Saturday, 7 May 2011

DOCTOR WHO 6.03 - The Curse of the Black Spot

We sails under the colours of spoiler freedom, me hearties!

Question - Why are pirates so cool?
Answers - Because they just aaaaaarrrrrrr!

Look, it was either that refuge from the Old Jokes Home or an obscene one about a parrot. Though the former does have the advantage of illuminatin’ the nature of scurvy buccaneers sailin’ the seven seas o’ fiction...

Basically pirates are always good fun and frankly there’s just not enough eye patches, cutlasses and walkin’ the plank about these days! I’d have though that the dubloons raked in by that House o’ Mouse trilogy, might have sparked up a new adaptation of Treasure Island or a remake of Captain Blood!

So then instant plunder in the treasure chest for this particular episode of Doctor Who. Overall The Curse of the Black Spot was jolly good fun, a light weight stand alone adventure as I expected. Lovely old galleon, a decent cast of sea dogs commanded by the engaging Captain Avery, played well by Hugh Bonneville, a deliciously beautiful but creepy adversary in the shape of the Siren (Lilly Cole), a Jim Hawkins aged stowaway, a splice o’ swash buckling and all washed down with some plot twists and turns.

So then a lovely little high seas classic then? Well, sadly no. It was entertaining enough but I can’t shake the feeling that it didn’t quite hit the mark. Not a bad episode per se, but at the same time, for me it ran aground on the sandbanks just off the shore of Average rather steerin’ a clear course to Treasure Island.

Writer Stephen Thompson is perhaps best known to viewers in TV Land, for penning The Blind Banker, the second episode of the Moffat/Gatiss helmed Sherlock which graced our screen last summer. However personally I felt that it was the weakest adventure for the modern day incarnation of the Master Detective in that series, and it would seem that The Curse of the Black Spot shares the same flaws as The Blind Banker - namely that the plotting tried to be clever and cunning but came across as fairly linear, and despite trying hard to hit all the right notes somehow just didn't generate the thrills and atmosphere you’d expect from the classic tropes both these tales are built upon.

Now I’d stress that this episode was by no means a disaster and there was a lot of fun to had from Mr Thompson’s script. The story clipped along nicely with plenty of drama between the action. The dialogue had plenty of sparkle, some fun verbal jousting and showed a good ear for period speech without over egging the pudding with lots of cod ye olde worlde thee-ing and thou-ing. And there were some fun and interesting wrinkles to the plot too; the sort of SF twists that are very in keeping with the traditions and feel of Doctor Who adventures past.

All quite entertain as it’s going along but after the credits had rolled I started nitpicking, which is never a good sign. But on reflection (yo ho ho, see what I did there) though individually, the scenes are fine, I think it was the way they were orchestrated together that led to the feeling that The Curse of the Black Spot was fluffing its siren song; missing the correct notes and not hitting the beats quite right.

In short, I liked it but really considering it was Doctor Who doing pirates, one of my great boyhood passions, I really thought I’d have loved this one. Quite possibly I’m being overly picky and certainly coming on the heels of a brace of very strong episodes isn't helping it’s case. Then again, if you weren't as onboard with the opening tale as I was, then maybe you’ll find that The Curse of the Black Spot is more your cup o’grog Cap’n!

Here’s be the spoils o’ plunder!

Right me hearties, I takes it that ye land lubbers have now seen this tale o’the high seas by now, either that, else ye don’t give a tinkers’ cuss about secrets reveal’d! So then, despite the difficulties that beset a man trying to type while doing the piratically patent Keith o’ Stones stagger, let’s scrape the barnacles of this story’s arse!

Aside from this adventure not quite having the right rhythm to the rise and fall of its plotting, where I’m really deducting marks from MR Thompson is that although as I mentioned on the above decks that this tale had some good twists in its tail, the problem is he plundered them! These be stolen goods m’lud!

The concept of an automated computer avatar preying on passersby we saw in The Lodger, and grabbing folk through space-time portals and not understanding what it’s supposed to do we saw in The Girl In The Fireplace, the twist that said folk weren't killed by teleported elsewhere is from Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways, and as for Rory dying and coming back, well we've had before in Amy’s Choice not to mention last season’s finale.

Now while I appreciated the dramatic development of seeing that Amy and Rory are a solid couple, and nicely burying the potential for a tedious love triangle in the TARDIS, did we really have to see Rory skirt Davy Jones’ Locker? Blimey, give the guy a break please - he’s back and forth beneath the Grim Reaper’s scythe like a bloody limbo dancer!

Evidently Mr Thompson has studied the form and shape of a good Doctor Who tale but unfortunately I could tell which stories in new Who he’d looked most closely at. Again, I might be being overly critical, but spotting these borrowings in tandem with the slightly off story rhythm gave me the impression of a script cobbled together rather than carefully crafted. And this impression was compounded by the fact that some plot points don't really hold up when you start to think about them - for example, surely it would be impossible to get rid of ALL reflective surfaces - humans eyes in particular! And surely would even an addled medical program have to put people in stasis just for a nick on the hand?

