The Curse of the Black Spot

Story No. 235 The doctor
Production Code Series 6, Episode 3
Dates May 7 2011

With Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill
Written by Steven Moffat Directed by Jeremy Webb
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Piers Wenger, Beth Willis.

Synopsis: A pirate ship has come to a halt and any injury, no matter how tiny, leads to death.


A Review by E. John Winner 9/11/12

I've read a number of negative fan comments on this episode: supposedly it's too slight, too cheap, too campy, targetted for kids, and spoiled by a sentimental ending in which nobody dies.

Well, gimme a break. Yes, in many ways it's a piece of fluff. So what? Doctor Who can't do fluff? Sometimes the pretentiousness of supposedly 'serious' Who threatens to bury the series. I mean, do I really want to know about the Doctor's tragic love life, or his guilt over the Time War, or how his dark manipulations end in someone or other's death? Personally, no. But I tolerate such heavy-handed thematics in the New Series because every now and then we get some really good chills, some charming story telling magic visually realized, and, of course, some just plain fun.

The Curse of the Black Spot is just plain fun. It's a poke at pirate movies, of course, and after the gradual degradation of the Disney Pirates films into outrageous corporate self-indulgance, the pirate genre definitely needed a quick cheapie poke that, at the same time, reminded us of the humanistic themes that once made the pirate genre important to audiences back in the day. This episode is a needed reminder of such throwaway fun as Burt Lancaster's Crimson Pirate and Robert Shaw's old Buccaneer TV show: entertainments that delighted children while still bringing smiles to adults as well.

I must also say that the Doctor's entrance in this episode is a certifiable classic. "Yohoho! - or does nobody actually say that?" while Rory gives a brief wave hello; this moment is one of the highlights of the entire new series. It is Troughton on steroids and shows more Doctor savvy than much of the whole of Eccleston. Matt Smith and the creative team remind us in this brief moment that there is something inherently ridiculous about a centuries-old alien bouncing around in time and space, and that the Doctor on some level is perfectly aware of this. Indeed, the Doctor's sense of the absurdity of his existence undergirds not only much of the humor of the series (Old and New), but also much of the pathos.

The Curse of the Black Spot is the perfect set up to, and complement for, the immediately following episode, The Doctor's Wife, wherein we witness the absurdity of the Doctor's experience manifest itself in moving, near tragic ways: his hunt for other surviving Time Lords, his awkward yet deeply emotional relationship with the embodied TARDIS/Idris, the dangers he puts his companions into, the rage he feels at the end toward the powerful yet fatally small-minded House. This absurdity and its pathos is precisely why so many are charmed with the show and are willing to forgive it's occasionally (and even occasionally frequent) blunders, like the rubbish special effects of the Old Series or the rushed pacing of the New. It is exactly because the very idea of the Doctor is ridiculous that many of us believe the series matters in a way that other sci-fi/ fantasy series don't. One can get bored quickly with the technobabble and psychobabble and New Age pseudo-mysticism of the Star Trek shows, because they all lack this saving grace: None of them are inherently ridiculous. Doctor Who is. That's what makes it special.

So, there's no doubt that Curse of the Black Spot is ridiculous: grandly and utterly ridiculous. The sequence where Captain Avery eyes the TARDIS console with jaundiced skepticism - rather than with the awe or horror to be expected of a 17th Century pirate - is preposterous on the surface of it, but Smith and Hugh Bonneville remain perfectly in character and take it in their stride - even after the TARDIS sputters off into another dimension leaving them behind on the seemingly doomed pirate ship; which, when you think about it is equally preposterous.

As is the ultimate solution to the narrative, that the pirate ship has come to share the same space as a 'becalmed' space craft in a different dimension, inhabited only by a holographic physician able to keep the sick and wounded alive without actually curing them. I draw your attention to that because it is exactly the combination of absurdity and pathos I am trying to point out: the physician can seemingly work miracles, keeping the dying alive indefinitely, but cannot effect any cure; meaning her patients are doomed to remain under her care indefinitely. Utterly absurd in an existentialist way, and for that reason rich in pathos (Camus and Sartre would have loved it).

Am I stretching the 'meaningfulness' of the episode beyond the limits of an entertaining sci-fi TV show? No, I am saying that the episode is really only as meaningful as it needs to be, in order to entertain. It doesn't have to resolve any of these issues, it doesn't need to be tragic, it can actually be just some 50 minutes of 'hey, let's pop onto a pirate ship then go fly off into space!'

