Spike: When the Doctor takes on a new companion there’s often an episode which introduces the companion and then an episode that solidifies the relationship between The Doctor and companion. Rose was introduced in ‘Rose’, but her relationship with the Ninth Doctor was defined in the ‘Unquiet Dead’ where her humanity and compassion became a counterpoint to the Ninth Doctor’s darker sensibilities. The Tenth Doctor defined the more romantic aspect of his relationship with Rose in ‘New Earth’, meanwhile Ten rejected the advances of Martha in ‘The Shakespeare Code’ and set up their particularly odd relationship. Donna Noble was established as someone who could challenge the Doctor in both the ‘Planet of the Ood’ and the ‘Fires of Pompeii’.
In a lot of ways I feel like this episode was about defining, and clarifying, the Rory and Amy relationship. Last week we discussed how poorly we felt Rory was treated by Amy and how unhealthy their marriage seemed, I think this episode was designed to reinforce the relationship and show that Amy, deep down, cares as much about Rory as he does about her. I get the feeling that this season is going to be largely hinged on Amy and Rory as a couple and it was nice to see Amy being actively concerned for her husband. It’s a necessity of Amy’s character but it often felt like Rory’s love was fairly unrequited last season, this run seems to be attempting to make them into more of an actual partnership. It is a testament to Arthur Darvill that he has managed to make Rory so relatable and watchable, because in a lesser actor’s hands Rory would come across as something of a simpering wreck.
To be honest whilst I appreciated a lot about the episode it didn’t particularly engage with me until those ten minutes. The SPACE! Siren subplot felt recycled from a past episode and despite the obvious production values and great performances it felt rather inert, especially in comparison to the episodes that preceded it. So I’ll throw it out to the team, what did you guys make of the episode?
Ian Pratt: My feelings are mixed as well, Spike. As much as I’ve enjoyed this season so far, I was excited to finally get a straightforward, standalone adventure after all the twists and layered plotting of the past fortnight. I loved the backdrop and little details like the Jolly Roger saluting crewmen, but ultimately the word “filler” springs to mind. As you mentioned, the Amy/Rory dynamic was far and away the strongest element (again.) I’m a real sucker for all those little asides and bickering matches. It was almost as though the script was written with our criticisms from last week in mind; Amy had plenty to do, from taking the initiative with her rescue attempt early on to the urgent finale; and all of it felt perfectly in character rather than an attempt to turn her into something she isn’t. The sly reversal of the usual damsel/hero roles with Amy the sassy rescuer and the clumsy Rory in distress was beautifully observed and the performances by Gillan and Darvill deserved a better episode to showcase them.
Spike: I don’t think it helped that this was a remarkably passive episode for pretty much EVERY character aside from Amy and SPACE! Siren. I had to laugh when Captain Avery’s son was being lured to the Siren…very….slowly….whilst no one made an attempt to grab him or pull him away. In fact aside from Rory I don’t think anyone made any attempt to save any of the victims. Which considering they’re on a ship which is no bigger than 30ft and the Siren itself isn’t a physical threat was kind of laughable. Then again picking holes in the logic of Doctor Who is like staring into the abyss. Still it would have been nice to see The Doctor actually show some concern for Rory when he died. Granted this is like the third time that Rory has been killed, but still he could have done something other than console Amy when she failed to Ed Harris him back to life.
Ian: I had a little chuckle to myself there at the idea of Rory becoming the Kenny of Doctor Who. I don’t know if it just shows my gullibility at big dramatic moments, but even with Rory’s history of near misses in mind, I still totally fell for the finale. You raise a very valid point about the threat posed by the Spectral Supermodel, by the way. It never really bothered me that nobody seemed to be rushing to stop her because she kinda gave me a Medusa vibe – people wanted to keep well away (understandably) until they were sure exactly who or what they were dealing with. There was something else that did bother me, though. Lily Cole is undeniably attractive, yet for me she isn’t quite convincing as the ultimate irresistible Siren figure. Even with the whole ephemeral “charm” thing in mind (and the gullibility of men I readily hold my own hand up to) it didn’t ring quite true to me that Rory would find her more attractive than Amy. I have it in my head that the sun rises and sets with Amy in Rory’s mind so I didn’t quite accept that he could be as easily duped as the other crewmen. The few funny moments it led to didn’t exactly make it easier to swallow either. Maybe I’m just too attached to my own idea of those characters, but I just have a hard time accepting him being into anyone other than her. Although it was perfect how Amy showed the most interest in her husband she possibly ever has the second another girl caught his eye.
