Andrew East takes to the high seas and revisits The Curse of the Black Spot.
When I first watched The Curse of the Black Spot I remember being underwhelmed. It was broadcast after the epic two-part opener to Series 6 and felt, as a consequence, a little flimsy. I anticipated that, watched in isolation, free of the rather heavy arc elements of Series 6, it might stand up a little better. To some extent, I was right.
I love Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl – a clear influence on this story right down to the eventual title (it’s working title was apparently Siren which is fairly non-descript and not the punchy, attention grabbing style that Steven Moffat has confessed to preferring). I even like the three sequels – Dead Man’s Chest, World’s End and On Stranger Tides (yes, even that one).
In general I do like pirates and all the trappings Moffat talks about in the accompanying Confidential, and The Curse of the Black Spot is probably the closest we’ve ever got to anything resembling the clichéd view of pirates in Doctor Who. So why do I only feel partly inclined to like this story?
The pirates are good – Hugh Bonneville as Captain Avery is great (I love his stuff in the TARDIS) and Lee Ross as the Boatswain walks a fine line between believable and ‘ooooaaarrrr’. The rest of the crew are fairly generic but get dispatched so quickly you don’t really have time to worry about their characterisation – they’re just ‘red shirts’ really (oh my a Star Trek reference – bad Who fan, bad Who fan). The pirate ship is gorgeous and the night shoot lends the whole caper a good, spooky atmosphere.
The central plot of two ships existing side by side with the Siren being a medical interface from the alien ship is a fun one and the Siren herself is suitably spooky (although I don’t particularly like the ‘angry’ effect they create for her – they do something to Lily Cole’s eyes that just looks wrong somehow. I think it would have been far more effective to just have her turn red and let the ‘emotion’ come through Cole’s acting).
I like the stuff with Toby. I know some fans have issues with Steven Moffat including so many children as central characters in his stories, but I like it. I don’t think any of the child actors so far have been poor and have held their own admirably against much more experienced actors. I think having children central to a show which has a core audience of children makes eminent sense. They’re not the focus obviously – most children watching want to see the Doctor having adventures – but they need to be there, next to the Doctor sharing those adventures with him from time to time.
I think the problem is the pacing. It is an issue I find I am realising I am having with quite a lot of the new series, ever since its return in 2005. The 45 minute format is one which just seems to constantly restrict authors and what happens is that story’s often feel rushed. It is highlighted more so when episodes are allowed that little bit of extra time – The Eleventh Hour or Asylum of the Daleks, or even the Christmas Specials. None of those have ever struck me as having a problem with their pacing. And it’s not all the 45 minute episodes either. But The Curse of the Black Spot is one of those which seems to suffer from being squeezed into this time limit. It’s all the more evident in this episode because of one specific incident – the missing Boatswain.
Towards the end of the story, the Boatswain – a fairly major character up to that point – just disappears without a word. None of the other characters refer to him and eventually he is just ‘there’ in the final scenes of the pirates aboard the alien spaceship. Apparently there was a sequence, edited out because of time constraints, where the Boatswain was clapped in irons and, on escaping, is taken by the Siren. The Brilliant Book 2012 comments on his disappearance and says that his absence simply allows us to assume he’s been taken. But we shouldn’t have to just assume. That is sloppy storytelling. If Avery or the Doctor had said – where’s the Boatswain, or we had a brief scene of him and a blue light – much as we have for the other remaining pirate, Mulligan, then yes, as an audience, we can put two and two together and continue with the plot. But when a character simply drops off the page it just seems sloppy.
The other problem I think is the desire the production team had to include every pirate cliché in the story meaning there was possibly a tad too much to fit in – although goodness knows what it would have been like if we’d had the early draft featuring an army of militia as well as the pirates and the TARDIS crew.
But, there are lots of fun things in this episode, so let’s focus on those. This story is a romp and that’s what I love about it. Amy’s swashbuckling, the Doctor walking the plank, Rory’s seduction by the Siren (I love the ‘brilliant’ bit he does early in the episode). I like the fact that the Doctor keeps getting the situation wrong and has to revise his advice to the others. Having the Doctor slightly on the back foot is always a bit refreshing (Midnight did it too, but showed us the far more chilling side to a situation like that).
The end of the story with the drowning and resuscitation of Rory is a good ending, although apparently it was originally going to be Amy in the drink but was swapped because Amy was ‘nearly dying’ too many times that Series. How ironic that they swapped it to Rory who, far more than Amy, is now linked to the running joke that he always dies in Doctor Who – so much so it was even a gag in their final story, The Angels Take Manhattan.
Looking at the episode historically we have, of course, Captain Henry Avery – a real pirate who did indeed disappear in around 1696. The tradition of Doctor Who giving its own conclusion to history’s mysteries is something I enjoy immensely and I do quite like the idea of true ‘space pirates’ gallivanting around the galaxy and getting up to all sorts of piratey mischief. I know we briefly see Avery and Toby in A Good Man Goes to War, but it would be fun to revisit the whole crew properly at some point in the future.
The Brilliant Book of 2012 give a little summary of Captain Avery’s real life travels in the years running up to his disappearance, and for all the cliché present in the episode itself, it's pleasing to have this factual undertone to the story.
The mystery of his missing treasure is also a link to the First Doctor adventure The Smugglers, which sees pirates and smugglers hunting for the lost treasure of Captain Avery. Unintentional on Stephen Thompson, the writer’s, part, the fact that this story serves as a prequel to The Smugglers is wonderful and why I love the fact that Doctor Who has such a rich and interwoven universe to play in.
Ultimately, The Curse of the Black Spot is a fun romp through Pirate Land with the odd interesting character spot thrown in (Avery’s greed and abandonment of his family for example) and it stands as one of those middle of the road stories which entertain but don’t expect too much of the audience.
A primary school teacher and father of two, Andrew finds respite in the
worlds of Doctor Who, Disney and general geekiness. Unhealthily obsessed
with Lance Parkin’s A History, his Doctor Who viewing marathon
is slowly following Earth history from the Dawn of Time to the End of
the World. He would live in a Disney theme park if given half the