Now we come to the curious case of “The Curse of the Black Spot,” which moved from its original slot as the ninth episode of the season to No. 3, to sort of lighten up the early portion of the series, which show-runner Steven Moffat feared was shaping up to be too dark. The season also appears to be rather self-referential and deeply entangled in the Doctor’s personal mythos. This story of a becalmed pirate ship beset by a malevolent mermaid is the calm before the storm sure to be stirred up by “The Doctor’s Wife,” the hotly-anticipated story from prose legend Neil Gaiman – the mere title of which has fandom clutching its pearls.
The big problem I had going into “The Curse of the Black Spot” was incredulity that it could be moved from the back half of the season to the front half – specifically, from a slot after the promised “game-changing” midseason cliff-hanger to a spot in the roster airing before the midseason break. This begs the question, how much of a “game-changer” can that episode seven cliff-hanger be?
Based on “The Curse of the Black Spot,” not much has truly changed. This leads me to fear that episode eight features one of those dreaded reset buttons that undoes everything that happened in the story. (See, for example, oh, let’s say, “Doomsday,” or “The Big Bang.”) Amy, Rory and the Doctor are all still alive (as far we can tell), and the reappearance the Eye Patch Lady (Frances Barber) tells us that particular story thread is still ongoing – as is the mystery of the Doctor’s death from “The Impossible Astronaut.” So, going into Week 10, the Doctor’s death was still in the future. And Amy’s pregnancy is/will still be an “on and off” phenomenon. This all means we’re not going to get any satisfaction on the questions spawned in “The Impossible Astronaut” until the last stages of the season. Boo! Even the Doctor’s love of hats was still in full effect, as he took the time to appropriate a tricorner lid from a pirate who would have no further use for it. What did the Eye Patch Lady aka Madame Kovarian mean when she told Amy, “It’s fine. You’re doing fine. Just stay calm”?
Now, it is possible that the “game-changing” reveal(s) of the midseason cliff-hanger could involve River Song – we might learn who she really is, or she might be erased from the Doctor’s timeline, or there might be some other big revelation (remember, she won’t be killed until “The Forest of the Dead”). But things apparently will remain status quo for the Big Three.
So what does happen in this one-off story? The TARDIS lands on an unnamed pirate ship run by Capt. Henry Avery (Hugh Bonneville) which has been trapped in becalmed waters. Every time a crew member is injured or falls sick, a black spot appears on his palm, and then a green phantom Siren (Lily Cole) appears and sings to the man, enchanting him so she can touch him – and he explodes in a cloud of dust. In short order, Rory (Arthur Darvill) sprouts a black spot, so the Doctor (Matt Smith) and Amy (Karen Gillan) have to spend the rest of the episode fending off what the Doctor called, “a green, singing shark in an evening gown.” Rory was knocked overboard in an ensuing storm, and the Doctor theorized that only the Siren could “save” him. Because the Doctor realized the Siren was transporting her “victims,” not killing them. He encouraged everyone to allow themselves to be touched. They were instantly transported to an alien spaceship occupying the same space but in a slightly different dimension, and similarly marooned. Its crew was killed by Earth bacteria, and the “Siren” was the ship’s medical hologram. The entire crew of the pirated ship was in stasis in the alien medical bay – as were Rory and the TARDIS. However, Rory could not be removed from the machine without reverting to “drowning mode,” so he had to instruct Amy in resuscitating him. Avery decided to remain on the alien ship with his crew and pilot it through space.
The resolution of this story obviously calls to mind “The Empty Child”/“The Doctor Dances,” in which Chula medical Nanogenes attempted to cure humans (But in that case, the nanites were confused by human physiognomy, and ended up creating monstrosities like a child with a gas mask fused to its face.), which was disappointing. The least the Doctor could have done was shout, “Just like the Nanogenes from the Chula ambulance!” or somesuch. The Siren’s true nature was also a shout-out to STAR TREK VOYAGER’s emergency medical program, known only as “The Doctor.” And, of course, the death of the alien crew via Earth disease was a nod to H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds.
Would it be rude to mention that this episode looked very cheap? The medical bay was just pathetic, with its shower-curtain walls and little shelves by the floating beds. That tube leading to a patient’s neck was particularly substandard! And picking up the story with only about five pirates left saved a lot of budget on extras, didn’t it? And the green glowing Siren looked very cartoony, rather than realistic.
On the plus side, I loved that Amy grabbed a sword and rescued the Doctor from walking the plank. The Doctor would brook no talk of a “curse” from the crew, because curses imply that the victims are helpless, and the Doctor is “never helpless.” Avery recognized various components of the TARDIS control console – like the wheel, compass and astrolabe – leading him to shrug, “A ship’s a ship.” That attitude that no doubt served him well when he assumed command of the starship. Based on the desiccated skeletons, the alien ship appeared to have been be crewed originally by humanoid pteranodons!
As the “stroppy, homicidal mermaid trying to kill all,” supermodel Cole looked lovely (Duh!), but delivered a one-note performance (well, two notes if you count her hissing, angry face), however, the Siren was a very passive antagonist. She compelled her victims to come to her; she couldn’t be bothered to take even a single step toward them. Rather odd for a medical program, which I would envision rushing toward the fallen to help!
When Rory was instructing Amy in how to bring him back from drowning, I couldn’t help but think of that scene from The Abyss, when Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio’s Lindsey resolved to drown and let Ed Harris’ Bud resuscitate her. Bud accomplished that by calling her a bitch who was too mean to die. Amy revived Rory with love. Well, it certainly wasn’t her lame attempts at CPR and rescue breathing. Remember, this is the same Amy who talked a robot into not exploding in last season’s “Victory of the Daleks,” so of course she can will Rory back to life! After all, it’s not like there’s any life-saving medical gear aboard the TARDIS, right, Doctor? And, how many times can the Doctor and Amy take Rory’s “death” seriously? This is like, the 637th time he has kicked the bucket, isn’t it?
There was some attempt to give Avery some depth, by framing him as a man whose greed led him astray. His son, Toby (Oscar Lloyd) didn’t know his father was a pirate; he thought the guy was a lousy, absentee father. Avery’s greed proved to be his undoing, leading directly to Toby’s death. In the end, Avery’s decision to remain on the alien vessel, where he could interact with his dead son (as long as he remained wired to the medical console) was redemption of sorts (if a mighty convenient one that called into question his previous life as a greed-obsessed pirate. Apparently, being in the physical presence of his son was enough to reform him?).
This story was a huge disappointment to me, and felt like it would have been much more at home in, say, Series Three, than here; especially at this point in the season. This episode will likely end up at the bottom of the season polls, because its poor place in the program order highlights its shortcomings – namely that it’s just a simple, workman-like episode. Sadly, it’s also an isolated, standalone episode that came precisely when we viewers desperately wanted another chapter of this season’s myth-arc. It was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Next week, we get “The Doctor’s Wife.” Mark me down as siding with the camp that believes the Doctor’s “wife” is a metaphor for the TARDIS, and the suspiciously-named “Idris” is some anthropomorphized aspect of the Doctor’s wonderful traveling machine. But will we really get to see the return of The War Chief?