“Yo ho ho! … Or does nobody actually say that?”
Sometimes, my brain hurts from trying to analyse the complexity of Steven Moffat’s Chinese puzzle plots. So after all the twisty turny plot arc stuff of the last two episodes, it was almost a relief to get back to a straightforward, standalone adventure. And with pirates! I love pirates, although I know from some friends’ reactions to the Pirates of the Caribbean movies that this isn’t a universal feeling. Still, with a fourth Jack Sparrow adventure due to be released in a fortnight or so, this episode was nothing if not timely.
At any rate, Doctor Who has done pirates before, but not since 1966’s The Smugglers. In some ways, that was a more trad take on the whole Robert Louis Stevenson staple, with “Aaarr!” accents and all. This was actually rather lighter on Errol Flynn heroics than I might have expected, though Amy at least got to brandish a cutlass and swing across the deck by a handy bit of rigging. Amusingly, she also found time to put on the requisite frock coat and tricorn hat before rushing to her men’s rescue – the situation was clearly not so urgent to prevent her “dressing for the occasion”.
This was fairly lightweight stuff, though by no means unenjoyable. Hugh Bonneville impressed as Captain Avery, making the most of a role that was formed more from a brief character sketch than anything else: former naval officer, likes gold, turned pirate unbeknownst to his family. To be honest, he was really the only guest character with any sort of personality, as the rest of the crew were simply stock pirates, few of them even graced with such luxuries as names. But fair’s fair, this was a 45 minute adventure story, and the kind of character development given to the lowly bilgerats on Jack Sparrow’s ship needs a bit more time than that.
Nonetheless, the crew gave their all with what little they had to work with, responding to the demands of the plot more than anything else. So we had the cowardly one, the loyal one, the treacherous one etc, all familiar archetypes from pirate tales of yore. Particularly notable was Lee Ross as the ship’s boatswain (he wasn’t given a name either) – I always liked Ross as Kenny in Moffat’s Press Gang, and he doesn’t pop up enough on telly. The last thing I seem to recall him doing was a nifty turn as Gene Hunt’s nemesis in Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes.
It was nice to see the Doctor guessing at what was going on, and consistently being wrong – “Ignore all my previous theories!” – somewhat in the style of Dr Gregory House with his several incorrect diagnoses before reaching the right one. There’s been rather too much of the Doctor being omniscient since the series returned, and I like to be reminded that he’s fallible – though preferably not by committing genocide as he did last week. Matt Smith gave his customary well-studied performance, playing with a lighter script than we had last week which gave him some great lines (though I’m not sure “Urgh, alien bogeys!” is going to go down as one of the show’s classic quotes).
Karen Gillan got some meaty stuff too, with the aforementioned swashbuckling nicely handed to the girl rather than either of the men. She also got some really touching moments with Rory, which continue to really solidify their relationship – it’s hard to see the situation in the TARDIS as so much of a love triangle this year. Arthur Darvill too was marvellous, though he did spend most of the episode being utilised basically as comic relief. Still, I can’t say I was entirely displeased to see him shirtless, even if this did involve him dying yet again! While the recreation of the bit from The Abyss where Ed Harris brings back Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio was a nice scene, given Rory’s many previous deaths I never believed for a second that he was gone for good this time. As my friend Richard commented on his recent blog post, Mr Moffat’s trend of killing off major characters only for timey wimey wizardry to bring them back has rather cheapened the idea of death in Doctor Who.
A relief it was then, that the scary ‘siren’ wasn’t actually killing people after all – though I twigged that after she got the little boy, finding it unlikely that this show would kill off a child quite so freely. She was, basically, an alien version of Voyager’s Emergency Medical Hologram, shaped (presumably from the sailors’ minds) into an object from a classic sailor’s ghost story. The idea that she could appear from any reflective surface was a nice gimmick, though backed up with the kind of technobabble that would make a Star Trek writer blush. At least the Doctor had the disclaimer, “It’s not really like that at all”.
And the spaceship coexisting in the same time and space as the pirates’ vessel is a nice sci fi idea, but as old as the hills. Doctor Who itself has done it several times, notably with the Megara ship in The Stones of Blood and the two ships stuck through each other in Nightmare of Eden.
Ultimately though, this wasn’t an episode about big sci fi concepts – it was meant to be a rollicking adventure with pirates. On that level it largely succeeded, though I could have done with seeing some actual piracy, or at least the ship soaring along in the daylight. Those are quibbles really though – Curse of the Black Spot succeeded perfectly well on its own terms. It looked good, filmed on an actual sailing ship, had some fun moments, good dialogue, and fun if improbable resolution that the ship’s crew will now become… wait for it… The Space Pirates!
Next week – Ood! With green eyes!