Tuesday, 22 July 2014
The Curse of the Black Spot written by Stephen Thompson and directed by Jeremy Webb
This story in a nutshell: Doctor Who and the Pirates!
Nutty Professor: Bonneville aside, Smith is absolutely the best thing about this episode and it surprises me to note that this is the only episode of the entire season that sees him on an entirely unplanned, unconnected adventure from the season long arc. In a way that makes it feel like the sore thumb of the season (even Night Terrors which was supposed to take this episodes place feels weighed down with the news of the Doctor’s inevitable, oncoming death) but in another way it is vital because it allows the Doctor to simply travel and have some fun for a change. The result is one of Smith’s loosest performances and this is the sort of gleeful irreverence that I was hoping to see once the thorny issue of his death was dealt with at the end of the season (to be fair there was a five episode period of that from Asylum-Manhattan but he was soon caught up in the machinations of another characterisation strangling arc with the Mysterious Girl). All the pirate clichés are there (from ‘Yo-Ho-Ho!’ to ‘Ooh-argh!’) but coming from Smith they feel fresh and exciting, his smiley eyes delighted that he has wound up in one of the greatest of adventure genres. The Doctor finds that curses are big with humans when they can’t find an explanation for something and that might just be one of the most sensible things he has ever said about the human race. The idea of two great Captain’s coming together in the TARDIS is cute and well worth it to enjoy the Doctor’s pride in his ship and Avery comprehending the basic functions because all ships are practically the same. Bonneville and Smith share some fun chemistry which makes me wish they could have whisked off for a very different sort of adventure altogether. It's odd to see the Eleventh Doctor pouring on the moral indignation (‘Just how much is that treasure worth to you man?’) which would have suited Jon Pertwee to a tee but sounds odd coming from the usually frivolous mouth of Matt Smith. Whilst Amy and Avery are excited to see Rory and Toby in the medical bay, the Doctor gleefully runs over to the TARDIS and kisses her. It's one of those moments when Smith is instantly, unmistakably the Doctor.
Scots Tart: Kudos where it is due, there is a massive attempt to make both Karen Gillan and Amy more likeable this season and she really does get into the spirit of things by dressing up as a pirate, swinging through the rigging and wielding a sword! Unfortunately this whole sequence does the character no favours because it is so sloppily directed it literally feels as though it is being staged rather than the very real danger of Amy making it up as she goes along. And actually Amy is far more proficient with a sword than she has any right to be. It would have been much funnier if she had managed to subdue the crew in a slapstick sequence that sees Amy ineptly taking them all down with all manner off accidental thrusts and cuts. You know, Pink Panther on the High Seas, that sort of thing. It probably would have taken far too long to set up and shoot especially when this slapdash attempt will do. Amy’s vision of Madame Kovarian in the wall is either an intrusive arc moment or an intriguingly mysterious haunting that outshines the rest of the episode. You decide. Almost to confirm our worst suspicions Amy goes from crying at her dead husbands side to ‘I thought I was an excellent pirate’ and ‘goodnight, Doctor’ as soon as she knows he is alive. Even Amy knows that death is irrelevant in the series now and can brush off a near thing with a spring in her step. I don’t find this convincing in the slightest.
Loyal Roman: The Curse of the Black Spot is hardly Arthur Darvill’s finest moment either and I consider him to be the stand out performer of the season. His charm (or stupidity) is his loyalty to Amy and his ever growing devotion to the Doctor and it scores some of the seasons emotional high points later in the season. His drunken comedy act here (which seems to slip depending on the mood of the scene being absolute delirium one minute and gentle merriness the next) lacks conviction and he winds up looking like an idiot again which is a step backwards after the last four episodes has really tried to build him up into something much more than the comedy partner (A Christmas Carol excluded). His ‘everything is totally BRILLIANT!’ is one of those hide behind the sofa and cringe moments that turns up in NuWho every now and again. Rory’s near death experiences are starting to feel like a running gag in the ‘Oh my God - they killed Kenny!’ style. It was shocking the first time he died but he’s starting to feel like the companion with nine lives now how he leaps back from the grave! There’s absolutely nothing wrong with how Rory’s resuscitation is performed by Karen Gillen or how the scene is paced by the director but there is a feeling of been there, done that to the climax which matches much of the rest of the episode. By the end of the season death is no longer a dramatic option to keep these characters apart because it is exhausted after all these attempts to convince us that Rory really is dead this time. They have to manipulate the plot to the nth degree to tear them in two and make it dramatically satisfying (The Girl Who Waited). When death isn't a threat...why should we care any more?
