Saturday, May 07, 2011

The Curse of the Black Spot: All My Friends Are Pirates And They Sail The Bee Bee Sea

Avast thar ye shipmates, shiver me Justin Timberlake, hoist up the Jolly Roger McGuinn. Stop yer tossin' in the long-boat and lay-off fiddlin' with not-so-jolly Roger the cabin boy. Yer actual Keith Telly Topping, a land lubber of doubtful renown tis true, is here to tell 'ee of a long lost tale o'pirate ships and dubious bootie. Aye, that it be. Yar. And, various other lines spoken in a cod-Robert Newton accent. Sorry, couldn't resist it. Who, in all honesty, can? 'Yo, ho-ho. Or, does nobody actually say that?' The Doctor asks upon being discovered skulking in the hold on Captain Henry Avery's privateer ship laden - laden I say - with plundered dubloons. A rough-tough pirate, with a big bushy beard, Avery - looking suspiciously like Downton Abbey's Hugh Bonneville ... with a big bushy beard - and his (rapidly diminishing) crew of the worst black-hearted rapscallions seen since The Black Pig sailed off into the wide blue yonder have spent a terrifying eight days becalmed. They are, they've come to realise 'shark bait every single one of us, stuck on the ocean.' A situation which, frankly, isn't helped by the fact that 'the Siren's a-comin'.' That doesn't sound like something worth hanging around for. Thus, finding what appear to be a wacky trio of strangely-dressed stowaways a-midships comes as something of a welcome distraction to the assorted dastardly wretches and scurvy dogs. There's much laughing. Hearty laughing. You knew there'd be laughing, right? Lots and lots and lots of laughing. 'I suppose laughing like that is in the job description? Can you do the laugh? Check. Grab yourself a parrot, welcome abaord!' The Doctor notes, casually, as he's about to walk the plank and plunge the depths to Davy Jones's Locker. Of course something stops him from doing so in the nick of time.

What saves The Doctor's life on this particular occasions from discovering that sharks are, you know, cool, is Amy Pond, wearing a pair of shocking pink tights and having clearly watched Pirates of the Caribbean once too often and decided if that Keira Knightley can do all the sword fencing malarkey then there's  no reason why she can't too. Initial patronising thoughts of 'careful love, you could have someone's eye out with that' quickly give way to being, frankly, a bit impressed. The girl's not foiling. Who'd've thought Pond would be wicked with a cutlass? Well, Rory, probably. But, then Rory obviously believes his woman can do pretty much anything. Store that nugget away for future reference, it's going to come in handy in about thirty eight minutes time. As it happens, poor old Rory has problems enough of his own. Trying to come to Amy's aid (when she was doing perfectly all right without him, thank you very much), he gets cut and ends up with a nasty black spot on his palm. This has a strange effect on him - turning him, almost instantly, into an unholy cross between The Fast Show's Brilliant Kid and Brian Cox when he's explaining to viewers just how mega-awesome some abstract aspect of the universe is. 'Everything is totally brilliant, isn't it?' he asks a rather disturbed Amy. It would seem that the over-enthusiasm is catching, as well. Even The Doctor's at it. 'We've managed to bag a ship with a demon! Groovy!' Don't say 'groovy' again, Doctor. It's just as bad 'who da man?' Well, it is when you say it.

The Curse of the Black Spot is Steven Thompson's first Doctor Who script. Thompson - who wrote the third-best of last year's Sherlock episodes - has a background in the theatre (he was writer in residence at The Bush, for a couple of years, for example) and that certainly comes across in the claustrophobic atmosphere of this piece. And in several gorgeous splashes of back and forth dialogue; like when The Doctor is told that the Siren is like a shark. 'Just like a shark. In a dress. And green. And singing!' Later in the same scene, he gets an even better line. 'She's out there now. Licking her lips. Boiling a cauldron. Grating cheese!' The early part of the episode threatens to maintain its initial status, like a miniature one-set stage-play where any external action can be limited to happening off-screen and conveyed via dialogue like 'no curse is getting through three solid inches of timbre.' But, once Lily Cole's Siren puts in her first - quite stunning - appearance, the effects start to take over and we've got a proper bit of SF-layered faux-historical on our hands. A properly good one, too. By the close of the episode, we're on an alien spaceship (complete with, ahem, alien bogies) and into something else entirely.

