Saturday, May 07, 2011

Doctor Who: The Curse of the Black Spot

It's funny, in a way, because The Curse of the Black Spot felt far more like a season opener than the episodes that opened this season. In that it was a largely self-contained little romp, designed more to entertain than to provoke any sort of meaningful thought.

And in a sense, of course, there's nothing wrong with that. In some ways, Doctor Who is, and always has been, about entertaining people. And we should be pleased that this episode did (for the most part) entertain in an atmospheric way. It is next to impossible to imagine, for example, the original version of Doctor Who carrying off this same story with the same aplomb. Everything would have been brightly lit and clearly staged in a studio. Here, we got a sense of the ship, and a real feeling that this was an adventure affecting real pirates (at least at first). High production values are not to be sniffed at (even if the airborne Siren occasionally looked like Superman flying in Superman IV: The Quest For Peace).

All those acting in it were also good. Smith's Doctor has a clear character, while Amy and Rory played very much to type. The pirates managed to avoid most of the hackneyed cliches involved in playing pirates, and even the kid managed not to be irritating. In fact, the whole thing had a general air of a high-budget pirate adventure.

Including, sadly, the plot.

Because, the plot, with the best will in the world was well realised but also very slight. Right from the moment Rory got the black spot, I was hoping that getting said spot did not lead to his abduction, and that rather he was avoiding death. However, of course, it was all benign in the end. It was all about a confused alien taking them to look after them. Including the muderous pirates, who got a new lease of life and new ship in which they could commit their crimes. Which is adequate as stories go (especially when the clues as to the ultimate solution are given throughout the episode) but seriously, why couldn't the Siren have been more of a threat? I mean, last week we had the Silence, the week before the Impossible Astronaut killing the Doctor at the very beginning. A basically benign alien medical computer programme is a serious anti-climax.

So yes, this was like a Hollywood movie. Or a one-off special. Or like a simple, no-brainer season opener. In fact, I do wonder why it wasn't the season opener. Because while The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon would not have been damaged at all (beyond a few minor rewrites at the start) by coming after this adventure. Plus, pirates, the Doctor and Easter Saturday may have coaxed more viewers out of the sun for the season debut. Whereas The Curse of the Black Spot - a slight, forgettable, crowd-pleasing episode if ever there was one - was definitely damaged by coming after the two iconoclastic and brilliant episodes that began this season.

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At 8:51 pm , Blogger Devil's Kitchen said...

"It was all about a confused alien taking them to look after them... A basically benign alien medical computer programme is a serious anti-climax."

Especially since we have seen that sort of storyline before—with the added gall in that that particular episode remains possibly my favourite ever...


At 9:07 pm , Blogger The Nameless Libertarian said...

I know what you mean - both about how good The Girl in the Fireplace is and about having seen this sort of story before. After all, a piece of alien technology trying to save the human race in a counter-productive way is also the basic plot of The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances. In fact, the whole thing felt a bit like someone else performing the greatest hits of Steven Moffat. Badly.

At 9:23 pm , Blogger Devil's Kitchen said...

"After all, a piece of alien technology trying to save the human race in a counter-productive way is also the basic plot of The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances."

Oh, yes—of course! I'd forgotten that. Although they are also two of the best episodes ever...


At 8:24 am , Anonymous Mummylonglegs said...

My squids thought last nights episode was 'crap'. Their words, not mine. The mental mermaid was not frightening, the plot was boring and the whole program rather tedious. And I have to agree with them. It seemed to last a lot longer than an hour and the biggest fan (middle squid) got up half way through to go play on the computer. I think this is damning for Dr Who as my squids are serious fans. They will watch repeats over and over. Well, except for The Library one which frightened middle squid so much he had night mares for 3 weeks and still won't watch it. The squids don't expect much from Dr Who, they want it to be a lot scarey, a little funny and no kissing. So far there appears to be too little of the first two and far too much of the last (even for me). I'm beginning to wonder if the writers are creating more adult plot lines (aka more complicated) and forgetting that the core audiance is still children. The timing doesn't help (6pm is too early) but that can't be the sole reason for the falling ratings.

Mummy x

At 12:27 pm , Blogger Jonathan Burt said...

I fell asleep half way through and had to watch it again. It was quite dreary. As the mother of the three children pinpointed, the series seems to be losing its way a bit. Ratings are down, the episodes are too confusing. The series is too clever by half and is losing some of its core audience.

The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moonbase reminded me of the X Files and not in a good way as I stopped watching that too when it was so difficult to follow the plot.

The plot was all too similar to a recent Big Finish audio too, The Whispering Forest. Notwithstanding the unwanted presence of Janet Fielding in that one, it was much better than this tame effort from the new series.

As for the classic series, it would have done this one far better. You comment "Everything would have been brightly lit and clearly staged in a studio", have you seen Talons of Weng Chiang or even in the 26th season Ghost Light?

I just hope next week's episode sees a return to form, I am quite worried by the start of this series which is running out of kilter.

At 2:00 pm , Blogger Mark Wadsworth said...

I quite liked it to be honest.

Was it as 'good' as other episodes? Clearly not, but is it still better than most other programmes on the telly? Yes.

At 4:53 pm , Anonymous NickM said...

I didn't like it. It seemed paced all wrong. And the Black spot for you lot for saying what I was going to say about it being deja vu all over again.

"In fact, the whole thing felt a bit like someone else performing the greatest hits of Steven Moffat. Badly."

Brilliant Nameless!

What really got me though was the CPR scene.