Slight tangent: did anyone else think the Siren’s song sounded a bit like “Genie in a Bottle” by The Artist Formerly Known as “XTina?”
Spike: I actually thought it sounded more like the vaguely ethnic mumbling that was The Doctor and Rose’s theme from Season 1 and 2. But I’d need to watch it again.
In regards to your point about the SPACE! Siren, I think the problem that any TV show will have with depicting creatures like a Siren is that attractiveness is largely subjective. I think Lily Cole did a fantastic job as the world’s most terrifying iridescent mime, but having ANYONE in that role is going to raise questions like yours. Another British sci-fi show called Red Dwarf handled the concept of Siren’s in an interesting way, where the Siren’s illusion was completely subjective and tailored to its victim. I think having something like that in this episode might have helped with the underlying theme of strengthening Rory and Amy’s relationship and proved a little more effective. Like having the Siren be a vision of Amy and Child for Rory, the TARDIS for the Doctor, Captain Avery for his son. Then again I actually liked the overall concept of the world’s most fearsome fairy plucking people from our reality and putting them into a sickbay, I think the visual imagery really worked and I liked the few moments when she was in ‘attack’ mode, where she changed from her usual calm self into something distorted and angry looking.
Ian: Honestly, those moments made me cringe. Even though she was largely only called to stand around and occasionally glower/scowl, Cole’s performance still felt a little am-dram to me. Although I do concede that she absolutely works as the astral gamine/elfin mermaid pin-up. I suppose my problem with her is more of a stylistic choice. It’s not that she didn’t work in the role; I just would’ve preferred something more like your suggestion about the chameleon Siren.
Adam: Wait, I thought it was the music that was drugging them? The siren’s attractiveness wasn’t a factor, was it?
As much as I think the show has improved under Stephen Moffat, the episodes that Moffat himself doesn’t write can still be a little dodgy—‘The Vampires of Venice’ comes to mind. This episode was a little more logical and less convoluted from a plot perspective (although it stole pretty blatantly from ‘The Lodger’, ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’, and even ‘The End of Time’, where damaged alien technology runs amok while trying to fulfill its programming). That said, I smacked my forehead and yelled “Whaa-aa-aat?!?” when the Doctor suddenly theorized that everyone was still alive based on ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. Granted, they were really low on options at that point, but sheesh, talk about logical jumps to move the plot forward.
Spike: I kind of liked how generally ditzy the Doctor was this time around, it’s kind of nice to be reminded that the Doctor is fallible. I always enjoyed the older episodes where it showed that amongst Time Lords The Doctor was just an average Joe, intellectually, but was a lot more savvy than his brethren.
As it is I’m genuinely interested in Casey’s, and specifically his sons, reaction to the episode. In a lot of ways ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’ felt like a “y’know…for kids” sort of episode, someone setting out to specifically entertain kids. I think a lot of elements of the episode were skewed deliberately younger, like the general lack of violence and the Siren seemingly deliberately non-sexualised. Like she was a conceptual SPACE! Siren rather than an actual object of lust.
Ian: No argument there, Spike. I think the obligatory “yo ho ho!” at the outset made it absolutely clear what sort of episode this was going to be. Adam, like I said before, the music was definitely captivating people, but if the attractiveness of the girl wasn’t a factor, why cast Lily Cole? It’s possible I missed something, but I got the distinct impression her allure was a combination of her form and “spell.”
It’s testament to how quickly I’ve grown to love the show that the obviousness of this episode didn’t really bother me. There probably wasn’t anyone watching over the age of 9 who didn’t anticipate every beat of that pre-credit sequence. I appreciate that it’s a family show and there was a bit of a balance to be struck after the last two extra adult-friendly episodes, but I feel like the dimmer switch was spun too far down here. There’s giving the people what they want and borderline lazy pandering. A lot of this episode came dangerously close to blurring that line completely.
Kristina: If the opening two-parter was the height of a Salvia trip, this was the hard crash back down to Earth. I can’t say that I flat-out hated this episode, but it certainly felt like a waste. Matt Smith was fun, as always, but I didn’t care about what the Siren really was, or about the pirates, or about Amy and Rory’s never-ending drama. For Pete’s sake, poop or get off the pot with those two. I’ve come around in regards to Arthur Darvill, but if the show has to go out of its way to tell us every single week that yes, they are in love, then doesn’t that show a major flaw in the writing of this relationship? It’s like the show is working overtime to make up for Amy’s immaturity and crappy treatment of her husband by having her make tearful declarations of love all season long. Stop shoving it down our throats and just let it be without having to make a giant fuss over it every single week. And Rory dying again was just stupid. Just give him Kenny’s orange hoodie and be done with it.
