Avery the Pirate (The Curse of the Black Spot)

(75 comments)

I AM THE GOD OF HELLFIRE, AND I BRING YOU
It’s May 7th, 2011. LMFAO is at number one with “Party Rock Anthem,” with Katy Perry, Jennifer Lopez, Bruno Mars, and domestic abuser Chris Brown also charting. In news, Osama bin Laden has been killed, as has the Liberal Democrat proposal for the alternative vote. While on television, it’s The Curse of the Black Spot

Let’s start by raining on people’s parade, shall we? This is not a prequel to The Smugglers. Really, it’s not. The Smugglers specifies Avery’s ship as being the Black Albatross. The prequel to Curse of the Black Spot, meanwhile, sets it on the correct historical ship for Henry Avery (more properly Henry Every, it appears) to have been on, the Fancy. More broadly, Curse of the Black Spot depicts all of Avery’s treasure being thrown into the sea, which would make it difficult for it to then be found in Cornwall. And since Curse of the Black Spot is universally recognized as a Doctor Who story that contains no plot holes or errors whatsoever and is indeed a beloved story that is universally praised in much the same way that Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks is, these are clearly conclusive proof that it is not in fact a prequel to The Smugglers.

In addition to embodying narrative consistency, The Curse of the Black Spot marks the moment where Doctor Who makes a direct response to Downton Abbey, in this case by casting its lead actor. The analogy is not entirely straightforward, to be certain. Downton Abbey is set, at least at this point in its history, at an Edwardian manor. Curse of the Black Spot is set on a 17th century pirate ship. 

And yet both texts ultimately focus on the intersection of noble duty and money within the context of British identity. When Hugh Bonneville is playing Robert, Earl of Grantham, he plays the noble patrician whose paternal sense of duty is presented as the last beautiful glimmer of a fading light. Here, as Henry Avery, he inverts it straightforwardly: he is the noble man gone wrong - an officer and a gentleman who has turned pirate. 

What this is not, at least, is a commentary on the particular era or history that Downton Abbey explores. This is obvious, really - it’s not as though Stephen Thompson was writing the part for Bonneville. He was given the brief “pirates” and picked a specific historical figure because he was intrigued by the broad strokes of his biography. Short of the specific casting decision that took place, there’s not really a way to spin that as a commentary on Downton Abbey. But after the decision, when it became Doctor Who casting the star of the new biggest show on television, the connection became inevitable.

So what we have is in effect a visibly authorless text. Nobody consciously made The Curse of the Black Spot as a response to Downton Abbey, and yet the aggregate of individual decisions made it impossible for Curse of the Black Spot o be anything other than a commentary on Downton Abbey. But this means that the commentary necessarily exists within the realm of the more broadly thematic. This isn’t “Doctor Who does Downton Abbey,” but something altogether more nebulously strange.

Nevertheless, the theme is there. We have two characters played by the same actor, each of them consumed with questions of honor and duty. And thus Avery becomes a tacit mirror of Grantham - one that admits what’s nominally repressed in Downton Abbey. There the supposed pull of honor is conveniently and perfectly aligned with those of wealth and power. Good is entrenched power, and thus to be powerful is to be good. But in Curse of the Black Spot Bonneville’s character has turned away from his honor in favor of treasure and gold, revealing the inherent lie of Downton Abbey - that honor is always secondary to power, and will be thrown out the window with aplomb the moment that it diverges from the interests of power. 

It is notable that this is a somewhat essential conceit for a pirate story, at least in 2010. This may have ended up as a response to Downton Abbey, but its origins are surely in Disney’s successful transformation of a b-list theme park ride to hit movie franchise in the form of Pirates of the Caribbean. But that film series is unabashedly a vehicle for watching Johnny Depp be the original Captain Jack, and for all that we may be led to admit that his morality is off base in the specific, it’s clear that the audience is meant to revel in the transgressive fun of the pirate captain. Similarly, The Curse of the Black Spot is built around the basic assumption that it’s massively fun to watch pirates. We’re meant to accept the Doctor reveling cheekily in the fact that he’s in a pirate story, and to thrill at the sight of Amy Pond as a pirate queen. That makes it difficult to subsequently turn on Avery just because he betrayed every principle he once held dear out of nothing but pure greed. 

And yet the story is unable to resist being about Avery’s redemption, and so finds a different way through the iconography by giving Avery a son to betray and lose, and, in the course of losing, realize that there are more important things than material wealth and all that jazz. Plus, of course, Rory’s gone and died again, so we’ve got to get that fixed by way of an enormously accurate and helpful depiction of CPR that you should watch closely and be sure to try if you’re ever in a position to provide lifesaving medical care for a friend or loved one. 

But it’s perhaps notable that even this does not actually constitute a redemption for Avery. Yes, Avery ultimately chooses to stay with his ailing son where he can get medical care, but he does this only after every other possible option is exhausted - he’s lost his crew and his treasure. He has no viable options and becoming a space pirate is in most regards the only sensible plan left open to him. Notably, then, the story not only fails to reject Avery’s turn to piracy, it ultimately embraces it - he ends the story as he began, only in space.

And so without actually changing its main character (and this is very much one of those Doctor Who stories that creates a temporary character to serve as the main character and then uses the TARDIS crew to assist a story about them), the story ends up creating an entirely different sort of transition - one that is more about the question of what sort of story it is than about characters. In this regard the key beat comes when we discover that the story is actually just Nightmare of Eden with pirates, which is to say, about two ships occupying the same space. 

And so the story, in practice, is about the nature of the Siren, as opposed to about anything Avery does. On one level this is a familiar turn: it’s the good old, classic “what you thought was a monster wasn’t” twist, a point stressed emphatically by the number of times prior to the final reveal that the Doctor turns out to be completely wrong about the nature of the Siren. And so ultimately the story becomes about the recognition of the Siren’s true nature. Which, superficially, is as an analogue with the Doctor, what with her being one and all. But there’s a more significant parallel to note: she is equally easily read as a ship, specifically one defined by eccentric spaces. In this regard, she ought be taken as an analogue to the TARDIS.

