The Curse of the Black Spot

Yo ho ho! Or does nobody actually say that?

The Eleventh Doctor

Synopsis

There’s terror on the high seas, as the Doctor is stranded on a pirate ship where he must face an apparently deadly Siren…

Review

The Curse of the Black Spot is one of those episodes of Doctor Who which has a poor reputation. Whilst it is definitely not the greatest episode, it probably doesn’t entirely deserve it. It is, perhaps unfortunate in where it falls, between an epic conspiracy thriller two-parter written by Steven Moffat and The Doctor’s Wife written by Neil Gaiman, two of the strongest stories in this series. As a result, it can feel a bit sandwiched in, and the fact that it was moved relatively late in production into the first half of the series perhaps doesn’t work to its best advantage.

This episode is definitely an example of Doctor Who trying to grab onto what an idea they know to be popular in the moment, in this case, the Pirates of the Caribbean inspired popularity of pirate movies, and this story was released the year after the fourth installment of the successful Disney franchise, On Stranger Tides. This is by no means the first or the last time that Doctor Who, or television and film has done something like this – Mark Gatiss’ Sleep No More attempts to bring the trappings of a found footage horror movie to Doctor Who, whilst in mainstream cinema, one of the most prominent examples must be the James Bond franchise with Moonraker, which was a response to the success of a small film called Star Wars. Regardless of the medium, responses like this almost always feel rushed, an attempt to catch up with a cultural zeitgeist when popular culture trends are ever-changing.

The story whizzes through some of the usual clichés you’d expect to see in a pirate story – a sword fight, the Doctor walking the plank – and then seems to settle down into a bit of mediocrity. It feels as though this wouldn’t feel out of place in a Classic Who season, with the story focused on one location and feeling like the budget has been spent elsewhere. Additionally, writer Steve Thompson never brings any kind of flair to the story and it feels very much like retreading old ideas, and whilst there are some good beats here, I think it needed another pass over before the cameras began to roll. The spaceship being ‘parked’ in the same space as Avery’s ship is a good one, but it does feel vaguely similar to the windows we see in The Girl in the Fireplace. Whilst I think the plot twists here are okay – that the Siren can travel through reflections and not just water, and the reveal of the spaceship – it really feels like they needed to be smoothed out a little more. Jeremy Webb does a competent job directing this, and I think he manages to make the black spot feel like something to be frightened of consistently, whilst the VFX work on the Siren still stands up. I would have liked more context for where they are supposed to be becalmed though – Webb gives us big establishing shots, but little sense of geography.

If there is a definitive plus in this story, it can certainly be found in the shape of Hugh Bonneville’s Henry Avery. Bonneville certainly wouldn’t be anyone’s first choice if asked to play a pirate, however, Avery is perhaps a more nuanced character and the story focuses on the reasons why the Captain turned pirate rather than providing us with a one-dimensional bad guy. Bonneville never loses sight of this and there is a sense of melancholy here, in conflict with his love of treasure and gold, see by his objections to the Doctor getting rid of the treasure on board to stop the Siren from being able to materalise through the reflections, even when he believes that it will kill his son, Toby. Bonneville and Matt Smith have some great chemistry and their scenes butting heads as Captains of their respective vessels are great. I particularly love the fac that Avery can identify how the TARDIS works, as he has had enough experience of ships to know that they all work the same. There are some bad lines in here, but Bonneville manages to make most of them work well, but he is really the only guest character to feel real. The rest of his crew and Toby, his son, feel very one-dimensional and as if they are just there to be injured and taken by the Siren. Lily Cole looks ethereal and alien, but the part of the Siren isn’t the most demanding.

As mentioned above, Matt Smith is at his best when dealing with Hugh Bonneville’s Avery, but he adds some nice moments in there too – like when they are on the spaceship and he finds the TARDIS, giving it a big hug. I feel like Amy and Rory don’t have an awful lot to do after the first fifteen minutes or so, but I do like this TARDIS team and seeing Amy fight pirates – albeit very inexperienced, and against pirates who don’t want to get hurt themselves – is a great moment. Darvill is probably the weakest served by this, being marked for death early, which feels like a mistake given how likable and charming he is. It would be interesting to see how this story would have played out had it been Amy and not Rory who had been injured, but then that would probably have taken away the peril of the CPR scene at the end.

Verdict: The Curse of the Black Spot feels very by the numbers, but it is elevated by the performance of guest actor Hugh Bonneville. 4/10

Cast: Matt Smith (The Doctor), Karen Gillan (Amy Pond), Arthur Darvill (Rory Williams), Hugh Bonneville (Henry Avery), Oscar Lloyd (Toby Avery), Lee Ross (The Boatswain), Michael Begley (Mulligan), Tony Lucken (De Florres), Chris Jarman (Dancer), Carl McCrystal (McGrath) & Lily Cole (The Siren).

Writer: Steve Thompson

Director: Jeremy Webb

Original Broadcast Date: 7 May 2011

Behind the Scenes

  • This episode’s working title was Siren and was originally intended to be aired as the ninth episode in Series 6. It was swapped with Night Terrors, written by Mark Gatiss, which Steven Moffat thought was too dark. The decision was made before the conclusion of production on The Curse of the Black Spot, which meant that the brief sequence in A Good Man Goes To War that features Avery and Toby could be shot.
  • Steve Thompson was unaware of Avery’s mention in The Smugglers, but had come across the name and his mysterious disappearance in his son’s book about pirates.
  • This episode is one of three episodes where none of the guest cast die and there is no real villain, along with Hide and Twice Upon A Time.

Cast Notes

  • Hugh Bonneville also portrayed Sir Sidney Herbert and Tsar Nicholas I in The Angel of Scutari.
  • Michael Begley would go on to play All Ears Allan in Fugitive of the Judoon.
  • Chris Jarman has played numerous roles for Big Finish plays, including The Movellan Grave opposite Tom Baker, Light the Flame opposite John Hurt and Dalek Universe opposite David Tennant.

Best Moment

The conversation between Avery and the Doctor up on the deck, when they look at the stars.

Best Quote

Wheel?

Atom accelerator.

It steers the thing.

No! Sort of, yes.

Wheel, telescope, astrolabe, compass: a ship’s a ship.

Henry Avery and the Eleventh Doctor

Previous Eleventh Doctor review: Day of the Moon

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