Casey Moore: Just a let down after the last two weeks. Not sure how they really could have topped all of what had happened in the previous two episodes, but I still expect a lot from this incarnation of Doctor Who and this seems like the weakest episode so far in Smith’s run (and I really hope it stays that way). I think I would have been happier to see the pirates pirating in space at the end.
Amy and Rory going back and forth is always fun. It is like the Doctor Who version of His Girl Friday or a glimpse of what Who would look like scripted by Aaron Sorkin. I would kind of like to see an episode centred just on them.
Nice seeing weird alternate dimension woman show up. She was the creepiest part for me. Kind of freaks me out.
The highlight of an episode should not be the previews for next week. That said, can next week’s episode live up to the hype behind it? Hope it does.
Kristina: Matt Smith’s delivery of “I’ve got mail!” in the preview made me happier than anything in this episode, but if I had to pick a personal highlight, it would be The Doctor gleefully running through the sick bay to embrace his true love: the TARDIS. I swear I saw him kiss the doors before he turned around.
Ben: I was actually quite surprised by how much I enjoyed this one. The script was full of holes (the vanishing pirate in the powder room, for instance), the acting and dialogue were decidedly variable, and the score was outright awful- clashing with the mood of scenes all over the place, but there was something pleasantly light and understated about it all. While I know we, and viewers like us, much preferred the past two episodes, Doctor Who’s a mainstream success (here in England, at least) in a way very few genre shows ever are, and there’s a sizeable number of viewers (I’ve talked to a few of them) who disliked the dark, complex plotting and watch the show for pirates in space.
As I’ve said before, one of the great strengths of the show is that it can sustain both styles of story, and although this wasn’t the best of the light episodes it wasn’t entirely lacking in good points- the visuals were atmospheric, the siren was effectively ethereal, Hugh Bonneville managed to rise above the sketchy dialogue and provide a fairly dignified, sympathetic Captain Avery (who was a historical pirate of some note, and apparently vanished without trace in the late 17th century), Karen Gillan managed a remarkably convincing stage-fight, and Smith and Darvill were both as strong as ever, even if working with slightly more limited material. Out of the stories of the Smith era, I’d at least put it above last year’s lacklustre Silurian 2-parter, and probably on a similar level as Vampires in Venice.
And yes, stop fake-killing Rory. Four times is too many.
Spike: I think at this point they just use the phrase “and Rory dies” as a page break on the scripts.
Adam: I liked it better than Vampires in Venice, as I said before. The thing is, the tendency with Doctor Who (as with many shows these days) is to see any episode that doesn’t push the meta-plot forward as “filler”. But a good standalone episode can work very satisfactorily on a different level, if it’s got interesting ideas, or it takes chances in the storytelling. Think of most of the classic X-Files episodes, or the Western episode of The Prisoner, or ‘Pine Barrens’, or ‘Hush’ or, for that matter, ‘Blink’. I think Doctor Who, for all of its running plots, is still very much geared towards telling complete, done-on-one stories, which is why I got so frustrated during the Davies run when they were obviously just finding random stuff to throw at the Doctor until the runtime is full up. The writer has the opportunity to tell a quick story about anything, in literally any setting, and no rules except that the Doctor and company have to be in it. Given that, it’s disappointing when the writer chooses to just have the TARDIS crew run around with pirates for 45 minutes. But it’s not the worst thing in the world, either, as long as the story isn’t insultingly bad. Though of course, ripping off the climax of The Abyss (really, writer Stephen Thompson? The Abyss?) doesn’t exactly make me glow with satisfaction either.
Let me throw out another subject to chew on. ‘Day of the Moon’ seems to be getting flak in certain circles for the Doctor supposedly committing genocide, which I really don’t agree with, for the record. But a lot of people, especially old-school Whovians, seem to be quite upset about the morality of the current show. Sometimes I agree with these people and sometimes I don’t, but when you see the Doctor apparently not giving a crap about the people on the ship who aren’t companions, you sort of get a sense of where they’re coming from. That was one of the most halfhearted attempts to stop someone from marching off to their doom I’ve ever seen. I guess you could blame it on poor staging, but is it off-base to think that the show’s gotten a bit callous towards human life?
Spike: I just think it was lazy writing, like they literally had no way of making the villain a threat without having everyone essentially be negligent.
