Saturday, May 14, 2011

Doctor Who - Season 6, Episode 3: "The Curse of the Black Spot"

"Yeah, right, 'curse.' It's big with humans. It means bad things are happening but you can't be bothered to find an explanation." - the Doctor

After two weeks of dark, breathless, arc-establishing episodes, Doctor Who returns to a more familiar tempo with the standalone "The Curse of the Black Spot." Thankfully, the episode is far less of a Pirates of the Caribbean action farce than its trailer seemed to imply, with most of the episode dedicated to solving the riddle of a perplexing entity apparently "cursing" the crew of a 17th century pirate ship. But, as usual in the Doctor's world, appearances can be deceiving.

Aboard the ship in question, Captain Henry Avery (Hugh Bonneville) and his rummy bunch have been "becalmed," stuck in the same perilous spot for eight days. They seemingly condemn a fellow crewman to death when he receives the tiniest of cuts on his hand. But when the accursed "black spot" appears on his palm, and a siren's song begins calling, the man all but willingly goes to his apparent death. These are the stakes when our adventure-seeking Doctor appears below deck, shouting "Yo-ho-ho! Or does nobody actually say that?"

From here, the episode becomes a tale of trial-and-error, as the Doctor and Captain Avery try to piece together both what the Siren is, and why and how she's doing what she's doing, before she claims them all. In the process, we get some interesting thematic material to ponder, a few connections with the season's ongoing arc, and a decent, if not spectacular, hour of television.

It seems as though Doctor Who has been playing with the idea of villains being not quite so villainous a fair amount lately. For instance, last season's "The Beast Below" appeared to show a malevolent creature infesting a ship, but was really about humanity at its worst, torturing the poor, well-intentioned beast for really no good reason. The show has also been fond of demonstrating how people's assumptions may blind them to the truth. The Silence create just such a blind spot by making people forget their very existence, and there are plenty of other less literal examples scattered throughout the revived series. Here, both of these tropes come together when we learn that the Siren is hardly a curse, as the sailors believe, but rather an automated program running in the sick bay of a spaceship. Both the spaceship and the pirate ship are trapped, like "two cars parked in the same space," only in different dimensions. Her own crew already quite dead, the "Siren" has taken human form and attempts to "save" the injured seamen she spies through the reflections that link her world with ours. The black spot being the mark left by a trans-dimensional tissue sample was another nice touch.

The Siren's true nature is a fine twist, though not entirely dissimilar to things we've seen before. The idea of sentient parts of a damaged ship, driven to our world through rigid interpretation of their programming, already occurred in Season 2's "The Girl in the Fireplace," though that story had more genuine heart than this one. I never really bought the moments when Rory's life was in danger, though I did enjoy his line to Amy after teaching her how to revive him: "I know you can do this. Of course, if you muck it up, I'm going to be really cross... and dead." And the stuff about the lure of treasure having stolen Captain Avery from his family—and subsequently making him "lose" his son to the siren—was a bit too on-the-nose. Still, it's hard not to be cheered by the image of a crew of 17th century pirates taking to the stars in an alternate-dimension spaceship.

I also like the running thread about secrets our characters keep from each other not out of malice, but out of a sense of trying to protect the other person. Captain Avery and his erstwhile wife pretend that he's still a Navy captain for their son, afraid to tell him the truth. Similarly, we get flashbacks or weighty looks whenever Rory and Amy remember that they've seen the Doctor die, but realize they can't tell him (Those knowing glances are one plot device that's already getting old fast). And, for the second episode in a row, the show closes with the Doctor poring over Amy's scan, trying to make sense out of how she could be both pregnant and not pregnant. Given that the episode involves two ships being in the same place at the same time, is it possible that something similar has happened with Amy, or is that a red herring?

This week also heralded another appearance by the mysterious woman with an eyepatch, who opens impossible windows near Amy before vanishing without a trace. Previously, we saw her in the asylum in "Day of the Moon," and here she pops up and tells someone (presumably Amy, but we all know how fruitless assumptions can be) that "It's fine. You're doing fine. Just stay calm." Something about her appearances reminds me of The Library from Steven Moffat's Season Four two-parter... could we be dealing with a similar virtual space? Both "Amy's Choice" and Season Five's two-part finale dealt with worlds constructed out of someone's thoughts and memories... it wouldn't be too out of the ordinary for this to be happening here.

Overall, "The Curse of the Black Spot" is a perfectly fine addition to the Who canon. It's dark, mysterious, and full of enjoyably comic lines, even if the drama has a strange weightlessness that I can't quite explain away. The idea about mirrors providing gateways to other worlds is a suitably Moffat-esque childhood-fantasy-turned-scary, even though Stephen Thompson is the credited writer. Upon rewatching, I could see where he and episode director Jeremy Webb provided many clues pointing to the treasure and reflections as threats, but they certainly aren't obvious on first watch, which shows skill.

I'm just not sure we travel very much ground with our main characters from the episode's start to its conclusion. It's fun to watch the Doctor improvising as his theories get blown away, but otherwise there's nothing here we haven't seen before, especially between Rory and Amy. I like both characters (and the actors who play them) very much, so I do hope they start being used better soon. I'm also looking forward to next week's (okay, TONIGHT's) Neil Gaiman-penned episode. The dark fantasy tone Moffat has brought to Who definitely suits the show, and Gaiman fits well within that milieu. Til then!

Notes and Quotes

  • I thought Lily Cole was a good choice to play the Siren. She is a very interesting-looking person, and has a sort of ethereal quality that works well with her role.
  • Some great lines for the Doctor tonight: 
    • Trying to explain how he and his companions got on the ship: "Well, I want to say multidimensional engineering, but since you had a problem with “sensors,” I won't go there..."
    • Debating breaking a mirror to prevent the Siren getting in: "Yes, yes, I know, I know, very bad luck to break it, but look at it this way. There's a stroppy, homicidal mermaid trying to kill all..."
    • Describing the TARDIS's controls to Captain Avery: "That does 'Very, very complicated,' that does 'Sophisticated,' that does 'WHOA...amazing!' and THAT does 'Whizz, bang, far too technical to explain.' "
  • Has anyone else noticed that Matt Smith's Doctor seems far more willing to take people with him in the TARDIS than the previous two incarnations? River, Canton Delaware, Captain Avery, Van Gogh, even Nasreen from the Silurian two-parter last season...
  • I enjoyed the bewitched Rory's drugged-out ramblings: "Everything is totally brilliant, isn't it? Ah? Look at these brilliant pirates, look at their brilliant beards!I'd like a beard. I'm gonna grow a beard!"
  • We never see the final wounded pirate get claimed by the Siren. When the Doctor and Capt. Avery return to the armoury, he's already gone with no explanation. Was this another BBCAmerica edit?
  • The Siren has some interesting similarities with the Doctor, in that they're both powerful beings from somewhere else who are trying to help but are often mistaken for threats. I wonder if that will play into the season's arc at some point.

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