Wednesday, May 11, 2011

"The Curse of the Black Spot"

Sometimes reviewing Doctor Who is a challenge. It's not always astoundingly easy to heap praise upon art, or offer constructive criticism to a solid piece of work, and it's especially hard to be funny about what you admire. It's for that reason, I suppose, that my reviews of the previous series of New Who were not as verbose as those which came before, because being what I, with blatant passion, basically consider a thirteen episode borderline masterwork, I was often pressed for things to say. Occasionally, as I pondered what to write about a game-changing televisual experience like "The Eleventh Hour" or "Amy's Choice", and in times since, I would think to myself that if there was anything I would miss about Tennant and RTD it would be how unbelievably easy it was to review the episodes because practically every week we were being served up unsalvageable piles of plotless, unscientific, melodramatic populist drivel which it was both simple and fun to absolutely destroy. Moffat and co must have been listening to these mutinous thoughts with some kind of mind-eavesdropping device from one of those 'dark fairy stories' because they kindly offered up "The Curse of the Black Spot" for my examination.
I'll get straight to the point now. This episode is a mess. It's astoundingly derivative and unoriginal, the dialogue and characterisation are sloppy and the plot has more holes than a pirate ship after being on the receiving end of a full broadside. The writer of this episode, Steve Thompson, is to my surprise the same person who wrote "The Blind Banker", the serviceable second episode of Moffat and Mark Gatiss' currently-running Sherlock TV series, and if anything is obvious it's that he should probably stick to longer-format works, and more realistic genres like detective fiction, rather than trying to tackle forty five minutes of sci-fi.
Once again, for the millionth time, we have some kind of alien creature which looks like a nasty thing from folklore showing up and terrorising people in the past. It's mind-numbing that they just can't escape this trope. The explanation for the Siren is fair enough, if a little rushed and predictable, but there are some weird things. Why can't it cure people? For the sake of dramatic tension, apparently. Why does it go all red and demonic when people try to interfere with what it's doing? Lack of imagination, I suppose. If it takes people to its sickbay by touching them, how come the Doctor, Amy and Captain Avery don't end up there straightaway when they get touched? Who knows. How does it travel through reflections? Possibly on wishful thinking, because no science holds any of this episode together. The Doctor rattles off a lot of guff about colliding realities and mirrors which is basically meaningless and it sounds a lot of the time like his dialogue was being written with Tennant in mind, especially when he says "Sister, you are good!" to the Siren.
Amy and Rory are again, and astoundingly for the two other stars, woefully underused, and apart from some pointless swordfighting with Amy and some cheap anaesthetised laughs from Rory that's about it. Why do Amy and the Doctor feel the need to drag Rory all the way from the hospital bed to the TARDIS before performing CPR? The whole 'CPR' thing is so unimaginative that I can't believe it was used, especially for the protracted bit before Rory coughs the water up. Is he just going to keep getting sort-of killed? They really need something fresh to amp up the drama here, and while I suppose they have it in this story Moffat's running with the little girl and so on it seems like in the filler episodes they don't really give a damn.
That's what this episode feels like - filler. Why did Henry Avery become a pirate? It's not really clear. He likes gold, apparently, but he seems like such a nice guy his lust for treasure doesn't fit at all. Is he really a murderous cutthroat? He doesn't seem to give the Doctor too much trouble. His son also serves as one of Moffat's Arbitrary Annoying Children and I wish to say no more of him. Incidentally, is it really plausible that a seventeenth century ship captain could ever really figure out how to pilot a futuristic alien spaceship, and incidentally, how did they get it moving if it was stuck, thus becalming the pirate ship and the TARDIS?
There are a couple of other weird plot holes too. The greasy-haired pirate who wants to scarper gets slashed by Toby, the little kid, in a needless act of unpleasantness, and tries to barricade the door. However, when Avery and the Doctor show up a few minutes later, he's completely vanished. Where did he go? Is there a scene missing? It's never mentioned. And if the magazine on the ship is "as dry as a bone", how come there's a huge, full barrel of water in there, and why does Toby take the lid off? Speaking of which, wasn't there meant to be only one barrel of water left on the ship? Because they open another one on the deck to let the Siren out towards the end. It's blatantly lazy and inconsistent and devoid of any kind of explanation.
A lot of the lines Hugh Bonneville gets saddled with as Captain Avery are absolute ham and cheese of the most elevated denomination, going on about "ships laden with treasure" and calling people "scurvy dogs" or "bilge rats" or whatever, although he does his best with what he's given, and the 'walking the plank' scene is so needless as to be borderline parody without being aware of the fact. It's like they wanted a pirate story but they blew the budget going to America so they couldn't afford a big pirate battle or anything so just stuck in some guff with Amy waving a sword around and a bunch of guys with beards and tricorns guffawing. They also totally missed several opportunities to make some kind of 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner' reference too. It's also astounding how for almost the whole episode they do such a good job of holding Rory back from approaching the Siren yet repeatedly when the injured sailors are confronted by her the most that happens is the Doctor or Avery paws ineffectually at one of their coat tails for a brief second while staring gobsmacked at the apparition. It's never explained how or why the Siren takes the TARDIS, either. The whole episode is absolutely full of random incidents to cause strife or drive the plot forward with absolutely no explanation or rationale behind them.
The problem is that there are some good ideas lurking back here somewhere - the Captain torn between his reputation and his greed, the medical program carrying out its function without thinking (albeit very similar in many ways to the plot of "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances") and the implications of that kind of utilitarian attitude, Amy and Rory's relationship and so on, but they're all so hotch-potch and insubstantial that they ultimately can't be reconciled into any kind of meaningful or even interesting structure. Matt Smith, Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill are of course all doing their very best with what they're given, and as I've said Hugh Bonneville's performance is as strong as you can expect with such a lamentable script. The whole thing was in dire need of editing and its overall cheapness and lack of polish make me wonder if the division of this series into two parts caused Moffat to focus on two things, which is to say his own story arc following the little girl and the Silence, and the presence of Big Name Neil Gaiman as a writer for an episode, and permit the remainder to just be quickly-churned-out irrelevant pap. It's just so average and flimsy that it's really quite valueless, and the galloping plot holes in particular make it a very dubious offering. It's really a shame, because this is probably quite obviously the bottom of the heap for Matt Smith and Moffat's run so far, and it's disappointing to see this get through in such an incomplete and unsatisfying state in what has otherwise, up to now, been a pretty impressive tenure.

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