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“The Curse of the Black Spot” Review (VERY MINOR SPOILERS)

by on May 9, 2011

After the grandiose and often confusing two-part opening to the new series of Doctor Who, I was absolutely looking forward to “The Curse of the Black Spot,” not simply because it looked like a bit of fun, but because I’m always excited to see The Doctor & Co. go places we haven’t seen before (at least not for a super long time).  For all the fun and promise of the prequel and trailer, and having a decent premise, the episode itself felt strangely underwhelming.

The pirate ship setting was a good one, though clearly a ploy to capitalize on the worldwide love of pirates, and the setup was very strong; a small group of people in the middle of nowhere being picked off one by one by a monster.  It harkens back to one of my favorite stories from the classic era, “Horror of Fang Rock,” wherein a small lighthouse island is besieged by a shape-shifting alien. The concept of the Siren, or sailors succumbing to the Siren’s song, has perpetuated in myths throughout history, so including it was a no-brainer.  I’d also like to point out how pleased I was we didn’t see a Kraken.  I’ve had it up to here with Krakens.

The performances were good. Matt Smith’s got this weird twitchy thing now that he didn’t have in the earlier parts of series 5 but he’s sort of, I guess, sprightly; he titters about.  It’s interesting. Anyway, he was good.  Arthur Darvill got to do a bit of comic stuff, which he does very nicely, though I’m getting a little annoyed with Rory becoming the Kenny of Doctor Who. Is it possible that we could not pretend that he dies anymore? All tension is lost when you’ve seen it four times already. Karen Gillan got to do her patented “I’m-a-hot-tough-girl-ooh-aren’t-you-all-impressed” thing, which I also enjoyed.  She’s definitely grown as an actress since the last series, and I thought she was good then. She does a lot more with subtle facial expressions now.  Toward the end of the episode, when the Doctor gets something gross on his hands (you know what it is) and he has a hissy about it, he wipes it on Amy’s pirate coat and she gives a very funny, underplayed look that conveyed both her disgust at what he’s done and her total expectation of him doing something like that.

The supporting cast was, unfortunately, a little thin.  With the exception of Hugh Bonneville as the pirate captain, who was quite good, the other members of the cast were largely forgettable; granted, they didn’t have much in the way of characters to play, but were really just Spot-fodder.  Oscar Lloyd, who played young Toby (there’s always a Toby, isn’t there?), and Lily Cole, who played the Siren, were okay. The only other character who could have been halfway interesting was the ship’s first mate, who strangely disappears halfway through the episode. One minute he’s there with a spot on his hand, the next he’s gone and we never saw what happened to him. That, friends, is called “poor editing.”

The direction, by new director to the series Jeremy Webb, was passable.  It’s definitely hard to follow up five episodes in a row of Toby Haynes, so I give credit to Webb for doing as good a job as he did.  The ship set itself was very nice and the costumes, designed by legendary costume designer Barbara Kidd, who designed for the Pertwee, Baker, and Davison eras, were exceptional.  I wonder how long the meeting was when they decided to put Amy in a pirate outfit as quickly as possible. Maybe 30 seconds?

The script, by Stephen Thompson, uses all of the typical pirate movie tropes, including the plank, stowaways, mutinies, treasure, storms, people going overboard, beards… were there any eye patches? Oh yeah… Regardless, Thompson throws all the piratey stuff at us and then throws the Doctor in the middle of that. I think it’s important for the pseudo-historical episodes that the audience be familiar with the surroundings so that the Doctor’s not trying to explain the supernatural as well as the circumstantial.  However, we get to the point where we can predict all of the characters’ actions. It does take away some of the tension when you go, “Oh, this guy’s going to mutiny now. Yep, there he goes, mutinying away.” The thing I sometimes object to with Doctor Who is that everything always has to be explained by aliens or alien spacecraft.  I understand it’s a sci-fi show, and I have no problem with the threats always being alien-based, but it seems too often lately they have to go aboard a new spaceship.

So the Silurians were the indigenous people on Earth, the Silence have been around for millions of years, and all manner of random aliens in sophisticated vehicles are at various places on the planet at any given moment?  We can’t possibly be that interesting, or near anything that important.  How self-centered are we that we think if aliens existed, and probably they do somewhere, that they’d look at us and go, “yep, that’s where I’m-a goin’!” At any rate, it’s much easier to believe a lone alien or small group of them crash or get stranded, but huge ships can’t be all over the place all the time; they’d start fighting each other, or at least bumping into each other. That’s an episode I’d like to see: one where there’s the actual alien threat, but throughout, we see them getting in the way of all the other alien mini-threats that are happening all the time. So not only does the Doctor have to stop the big menace, but he has to placate and subdue a bunch of other, just-visiting aliens who act like hotel guests getting bad service.  Someone get the Moff Man on the horn and pitch that idea to him. I can have it written in like a week.

Back to the matter at hand, “The Curse of the Black Spot” felt very much like a diversion, probably purposely so.  The original plan, from what I understand, was to have Mark Gatiss’ episode third, but likely his is heavier and they needed a lighter one, so Gatiss’ was moved to episode nine, which will air in the fall, and they had to commission and shoot Thompson’s episode toward the end of the shooting schedule and stick it in.  As such, it kind of felt like a distraction.  It certainly was not a bad episode, in fact I even enjoyed watching it on second viewing, but it was kind of just a bit of fluff to hold us over until next week when we get to see Neil Gaiman’s episode, something I’ve been looking forward to for two years now.

And now, the trailer and two clips for episode 4, “The Doctor’s Wife.”

Can’t wait for next week!
-Kanderson feels a bit spotty
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