Traversing these stormy waters in the Good Ship SS Bensalhia, we're coming to the midway point of the Eleventh Doctor's voyage.
Having visited past destinations such as Venice, Starship UK and Leadworth, and having done hearty battle with rum baddies such as the Daleks, the Silurians and Murray's Pompous Choir, looking back in the ship's log, it's notable how that queasy feeling of déjà vu can creep into one or two stories. The big reboot of The Big Bang recalls the end of Last Of The Time Lords. The Vampires Of Venice felt like State Of Decay and School Reunion, but with false teeth. And now, one more adventure to chalk up to experience is The Curse Of The Black Spot.
Black Spot is interesting in that it deliberately rides in the wave of the storm that is The Impossible Astronaut/Day Of The Moon. Instead of finding out about the various mysteries posed in that ambitious two-parter, the Doctor suggests that it would be more fun travelling and having one-off adventures instead. Which is a disappointment for those who want answers. You'll have to wait just a bit longer, ya scurvy dogs.
There's fleeting glimpses of Amy's possible pregnancy and that lurking eye-patch woman. But instead, most of the action takes the Doctor and co to a 17th century pirate ship where its terrified crew are quaking at some weird floating ghost woman thing called a Siren, who's apparently disintegrating anyone who has the rotten luck to have a black spot on their hand.
In other words, it's a light-hearted diversion from the main dilemma of the season. Depending on where you stand with Steven Moffat's timey wimey puzzles, this is either a blessed relief or a rather pointless intrusion.
The problem I have with Black Spot though is that I feel like I've seen this sort of thing a million times before. The main plot – an alien entity tries its best to make sense of a medical virus – is a bit too similar to the far superior Empty Child/Doctor Dances two-parter for my liking. Inevitably, Everybody Lives. Yet again. Just when you think you've made headway with a bit of scary death in Impossible Moon, Black Spot comes and chucks a cup of rum in your face with a raucous laugh.
While we're on this subject, the idea of apparently dead people being transported to an alien ship echoes the fate of the hapless gameshow contestants in Bad Wolf/Parting Of The Ways. Although fortunately for the victims in Black Spot, they're not used for meat processing as they were with the Daleks.
Other familiar stuff. Yet another pipsqueak in the form of Toby Avery, who's stowed away on the ship to be with his father (after his mother had passed away). Doctor Who's had so many kid actors running around lately – even more than in Sylvester McCoy's time when the likes of Stellar, Squeak and the Dalek kid skipped across the screen. You could fill three large playgrounds with the amount of NuWho kids, but the problem is, Toby's just another mildly annoying scamp whose only function is to intrude on the action.
Let's not forget yet another example of Rory Dies But Doesn't Really. The hapless goon is apparently another victim of the Siren, but it turns out that “His brain is still active, but all its cellular activity is suspended” on board an alien spaceship. Various commentators have commented that the writers seem to be making Rory the equivalent of Kenny from South Park, and they wouldn't be far from the truth. It's a ridiculous charade, and suggests that the writers either have short memories or are ripping the piss big time (and it's not the last time that this will happen this season either). It's a bit of a shame – generally, the writers are giving Rory more to do (after he's attained hero status at the end of the last season) and are making him into a more believable, likeable character rather than a clichéd scaredy-cat. The whole Oh My God, They Killed Rory – Again schtick is proving to be tiresome in that it's both unoriginal and a regression for the character.
The déjà-vu isn't just confined to Doctor Who motifs of alien technology going on the blink/people not really dying/annoying kids. The same old pirate clichés are trotted out with weary ennui, and it's everything you'd expect really. Pirate hats. Swords. Beards (“Look at their brilliant beards,” gushes Rory. “I'd like a beard. I'm going to grow a beard!” - well, you won't have long to wait Rory...). The scraggy old pirates are exactly the same thing you'd see in any average pirate TV movie of the week – which is also a problem, given that the pirate backdrop is old hat, coming so soon after the never-ending Pirates Of The Caribbean yawnfests. Doctor Who's only just jumped on the pirate bandship a few years too late.
