5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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THE CURSE OF THE BLACK SPOT
How do you follow something like the exciting, mysterious and zesty The Impossible Astronaut/Day Of The Moon double? Practically anything non-arcy that follows it’s going to suffer by comparison.
So why waste good material? Since you’re going to hear the gears grinding from miles away, why not shove on any old crap, since everyone’s going to hate the transition anyway? And that’s what they do. Any old crap is precisely what The Curse Of The Black Spot is.
A misty night on the water. Beards and stupid hats. A galleon (or whatever, and please don’t bother to tell us it’s actually a frigate because of the number of mizzenmasts or something because we really don’t care). Oh, God, it’s pirates. Pirates tend to induce slumber in us in the best of situations. And this definitely isn’t the best of situations.
The start isn’t actually too bad. The death prognostication from a papercut is intriguing. And after the least surprising reveal in history when the TARDIS team appear, Matt Smith sucks us in effortlessly with the sheer joy of his performance. (As ever, there’s just so much going on on his face.)
The first note of warning’s sounded as Hugh Bonneville gets underway (ha!) as Avery. You can have a basically nice, gentlemanly pirate (interesting!) You can have a twelve-step-requiring treasure-obsessed pirate (if you must). You can have a ruthless, mass-murdering pirate (the standard model). But not all three at once. Two, yes, depending on which two. We could see nice with treasure, for example. Treasure with murderer would also be fine: the guy who isn’t a psychopath by nature but whose lust for gold means the ends justify the means. But you simply can’t put a guy in multiple warm scenes bantering with the Doctor to make us like him and then tell us he’s butchered a thousand people. We’re all for character complexity, but likeable and mass murderer have a very hard time coexisting.
Forward. The Doctor’s schtick on the plank is, naturally, hilarious, but the shift from doomy gloom to postmodern sniggerfest clunks like a big clunky thing. Done properly, as in the previous two episodes, Doctor Who can do this multilayered, tonal shifty thing brilliantly, but done badly it just looks like the scriptwriter couldn’t decide which tone to settle on and threw in a bit of everything.
And speaking of which, set sail for panto, lads, as Amy inexplicably dons a pirate outfit and waves around a smirksomely light prop sword. It’s all fun and games until Amy manages to mark for death both a pirate and her husband. At this point, we were actually all agog, as we were hoping against hope that for once Rory would have something substantial to do. And for a while, our hopes are answered: we’re not sure why he’s so scornful of the pirates’ suggestion to block his ears (worked fine for Odysseus’s crew, after all), but as a result he gets some truly wonderful moments as he moons dreamily after the Siren.
After the Captain helpfully explains that “the music turns them into fools” (o rly?), Lily Cole and her agreeably otherworldly features whisk away a pirate. During which nobody, despite earlier warnings, tries to cover their ears and the Doctor does nothing more than brush vaguely at the guy’s sleeve to stop him as he goes to his doom. Then Amy steps up to defend Rory and, despite Rory’s obvious imminent danger, the Doctor ignores him completely to rush to Amy’s side. Yeah. Right. Has this writer actually seen Doctor Who before?
Look out, here comes the best part! Which is, of course, the Doctor’s “shark in a dress” line. Aaaand….all downhill from there. We’re not surprised the Doctor didn’t twig to the reflective surface thing at first, because where was the reflective surface in the leech-bedecked hold? Not that muddy water they were churning up, surely? And why does the Captain say the magazine is “as dry as a bone” when for ABSOLUTELY NO REASON it’s got a feckin’ big barrel of water in it?
Enter the coughing little tyke. Not a good sign, especially when he whisks the lid off the barrel of water for ABSOLUTELY NO REASON other than to let the Siren out and advance the plot. The crew decide they’re going to leave. Leave where? They’re becalmed eight days from land! That’s not a good sign either. This thing is getting more and more random.
And boring. Very, very boring. From this point there’s pretty much nothing to redeem it. The kid deliberately marks for death a crew member who’s not threatening him, which is pretty horrific when you think about it. There are lengthy scenes in the TARDIS, unredeemable even by Matt Smith’s acting, which seem to be in there more to clue in new US viewers than anything else. Then, in possibly the single stupidest action in all of Who, the Doctor realises the TARDIS is about to dematerialise and gets out. GETS. OUT.