And the epilogue which gave us a flashback of the Doctor’s death and the virtual replay of TARDIS scanner pregnancy confusion of last week’s coda felt a little lazy. However I suspect this was tacked on as apparently originally this episode was scheduled to the ninth episode - the breather in the early phase of the autumn half of the season. And in fairness, we did see that the fluctuation on the scanner between Amy being pregnant or not was growing alarmingly more rapid. And taking this in conjunction with Amy’s flash of the Doctor dying, it does set up nicely the fact that the secret the Doctor is keeping is mirrored by the knowledge his companions must keep huhs hush. Rather apt considering the reflections theme of this tale!

It’s little touches like this and the other highlights such as the Black Spot being a skin sample, Amy going fully pirate and swinging about with a cutlass, plus the striking Siren imagery, that make me inclined to forgive the niggles incurred by the afore-mentioned recycled plot points and logical gaps.

So again I say good but not as great as I’d hoped. And let’s get some perspective here, there’s nothing here that makes you want to claw your eyes out with a gaff hook - farting Slitheen and paving slab blowjob gags I’m looking at you!


Alan said...

I'd also say that the pirates flying off at the end was reminiscent of the end of Planet of the Dead when Lady Sarah flew off in the bus.

Jim Moon said...

Good spot sir! Now I think about it it was also reminiscent of Jenny, the Doctor's daughter jetting off the stars too!

Mind you, I'd love to see the pirates return at some point :)

Lee Medcalf said...

I have to say I agree with your review of this episode Mr Moon. It was a flawed but enjoyable romp and certainly a welcome relief from the timey wimey darkness of the two part opener.

While I liked both the first and second part (with some notable issues not worth addressing here at the moment) I was left with a creeping dread that it signified the beginning of the end for Dr Who in a more populist position as the darling of the Saturday night telly.

Not wishing to sound like a Daily Mail reading idiot. But, the first two eps, had me anticipating a arc heavy season catering predominantly to the disenfranchised hardcore Who fans, driven away by RTDs more lightweight fare.

In some ways I would celebrate this return to the more sinister side of Who and certainly wouldn't lament the abandoning of Cbbc style villains like the bloody Absorbalov.

Yet one thing about this darker tone I am lamenting, is that its too much for my kids, arguably the target demographic these days. However what this episode did was allay those fears that light and fun were off the Dr Who menu any more. The kids seemed to like it too.

But away from that thorny issue, which I am sure has been discussed to death elsewhere on the interweb. My one criticism of this weeks story falls in line with your own. That the writer is plundering from past episodes.

If I were a more paranoid man, given to conspiracy theories at the drop of a hat. I'd be inclined to think that the writers of the show have a very anti medical science / medical facility attitude.

As far back as I can remember in the RTD and now Moffat run, rarely a season goes past without a medical facility or technology going bananas and creating a monster or a global catastrophe.

From the medical nanites in Moffats "Empty Child / Doctor Dances" two parter, right through to the end of Tennants run when a medical device turns the entire population of the Earth into "The Master Race". Medical facilities are frankly the most evil things in Dr Who.

Other examples of this include; the cat run hospital in "New Earth", the medical repair systems on the good ship Madame de Pompadour, in "Girl in the Fireplace", the medical procedure developed by John Lumick in "Age of Steel / Rise of the Cybermen"... The list is endless. Medicine, it seems, is not the cure in Dr Who.

Anyway, great review sir. I look forward to many more.

Jim Moon said...

Thanks for that excellent comment Mr Medcalf!

And you're bang on that new Who does seem to have something against the medical profession! Of course physicians of all stripes tend to get a bum deal in scifi - if there's a doctor, it's odds on they're are doing something mad!

But that said, Who HAS been heavy on the sinister medics front and I suspect this ties in with the recycling in this episode. Since the 2nd RTD series, they have tended to hire writers from outside of genre fiction and frequently these visitors to scifi serve up overly familiar tropes... Which explains why we get the blatant borrowing in this story or John Lumic as Trigger Does Davros and why so many stories feature menacing medicine - you can see the thinking : what's science fictiony and a bit scary? I know a mad doctor/hospital/nurse...

OF course it might just be a zeitgeist reaction to the parade of assorted health nazis infesting the media with their contradictory advice on what's good for you!

Sorry to hear the Silence were a bit much for your little 'uns - but I'm not surprised as they creeped me out a fair bit! But I was fairly confident that we'd get something lighter to follow it. Who should always be for a family audience and arguably RTD played too heavily to younger viewers, taking it too near kids show territory for many viewers.

When Moffat took over many were hoping for a horror show every week, but his first season showed that things weren't going be that different tonally - so as good as he is at the creepy stuff, I don't think he'll forget that Doctor Who is as much about humour, fun and magic.

Of course it's tough writing for all ages and I can understand why some felt the opener was tilting too far to the dark and complex. But as I've said before Who is something of an anthology show in that you tell all manner of different stories. And naturally sometimes it goes too far in one direction or another.

But as long as it keeps on being varied and steers clear of getting stuck in a rut at either end of the spectrum becoming either Fart Time With The Slitheen or Frank Miller's The Dark Doctor Strikes Again, we should be ok!