The characterisation is all over the shop. Take Captain Henry Avery – your archetypal pirate in that he likes his treasure and has liked the odd bit of mass murder. The problem with that is we're supposed to identify with this heartless ruffian by making him a bit likeable as well. He uses a pretty flimsy excuse for going from a respected naval officer and a father and husband through to the scourge of the sea (“I've set my course now. Nothing I can do to alter it.”). He also goes from being a greedy pig through to a remorseful wreck in the blink of an eye after Toby's vanished into the ether. “You couldn't give up the gold, could you?” bellows the Doctor at the blubbing wretch before him. “That's why you turned pirate. Your commission. Your wife. Your son. Just how much is that treasure worth to you man?” While I'm not advocating that Avery should feel no remorse, it feels like a convenient change of heart after his roguish ways. If the reverse was true, then it would be a bit like showing Captain Birds Eye go from being a cuddly, old-fashioned grandfather figure to a ruthless mass murderer, stabbing innocent sea travellers as if he were gulleting a fish for his tea. The two extremes of Avery's character don't quite tally somehow.
Luckily, the Doctor's on better form. It's nice to have an adventure in which the Doctor's rock-solid theories don't quite hold water – in this case, literally. “You said she uses water like a door,” challenges Avery to the Doctor. “That's how she enters a room.” To which at least the Doctor has the good grace to admit “I was wrong. Please ignore all my theories up to this point!” It's worth wondering what his predecessor would have made of such a goof – the shout-o-meter would presumably have increased 100 to the dozen. In actual fact, second time around, he does get it right, after Mulligan becomes the latest 'victim'. It's all to do with reflection (“She attacks ships filled with treasure – where else do you get a perfect reflection?”), and since water reflects, it's easy to understand why the Doctor reached his original conclusion.
As well as this conundrum, he's still musing on the puzzle of Amy's pregnancy at the end of the story (while calling Amy, Amelia: a sure sign of worry). This fallible side of the Doctor is a taster for how things will pan out this season, and how the Time Lord sometimes seems to be falling back on his reputation (such as in the climax of A Good Man Goes To War), a reputation that he looks to shed by the season finale. Not only does this prove to be a successful contrast with the confident Tenth Doctor, it harks back to the days of Patrick Troughton's Doctor, who at times, looked as if he had bitten off far more than he could chew. Matt Smith again excels, combining the more vulnerable side of the Doctor with moral outrage (his outburst to Avery's greed) and good old-fashioned swashbuckling humour (“Look, I'm the Doctor, this is Amy, Rory – we're pirates, same as you. Haaarrggghhh!”).
It's a plus point that the production team weren't treating Likeable Amy as a one-off fluke. She's still at her feisty best, when she's wielding a whopping great sword, but as with her reaction to the Doctor's 'death' in Impossible Moon, she also displays genuine emotion when reacting to Rory's 'death'. Incidentally, when I keep having to refer to death in inverted quote marks, this is not a good sign. But back to Amy, and again, top performance from Karen Gillan, who really has found her groove as the feisty but good-hearted companion. Although having said that, I don't think I'd trust Amy to bring anyone back from the dead, since her resuscitation skills are rubbish. Rory relies on her not to give up, and yet she gives a few measly attempts at CPR before collapsing in a blubbing wreck.
Someone give this girl a job on Holby City, now!
As ever, the production values are as shiny and new as the gold in Captain Avery's treasure chest. It seems that modern Doctor Who can't put a foot wrong with its visuals these days, and newcomer Jeremy Webb hits the Black Spot with his assured, confident direction. The location filming at Cornwall adds an extra dimension to the action, and both the sets and visual effects are very good indeed – even the ethereal effects of the Siren (basically model Lily Cole snarling in a golden halo).
The acting is generally fine from the supports – Hugh Bonneville steals the show, but there are also some good performances from Michael Begley as Mulligan and Lee Ross (better known as Owen Turner, yet another victim of Lucas the Freak from EastEnders) as the Boatswain.
It's a shame that the high production values and the strong acting couldn't have been put to better use. The Curse Of The Black Spot is reasonably exciting if undemanding pirate fare, but there's no real attempt at doing something innovative or interesting. All the traditional pirate and Doctor Who elements are in place, but at the same time, it's lacking something fresh and exciting to make it stand out from the crowd.
* Doctor Who logs charting the voyages of the Third to Eighth Doctors, are available at Amazon, me hearties!
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