It goes on. Hugh has to wrestle with dreadful lines like “This is mutiny” in between seesawing between Doctor’s chum and evil bling-obsessed Bad Dad. A crewman mysteriously vanishes without benefit of Siren. The Captain stands and watches as his son walks to the Siren, contenting himself merely with proffering useless advice. The Doctor delivers a finger-wagging lecture on the pitfalls of avarice, polishing up the obvious so nicely a Siren could use it as a portal. At least it’s enlivened by another cameo from Eyepatch Woman. The hints are getting bigger, aren’t they?
And poor, poor Rory. It started so well for him. Now, they make him fall overboard and the Doctor, in a truly bizarre leap of logic, decides the Siren is the only one that can save him. In every other case, the victim has had to walk to her, but apparently she now makes house calls. Also, she apparently suddenly isn’t killing people after all and they should all go to wherever she’s taking her victims. Which is a pretty big gamble.
The Doctor releases the Siren from a(nother) barrel of water on the deck. Didn’t they say there was only one barrel on the ship? And how is it providing a reflection in the middle of the ship heaving around? Never mind, it works and the three of them appear on the Siren’s side of reality, their hair fetchingly damp but their clothes completely dry. Don’t ask us why they’re not in sickbay with the others, because we don’t know, and we bet the writer doesn’t either.
The Doctor yaps about alternate universes, making us wonder if that pertains just to this story or if they’re trailing arc clues in front of us. It also makes us wonder if it really was the other ship the Doctor felt staring at him or if it was the reality of Eyepatch Woman.
It’s quite a neat little trick that the TARDIS team say at the beginning that they answered a distress call, that’s not gone into at all, then the explanation comes when they cross realities and once we’ve forgotten all about it. If that wasn’t a deliberate riff on the arc theme, it should have been. However, that’s about where the cleverness ends. We’re back in the too-familiar territory of alien tech run amok. What’s more, we’re in the even more familiar territory of Rory dying. Dear God! Again! Surely there are more interesting things to do with such a great character than to Kenny him relentlessly.
What’s more, they do it really badly. Rory is supposed to be drowning, yet manages to speak perfectly resonantly. Rory picks Amy to save him because she’ll never give up, yet she hilariously tosses the towel in after six breaths. And their oh-so-touching reunion is sledgehammered home accompanied by toxic quantities of slush from Murray Gold. Ugh.
We’re not sure which bit we like the least. Is it the poor characterisation? Is it the relentless obviousness and repetitious themes? Is it the plot crammed with stupidity? Or is the fact that the entire thing could have been avoided, as the crew knew perfectly well, with a few earplugs? We don’t need a Silent: this is quite forgettable enough already.
MORAL: Take two universes and call me in the morning.
PIECES OF EIGHT
This is clearly supposed to be a vague prequel to First Doctor story The Smugglers, except that it doesn’t work because the Doctor throws Avery’s gold over the side. Oh well, maybe he had more in sensible storage chests, rather than leaving it all lying around in glittering heaps as if they were in Smaug’s lair.
I HAVE NO MOUTH BUT I MUST SCREAM
Since the sailors disintegrate immediately, what are they screaming with? And if the Siren’s song is an anaesthetic, why are they screaming anyway?
AS IDLE AS A PAINTED SHIP UPON A PAINTED OCEAN
The Captain says the sea is like a mirror. It isn’t, though, is it? The long shot shows it rippling away like mad in a sea-like manner.
ALL THAT GLISTERS IS NOT GOLD
How does breaking glass stop it from reflecting?
Why would a doctor be programmed not to be able to touch patients (apart from drowning Rory) until they come to her? Isn't that a bit counterproductive? (Thanks to Frank Jackdaw for pointing this out.)
HE’S DEAD, JIM, DEAD, JIM, DEAD, JIM, DEAD
This is a script that delights in the obvious, but the shiniest gong for this has to go to Amy, Avery and the Doctor looking at a fossilised skeleton and the Doctor carefully explaining: “Dead”.
“Human bacteria. A virus.” Well, which one is it, Doctor?
MY ONE’S BROKEN. I’LL HAVE YOURS
“From our planet.” Um, we hate to mention this, but isn’t he from Gallifrey?