...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Day 3779: DOCTOR WHO: Liberal Democrats and the Curse of the Black X Marks the Spot


Becalmed in the polls and beset by an evil blue Siren (who turns out to be a faulty health policy), is it time for the notorious pirate Captain Clegg to abandon ship?

No, of course it isn't!

By the way, my Daddy Richard is a PIRATE too! After all, Richard starts with an “Arrr”… Oh please yourselves: here’s his latest review…

I must be getting old, because I thought this was better. Good lord, a Doctor Who story with a beginning, a middle, and an end; a mystery, an investigation, and an explanation. Whatever will they think of next?

People have been very willing to dismiss this as “simple” and “traditional” fare (or “obvious” and “clichéd” in some translations) but frankly coming after the opening two episodes of dazzling confusion, a restatement of the series' basics is a welcome relief.

I was very tempted, rather than review this myself, just to link to Simon's review which, being far faster than mine yikes!, has said most of what I want to say already. I will say, though that I'm relieved and grateful to have seen Simon and Lawrence Miles and heard Chris and Joe of the Eleventh Hour podcast and particularly their listener Donald who have all referred to the Doctor's actions against the Silence as genocide. After the comments on last time's review, I'm glad to learn it wasn't just me!

It’s not the best pirate story that the series has ever done (that, obviously, is Mr Simon’s “The Pirate Loop”). But it’s not the worst, either (almost unanimously voted Troughton-era metal-wigged ludicrous-accent-fest “The Space Pirates”).

Sailing as close as she dared to Disney's lawyers, "Curse of the Very Nearly Copyright Infringement (and with Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides in cinemas within the month too, quelle surprise)" actually played against the Pirate clichés more often than with them, subverting and underplaying rather than going over the top.

Appropriately enough for a pirate story, it's carried off some treasures from earlier adventures: the time-windows of Moffat's own "The Girl in the Fireplace" combined with the sudden genre-defying twist of "The Stones of Blood", but done with rather more panache, combined with the emergency medical hologram from Star Trek Voyager. Never has Robert Picardo looked so super-model-ish. The spaceship sets may – like the Megara's prison ship – be the cheaper element of the production, but – unlike the Megara's prison ship – it's the right kind of cheaper. And if you're going to knock off a medical horror trope, you might as well jump straight to "Coma".

I must confess, I've always felt that "The Stones of Blood" builds its tension really nicely over the first two episodes and then throws it all away with the – to my mind – rather silly "trial" sequences in the concluding half. The cheapness of the spaceship set and the Megara doesn't help, and nor does painting Susan Engel blue. Here I felt that the abrupt reversal actually worked much better, possibly because it was fundamentally an explanation of everything that had gone on in the first half hour, rather than a literal jump to the left.

Previously in the series, we’ve seen – or rather most of us haven’t – the lost Hartnell tale “The Smugglers”, to which this is loosely connected by the treasure of Cap’n Avery.

Except of course it isn't, since the treasure doesn't survive this story, far less get hidden in the crypt by Holy Joe Longfoot for Avery's vengeful successor to come a-hunting and indeed discover (with the Doctor's help) in part four.

Henry Avery was a real mutineer and pirate who, despite his short career (only two years), was said to have committed "the single richest crime in history", namely the theft of (as seen here) the treasure of the Mughal of India. And he did disappear, or at least drop out of history's record. Though he was said to have been generous to his crew with the disposal of the treasure, all of them ending up rich.

Hugh Bonneville is rather touching as the pirate captain who has put his love of gold above his love of country or even family. Yes, the sub-plot with his runaway son is clichéd, even trite, but he invests the Captain with levels that let you see he is both human, with feelings of love and guilt, and yet still basically wicked.

With Bonneville's presence, "Curse of the Black Spot" was also very reminiscent of the Christmas episode just gone: you know, a big fruity role for one of the nation's treasured thespians; a singing part for a woman more known for her pretty face than her acting talent; something to do with sharks.

Where it was different, was that this was a rather good Amy and Rory story. Yes, Arthur Darvill barefoot and stripped to the waist: never going to complain about that. But there was rather good business for both of them: Amy – she of the dressing up games as a career path – turning in a nice bit of gender-reversal in her Pirate Queen get-up, while the pirates run around "like girls" (you might say); and Rory who is just always so embarrassed about the whole business of having adventures, actually having reason to be embarrassed this week; but then reflecting that with his genuine love and faith in Amy, willing to gamble his life on her never giving up. (Pity she actually does give up, but we'll gloss over that as an overenthusiastic bit of melodrama from someone.)

Admittedly, having what looks like a "will Rory die?!?!?" moment (answer: no; not a spoiler) was perhaps overegging the pudding. We have very much been there; done that. Twice at least. The words "Kenny from South Park" have been mentioned.

And yes, I have to confess it's yet another "everybody lives" story – for just one second I hoped that someone would have the bottle to kill one of those kids with which Moffat-era Who seem seems to want to litter its stories; ah well, maybe one day – although it was nice that they can only live if they stay hooked up to the alien medical system (and in a slightly parallel plane of existence).