The highlight of the episode is probably contained in a (genuinely) great little scene when The Doctor takes Cap'n Avery (and his big bushy beard) into the TARDIS and attempts to explain - in layman's terms - how the ship, you know, goes. A great couple of minutes of verbal jousting about a ship being a ship no matter where its dimensions thar be - comes to a climax with Avery, for the most part having got it, declaring: 'I'm confused.' 'Congratulations,' says The Doctor. 'It's a big club. We should get T-shirts!' Rory also gets several of the episode's best lines, notably his observation when the wind gets up. The rain is stotting it doon so hard it could cause a man's head to bleed, Avery begins barking 'splice the mainbrace, y'scurvy dogs'-type orders straight out of Treasure Island and Amy notes it's her belief that he making half of this stuff up. 'We're going to need some kind of phrasebook,' adds Rory, helpfully. But that's nothing compared to The Doctor's neat summation of the plot for anyone who has arrived late to the party because it started at 6:15. 'There's a stroppy homicidal mermaid trying to kill us all!' Then he assures Rory that the black spot on his hand is nothing to worry about. Besides, 'there are worse ways to go than having your face snogged off by an angry mermaid!' Word.

The Curse of the Black Spot manages, quite against expectations, to transform itself from a reasonably straightforward generic pastiche into something much more curious by the end. 'There is a monster on board,' Avery tells his young - stowaway - son, Toby, the Jack Hawkins of the piece. 'She leaves a mark on men's skin.' That monster, of course, subsequently turns out to be not all she seems. Because this is, after all, Doctor Who and alien monsters usually aren't what they seem. Unless, of course, they are. 'Folklore springs from truth,' The Doctor adds, but via a precise little essay on the possibilities of conjoined universes ('two cars parked in the same space') he shifts the story away from the historical to the sharply futuristic. In doing so, he urges first Avery and then his companions to 'ignore all my previous theories.' Which is just as well as, in this episode, for once The Doctor is not only wrong more often than he's right but, much more importantly, he's also a virtual mute observer to a climax in which it is Amy, not he, who provides the, literal, lifesaving. Essentially, The Curse of the Black Spot fulfills the seasonal role in this year's Doctor Who that episodes like The Unquiet DeadTooth and Claw, The Shakespeare Code and, last series, The Vampires of Venice did. A piece of cod-comedic myth-breaking. A pseudo-historical which plays with the audiences familiarity with a particular genre through movies - in this case, everything from Captain Clegg and Mutiny on the Bounty, to the omnipresent spectre of Captain Jack Sparrow and his chums - and then gives it a witty postmodern twist. 'You're big on the gun thing aren't you? Freud would say you're compensating... You never met Freud, did you? Mmmm... comfy sofa!'

It is not - by a stretch - the greatest episode you'll see this year; it's fun and froth rather than anything more solid and satisfying. Style-over-substance, effectively. But it's great style, all the same. Proper swagger. A right rip-roaring rollercoaster of buckles being swashed and dos being daringly-did. Done. Whatever. 'That thing isn't a ravenous hunter,' The Doctor realises, almost too late for Rory. But, our Mr Williams has - as noted previously - complete faith in his Amy. 'I know you can do this. Course, if you muck it up, I'll be very cross. And, dead.' Thankfully, Rory avoids yet another death (his third!) by a literal breath. And the TARDIS crew will live to see another day, another world, another sky. But, in two tiny - apparent throwaway sequences - we get a sense of the on-going story-arc that this series will ultimately head towards. Firstly there's yet another weird non-sequitar wander around Amy's damaged psyche from the point of view of the one-eyed woman who lives behind the hatch briefly seen in Day of the Moon. I'm guessing that one will explained before we get to find out what, exactly, is the deal with The Doctor's 'future death' witnessed in The Impossible Astronaut and alluded to in the 'mutual' scene at this episode's climax. Doctor Who these days seems keen to follow the American model of series drama - Buffy, The West Wing, Lost, House - and play out its palette of stories in not only the short, but also the medium and the long terms. To note that life isn't a series of short episodes that can be easily detached from each other but, rather, one long continuous narrative. A few dozen naysayers on the Internet will tell you that's a bad thing and they would seem to have gained the support of a couple of scum tabloid newspapers. At least for the time being. They're wrong, of course. And thank God they are, frankly. Because we've got enough one-dimensional, spoon-fed, lowest-common-denominator, easily understood by anyone with a seven-second-attention-span-TV already cluttering up the airwaves without one of the few popular successes which doesn't pander to such conceits dropping its standards. And dropping them for the sake of people who only speak in words of two syllables or less potentially championing your cause. In an ideal world, and this is far from ideal in many ways, the public gets the television its needs, whether it wants, or even deserves, it or not. Me hearties.

For today's Keith Telly Topping's 45 of the Day here's some more naughty pirates.


fatoldtart said...

Good one KT and I agree with the extended story arc, rather than individual episode resolution gratification. Of course, we have neil Gaiman yet to come, a man well known for not resolving issues for years. let's see what they make of him.

Carl said...

Loved this episode. When people talk about "indefinable magic", it's stories like this there thinking of.