting the reality of him being a pirate, is almost a carbon-copy lift from Will Turner’s early story.

There are other details that feel a bit too familiar for comfort, but borrowed from elsewhere. The siren is an exotic, beautiful apparition that sings hollering, echoey songs across the sky, which gives it a more-than-passing resemblance to Abigail – Kathryn Jenkins – in A Christmas Carol. The Medic-as-hologram is a very similar idea to the bald, griping character from Star Trek. (No I don’t mean Picard.) And even the idea of the siren gathering up injured people because of its simple-minded AI innocence does have a faint echo of the androids trying to repair their ship in The Girl In The Fireplace.

One or two details perhaps could do with clearing up too. In particular, how exactly do reflective surfaces constitute a gateway between dimensions? How is the siren able to sense injuries suffered by people in another dimension? Why does a black spot appear on people’s hands when they suffer a wound? Especially if it doesn’t appear on them when they get ill, but the siren still collects them?

So it’s an episode with stolen ideas and plot-holes, but even so, it’s good stuff. Avoiding the cliché of making a pirate story all about hunting for buried treasure was a good move (although treasure did still play a small but key role in the plot), and the discovery that the siren was benign all along was a nice twist, even though I did have my suspicions quite early on that everyone had been wrongly prejudging it.

Apart from the aforementioned resemblance Toby had to Orlando Bloom’s naive William, the characterisation turned out not to be derived from Pirates Of The Caribbean much at all, with Henry Avery quite an interesting, if under-explored, personality. He appeared exhausted with his life as a pirate, and torn by, on the one hand, the demands of his own avarice, and on the other, concerns for his estranged family. The story really could, and perhaps should, have given him more to do than just blunder around following the Doctor most of the time. The nasty moment when he learned that his insistence on retaining the crown may have cost him his son was quite affecting, but this only underlines the point.

The dilemma of taking Rory off the life-support and then racing to resuscitate him was also good stuff. I don’t think any of us were in the slightest doubt really that we were going to hear the sound of him coughing water out of his lungs soon enough, but the director did a clever job of keeping us on tenterhooks a good five seconds after it seemed possible for him to wake up, so it did get scary for just the briefest of brief instances. Really wish Murray Gold hadn’t insisted on punctuating the moment Rory woke up with that ridiculous, over-the-top chord of music though. When will he learn to stop beating us over the head with “destruction-of-the-Death-Star” tunes during moments that would be better served by a soft, sigh-of-relief sound?

The episode also looked superb. Given the first half hour was set almost exclusively on a deck of an early-modern galleon, the visuals avoided feeling samey or monotonous, and some of the effects for the siren were a cut above the usual standard, especially when it turned bright red. The sets were very authentic, even if the sickbay aboard the spacecraft was a bit bereft.

Didn’t really need the crude reference to “alien bogeys”, that really did belong alongside the repetitive and puerile flatulent aliens gags from Aliens Of London.

Performances were fine. Karen Gillan seems largely to have dropped the cocky strutting routine from last season, to her eternal credit, Arthur Darvill was a bit of a fifth wheel at times, but what he had to do he did well, and Matt Smith was at his impressive best again. I don’t wish to repeat myself, but his careful, restrained, softly-spoken delivery of most of his lines is such a breath of fresh air after five years of David Tennant’s forced yelling and weeping. The guest cast were generally okay. Hugh Bonneville’s performance veered between worthy gravitas and wooden boredom. Can’t really blame him there. When he had something to do other than chase after the Doctor he was very good, at all other times he didn’t really get much opportunity. Lily Cole did about the best she could with a voiceless part, but it’s hard to say she was really acting. Oscar Lloyd impressed for his age as Toby, while the rest of the pirates were just bit-parts, again not much the actors could do with what they were given.

COMPLICATED THEORY TIME: The quandary about Amy’s possible pregnancy is, I suspect, another lift from The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. Early in the second season of Hitch Hiker on radio, Arthur and Ford are stranded on Prehistoric Earth and encounter a rescue ship from the far future that keeps vanishing and reappearing in front of their eyes. They soon realise they are in a time paradox in which they have to send an SOS into the future to summon the ship. Until they do so, the ship will keep vanishing. In the same way, my suspicion here is that Amy is potentially pregnant, but only if certain events in the TARDIS crew’s future come to pass, and due to time-travel, those events will affect Amy’s recent past. If she becomes pregnant for real, things will carry on as we generally see them, but if the course of events alters, Amy will enter an alternative reality. This is where the lady with the eye-patch enters the equation; I think she is an intern at an asylum, and in this alternative reality, Amy is a patient there. Amy will have memories of events aboard the TARDIS that suddenly haven’t happened, and her ravings about it lead to a diagnosis of madness and she is committed.

Yes, that’s an awful lot of information to work out from so few hints, but speculation-for-its-own-sake is fun.

Bottom line. It’s flawed, not got much originality, and lacks depth, but at the same time it’s fun, beautifully-shot, and has a nice plot that thankfully doesn’t involve an army of aliens trying to take over the world. It’s nice to get a simple mystery story that doesn’t require a bloody/inexplicable/contrived resolution every once in a while. I also appreciate that, while not taking itself too seriously, it again resists the temptation to be silly.

Not great, but far from bad. 7/10. Generally an impressively strong start to the new season, and signs are it’s holding up better than last year too. Here’s hoping that’s not an illusion.


One Response to “Season 32 Episode 3 – The Curse Of The Black Spot, by Steve Thompson”

  1. Tim Says:

    I have to admit I was less keen on this episode. On the plus side, it clearly helped save some budget with its limited setting to help pay for the US trip and the Neil Gaiman episode (which is apparently very expensive). And although the Doctor didn’t actually say “Tricorns are cool”, you know he meant it.

    The biggest minus for me was the idea of having the Siren actually be an emergency medical hologram – a direct rip-off from Star Trek Voyager.

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