The 2011 season nearly imploded a couple of times because of Steven Moffat's pretentious - and confusing - 'story arc' concerning River Song. The Curse of the Black Spot was a much needed reminder that the Doctor can (and occasionally needs to) get a little silly - and just plain fun.

It's a big club. We should get t-shirts. by Evan Weston 6/8/18

So now, after clubbing us with three hugely ambitious stories in a row with varying degrees of success - from "instant classic" to "at least it's trying really hard" - Doctor Who presents us with quite possibly its most derivative episode ever. The Curse of the Black Spot, even the title, is a complete rip-off of Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean films, and it's not even trying to hide it. To make matters worse, the quality of this story is much closer to that of the latter films in the franchise, barely masking its contempt for the audience.

They say imitation is the highest form of flattery, and, to be fair, The Curse of the Black Spot looks fantastic. The color palette and tone perfectly captures the swashbuckling dread of the Pirates films, particularly the awful second installment, Dead Man's Chest. And, while it nails the high-budget look, in terms of actual plot, this story isn't much better than its overwritten inspiration. It shamelessly steals the "black spot" that marks you for dead in addition to a mysterious sea monster that sucks men to their deaths. In the second half, writer Stephen Thompson has the nerve to graft a sci-fi "traditional Doctor Who" story onto his Pirates spoof, plopping an invisible spaceship and something called a temporal rift right onto the deck of the ship. Lovely.

There isn't an original thought running through any of this. The misunderstood villain, who is given a flimsy sci-fi backstory near the end, is just an adaptation of the old maritime fairytale of the Siren, which dates all the way back to the freaking Odyssey. Rory dies for the third time in just eight appearances (and he'll do it again in the next episode), and the Amy CPR scene packs absolutely no punch whatsoever. The "it was just trying to save them/doing what it was programmed to do" cliche has been trotted out over and over again, even on Doctor Who; see The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances and The Girl in the Fireplace for far superior examples. The only intriguing element is the mirrors motif, which could have been expanded on thematically in a bunch of interesting ways but is instead just used as a plot device and then casually discarded when its usefulness is up.

It's not even like any of this pirate and spaceship stuff is exciting. Thompson has a lot to get to, so he plunges right into the thick of the plot, not even explaining why the Doctor and co. even end up on the ship. All but the most important characters are picked off quickly and efficiently within the first 10 minutes, and every development feels like a checklist in order to mechanically increase the stakes and move towards Thompson's big plot twist. It's littered with holes on the way: Rory's call to the Siren wavers on and off, there's no way the boy hid in the ship for as long as he did without being noticed, and, most appallingly, the Doctor suddenly realizes that he has to let the Siren get him in order to save everyone... exactly when the script needs him to, with absolutely no explanation as to how he came to that conclusion other than sheer desperation, which just isn't the Doctor's style.

Fortunately, the performances are pretty good, which at least means I liked the characters that were being put through the doldrums of this garbage script. Downton Abbey's Hugh Bonneville drops by for a touching guest turn as Captain Henry Avery, and, while his arc is predictable and two-dimensional, Bonneville imbues the character with a humanity that makes him relatable and easy to root for (even when he makes mistakes). Child actor Oscar Lloyd is just fine as Avery's son, getting less screen time than you'd expect at the beginning. Arthur Darvill finds himself once again pushed to the sidelines, though his inspirational speech to Amy was perhaps the highlight of the episode from a character perspective. Karen Gillan hams it up a bit during the revival, but she's generally fine and looks pretty terrific swinging around in pirate gear. Matt Smith just breezes through the episode, collecting his paycheck, a rare instance in which he fails to elevate a bad script.

The nice way to view The Curse of the Black Spot is as a silly bit of filler with some nice performances and ace production values. But it's dreadfully boring to watch due to a complete lack of meaningful set-up, and the Pirates of the Caribbean rip-off becomes far too much to bear. Doctor Who is supposed to be a show that references other material and then takes it in a completely new and unique direction; see A Christmas Carol or most of Series 7. The Curse of the Black Spot instead decides to just ape the Pirates movies, and it wouldn't look out of place right between Dead Man's Chest and At World's End in a DVD collection.


