[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.
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.