-Dr. River Song
You remember the Doctor from Star Trek: Voyager, don’t you? “Please state the nature of your medical emergency.” It blew my mind that he was the monster of the week in this week’s episode, and that Robert Picardo now looks like Lily Cole. (His singing voice isn’t bad, either.) The Doctor — our Doctor — doesn’t get to meet a lot of other doctors in his line of work. At least, not ones that are as mysterious to him as he is to everyone else. Certainly not many that are willing and able to burn your face off with a Ha-Do-Ken. Definitely none that spend their time terrorizing pirates.
In an extra-special bit of geekery, I was thrilled that yet another cast member from 2008’s Lost in Austen has participated in Doctor Who: this time, it’s Hugh Bonneville, who played Mr. Claude Bennet to Alex Kingston’s Mrs. Bennett. Bonneville is Captain Henry Avery, an old sea dog whose desperation has made him a dishonorable, yet surprisingly adaptable leader. (Seriously — he seems to cope with the TARDIS better than the Doctor did back in ’63.) What I liked best about Avery, besides his ability to spar with the Doctor, is that he represents the ravages of pragmatism. In the context of the series, Avery could very well be what the Doctor might have looked like had things gone a little differently… or what he may still look like. The poignant relationship between Avery and his sick son is a sight better than that between Long John Silver and Jim, partly because little Toby actually looks up to his father as an idealized role model until his disillusionment, and partly because Long John Silver was always an unrepentant pirate. Avery is full of conflict about his role, and the way he sees himself through his son’s eyes is devastating, whereas the way Jim sees Silver just gives the ol’ peg leg a wan chuckle. I was also thrilled that Avery and Toby get a happy ending.
As befitting a Doctor Who episode, I honestly had no idea where the plot of “The Curse of the Black Spot” was going. I fully expected the Siren to be some malevolent alien stranded for some reason in the middle of the ocean — maybe even a manifestation projected by some other malevolent force like the Cybermen. The running joke of the Doctor continually rejecting his reasonable-sounding (by the series’ standards) theories was hilarious, though I suspect the Doctor always had a better grasp of what was really going on than he admitted. The scene where Rory tumbles into the drink had the Doctor proposing that they unleash the Siren awfully quickly. He must have suspected at some earlier point what was really happening, and decided to keep it to himself — possibly to force Avery to learn a cruel moral lesson about greed and family priorities. Again, I think the Doctor is projecting his own issues a bit more than he even realizes.
At the end, when the Doctor sends the pirate crew off with a new ship into the uncharted territory of the stars, safe and sound and cared for by a possibly sociopathic emergency medical hologram, I had the crazy thought that we were witnessing the origin of Glitz’s family lineage. In any case, it was a shockingly optimistic ending, considering how quickly crew members were biting the dust early on, and the genuinely creepy tone of the show up until that point. I think the best scene in the show was when Toby slices the finger of the cowardly crewman, an insightful bit of viciousness that, rather than making me dislike the poor little kid, made me hurt for him. After all, his revered old man turned out to be a pirate, he’s dying of typhoid fever, and everyone is going to die in the middle of the ocean, being picked off by a homicidal green lady with a lovely warble. In his situation, I might lash out, too, and it was nice that the desperation of everyone in the situation wasn’t just spread out amongst the adults — it infected the child, too, which made the situation even more potentially tragic and emotionally true.
The details of the plotting weren’t very tight, and I rather hated the resuscitation scene. After all, both Rory and Amy have already died and been resurrected multiple times. Even if Rory died, I don’t think he’d be any more “dead” than Superman, Batman, or Captain America were. Even the rehash of the pregnancy scan in the last shot was a bit anticlimactic after the mad dash of the rest of the episode. But the rest of the episode was directed with great skill. I didn’t care for the effects of the Siren very much — for some reason, every time she flew out of the water, it reminded me more of a rubber chicken being launched from a makeshift catapult — so the attempt to graft J-horror Grudge-heebie-jeebies was stunted a bit. Other than that, though, I loved the “redshift” bits of the Siren, and the pacing and staging were excellent. Even the bit of swashbuckling nonsense in the beginning, with Amy swinging from the ropes and dueling with a cutlass — a scene that seemed a bit perfunctory — was handled with panache, and director Jeremy Webb moved on quickly enough so that it just became part of the fun of not-knowing-ness that is one of the blessings of Doctor Who.
Despite my aforementioned quibbles, I also quite liked the writing in this episode. Series 5 was troubled a bit by inconsistency in tone and characterization from episode to episode. It didn’t seem that the other writers were quite on Moffat’s page in how they handled the Doctor and Amy or the cumulative effect of the season. “Vampires in Venice,” for example, was handled more like a farcical pastiche than a legitimate Doctor Who adventure, and while it had its moments, it felt a bit more like fanfiction than the polished script of a professional. But Steve Thompson — who worked with Moffat and Mark Gatiss on their brilliant Sherlock series last year — picked up on the threads in Moffat’s vision quite uncannily. The continuity of tone between the opening two-parter and “Black Spot” was seamless. As much credit goes to Webb as to Thompson, both new to Who. Here’s hoping that the trend continues.
And there’s the metal eyepatch lady again! Creepy as an abandoned orphanage, that woman! She and her sliding panels. Cripes. Hopefully Amy has the presence of mind to bring the Doctor into the loop on this.
“Curse of the Black Spot” didn’t quite match up to the grand slam of “Impossible Astronaut” and “Day of the Moon,” but I don’t think that kind of huge-scale storytelling is necessary in every episode. Here, we saw the Doctor in a bit more of sleuth mode, spotlighting a one-off companion like Avery as the primary partner, which was just fine. That kind of diversity is what makes the show great. Mostly, I loved how the episode managed to balance the adventure (high seas pirates!), horror (creepy Siren make you go poof!), series continuity (metal eyepatch), discovery (emergency medical hologram?!), and rare moments of optimism (that wonderful sendoff of the motley crew into the starry expanse; I hope to see them again, and expect we will) in the space of about forty-five minutes. As much as I love Seventh Doctor style gamesmanship, even an ostensible knockoff of Pirates of the Caribbean manages to take a tired meme and do something fresh and unexpected with it.
I don’t care what anybody says: Matt Smith is a better Jack Sparrow than Johnny Depp. Because he’s the Doctor, and the Doctor is awesome. Avast! ☕