In which case Avery becomes a parallel to the Doctor. Which is, at least, historically grounded - he ended up as captain of the Fancy, previously named the Charles II - in the course of a mutiny. It is, in other words, a stolen ship, as is his newfound vehicle at the story’s end. And equally, Avery is shown to understand the TARDIS itself, a fact with tremendous significance for any reading. After all, stealing a ship and transgressing against all known laws is what you do in Doctor Who. And as the history of the program has shown decisively, not even family is enough of a tie to keep the Doctor from his own version of the pirate life.

But this requires at least some effort to account for the ethics of piracy. Clearly Curse of the Black Spot is not a story that is overly troubled by the idea of piracy, but equally, none of the pirates aside from Avery himself seem even remotely sympathetic. Perhaps Avery’s late game realization that there are more important things in the world than treasure might also apply to them, but this seems strained to say the least. They don’t have children to prioritize over treasure, after all. They seem generic cutthroat villains. 

Which brings us back to honor. After all, it is the thing that distinguishes Avery from the other pirates, at least here. (In reality, his entire crew was ex-military, what with the whole mutiny thing.) It’s tempting to read this as a final concession to the nature of honor - as a claim that Avery matters and is special because, ultimately, he was a British naval officer and he retains a connection to that august tradition. But this is difficult to square away with the rest of the story, and indeed with the rest of Doctor Who. 

Rather, we circle around, perhaps mercifully, to the tension between this story and Downton Abbey. After all, the story ultimately does embrace the break from honor. But this break is, in the end, valued specifically as a break. There is a difference between rejecting honor and simply not having any. What is significant about Avery is precisely that he is a break from an established and entrenched system of power. What matters is not being outside the established system of law and order and power, but rather walking away from it. Which is at the heart of how Doctor Who works. It has always been a response to the mainstream, as we observed when first talking about Downton Abbey. Its point is not merely to be iconoclastic and weird but specifically to be iconoclastic and weird from the position of something that is still attached to the mainstream.

Which is perhaps a fundamental truth about the series. That the Doctor’s power comes not from his wandering in space and time, but from the fact that he is a renegade. The Time Lords may, by this point in the series, have been revised as purely negative figures, but they are still essential as a starting point to rebel against. This is not quite equivalent to saying that the Time Lords or the British Navy are thus good things in some banal “good and evil each need each other to exist” sort of way, but it is, at least, a comment on how Doctor Who works. 


What, if anything, can be concluded from this? Perhaps nothing. The Curse of the Black Spot is, in the end, a difficult story to read too much into. It explores its conceptual territory without ever really amounting to anything or coming to any conclusion. There is a critique somewhere in here, it seems, but like the Boatswain, it somehow vanishes from sight before it actually resolves, a ghost of itself. 

Comments

Carey 3 years, 6 months ago

There is a critique somewhere in here, it seems, but like the Boatswain, it somehow vanishes from sight before it actually resolves, a ghost of itself.

There is another post to be made for the Curse of the Black Spot, and that is in contrasting the editing of the Davies era and that of the Moffat era and the realisation that the Boatswain's disappearance would simply not have happened in the Davies era. It is more likely that he would have been excised in his entirety than be left to disappear after appearing in a scene that seems deeply significant, which then (precisely because of the Boatswain's disappearance) only highlights that scene as a set piece signifying little, if anything.

This needs to be contrasted against the podcast for Waters of Mars where Davies comments about Graeme Harper's original edit of the story being completely and utterly wrong, and failing to realise what the story was about, and Harper being made to re-edit the story to fit Davies intent. Once again, we are forced to ask whether this is another part of the Julie Gardner effect: that of having an executive with very good judgement and a veto on what could and shouldn't appear on screen.

For all that, I believe many of your insights to be correct in this story but, as with several other stories this series (and one huge one next series) seems to be lost in the realisation. The script does some clever things that go unnoticed: the Siren is contrasted by the Doctor who continually throughout the story attempts to diagnose what is happening based upon the evidence at that moment in the story, only to rethink that diagnosis when new evidence presents itself.

Personally, I far prefer Curse of the Black Spot to Cold War: both are what should be called bog standard Doctor Who stories; both revisit pretty well the same era of Doctor Who, and both are competently made. But one adds little new to traditional "Base Under Siege Plot" other than grafting on some Star Trek morality (The. Aliens... are just. Like. Us!); where the other one ends with "Pirates! In Space!"

I know which I prefer, even though I seem to be in a minority.

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David Anderson 3 years, 6 months ago

There's at least one point on the score where you can hear Murray Gold saying, ok this is as close as I can get to the Pirates of the Caribbean theme without having to pay Disney anything.
The climactic CPR scene could be worse. Amy could be on her own trying to heal Rory of exsanguination. In fact, for a dramatic CPR scene there aren't many ways in which it could be improved, which says everything writers ought to know about writing scenes with dramatic CPR.

I'll just note that the Time Lords aren't a starting point. Doctor Who managed for almost six seasons without them. UNIT shows up before they do. It's true that they do appear before the Doctor and one female companion TARDIS crew ever does.

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David Anderson 3 years, 6 months ago

Normally I would agree with you about Cold War. I like Journey to the Heart of the TARDIS and Rings of Akhaten. Unfortunately, from about half way Curse of the Black Spot begins to lose its way in a morass of plot holes.
And I think they're not things that could be tidied up with one more draft; they result from serious underlying structural problems. There are only so many ways in which the Siren can appear and disintegrate a pirate: the boatswain must disappear at least in part because they've run out of ways the Siren can appear and take only one person without it becoming repetitive. The reveal of the other ship is too late for anything to be done with the idea of two ships in the same space; but early enough that the climax has to be padded out with a CPR resuscitation scene and some funny business about incinerating the Doctor's hanky.
If an important moment in the denouement scene consists of signing a medical release form, then your story has problems.

