DOCTOR WHO: 'The Curse of the Black Spot'
A filler episode stands and falls on the strength of its concept and the enthusiasm with which it embraces it. There's little point trying to generate tension, as it's questionable that anyone who has watched television before would believe a main character's death would occur in a story so clearly set apart from the bigger picture unfolding in the background.
'The Curse of the Black Spot' proved both of those points. When it embraced its piratical trappings, there was plenty of fun to be had. When it tried to convince us that Rory really had copped it (again), it turned the the episode's climax into a drab wait for the inevitable splutter back to life. Where Steven Moffat's opening two-parter suffered from being overambitious in the long-term, Stephen Thompson's episode struggled when trying to convince a knowing audience that its story would have any lasting impact.
'Black Spot' wasn't a bad episode, just one which never pushed itself to be anything other than season filler. I can imagine it being better received by children less aware of such concepts as filler episodes, though the ending might have been too muddled for them. It took me a while to piece together that the reason Rory would die when taken out of the transdimensional hospital was because the healing machine was preventing him from continuing to drown after being knocked overboard. The clarity of such moments was obfuscated by some glaring plot holes: are we to believe, for example, that Rory can't swim at all? The water didn't appear in the slightest bit turbulent when Amy looked overboard, and you'd imagine he'd have been able to hold his breath for the time it took for the siren to be released and get him. (I went back to the episode on iPlayer and forty seconds passed between Rory and the siren entering the water, with no suggestion that events weren't taking place in real time). Are we also to believe that this siren doctor can hold off typhoid fever but can't do CPR? And the explanation of her singing made little sense in the context of the rest of the episode.
You'd have a point to argue that picking apart episodes of Who is rarely a challenging sport and misses the point of just having fun, but this was an occasion when so little effort had been made to disguise these problems that their call was irresistible, beckoning the episode to its disintegration. Had it maintained the tone of its first half, all swashbuckling and yo-ho-hos (if anyone really says that), none of it would have mattered a jot. The many fallacies involved with shattering all the glass onboard when trying to avoid cutting yourself, for example, occurred to me but didn't matter, because the distractions were enthralling enough to render such inconsistencies moot.
It was when the pesky situation arose of the having to make sense of the mystery that the episode lost its way. One of the earlier pleasures was a rare occasion of the Doctor making an incorrect call, believing that the siren could only use water to travel. (Again, considering the number of potential surfaces she could have emerged from, there was another inconsistency which didn't matter until everything else unravelled around it). Though watching him work out how to stop the siren from incinerating him was fun, he was by that point making some huge deductions based on very little evidence, such as guessing that the siren was intelligent and didn't cause death on contact when sending her after Rory, or explaining the exact circumstances of her existence with ridiculous exactitude. Stuff like the 17th century pirates flying off with a spaceship was an amusing enough image to be forgivable. When untangling the knots of a pretty cool mystery by having a character arrive at the correct answers from next to nothing, it's a breach of the audience's trust.
If sci-fi elements were going to be tacked onto a story that worked better as an old sea myth, it's a shame they weren't tied in with the foreshadowing of Moffat's grand scheme. Instead of the closing recap about Amy's temporally displaced pregnancy, why not have the siren doctor detect that something was wrong? There could have been some suspenseful complications if a black spot had appeared on Amy's hand, but she didn't know why and the Doctor couldn't tell her. It's in those such twists that filler episodes can make a difference, rather than the arduous conclusion with Amy trying to revive Rory, which was never going to end badly. However, the snap appearance of the eye-patched woman (a hospital matron?) from the 'Day of the Moon' orphanage was effectively creepy.
There was some good stuff in the episode: Hugh Bonneville was fun, even though his character wasn't written as the swashbuckling devil you'd hope for from a pirate captain and the subplot with his son dragged the episode into soppiness. Apart from two needless and unconvincing CGI shots of the ship, the episode looked great and built up a fun ghost-ship vibe. Matt Smith was as marvellous as ever and is strikingly good at selling the Doctor as a man with the experience of old age, as in his discussion alone with Captain Avery on deck. I also liked the idea of two objects in different dimensions colliding as an explanation for the siren's power, even though the rest of the sci-fi tended to detract from the story's effectiveness.
In short, 'Black Spot' was a quintessential filler episode. It worked when it played up its concept, and struggled when trying to create suspense. I suspect it will be one of the last episodes of the season anyone remembers, unlikely to be either a high or low point, but made its journey without sinking, despite some choppy waters near the end.
Doesn't Neil Gaiman's episode next week look like a scorcher though?
Best Moment: I'm tempted to be facetious and go with the 'Next Time' preview, but Amy swordfighting and swinging from the masts was a hoot. Let's hope Rory convinced her to keep that hat.
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