The Curse of the Black Spot (Doctor Who series 6, episode 3)

[A revised and improved version of this essay appears in my book The Eleventh Doctor: a critical ramble through Matt Smith’s tenure in Doctor Who.]

WARNING: spoilers from the start.

Read on if you’ve seen the episode.

They’re all the ingredients you need for a classic Doctor Who episode.  Set it during a classic, resonant period of British history.  Present the Doctor with a terrifying threat, one that takes people with a seeming inevitability, and that plays on deep fears.  Have the threat inflict a mysterious physical mark on those affected (though the mark will be explained later).  Bring in a captain with a past: a lovable rogue, someone who’s deserted the respected organisation he used to work for and gone renegade, but who still retains a heart of gold.  Rack up the fear by making the threat appear increasingly powerful and implacable.  Then pull the rug away, and reveal that all along it was trying to help — that it was an alien medical programme that went off the rails when trying to deal with humans. In the end, it turns out that the key to resolving everything that’s gone wrong is to willingly touch the threat — which isn’t a monster after all — even though up till now, avoiding touching it has been paramount.  With the Doctor’s insight, the alien medic can be made a threat no longer, the damage it’s done can be reversed; and, just this once, everybody lives!

But enough about The Empty Child.  Let’s talk about The Curse of the Black Spot instead.

It’s pretty clear that the brief this time around was to keep it self-contained and comprehensible — in contrast to the whirlwind impenetrability of the opening two-parter, The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon.  “Give us pirates”, the writer was presumably told, “and plenty of ‘em”.  All the classic tropes are there — the stowaway, the mutiny, the fatal love of treasure, the captain who is not quite beyond redemption, the eponymous black spot, and of course walking the plank.  (Did real pirates ever make their victims walk the plank?  You’ll often hear that it’s a baseless myth, but it seems that it did sometimes happen.)  The threat in this case is provided by the siren, a mythical being that sings sailors to their deaths.  A bit of a mix of mythologies, but there you go.

Can all those elements be tied together into a coherent whole?  And is that whole a Doctor Who story?  With reservations, yes to the first question; without reservations, yes to the second.  It does feel as though there’s slightly too much going on for forty-five minutes, though, and as a result the mutiny subplot feels rushed and doesn’t really go anywhere.  One of the two mutineers (yes, it’s a very small mutiny) never leaves in the gunpowder room, so far as I can tell, and is still there as the story ends, with The Doctor, Amy and Rory in the TARDIS and the captain and his son and crew on the alien ship.  Presumably he just stays there till he dies of thirst.  (Or did I miss something?)

That is one of only two gaps in the plot — and the less important of the two, since it’s not really relevant to anything else that goes on.  The more significant one, which does bother me, is this: why do the Doctor, Amy and the captain appear unfettered and upright on the alien ship?  Everyone who’s been taken before them appears immobile, wired into the alien life-support system.  That seems just careless to me: it wouldn’t have been too hard to have the Doctor produce some explanation along the lines that the ship was treated them differently because they admitted themselves voluntarily, but if it was in there then I missed it.

I’m not sure how much I resent that plot-hole.  I  wonder whether the RTD era accustomed us so thoroughly to the idea that Doctor Who didn’t have to make sense that now we think it’s good if an episode mostly makes sense.  That can’t be healthy, can it?  Surely it’s not too much to ask that every episode should make perfect sense?  Or, to be more precise for a serial, that everything unexplained in a given episode should be explained by the end of the season.  I often say that the worst thing Bill Gates ever did to the world is habituate people to the idea that Computers Are Unreliable And That’s Just How It Is — that a daily reboot and a yearly reinstall are part of the nature of the universe.  I’d hate to think that Russell has similarly made me think that two or three Hey Wait That Doesn’t Make Sense moments per episode are par for the course in Who.  Back in the days when we didn’t know who Steven Moffat was, I remember being delighted by the plotting of The Empty Child — that a mystery so obscure turned out to have a resolution that, in story terms, made such sense, was so neat.  Now that he’s Who Supremo, I want him to hold all the scripts to that standard.  And it would have been so easy to fix this one so that it did.

Well.  Now I am whining.  Which isn’t really fair.  I thoroughly enjoyed Black Spot, especially the Doctor’s (very proper and scientific) readiness to abandon his previous theories when they were shown to be wrong.  It was certainly a much better introduction to the show than either of the previous episodes would have been for a newcomer.  And yet, already I find myself  longing for the greater reach, if not grasp, of those first two episodes, which I am liking more as they continue to percolate through my mind.  I like the idea that, hey, this is Doctor Who, we could go anywhere, do anything.  It’s a wonderful thing that the show can encompass huge sprawling half-resolved epics like those and little self-contained chamber episodes like Black Spot.  It needs both, and this was a good example of the latter done well.