I think more than anything else my main issue with the episode is that it felt like someone’s approximation of what a Doctor Who episode should be, rather than an actual episode. Stephen Thompson also wrote the middle episode of last year’s Sherlock mini-series and I felt that that episode also fell into the same trap. Like the episode hit all the right, classic, beats but none of it really ‘sang’. I think part of the inaction of the crew was because Thompson wanted to create a body count, whilst also committing to his Siren idea. I get why they couldn’t have the villain be more active, it’d spoil the ‘twist’, but it felt like they came up with the villain concept first and then realised that the plotting didn’t support it, but went ahead with the episode anyway.
The problem is that the two are incompatible.
A simple solution would have been to have had Amy physically stop Rory initially, by knocking him out with an oar or something, but have everyone else resist being helped. You could have then created physical confrontation by having the victims actually fighting to get to the Siren. Also come to think of it, Amy actually knocking Rory out would have been perfectly in Amy’s pragmatic…if slightly sociopathic ..character.
Casey Moore: It was such an off episode. Even my son was barely interested in it. The kid loves Doctor Who and already wants his room changed from Star Wars to Doctor Who, yet this episode couldn’t really grab his attention.
And these were the most boring, dull, non-threatening pirates ever.
The only things that stick with me are the three of them at the end on the TARDIS and creepy eye patch lady.
Kristina: I did like Captain Avery’s gloating when the TARDIS messed up, and the reveal that he kept the crown at the risk of his son’s life, but the other pirates were indeed forgettable. It felt like the writer watched Pirates of the Caribbean and cherry-picked ideas from that film, even down to the kid discovering that his dad is a pirate a la Will Turner in the first movie. Even the music as the pirates sail off into space is unmistakably similar to that film’s score. I suppose it was meant as an intentional homage, but it only served to irritate me because I’m sick of that franchise.
Adam: I admit I laughed when Amy yelled “What kind of rubbish pirates are you?!?” Because that’s what I’d already been thinking, and continued to think throughout the episode. Like so many Who villains, they stop trying to kill the Doctor and just stand around slack-jawed when it serves the plot.
Again, though–I think an awful lot of Nu Who’s “historical mystery” episodes (in which the answer is always “aliens did it”) have a sense of filling space. Grading on that very gentle curve, I thought this was actually one of the better ones. It more or less made sense, except for the Doctor’s leaps of logic, and it had pirate stuff. I’m not saying I liked it that much, but it wasn’t an embarrassment, either. Put that on the book jacket!
Ben: This was just a little bit obvious in its inspirations, wasn’t it? But no, I wouldn’t say the show’s grown callous (especially not compared to some of the nastier Tom Baker episodes, or the casual violence of the mid-80s stuff- (if you really want to see the show being callous, go watch ‘Vengeance on Varos’ or ‘Mindwarp’)- there was so much lazy writing on display here that I don’t think it could have been anything else.
The problem wasn’t being a standalone- this is the show that pretty much invented monster of the week, and the day it moves entirely to serialised plot is the day it’ll stop being Doctor Who- but that, as Adam said, this felt a little like it never had any better ideas or more ambition than pirates!.
That said, just as the strength of having an anthology show like thus is the variety of stories possible, the weakness is that it never matches the consistent scripting quality of a more tightly controlled show.
Spike: I actually think that Moffat has more compassion for people than RTD did. I often felt like RTD had a fairly misanthropic view of humanity which seeped into his writing. If you think about episodes like ‘Midnight’ or ‘Utopia’ it kind of shows the worst of people, whereas Moffat seems genuinely to want to see and show the good in people. I mean Moffat’s defining moment for me is still “Everybody lives, Rose. Just this once, everybody lives”.
In terms of ranking ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’ against historical episodes I think it’s still fairly middle of the road. ‘The Unquiet Dead’, ‘Tooth and Claw’, ‘The Fires of Pompeii’, ‘The Shakespeare Code’ all have far more momentum and far more interesting villains than ‘Curse of the Black Spot’. Even Murray Gold’s scoring seemed off in this episode. I’m a fan of his work usually, although I think the music level is often given a bit too much precedence in the sound mix, but this just felt so derivative. Murray Gold is a composer who seems to love bombast, I mean he gave the Cybermen (who in the new series are a kind of dull and plodding threat) a theme which sounds like fire and thunder personified, and yet he couldn’t seem to create anything exciting for SPACE! Pirates.
All in all I feel the episode is decent, it just seems kind of uninspired and aside from a handful of very strong performances it feels like something of a wasted opportunity.
Kristina: Like I said before, it’s not an episode that I hated with a virulent passion, but compared to the five-star meal that I was served for the past two weeks, this dish wasn’t as good. I’m looking ahead to this Saturday’s much-anticipated Neil Gaiman penned episode to get this dull taste out of my mouth.