"Channel Hopping" by Thomas Cookson 25/9/20

The general consensus is that this story was a failure. Occasionally some do defend it as a sorely needed bit of fun in an otherwise grim season. But I personally lean toward the unimpressed camp.

So why wasn't its spark achieved?

Well, let's acknowledge that the story's weaknesses largely stem from its source material. The impetus for why this story was even made. New Who has often imitated popular cinema in hopes of making up for lost time.

The Master's antics in The Sound of Drums are basically the Joker's Partyman sequence in 1989's Batman, dragged out over an obnoxious hour. Presumably because Batman was a popular success the year Classic Who got cancelled. Perhaps RTD believes such desperate aping might've saved the show back then. Likewise, The Christmas Invasion's basically Independence Day with cheap shots at Bush and Thatcher.

In Moffat's era, this trend of aping popular movies intensified. Whereas RTD's aping was more nostalgic for films a 90s generation would fondly remember, Moffat became more about aping what's current. Series 5 had a strong Harry Potter feel, with some Twilight homages (Vampires of Venice). Indeed, Let's Kill Hitler and The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe's existence only made sense at all as pastiches of Inglourious Basterds and Chronicles of Narnia.

Likewise, this story only exists because of Pirates of the Carribean. Perhaps it's a story that feels bland because it's riffing on a creatively leaking film series. It'd be a cliche to say it's pointless doing a Pirates-pastiche without Johnny Depp, given he was what made the first film special. Sure we have Matt Smith here who can similarly elevate a mediocre story. But even he seems not to bring his usual spirited energy here. This might be his blandest appearance so far.

I think now that Doctor Who's become more a follower than leader of popular trends, it becomes a problem when aping the successful Pirates franchise, that itself has become directionless. Drowning in its worst excesses.

It seems a cultish mantra, which even I started believing, that the modern pop-culture zeitgeist is the only way for the show to go. To put right what the unpopular JNT years got wrong. Which is a problem when the ‘fun' popular culture that New Who worships also starts to lose its way. Running away with itself. Degenerating into tedious, boring excesses and meaningless SFX in search of a plot (or worse, a contrived cliffhanger for next entry).

We don't get much backstory to why the Pirates here loot or how they fell into criminality or what authorities they're fleeing from. We're introduced into the middle of a vignette, divorced of any wider story that might've given these characters any stakes. The problem is, none of the cast, except Karen Gillan, seem to get into the spirit of this in any memorable way. There's the vague suggestion that fatherhood has added some sense of responsibilities and integrity to the pirate captain. But either the actor isn't bringing enough here to make him more than a cliche or there's nothing on the page for him to work with. It feels more thought's gone into the sets and costumes than the characters.

Ending with the Pirates having free reign over their own starship (minus any flight training), might've been cathartic if we'd had a consistent sense of how these pirates had become pariahs and how it felt for them having nothing at home to return to. Thus affirming why this freedom of the stars was so welcome for them. There'd be a sense of both freedom and lonely bleakness to their destiny now.

There's also the fact this is clearly riffing on Girl in the Fireplace, in terms of threading together a desolate spaceship with AI ran amok, with a miniscope of an historical setting. However, Girl in the Fireplace threaded both strands together carefully and beautifully. This treats it more as an arbitrary sucker-punch twist. In fact, it's so indelicately done it feels like the two stories have more carelessly crashed into each other than anything. It does feel like they simply thought "We can do it because Girl in the Fireplace did it and it worked there."

The result is, because we're not tipped off at any point, there's no real moment where the penny drops. Certainly not like the tragicomic punchline of Girl in the Fireplace's final shot. It doesn't feel like we've uncovered a deep mystery, because the first half was neither involving or confounding enough to get us to really care that something's out of the ordinary.

I think it stayed in the fun-romp, first-gear mode for so long that it burnt out its energy in that. We struggled to get into it on those terms before it seemed to rudely lose interest, scrap its plot and start again. The only real effect the revelation about the ship laced with alien snot has is to leave the impression the makers are trying to out-gross Terminus.

Maybe the piecing together of the two stories is so far from seamless that it exposes the artifice of the construction in a way that deflates suspension of disbelief. Once we know the Siren is really just a computer medical hologram, it makes no real sense why she bears such monstrous expressions in the first half, beyond the story needing to fool us into thinking she's a Siren. Once we know the fallen pirates were being transported away and healed in sick bay rather than dead, it retroactively removes the stakes.