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Sean Case 3 years, 6 months ago

It seems wrong to try to redeem Avery, who was by all accounts just plain evil. He was a slave trader even before becoming a pirate, and the raid that got him all that treasure also saw him leading the mass rape, torture, and murder of prisoners.

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Wm Keith 3 years, 6 months ago

The nonsensical explanation is that COBS is an exploration of The Hunting of the Snark; the Boatswain being analagous to the Baker.

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Anton B 3 years, 6 months ago

I would be standing and applauding if I weren' t too busy rolling on the floor laughing. Your final comment detourning what was a pretty standard redemptive reading (the Eruditorum' s equivalent of a base under siege) into a meta-narrative meditation on the uncanny disappearance of the unfortunate boatswain. A more erudite commenter (jane? Has she vanished too?) might draw a parrallel between the theme of disappearance and the final fate of the Ponds. Indeed the final fate of all the companions, the excising of Susan, the vanishing of Dodo etc.

@David Anderson 'I'll just note that the Time Lords aren't a starting point. Doctor Who managed for almost six seasons without them.

They may not have been specifically named but the first Doctor, in the first episode specifically places himself and Susan as 'exiles from our own race'. The Doctor's home world was always posited as a place to run from and given the Doctor's anarchic nature surely the inference was that it was a world where Law (in the Moorcockian sense ie the flip side of Chaos) held sway. After that the Time Lords pretty much write themselves don't they?

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Anton B 3 years, 6 months ago

This is the season that uses Hitler as a comedy title character. And, lest we forget subjects Amy to surrogate rape. (Or not)

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Anton B 3 years, 6 months ago

Not to mention the bizarrely redemptive portrayal of Churchill.

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Carey 3 years, 6 months ago

The Boatswain's taking by the Siren was filmed, but the story in its original edit overran, and it was decided that the boatswain's disappearance would be least questioned. My big problem isn't with him disappearing, but that much is made of his last appearance before he is taken. It's something that would have been easy to solve (edit his last scene so that he is simply shown leaving Amy and Rory, instead of returning to the armoury), and my contention is that this would never have been allowed to stand under the previous production team.

I've no problem with the big denouement scene being the signing of a medical form: for me this works thematically (the programme is called "Doctor Who" after all) and has the requisite quirk that suits Doctor Who.

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Aylwin 3 years, 6 months ago

"He was a slave trader even before becoming a pirate, and the raid that got him all that treasure also saw him leading the mass rape, torture, and murder of prisoners."

All of which was of course utterly typical practice among pirates of any period, which is what makes their perennial romanticisation as feisty underdogs sticking it to the Man so nauseating. "The pirate way" indeed.

More generally, I don't for a moment buy the contention that there is some kind of inherent virtue in rebellion, independent of specific circumstances and behaviour. The pirate's answer to Alexander, "What I do with a small ship, you do with a great navy", cuts both ways. The falsity of ideologies that effectively declare that the possession of great power excuses evil-doing is matched by the falsity of those that declare the same about the lack of that power. And that's before you take into account that piracy (on sea or land) is how empires start, and that today's rebel is often tomorrow's tyrant. (To say that I was out of sympathy with the post on Planet of the Ood would be putting it very mildly.)

An "established and entrenched system of power" is not inherently worse than a system of power without those adjectives attached. In practical terms, it is usually quite the reverse, partly because those who inherit power are a random cross-section of personality types and abilities whereas those who grab their own from scratch in the first place arise out of a kind of natural selection sorting for both capability and brutality, partly because established power structures become entwined with society and culture in general, which often leads to their infiltration by all sorts of ethical notions that are alien to the self-starting warband on the make. In their essentials, Downtonesque codes of paternalist noblesse oblige are a sanctimonious cloak for enjoying the legacy of crime and for continued self-serving exploitation, but they're also vastly more pleasant things for the powerless to face than the jagged-edged immediacy of the crime itself, which is all you get from the pirate.

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mengu 3 years, 6 months ago

It can also be read as "Amy's sword-fighting was really cool as was the line about the pirates' brilliant beards."

Only series 6 episode to make it to Amy's final monologue. Got to count for something. ("Pirates are cool", probably.)

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Daibhid C 3 years, 6 months ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

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Daibhid C 3 years, 6 months ago

a beloved story that is universally praised in much the same way that Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks is

Ouch!

Regarding Bonneville's casting, I enjoyed the accompanying interview in the Radio Times in which they asked him how the makers of Doctor Who had convinced the star of ITV's Serious Drama (yes, I know, but that's how RT sees things) to appear. And he replied something like "I think it was when they said 'All right, Hugh, if you're going to keep asking, you can be in Doctor Who.'"

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Anton B 3 years, 6 months ago

Bit of a waste of an expensive location shoot too. There isn't one shot that couldn't have been done in a studio or CGI.
And can we get a shout out for the etherially beautiful Lily Cole. A talented actor who is tragically wasted here. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus uutilises her skills to much better effect. Although here, she does function as an uncanny meta - narrative reflection of Amy's later career as a model.

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xen trilus 3 years, 6 months ago

I suspect because it was the least traumatic.

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Alex Antonijevic 3 years, 6 months ago

I love the subversion that Amy's actually a crap pirate and the only reason she intimidates the pirates is that they don't want to get cut.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 6 months ago

For me the main problem with the CPR scene is that the whole point of he scene is supposed to be Amy's not giving up and yet she seems to do just that.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 6 months ago

This is the season that uses Hitler as a comedy title character

But it doesn't portray him favourably.

which is what makes their perennial romanticisation as feisty underdogs sticking it to the Man so nauseating

And what's weird is that the few ways in which the pirates were good (their semi-democratic, semi-anarchic mode of governance, for example; see Leeson's Invisible Hook) are almost never portrayed in movies and tv.