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘What kind of rubbish Pirates are you?’
The Good: This is definitely one of those times when you get a celebrity of the week vibe from the main guest star and Hugh Bonneville fresh from the set of Downton Abbey was a massive publicity draw for the series that worked beautifully. Not only did it give the episode some public recognition (because I honestly feel it would vanish into obscurity otherwise) but Bonneville gives a typically masterful performance, quietly understated to give the famous pirate Captain Avery a sense of dignity and honour despite his reputation. The opening scenes have a palpable sense of atmosphere with the gorgeous and deadly siren dragging an injured man into the water. When the Siren makes her presence known it is another of those wonderful fairytale moments that the Moffat era excels at, a heavenly woman shining with turquoise exuberance transforming into a screaming, hissing Devil woman in seconds. The last shot has leapt from a storybook again but this time it the gorgeous juxtaposition of Captain Avery and his pirates flying a spaceship which is a charming place to leave his story. Murray Gold’s exquisite music is going all out to convince us that Amy has failed to save Rory and it is by far the best element of that sequence. How comes after six years his music still feels brand new?
The Bad: The Curse of the Black Spot is impressively filmed on an actual ship which genuinely looks the part but the one element that desperately lets the side down (despite the odd CGI shot of the ship sitting lonely in a massive stretch of water) is that I never got the impression it was more than two foot from the shore. There needed to be far more establishing shots to suggest a ship in threat than there was but as it is it feels as though the crew could just leap from a rope to the bank to safety which severely damages the sense of claustrophobia. We needed to hear lapping waves, see the ship rocking in the sea and to hear the wind whistling. The sound FX boys go for absolute silence which kills any sense of atmosphere. Whereas our last excursion with pirates almost half a century ago (no not The Pirate Planet because that subverted all the clichés in a brilliantly technological fashion) managed to juggle the genres clichés into an engaging tale, Black Spot feels like it is literally bringing a kids bedtime story to life and the inclusion of Avery’s stowaway son feels like it is not only tipping its hat to the genre but slavishly copying it without adding a new element. And enough with the children in the Moffat era please. This is the sort of motif that can lead to Angie and Artie. Considering The Smugglers managed to squeeze in a pirate ship (both in the studio and on location), inns, churchyards and some glorious beach filming around Cornwall’s famous caves and bays this is one of those rare times when post 2005 Doctor Who actually feels cheaper than an equivalent story in the classic series – especially one from the black and white years. The TARDIS disappearing is a lovely moment but irrelevant to the plot and it would be handled far more dramatically in the next episode when the scene is duplicated. Whilst he gives a respectable performance I really wanted to slap Avery’s son for making so many excuses for his pops when the evidence of his piratical ways are clearly evident. I’m not sure what to make of the storm because it is clearly the work of atmospherics rather than having anything to do with the plot but even on that level it fails because it should have been a wild, unpredictable, death defying ride rather than a touch of rain that a good brolley could have seen off. I can’t imagine a more anti-climactic ending than the black spot turning out to be a tissue sample and the Siren a holographic Doctor that has been curing people with a melodic anasethic, not killing them. The entire episode has been built around false tension and that feels like cheating somehow.
Result: A throwaway adventure with far too many faults to be memorable, The Curse of the Black Spot fails to match up to the quality of the previous pirate stories in seasons four and sixteen. There is too much reliance on storybook clichés, the direction is quite flat and lacks the gumption of a real swashbuckling adventure and there is a real sense that the budget cannot quite pull this cinematic concept off. Clearly all the money has been spent on Moffat's lavish opener. Matt Smith feels perfectly at home in this setting and Hugh Bonneville gives a grand turn as Captain Avery but I was very disappointed with both Amy and Rory who feel perfunctory and awkwardly characterised. The episode lurches into a very different story after half an hour which takes all the potential threat of the Siren and gives it the most clinically unsatisfying payoff imaginable. Big Finish pulled off a Pirate adventure which managed to juggle comedy and tragedy with great aplomb and in comparison The Curse of the Black Spot is simply average fare, not much substance and not much style. Mildly entertaining in spots but instantly disposable: 4/10