Actually, no. The moment the son's taken, we're tipped off there's going to be a cop-out revelation that everyone lives. Because the Doctor's so quick to be recriminating to the recently bereaved captain, I knew this couldn't be really the boy's death. Because then the Doctor would seem too inhumane here.

I'll admit Amy's desperate seconds to save Rory via CPR once he's restored to terminal was perhaps the last time I genuinely did believe and care that Rory might die for real this time. Unfortunately, after Amy proves her loyalty here, she still remains the source of the Doctor's paranoia, as he persists to scan her Schrodinger's womb.

Story arcs about suspicions and betrayals can be done well. Among my favourite moments in DS9 was Sisko learning his girlfriend Kassidy may be aiding the Maquis terrorist group. Although he wants to believe her innocence, he agrees to have her tailed. Hoping it'll silence his suspicions immediately and conclude his doubts. But it's taken time to realize why it feels so cynical in Series 6.

I initially welcomed how Moffat's era felt a faithful return to Classic Who. Unfortunately, I've realized that's because his era is basically The Android Invasion on a six-year loop. Killer astronaut suits, fake environments, doppelgangers, female companions turning treacherous assassin.

In hindsight, it was a needlessly obvious tip-off in The Android Invasion to contrive Sarah's particular distaste for ginger pop to differentiate her from her robot duplicate. Tom's Doctor and Sarah had come to know each other so well by then that we only needed guess that something tipped him off that this wasn't his Sarah, the suspense being maintained by not knowing how or when he realized.

However, with Amy, this weekly pregnancy scan becomes the only way Smith's Doctor can tell something's suspect with her. Even Lawrence Miles found this revoltingly stalkerish. It feels coldly creepy because there hasn't been the characterization and natural relationship to tip the Doctor off about Amy's bogus replacement. Sure, a Ganger duplicate wouldn't betray Amy any other way because they share the same consciousness. But that the tip-off involves scanning her female biology feels like sociopathic writing.

What are Amy's characteristics? How might a ganger glitch on them? It feels either she doesn't really have any or Moffat's been too lazy or preoccupied to consider this question and so went for the easy option. He's made this so much about being impenetrable storytelling to dumbfound his harshest adult critics that he's leaving behind the kids who might've wanted some sense of why Amy's become so amiss. Why the Doctor distrusts her. But instead the Doctor needs computers to tell him something's wrong with her, rather than instinctively knowing her by now.

To a degree, it makes sense why they're keeping secrets from each other. Because it's the easiest, laziest way to avoid upsetting the status quo in the guest scripts until crunch time. But it also suggests an unfathomably pathological, paranoid game-playing to Moffat's Doctor concerning women. Maybe it's also that Amy's written in such a damaged-goods way to suggest she's an hysterical, chirpy people-pleaser you can never entirely trust.

Series 6's arc is also heavily reminiscent of the Halloween movie franchise. The cult who abduct the female lead, forcing her pregnancy to term to create a new evil. The fixation with cliffhangers. Part of the Halloween franchise's power is that the films felt they took place in a real suburban community, marked and haunted by tragedies that approximate to our own. Defining a period of time and transitionary life experiences that almost feel like it happened to us, indenting itself on our memory.

But if Amy and Rory can just return to normal life afterwards, it indicates rather worryingly that Moffat's such a media consumer that he arrogantly thinks he can just have these shock homages work without caring about substance or emotional continuity. Hence Amy and Rory are able to walk away from Halloween 6's events like nothing happened, like they're now in a Friends episode after that experience cost them a child.

Unfortunately, it becomes clear this suspicion about Amy is the only single-minded hook to Moffat's era. It's never going to be about the emotional ramifications to her. Amy's only a point of interest because she's a time-bomb. Or pregnant.

Maybe in Series 6's awkward flitting between the thick arc and standalone non-sequiturs like this, it might've simply been difficult knowing what to make of this one. We wanted to enjoy it as a romp, but maybe we brought more to the story than it gave back. Maybe it's just hard to go with the show attempting this spirited romp, when it feels like their last adventure would've left the Ponds emotionally exhausted. Maybe it was too overt, clearly a distraction from the main business.

Maybe this episode's almost a forewarning that the season's revelations won't deliver a rewarding puzzle piece, and might prove an equally hollow anti-climax where the overstory may simply be changed on a bored writer's whim.