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Katherine Sas 3 years, 6 months ago

My complaints boil down to one essential thing: It's just a boring episode. There are other episodes of New Who that are less well-made or include more questionable decisions, but it's the only episode that just plain bores me. For what I want in Doctor Who, that's probably the most damning critique.

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David Ainsworth 3 years, 6 months ago

Disney’s successful transformation of a b-list theme park ride to hit movie franchise in the form of Pirates of the Caribbean.

What do you consider an a-list theme park ride?

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Wm Keith 3 years, 6 months ago

It's A Small World

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Callum Leemkuil 3 years, 6 months ago

Excellent post, Phil! I think it's interesting to compare this post to your Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks post, because they are very, very different. I think that overall you're pretty much spot on with DiM; it was doing enough interesting stuff that you could set aside quality and just talk about the things the episode genuinely tried to do. That is not possible with this episode, and your approaches for me elucidate the differences between these two failures (and make me feel validated in my belief that this is the worst new series episode as of yet). Curse of the Black Spot has no ambition. It has no themes, no scope, no ideas, nothing beyond the idea of pirates and cribbing the less interesting stuff from Nightmare of Eden. To read this redemptively, you've got to go into full-on death of the author territory (as you acknowledge in the post). And even then, it's not quite enough - there are several times in this post where it's clear you're irritated with the episode's lack of ambition and have to delve into tenuous territory. It reminds me of nothing so much as your Timelash post.

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Galadriel 3 years, 6 months ago

Anybody brave enough to bring up "Doctor Who and the Pirates; or The Lass that Loved a Sailor" for a compare-and-contrast?

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Alan 3 years, 6 months ago

Yeah, that was my objection too. They spend forever on a boat trapped in still waters. Then they spend forever in a hospital waiting room. And the antagonist doesn't even talk. There was this really curious sense of ennui about the whole episode.

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Leslie Lozada 3 years, 6 months ago

And it's the season where they used the most notorious U.S president.

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Leslie Lozada 3 years, 6 months ago

You mean the audio in which the Sixth Doctor sang ?

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Leslie Lozada 3 years, 6 months ago

I haven't relize how many historical characters appear in Series 6

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John 3 years, 6 months ago

How on earth is a sympathetic portrayal of Churchill "bizarre?" It's absolutely 100% what we'd expect from a Doctor Who meet-up with Churchill. The vast majority of people don't know anything about the morally repugnant aspects of Churchill's career. Churchill doesn't even need to be "redeemed," because almost nobody knows what a prick he was.

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Anton B 3 years, 6 months ago

In that case we might as well mention Vincent too and the well meaning but ultimately insulting 'it was an alien chicken all the time' depiction of bi-polar disorder.

Also BerserkRL
Yes agreed but unfortunately it didn't portray him as anything much except the excuse for a 'slutty title' (©S.Moffatt)and the 'hilarious' line "Rory put Hitler in the cupboard".

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Leslie Lozada 3 years, 6 months ago

First thing first, the picture is so referencing Todd in the shadows.

Two, okay, it's not one of the best of the series, but seeing as this was wedge in between three of the important episodes in the first half, it might have felt a bit off, but I felt that this was a breather episode and one where there isn't much to analise.

Just a popcorn episode.


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Leslie Lozada 3 years, 6 months ago

Okay, the vincent thing was a bit... off. But I was mentioning Series 6.

Also, I have so much to say that episode, when we come to that, of course.

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Jarl 3 years, 6 months ago

Whenever there's pirates about, there's always plenty to analise: http://www.amazon.com/Sodomy-Pirate-Tradition-Seventeenth-Century-Caribbean/dp/0814712363

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Anton B 3 years, 6 months ago

@John
I was referring to the portrayal being bizarre not its redemptive nature.
Sorry - posted in haste. Regrettable grammar.

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Anton B 3 years, 6 months ago

Are we having a heated debate yet?

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Adam Riggio 3 years, 6 months ago

The twisted portrayal of Hitler shows that Moffat's vision for this season is oriented in an entirely different direction than celebrity historicals in Doctor Who have ever attempted. It shows that there is very little attempt at verisimilitude between the history of our own world, and history as the Doctor and friends romp through it this year. Essentially, all the complicating details are subordinated to the story. Hitler becomes a bizarre theatrical image. Churchill is similarly adapted from the real complexity of his history to a Brigadier-like ally figure, continuing the role he had in Series 5. The Doctor's distaste for Richard Nixon is addressed at the first mention of his name, only for River to shoot it down; Nixon becomes a heroic figure, but also a sign of moral trouble for the Doctor. Nixon's story sees the human race hypnotized into becoming killers, a desperate, squeamish victory. But The Impossible Astronaut wasn't a story about Nixon himself. It was a sci-fi story featuring a Nixon that was mutated to fit it.

Capt Avery in Black Spot is a similar mutation. This isn't a typical rollicking pirate adventure in the Johnny Depp mode, and the one time Amy tries to make it so, she cartoonishly flails about. The Doctor's appropriation of the pirate hat not only looks silly (as his hats usually do), but is quickly established as radically inappropriate for the creepy atmosphere of the story and the imagery. This is a group of theatrical pirates mutated into a story about an alien stalker, eventually subverted through the revelation of the stalker's true nature.

Yes, there are political and moral problems with this approach to history. But it was truly experimental insofar as Doctor Who had never tried this kind of storytelling before. Neither, to my knowledge, has anyone else. I'm willing to put a lot to the side for the sake of an aesthetic experiment.

