|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.