Lily Cole as the siren, with that distinctive nasty little mouth that made her so convincing early in the episode when she was meant to be perceived as a monster who was attractive only to the infected people under her spell.

A final thought, apropos of nothing.  We know that River Song is going to kill the best man she ever knew.  You know who’s a good man?  Rory.  Just saying.

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13 responses to “The Curse of the Black Spot (Doctor Who series 6, episode 3)

  1. “But enough about The Empty Child. Let’s talk about The Curse of the Black Pearl instead.”
    -> Oooops !

    Sure the episode was cute but I thought it felt bland in comparison with the two first episodes, which were such intellectually delectable. The subplots didn’t really get anywhere as you said (by the way I didn’t realize the fate of “the lost sailor” until you pointed it out, I had quite a laugh then). There was really a lack of interesting moments during the episode, with the final reanimation scene trying to remedy that, and failing miserably. This episode has no obvious sin, but no obvious win either.

    [Mike says: thanks for spotting the Pearl/Spot thinko; now fixed.]

  2. This was one of the few episodes of the modern Doctor Who that really reminds me that this is fundamentally a show for children. If you watch the Confidential for this episode Moffat says he wanted to throw everything people (read: kids) like about pirates. There’s the plank, the “arrrr” language, sword fights, etc. Sure, I wish there would have been more of the long-term plot but I’m an adult and I’m sure my kids will love the heck out of this episode without caring about the Heisen-pregnancy and the Doctor’s death.

  3. When the siren was enticing the ones who were marked with sound I thought the obvious thing to try would be to disrupt the sound somehow, perhaps with some sonic device that could create a sonic interference.
    Kinda funny to have a sonic screwdriver that can do so much except for something that actually has to do with sound.

  4. These “filler” episodes can feel a bit thin, but they have one major thing going for them: No River Song.
    I think it’s worth it.

  5. Maarten Daalder

    Why do I fear that this will all be a dream?
    Especially because that lady behind the window (colliding universes again?) said something to that effect in episode 1/2 (‘she is still sleeping’ or something like that, will have to watch again to be sure).

    Not sure what would be worse, that Amy wakes up, or that some timey-wimey-deusy-exy-machinamy revert all changes solution at the end of the season. Perhaps that Dreamlord still has them in his grasp?

  6. Maarten, I think everyone loathes But It Was All A Dream so much that Moffat would never dare use it unless he had a very new twist. Eyepatch woman definitely indicates that something is not as it seems, but I am confident that the episodes we’re watching now will not get un-happened.

  7. Maarten,

    I think the eyepatch woman is someone observing from outside the timeline. Are you sure she’s talking about Amy sleeping. Maybe she’s referring to the quantum baby?

    I agree with Mike too. Moffat worked hard to make last year’s season ending big reset not really be a big reset that unhappenseverthing (hence his constant referral to Rory’s time as a Roman). I’m sure he won ‘t do it this year either.

  8. What about the Amy thing? There was a thing that ties back to the season’s story arc where Amy once again saw the weird one-eyed lady peering in at her through a portal that (again) turned out not to be there.

    Also, the spaceship and the pirate ship occupying roughly the same space but on different “dimensional planes” is an allusion to Stones of Blood. The same sort of thing happened there. It even had a dead crew and an immensely powerful computerized agent still running. In that adventure, the Doctor had more time so he could repeatedly explain (much as you might have to do for someone on their first visit to the Restaurant at the End of the Universe) that yes, the whole thing is patently absurd.

    Jason: I like the name “quantum baby”. To me, the baby/not-baby clearly represents a paradox. I.e., IF the baby exists, then a set of circumstances will arise that causes the baby to now not exist, but if the baby DOES NOT exist, a set of circumstances will arise that cause the baby to exist.

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  9. Ah the return of Doctor Who reviews… love it!

    Yes, the basic story outline is very familiar, for Doctor Who and other episodic science fiction, such as Star Trek. It has always kind of bothered me, just a touch, in the very back of my brain, when all the fighting and struggle has been completely in vain; if the principals had only given in to the antagonist at the start, all would have been fine. But only a little; really this episode was a treat of character moments and scenes.

    As to the two plot holes, I say meh. I didn’t even notice problem of the other mutineer. The second, the problem of the Doctor, et al just waking up on the floor, I did notice, but it really didn’t bother me. Both are barely relevant to the plot, and one can instantly wrap one’s brain around a solution and move on.

    I’m a bit tired of the “let’s kill off Rory, no gotcha just kidding” gag. I didn’t believe it for a second, and it’s really lost its impact. Otherwise, I enjoyed the threads of the series overall plot, that this episode wasn’t quite in a bottle.

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