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TheSmilingStallionInn 3 years, 6 months ago

Thunder Mountain Railroad or Space Mountain. Peter Pan's Flight might be a-list because of its classic 'flying' style. Carousel of Progress, man! Pirates was pretty boring, except for the one drop in Disney World (there may have been two drops in Disneyland) before they put in the Captain Jack animatron for a little thrill, and then that thrill died out. Haunted House is definitely A-list, though, in my book.

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TheSmilingStallionInn 3 years, 6 months ago

I'm not seeing it either, but then again, this was never a heatedly debated episode. It's not the type of episode that one can really get upset over or debate enthusiastically. It's just...there. I think it is prescient in the Wedding of River Song post, sarcastically, of course, that anyone would be willing to heatedly debate the merits or totally detract the Curse of the Black Spot because it just exists pointedly as an excuse to have pirates and Hugh Bonneville. The arguments themselves that Philip Sandifer brought up might have some merit or interest as a points of interaction between narratives, but they do not arouse much furor or passion. It's just there.

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encyclops 3 years, 6 months ago

I'm not surprised, but a little disappointed, that you chose to consider this story in relation to Downton Abbey rather than the TV show it most closely resembles, Scooby-Doo. :)

Also, I know you're not endorsing "the basic assumption that it’s massively fun to watch pirates," but I want to chime in that we know it's false because we've seen the second and third installments of that Johnny Depp vehicle franchise. Ye cats, as someone presumably used to say.

Finally, let me say that I quite like this line:

Its point is not merely to be iconoclastic and weird but specifically to be iconoclastic and weird from the position of something that is still attached to the mainstream.

not least because it's a good description of my favorite kind of music.

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Adam Riggio 3 years, 6 months ago

And Vincent and the Doctor manifestly did not depict his mental illness as caused by the giant alien chicken. His mental illness was actually a troubling aspect of Vincent as a person, which the Doctor felt terribly conflicted about it being beyond his ability to heal, which I found a remarkably nuanced depiction of mental illness that is rarely found in popular culture.

It was only a peculiar facet of his synesthesia (which was distinct from his mental illness) that let him see the giant alien chicken, with whom he found sympathy when he discovered that it was actually just a scared, blinded creature running amok in a city whose people couldn't understand what it was.

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encyclops 3 years, 6 months ago

I liked "Cold War" on first viewing a lot more than I liked this, but over time it's fallen in my estimation. Apart from the reintroduction of and twist on the Ice Warriors, both it and this are pretty forgettable.

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Callum Leemkuil 3 years, 6 months ago

Cold War has the benefit of excellent cinematography and direction. Black Spot's direction, while fine, isn't as standout as Cold War's, although the scripts are about equal quality.

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Anton B 3 years, 6 months ago

@Adam Riggio
'It shows that there is very little attempt at verisimilitude between the history of our own world, and history as the Doctor and friends romp through it this year. Essentially, all the complicating details are subordinated to the story.'

You might be surprised to hear that, broadly, I agree with you. I think I've mentioned before that I enjoy the 'fictionalizing' of historical figures in Moffat's run which started, really, with Reinette back in series two. I do feel, however, that some of the characterisation in pursuit of this has been a little off. Both Churchill and Nixon for example, in my view, failed as written and portrayed, to support the narrative they were created for. The presentation of Hitler just about succeeded but really only because of the blessedly limited screen time he was allowed. I'd like to have seen the 'bizarre theatrical image' you obviously enjoyed. Unfortunately, for me, all that came across in Hitler, Nixon and Churchill were inept caricatures. I'm certainly not arguing for historical accuracy rather that I hope Moffat t continues the aesthetic experiment until he gets the tone right.

I'll concede that my 'Vincent' gripe was unfair. Vincent and the Doctor is, for me, one of the all time best episodes and I agree the mental health issue (I dislike the terms 'illness' or 'disorder' in this context) was portrayed and dealt with sensitively. I just hate that bloody chicken!

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Anton B 3 years, 6 months ago

I know. I've done my best.

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encyclops 3 years, 6 months ago

No you bloody haven't. This IS a DEBATE. It's HEATED. I am so ANGRY right now.

GRRRRRRRRRargh. I...oh, thank you. Yes, the tea's lovely, thanks.

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Leslie Lozada 3 years, 6 months ago

Hmm. Um, wait, what about the fact that the climax hinges on Amy trying to save her MURSE husband with outdated CPR from TV?

I just having this sticklely feeling they did it so that Rory can be the british Kenny.

Okay, I'm good.

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inkdestroyedmybrush 3 years, 6 months ago

I appreciate that Phil must be in good shape, because it was a real workout to make some sort of redemptive reading out of such a piss poor episode. You can't even compare it to cold war, as Cold War was bog standard Doctor Who done pretty well, and this is the Invisible Enemy: Standard done sooooo poorly.

Honestly, i blame fatigue. the production team has so much more that they were trying to do, and so many irons in the fire and something had to give, and, in this case, it was a simple fill-in story, that looks, well, like no one was paying attention to it. and it shows, becuase there is some much more around it.

This also looks like two stories grafted together in a weird way. it is a waste, really, because there is nothing wrong with a non-arc episode to give us a breather, but it needs to be a good one, and this one wasn't, not on any level. Its careless, has plot holes your drive an Eternal's ship through, and wastes all of its actors with a bad script.

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Wm Keith 3 years, 6 months ago

Notably, by the end of Series 7, the universe's view of the Doctor is as historically accurate and nuanced as its versions of our historical figures.

