In the overall arc of the sixth series of Doctor Who, “The Curse of the Black Spot” has the poor luck of being sandwiched between two highly anticipated episodes–the two-part season premiere and the Neil Gaiman episode.
It’s a slot that could easily be on that surprises or delights us as “Blink” did a few years ago.
Instead “Black Spot” wasn’t necessarily terrible, but it wasn’t necessarily great. It was just sort of there.
Part of the problem is the the first half of the episode really doesn’t do much beyond answer the question, “Wouldn’t it be cool if the Doctor was on a pirate ship?” Once we establish that we’re on a pirate ship that’s not moving and that there’s some threat to crew if you injure yourself, the story is content to throw out a series of red herrings in an attempt to keep the Doctor from deducing too quickly what exactly is going on here.
If the two part season premiere felt like it was taking some of Moffat’s favorite themes and throwing them into a blender, “Black Spot” upped that feeling of “been there, done that” by giving us an almost laundry list of greatest hits from the new series run and Moffat’s tenure as producer.* Not necessarily a bad thing, mind you but after the show significantly upped the ante last week, it felt like this straight-forward a story was a step sideways instead of a step forward.
* It also doesn’t help that large chunks of “Black Spot” feel like they’re lifted from the Jon Pertwee four-part story “Carnival of Monsters” including the TARDIS materializing on a ship inside of something else and the crew being observed. In both stories, a force outside the ship removes the TARDIS from the ship to the outside universe.
It’s also a bit of reminder that the series is designed for children because while the adult side of me was picking things apart and seeing a greatest hits medley, there’s a part of me that knows if I’d seen the story when I was twelve, I’d have been delighted by the episode. The Doctor, Amy and Rory having swashbuckling adventures on a pirate ship is just one of those kinds of stories that screams out for kids to enjoy reliving on the playground all week as we build up to the next installment.
Atmospherically the story worked and the series continues to be visually beautiful to behold. It’s fascinating to see how Moffat juggles the budget each year to have big ticket items like a trip to America, complete with scenic vistas in Monument Valley the past two weeks but still manages to create the worlds we see here–both the pirate ship and the alien space craft we see in the final half of the story.
And I don’t fault any of the acting work here. Stephen Thompson as the pirate captain is solid enough and Lily Cole as the mermaid/holographic healing program isn’t asked to do much besides look pretty and be threatening. Of the two, Thompson is the stronger with what he’s given but there wasn’t really a lot here to work with.
But in the end, it felt more like this one is a catch your breath episode between last week and next week. And maybe the calm of the sea as seen in the storyline here is meant to foreshadow that this is the calm before the storm for the rest of series six (well, at least the first half, anyway).
We’ll have to wait and see.