“Were sailors! Just like you… except for the gun thing, and the beardiness’
One of the biggest problems that face shows with season long story arcs is how to fit in the “one-off” episodes that exist in between the larger, grander story episodes. Doctor Who used to be a serial, which meant they didn’t ever really need small single episode stories to keep the thrust of the season afloat. Most of the time there were hardly any definition between the seasons at all, in fact looking back now it would be difficult for most casual Who fans to differentiate between the specific seasons of the original run.
That structure isn’t feasible today, and in 2005 when Russell T. Davies restarted the show he had to take the show into the more traditional season format. This meant that the stories became far more interconnected over the course of a season, and it also meant that every now and then you would get an episode that pretty much exists entirely on it’s own. It is exactly that type of episode that ‘The Curse of the Black Spot” ends up being, and it is one of the better stand alones yet.
This is the point where I warn all you readers who haven’t seen the episode yet to avoid the rest lest ye be spoiled! More after the jump.
‘The Curse if the Black Spot’ takes place almost entirely on a cursed pirate ship, lead by Captain Avery who is devoted to his treasure above all else. The curse that plagues these particular pirates is a deadly siren that marks any injured crew man with a black spot on his palm. Once marked, the siren appears and woos her prey to her touch which of course disintegrates the unlucky chap. The Tardis sensed the troubled ship and brings the Doctor and his companions to investigate.
As you would expect in this situation Rory immediately becomes injured and falls under the Siren’s gaze. If finding out the general mystery of the siren wasn’t enough for our marry crew, now they have the added, and a bit unnecessary, motivation of saving Rory. It is a little lazy to put one of your leads in mortal danger in an episode like this, especially when you don’t need any extra motivation for the characters to stay.
That said, this episode did tackle a subject that has always intrigued me. The Doctor can be wrong! The running gag in this story is that every theory the Doctor comes up with is wrong, he attributes his error to having a “bad day,” but the frequency and severity of his incorrectness keeps piling up. It was really refreshing to see a character who usually always has the answer struggle and continually end up being wrong.
Another thing this episode does extremely well is establish the character of Captain Avery. He is an incredibly complex man, and we see him go on a profound personal journey in the episode. At first he is a gruff and unapologetic pirate that is out for himself and his crew. Then he discovers his son has stowed away on the ship and his conflicted emotions begin to percolate in his head. You can actually see Avery slowly understand his greater purpose during the course of the story, and it isn’t a snap change of character when he finally decides to do the right thing. He comes to this realization only after a slow and often painful series of choices and mistakes.
The episode ends with the discovery that all of the crew and Rory are in the care of the siren who is an automated Doctor program from an abandoned alien spaceship. Everyone with heal-able injuries is completely fine, but Captain Avery discovers his son has Typhoid Fever and only has weeks to live when taken from the Doctor Siren. It is in this moment that Avery comes completely around and requests to stay on the ship with his son indefinitely so he may live. This of course comes with the brilliant side effect of there being a space ship out in the cosmos crewed by dastardly pirates and captained by a man who has embraced a noble life over a scoundrelous one. I sincerely hope we come back to that story one day.
A credit to this episode is that I have spent so much time on other elements before I even begin to discuss the monster. Moffat is exceptionally good at creating creepy, complex and interesting monsters to pit against the Doctor, and this siren is no exception. Played by the beautiful Lily Cole, who you might remember as the young female lead in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, the siren is every bit as alluring as she is terrifying.
Her ethereal green glow amongst the dark and dirty surroundings of the pirate ship highlight her unnatural origins. Clearly there is an explanation for her presence, and once the Doctor finally figures out that she is a doctor program for a dead space ship we can see her for what she truly is. And with no change in demeanor, make up or lighting she is no longer threatening and becomes almost comforting.
This is something that Moffat has done before. Never before have I encountered a writer who can write such a threatening and dire situation and turn it so completely on it’s head with a single revelation. Not only does it turn on a dime, but it makes perfect sense both ways, and it makes the second viewing of those episodes almost an entirely different experience.
‘The Curse of the Black Spot’ is one of the better stand alone episodes of the Matt Smith era, it’s just a solid story, well told by all involved.And I can’t wait to see a return of the Space Pirates!
Score for Doctor Who – The Curse of the Black Spot
4 out of 5