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Adam Riggio 3 years, 6 months ago

The lows and highs of this season are really quite amazing, and it's why I consider this the most giddily inventive of the Smith era. But its varying production quality doesn't quite meet its ambitions. The production team is clearly being pulled apart at the seams. The biggest problem, I think, is that Moffat didn't have a permanent producing partner handling the logistics of the production, instead facing a revolving door of co-producers. His own role of creative producer doesn't give him the time to pull the duty of both positions at once. Meanwhile, he was also wearing the creative and logistical hats for the concurrent production of Sherlock, which only made the strain worse. On productions like Black Spot, Hitler, and Wedding, the pressure on the creative end shows. Scripts that needed further drafting and revision before shooting didn't get it, and the objective quality of the season's episodes suffer.

Honestly, here's how I break down the Smith era seasons in terms of quality and innovation. Season 5 had a high and consistent overall quality, but was not particularly innovative, as it was mostly concerned with repeating the basic structure of a Davies season to ease the audience into Moffat's new model and philosophy. Season 6 was the most experimental and innovative, but the chaos of the logistical producers and Moffat's overwork running two shows simultaneously caused overall quality to suffer, though it has some of the highest highs of Smith's tenure (Astronaut/Moon, Wife, Good Man, God Complex). I consider season 7 (including the anniversary party) seeing a drop in individual episode quality for the sake of experimentation, with generally successful uses of the condensed narrative, a de-emphasis of all but the most subtle story arcs, the subtle steps forward of the River storyline. But I don't think any episode of that year was as blatant a disaster as some of the most problematic episodes of season 6. I, at least, am willing to offer redemptive readings of Mercy, Power of Three, Akhaten, Centre of the TARDIS, and Nightmare in Silver.

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 6 months ago

I'd point out that even if no other posts on Season Six provoke heated debate, A Good Man Goes to War already did.

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Prandeamus 3 years, 6 months ago

A side query. These days the default is for a pirate romp to have supernatural elements, and that's surely down to the original PotC movie. You see, in my personal unresearched memory, early pirate films were swash and buckle but not supernatural. These days lazy critics assume that pirate stories have always been about ghosts and the like. PotC changed the template away from Treasure Island, especially the 50s Robert Newton one, also Disney. If this episode had existed in classic who it would have been a fantastic genre smash, but in 2011 it's just ... Meh.

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Scurra 3 years, 6 months ago

This may or may not be true, although I agree that PotC had a certain paradigm shifting nature. The perfectly enjoyable Cutthroat Island (which was less than a decade earlier) has no supernatural elements and died on its arse - somewhat unfairly, I think. (But then I think John Carter is pretty decent as well, so what do I know?)

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BerserkRL 3 years, 6 months ago

In "Victory of the Daleks" Churchill tries to steal the TARDIS key. In "Wedding of River Song" Churchill keeps the Doctor imprisoned in the Tower. In other words, Churchill is presented as abusing the power he has, and seeking more. This aspect isn't emphasised, but it's there; he's not portrayed solely positively.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 6 months ago

I loved the Pirates ride as a kid. Not many thrills, exactly, but beautifully atmospheric.

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heroesandrivals 3 years, 6 months ago

The Time Lords are one of those odd culture-entities. They exist to be stuffy, boring and repressive but they're still an object of fascination, as if they were interesting. In truth they were designed not to be; their dullness is meant to enhance the Doctor's own appeal by contrast.
Dear lord... Krypton is more interesting than Gallifrey! And Richard Donor's Kryptonians were based on the Gallifreyans from The War Games!

The chief difference is that despite Krypton having been destroyed in backstory DC comics has figured out how to tell more than one story with them whereas Gallifrey is so boring that writers actually keep bringing back the Meddling Monk....

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heroesandrivals 3 years, 6 months ago

@BerzerkRL:
Arguably that constitutes a weirdly honest retelling of Churchhill. It recapitulates the culture-myth by including evidence of his deep failings which no one cares to examine.

@AyIyin:
>which is what makes their perennial romanticisation as feisty underdogs sticking it to the Man so nauseating.
I fine 'Pirates as genre' fascinating. (Partially because I love to trash Treasure Island.) It's so bound up in shipwreck-survival, historical naval fiction, travelogues like Pym, exploration narratives real and fictional, and quest narratives. Pirates used to be villains (opposed by swashbuckling naval heroes) which evolved into epic adventures of honorable heroes caught up in mutinies or captured by pirates with no choice but the join them and then rising to captaincy -- the 'tortured leader whose sense of honor redeems his crew' narrative that somehow backwashed into actual reflected glory onto the career as a whole.
Letters of Marque and Reprisal presented the notion of 'a good pirate,' where he lived the high-risk life of a pirate while retaining loyalty to and service of his country. That too got mixed in until even non-marque'd pirates received a quasi-honorable sheen as a sort of alternative sub-culture. "Outlaw heroes" exist in every culture from Ned Kelly to Flower Pothead, and pirates like Blackbeard provided ample material for that sort of narrative.

It might be useful to think of Pirates in these terms; If Star Trek took place on the high seas with the British navy then the Romulans would be the Spanish Armada (a rival empire) while the Klingons would be pirates -- swarthy, underhanded honorless bastards -- irredeemable thugs and killers who are easy to hate.
25 years later... look what happened to the Klingons.

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heroesandrivals 3 years, 6 months ago

I enjoy the Pirates of the Carribean sequels primary because they're such wonderful examples of how higher budgets can ruin a film. I think they had a budget of $30,000 for every second for those films and were visibly struggling to find ways to spend it -- to the detriment of the films.

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heroesandrivals 3 years, 6 months ago

I will accept the possibility that a redemptive reading exists for Asylum of the Daleks could exist, but you will never convince me that there is one for Journey to the Center of the TARDIS.

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The Lord of Ábrocen Landmearca 3 years, 6 months ago

You need to take JTCOFTARDIS as less of a single narrative and more of a musing on the fundamental inter-connectedness of stories as they relate to oh my god the more I remember that episode the angry I get Jesus it was bad. It was just such a... mess. There's a part of me that thinks the idea of the TARDIS interior really being metaphorical and insubstantial etc is deep and poetic and wonderful... and every other part of me despises how the episode chose to portray it. I've waited SO LONG to see more of the TARDIS interior, and in the end the episode allegedly devoted to it gives me less than The Doctor's Wife did.