1. Rory says, I'm a nurse I can tell you what to do. Well I'm a trained first aider and that ain't it!

2. It meant the ending lacked tension. Let's face it they can't killing poor Rory again. (a) Everyone knows beforehand there is one death and that's happened already and what would be the rest of the series with the the newly widowed Amy as the weeping widow been like?

Anyway they're bringing back Romana aren't they?

At 7:07 pm , Blogger The Nameless Libertarian said...

Few points to make here. Firstly, it is a mistake to think of Doctor Who as primarily a kids show. It isn't. Never has been, never will be. It is a family show that has, right from the outset, dealt with some very adult themes. The second story dealt with aliens who were clearly Nazi ciphers attempting to carry out ethnic cleansing on a massive scale, for heaven's sake.

Now, you can make an argument that the first two episodes were too complicated for kids (who are part of that family target audience). I personally think you're wrong if you make that argument - kids understand a lot more that we give them credit for, and even if they miss some of the subtle nuances, then a monster like the Silence will definitely keep them watching anyway.

Which is the problem with last night's episode. The Siren wasn't scary, and became less and less of a threat as the episode went along - an absolute killer for a monster in a Doctor Who story. But the plot here wasn't complicated. In fact, it was very much My First Science Fiction story, written by someone who has watched too much Moffat without understanding how he actually works.

And yes, I have seen The Talons of Weng-Chiang (with the fluffy, friendly giant rat and the denouement clearly filmed in a studio) and Ghost Light - I have also seen The Invisible Enemy and The Happiness Patrol. So please don't tell me that as soon as the old style show had to move out of the BBC comfort zone of the modern or the Victorian era that the show wasn't poorly lit and very stagey.

And as Mark points out, this may not stand as a classic episode, but it remains better than anything else on TV last week.

At 7:11 pm , Blogger The Nameless Libertarian said...

And re: the ratings (up 0.4 million last week, according to the overnights - and therefore likely to be at around 8 million in total) yes, they are a bit down on last year. But the show has been the second most watched programme on the respective Saturdays for its first two episodes (and riding high among the overall rankings for the week) - which kind of implies to me that ratings across the board are down. Furthermore, the show is scoring record ratings in the US for its channel (and the US is a territory Doctor Who has always struggled in) so I'm not overly worried by the downturn in viewing figures. Doctor Who remains extremely popular, and the BBC's flagship programme.

At 7:14 pm , Blogger The Nameless Libertarian said...

Nick - you're right, the CPR scene was wrong and completely lacking in tension. They aren't going to kill Rory again, so this just felt like padding and a week attempt to create some sort of excitement at the end.

And yes, it very clearly wasn't CPR - but why didn't Amy, instead of trying for a couple of seconds inbetween sobbing and then just giving up - turn to the 900 year old alien who calls himself the Doctor and say "little help here, maybe?" Instead, he was sat on the sidelines looking like, in the words of a good friend of mine, "some sort of time tit".


At 11:18 pm , Anonymous Andrew Zalotocky said...

Oh my God, they killed Rory! It is beginning to seem like a running joke.

But isn't he still an Auton? Can an alien plastic replica of the original human Rory actually drown? It would explain why the Doctor was standing around like a time tit if he knew that the "drowning" was just a simulation of human physiological responses, although I doubt very much that the writer thought of that.

Unless I've forgotten something important, this does seem like a major plot point that's just been dropped down the memory hole. Rory was killed. He was shot dead and then deleted from history. The new Rory is not the same man but a copy of the original. That's something that really ought to be addressed at some point.

On the question of whether the first two episodes were too complex for the kids, I think the real risk is of losing casual viewers of any age. For example, the Silence were first mentioned in Smith's first episode as the Doctor. So we've got story arcs that span multiple seasons and plots that depend on complex interactions between future and past. There is a risk that people who don't watch every episode won't know what's going on, and that people who just tune in for some undemanding escapism will decide it takes too much effort to follow.

As for the ending, my first thought was that it was ludicrous to suggest that 17th century mariners could pilot a spaceship. My second thought is that it is actually entirely plausible. In the near future we will have consumer electronics that "learn" the user and adapt to his or her way of working. A species that can build interstellar spaceships would have such advanced computers that they would be able to adapt to any pilot and teach that person how to issue commands. But in that case, the real problem is explaining why the medical system failed to properly adapt its interface to human patients.

Of course, if the machines can learn to work us then there's a question of who is really in control. But don't worry, we've got at least a decade to figure that out!

At 9:51 am , Blogger The Nameless Libertarian said...

It was my understanding that Rory was resurrected with the rest of the universe when the Doctor piloted the Pandorica into the exploding TARDIS. After all, Pond resurrected her parents (and the Doctor) from her memories, so why not Rory?

Rory died, became an Auton, and then was brought back to life through his fiancee's memories. At least that's what I think.

And I don't think the plots are becoming too involved for casual viewers. There have been story arcs that have spanned more than one season before - including Torchwood and Harold Saxon. Indeed, story arcs were used in the classic series as well - The Key To Time, Trial of a Time Lord and the Fenric/Ace arc were all precedents for the sort of story arcs that both RTD and Moffat have used. Besides, you don't need to know that the Silence were mentioned in The Eleventh Hour to enjoy The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon.


At 10:19 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

"So yes, this was like a Hollywood movie."

Indeed, I think 'Coma' is the one you're thinking of, if only in the image of the bodies stretched out on beds suspended from the ceiling. The second time in three episodes Moffat has used an idea from the movies, with episode 2 having the concept of trying to defeat memory loss by writing on your body (pinched from 'Memento').


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