Some people have said "why didn't the Doctor help with the CPR?" but I thought that the episode was pretty clear that the "doctor/siren" would only hand over Rory's treatment to his next of kin, i.e. Amy, and she'd probably have tried to stop the Doctor intervening. Although dragging the dying Rory off to the TARDIS was a bit unnecessary… almost like the director didn't want to risk doing multiple takes while maintaining the continuity of all those pirates in the background.

Speaking of continuity, I assume that everyone has spotted the "blunder" by now: the amazing disappearing boatswain. Lee Ross (Kenny from "Press Gang") does a nice snarling turn as the black-hearted boatswain, but then vanishes without explanation between the scene where young Toby stabs him with a sabre (last seen barricading the door) and when Avery and the Doctor return to the magazine. He's in the medical centre, so we'll just have to guess that the Siren got him at some point.

Jon Blum has described the episode suffering what he calls "Coldheart syndrome": otherwise perfectly decent fare being dismissed as "filler" because it is "arc-light" in the middle of a major story arc, and I think that's probably right. Mind you, I rather like "Coldheart" as well.

The story on the whole is not troubled by Moffat's Silence-arc, apart from what we can guess were the two scenes that were added when it was moved from the latter half of the season. The reprise moments at the end – Rory and Amy agreeing to keep the Doctor in the dark about his future death; the Doctor still staying mum about Amy's is it/isn't it pregnancy – were a bit tacked on, and with a slightly heavy hand. They didn't add anything and served only to leave the audience with a "yes, we know this from last week" feeling. Which might have added to the feeling of some that this story was slightly talking down to them.

On the other hand, another completely unexpected random appearance from Francis Barber as the "Eye Patch Lady" was very much worth the price of admission.

But now we have to come to my horrible suspicion that the big twist to these episodes might turn out to be the worst cliché in history: “it was all a dream”.

Does the intrusion of the Eye Patch Lady into Amy’s reality mean exactly what she says it means: namely, Amy is dreaming these events?

It would certainly get us out of any of those uncomfortable problems about whether the future Doctor is dead, or whether he committed genocide, or for that matter continuity errors like the disappearing boatswain.

And could it be that those creepy guys in suits aren't the "real" Silence at all? It would explain why they look so “generic alien” if they just are Amy's subconscious idea of a generic alien.

At the very least it would introduce ambiguity about whether the events we've see on screen are really as they happened or as Amy remembers them or even as Amy’s memories have been altered to remember them.

It all sounds too rubbish to be believed… and then I thought: “when was the last time that a story started with Amy and Rory back home in Ledworth. Oh, and Amy was pregnant in that one too.” Suddenly it all looked too horribly plausible.

And then they go and employ the "master of dreams", Neil Gaiman.

Was it twee that the Sirius references turned into Captain Avery literally navigating by "the second star on the right and straight on till morning". Probably. But fun all the same. Which rather sums the episode up.

Next Time… Oh that's what we've not seen since "The War Games"! The Doctor faces his most terrifying for yet… Tony Blair, er, Michael Sheen. TARDIS corridors! Green-eyed Ood! Really, really crazy hair! THIS one, I want to see. John Nathan-Turner is back with a vengeance in "The Doctor's Wife"


Only one of the TV listings magazines had Dr Woo on the cover this week; all the others chose to go with "The Apprentice" instead. I guess they just preferred PIRATES!


Tat said...

I've been dreading the 'Amy's Dreaming All Of This' plot since she met the Queen whilst not wearing knickers. I hope it's only a 'Far Beyond the Stars' plot instead (they seem to be this century's equivalent of the 'They Might Be Giants' episode all cult shows had to have).
It's nice that they remembered that Rory's a nurse, although if he's been dating a kissogram the subject of mouth-to-mouth must have come up. It would be good if kids learned a bit of First Aid from fantasy telly. The main plot was the 'scary monster is misprogrammed medical tech'we recall from Moffat's first two goes, and squandered the potential of 'one cut and you're dead'. On a ship full of sharp objects this could have been milked for tension like blinking, being touched by a scary kid or forgetting that anything plastic could be a Nestene booby-trap. I'd like to see more stories where the Doctor arrives and figures things out as we watch, rather than having cue-cards somewhere.(I'd also like to see some where I'm not thinking 'which old story is this?')
But frankly, on the strength of the audios of episodes 4,5 &6 and the audience feedback from episode 1, I think I'd rather watch 'The Space Pirates'

Millennium Dome said...

Mr Tat, admit it – you're warming to this series. There's almost an endorsement in there, for the Doctor doing actual thinking and investigation ;)

But you're not wrong to point out that – along with everything else this episode nicks – it's had it away with the medical malfunction plot that the Grand Moff has used twice already (nanogenes and clockwork robots). And you're right that they should probably have gone for "don't blink" style tension. Especially since, if you're doing Pirates, you ought to finish with a big swordfight!

And now I'm perversely tempted to look out our recon of "The Space Pirates"!