God I hate Season 7. I hate Season 7 so much it make me want to weep. Someone hold me, please.

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Sean Case 3 years, 6 months ago

Fundamentally, Nixon is a punchline. Two, really: "tape everything and trust no one" and "they'll never forget you."

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jane 3 years, 6 months ago

Sorry I missed the go around with the Wedding. I've moved over the weekend, and this is the first time I've gotten on the internet (for more than a quick coffee-shop scan of my email) in nearly a week.

Wish I could say I appreciate the Downton Abbey reading, but as I don't watch that show, I can't really say. What I can say is that there's a lot more of interest to me in Black Spot than either Phil or the other commentators have elucidated. In some respects, I think there's more to this one than, say, The Doctor's Wife.

So, first and foremost, I want to reiterate that in so much of Doctor Who, both the story situation and the monster function as metaphors for what the characters are dealing with. The Doctor, of course, is trying to come to grips with River Song. Here we get a "doctor" who uses "song" to enchant people. And of course she's alchemical, using that combination of Fire+Water as her modus operandi. The Siren comes out of reflective surfaces (including "still water" -- i.e., a "pond") which means she's a monster of mirrors, and hence is specifically conducive to a reading that hinges on psychology and identity.

Amy, on the other hand, is dealing with multiple issues. First, there's the matter of coping with watching the Doctor die. In this story, she ends up having to embrace death. To save Rory, of course, which she's done before and and will do again, but here we get some rather extended imagery associated with the near-death experience. Here, Amy passes "through the looking glass" to "the other side" and discovers a "doctor's place" -- the sick by of another ship. Traveling with the Doctor often entails encounters with death, but this goes beyond simply watching the red shirts kick the bucket. This is Amy stepping into a place of death, and realizing that the attendant fear is largely unfounded.

This is also important for what's going to be happening to Amy very soon. She is, after all, of the Flesh, and when the Doctor makes that reveal she'll have yet another near-death experience, as her consciousness awakes in a completely different place than where she was previously. In this respect Black Spot is absolutely prescient; Amy's trip through the looking glass mirrors this bi-locational aspect of her own predicament.

With all this emphasis on passing through death, and its attendant "letting go," I can't help but wonder if this informs the CPR scene. Amy absolutely gives up on saving Rory's life, and it's in that moment of letting go that he revives. I would like to point out that the first time Amy saw Rory die, in Cold Blood, she never really got the opportunity to let go and grieve. The Doctor kept pushing her to hold on, to remember, and then when she "forgot" everything got buried in her subconscious. It's almost as if Black Spot dredges up that trauma and gives it a chance to breathe, gives Amy a trigger to really feel it through so she can let it rest and finally move on.

All this is not to say there aren't problems with the production aspect of the story, from the missing boatswain to the jangled tone. All that is true. But, conceptually, I find this one fascinating. With the "dead" pirates all flying out to space (to Sirius, a binary star often discussed in Robert Anton Wilson's more interesting cosmic screeds much in this same vein) and with the medical bay pallets all floating in mid-air, this is very much an ascension story. So I can't help but love it to bits.

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elvwood 3 years, 6 months ago

Welcome back! Hope the move went well.

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elvwood 3 years, 6 months ago

In DWatP, the pirate chief is not based on a real-life person and is, in fact, a totally cartoonish version in an inherently unrealistic medium (or a couple - jolly kid's story, then comic opera). He then turns out to be a sadistic murdering bastard in a way that is quite shocking - despite some foreshadowing - and which has genuine effect on the survivors. Unlike CotBS (well, according to most readings of the episode), DWatP is thus "about" something. It also pokes at the idea of "pirate stories are fun" - Evelyn tries to run with this idea, and it fails, forcing her to confront the reality.

And hey, it's got silly songs, and one of the best cliffhangers ever!

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heroesandrivals 3 years, 6 months ago

*thumbs up*
Remember, Amy and Rory were originally conceived as Tennant companions when Moffat wasn't sure if he might stay on for another series, and the best season was when he was deliberately trying to retain as much of the 'flavor' from the previous showrunner as possible! By series 7 Moffat had finally ditched all vestiges of the RTD era and we were seeing the show as HE thinks it should be!

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Bennett 3 years, 6 months ago

Welcome back indeed. I very much missed these symbolical analyses, and would never of guessed that The Curse of the Black Spot of all things would be such a rich spring.

I love how you tie in the mirror and water motifs from this episode to Amy and what is about to happen to her. While mulling this over, I realised that there could be another motif Curse is invoking to link these events - breath.

For Rory to return from "the other side" of the looking glass, Amy has to make him breathe. Very shortly the Doctor will be telling Amy to breathe to guide her through a similar transition. And if the important of breath in crossing these spaces is in doubt, note that when the Doctor realises how the Siren is able to enter their world he breathes on a mirror to seal the other side.

Breath on a mirror...that sounds familiar.

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David Anderson 3 years, 6 months ago

In Day of the Moon, every time Nixon walks into a room the soundtrack does some patriotic piece that I should be able to name - just slightly too fast and out of keeping with the style of the soundtrack. I don't know how it strikes US viewers, but it strikes me as the soundtrack going, 'Nixon, what a clown.'

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TheSmilingStallionInn 3 years, 6 months ago

Yeah, that is true...

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xen trilus 3 years, 6 months ago

The bit of Cold War that has stayed with me is the fact that the missing Ice Warrior ship conveniently shows up for Skaldak out of nowhere at the last possible second (when the whole drama was over it not having come to pick him up, it decides to arrive JUST as he has his finger over the missile launch button). Cue happy-clappy consequence-free ending. It just seemed like a stonkingly huge cop out when the stakes were so impressively high.

Curse of the Black Spot has no sodding idea how to end, but it least makes a paltry attempt at something dramatic, with Amy having to take responsibility for Crap TV CPR on Rory. With Cold War it seems almost as though Gatiss got towards the end of his plot outline and stopped bothering, because it's a kids' adventure show and kids obviously don't need anything even remotely challenging so no need to waste time and effort on it.

Unfair, I know. In fairness, I have no plans to rewatch either any time this century.

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Pen Name Pending 3 years, 6 months ago

It's "Hail to the Chief" and as an American, I did find it quite amusing.

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Triturus 3 years, 6 months ago

heroesandrivals, aylwin

Whilst there's no doubt that pirates did some truly terrible things, it is worth pointing out that many of them started out as mutineers because of some appalling oppressive practices by ship's officers, including the Royal Navy. Sailors at the time were generally half starved and completely brutalised; it was not unknown for sailors to die as a result of punishments such as flogging or keel-hauling meted out at the whim of an officer. Some of them were pressganged into service in the first place. Life on board ship in those days was harsh and dangerous.

None of this excuses going on to commit rape and torture and all the rest of it, but it should be recognised that they had very good reason to rise up against their own captains.

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Triturus 3 years, 6 months ago

I'm going to wait until the season 7 run and the JTTCOTT episode blog itself before getting completely drawn in to arguments like this, but I will say now that in my opinion, Season 7 is one of the best seasons in the entire history of the show, and Journey is a great episode. I don't understand why it's so disliked, but I'm surprised that "it didn't show the TARDIS interior in the way I wanted it to be" is up there.

Seriously, we got a swimming pool, observatory, library, a rocky cliff face, a frozen explody room full of metal, the Doctor's spare room, the actual eye of bloody harmony and the Tree of Life Machine That Makes Everything. What more could one want. AND it had more corridors than Logopolis and Castrovalva combined.

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Lee Shelton 3 years, 6 months ago

The venom that series 7 attracts in some quarters has always puzzled me, too. Whilst I would agree that series 7 (and especially 7b) is the flattest part of the Moffat era so far, I would suggest that the idea that it’s the most wretched run in 50 years of the show or some sort of crime against 3,000 years of human storytelling (as I think it was even described be one commenter here) is a tad OTT. And I don’t buy the idea that it represents some kind of teleological end point for the Moffat vision of the show any more that the year of the specials represents RTD’s definite statement on what Doctor Who should be. Actually, I think that one of the problems of 7b is precisely that it seems to be a retreat to the RTD format after the experimentation of series 6: it starts with a modern day romp to introduce the companion, followed by an elaborate alien world story, then a historical (not a celebrity historical admittedly, unless you count the Ice Warrior as the returning celebrity). In fact, at a plot level the “impossible girl” mini-arc is pretty much a re-run of the series 1’s Bad Wolf arc, isn’t it? Now I like the RTD era, but it’s no surprise that the attempt to recreate a 2006 aesthetic in 2013 turns out to be unsatisfying. In hindsight, series 7 strikes me as a strange crisis-of-confidence moment after the controversies over series 6 (which personally speaking is one of my favourite series of the show ever.

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Aylwin 3 years, 6 months ago

Yes. That (particularly the crisis-of-confidence bit) is basically how it seems to me, though I wouldn't go so far on the Davies echoes and I take a somewhat more jaundiced view of 6 and 7 - to me, 7 had less to offer than any season since the revival - the Moffat episodes were generally a cut above the rest and I enjoyed Name quite a lot, but mostly it was just...dull. But certainly 6 is the place to look for the definitive expression of Moffat's approach.

Well, loss of confidence is my leading theory anyway. Other contenders are a loss of momentum after completing (more-or-less) the long-gestated plans that he already had laid out when he started (often a cause of a creative sag, whether temporary or permanent), and a perverse sod-the-lot-of-you response to the hostile reactions to the previous season - "well, if that's what you want you can have it, and see if you like it...". OK, probably not the last one.

I have to assume that heroesandrivals is being deliberately cheeky, because (quite apart from anything else) the idea that characters created by Moffat to appear in the Moffat-ruled production era as part of a Moffat-devised storyline exploring Moffat-selected ideas in a manner introduced to Doctor Who by Moffat are somehow an emanation of the Davies era because in their early planning stages Moffat wasn't sure whether the actor currently playing the Doctor would be continuing for another season or not seems...er...unconvincing.

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Mike 3 years, 6 months ago

I remember being so excited about Lily Cole being cast and being absolutely furious at how much they wasted here. A similar feeling happened again when David Mitchell and Robert Webb were cast in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship (Mitchell and Webb as comedy robots? What can go wrong? Oh Chris Chibnall is writing the jokes....)

Cole's mis-casting (The Siren screams a lot so could be pretty easily played by anyone) suggests to me (though I may be making too much of this) that a lost of star-casting under Moffatt is based on name alone and not whether they deserve the part. To be fair, it has occasionally worked (David Walliams in The God Complex worked surprsingly well, Mark Williams did a fantastic job as Rory's dad especially considered how underwritten the character was), but otherwise it seems to me that great talent to going to waste. At least Davies (and heck even Nathan-Turner some of the time) knew they should give their 'guest stars' material they deserved.

Feel free to tear my argument in part, it's a sore spot for me that is not particularly rational and probably doesn't fit with the eloquent discussion of the blog.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 6 months ago

Nixon's reaction to same-sex marriage is also a kind of punchline, given its close parallel to what he actually said.

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William Silvia 3 years, 5 months ago

In this context, I disagree about the Time Lords not having appeared. The Time Lords as a named entity and with a specific purpose did not appear so early in the series, but the Time Lords as an upper class time-traveling society that the Doctor was a renegade from appeared very early on.

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