Sunday, May 08, 2011

Swash & Go

Now I admit I enjoyed the Pirates Of The Caribbean movies, even if the third one was a tad overlong and low in Chow Yun Fat for my tastes. But they wrapped it all up nicely and I didn’t really see the need for another one. So I’m in two minds whether to give the fourth instalment, On Stranger Tides, a watch or not.

In the meantime, we have Doctor Who’s foray into Cap’n Jack Sparrow’s territory.

First of all, what a relief there was no Captain Jack (Harkness) in this one. The trouble with immortal characters is they can quickly outlive their usefulness, interest and entertainment value. Fortunately for this adventure we have the best TARDIS team in ages.

Unfortunately, Curse Of The Black Spot is not the greatest vessel for showing them at their best. It kicks off with a nod to its Caribbean cousins, fogbound ship and distinctive medallion, and while the pre-title teaser is not the captain of all hooks it is, despite hobbling at one point on some wooden dialogue - ("We're shark bait, every single one of us, stuck on the ocean." "Until the wind changes." Ah, thanks for spelling that out for us, me hearties) - decently intriguing enough.

But most of the episode seems, like the ship, strangely becalmed in too-familiar waters. There are many things this story could have been, but it falls short of being any of them. It could have been a sort of Horror Of Fang Rock – handful of people stranded in isolated maritime situation, stalked by alien predator, oodles of fog and suspense. It could have been more of an action adventure, a more definite nod to the Caribbean series. Instead it delivered token rum rations of each while never properly coming alive as either. The storm even seems thrown in because the script was found lacking at that point.

It was fun and far from being a total, er, shipwreck – loved Amy buckling her swash -, but it was leaky at best. I’m all for two ships occupying the same point in space-time (worked okay in Nightmare Of Eden), but reflections as the gateway between dimensions strikes as a bit random. (I mean, sure, pay homage to Mirrors if you want – although I couldn’t recommend it - but why in a pirate story?) And towards the end when the Doctor talks Amy and the captain into a suicide pact, the Siren appears even though the lid has been firmly replaced on the barrel. I’m all for artificially intelligent alien medical programs who don’t have a clue about human anatomy (worked beautifully in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances), but the notion that this ambulance Siren couldn’t handle simple cuts and grazes beggared belief. The remains of the alien crew looked like they had the sort of bodies that might have been prone to minor abrasions and the like. Also, she had no knowledge of human anatomy, but was able to assume the appearance of a serenely beautiful human female - well, Lily Cole, anyway. Without, as far as I’m aware, any reference material. All this while understanding the significance of a wedding ring.

Add to that the fact that the most sophisticated method of sterilisation this advanced alien medical AI has at her disposal is flame and, well, you can easily run out of digits trying to plug the leaks.

It never helps either to be thirty minutes ahead of the Doctor in solving the mystery, and I’m afraid the alien nurse theory came to me very early in proceedings. But when we encounter the scene (straight out of Coma) of all the pirates plus Rory laid out in the alien sick bay, the Doctor is still seen hurrying to piece all the clues together.

So to the good. We’ve already mentioned Amy and her swashing buckles – and she really should dress up as a pirate – or WPC, or let’s face it, pretty much anything – more often. Less superficially, she once again proves her acting chops here being perfectly at home larking about with cutlasses as well as absolutely pouring out the heartache as she believes she has lost the battle to save Rory. But even here I have to detour into gripe territory, because although Darvill is as fine as always, Rory is once more reduced to victim status. It’s getting to the stage we should have an episode called They Keep Killing Rory. I knew he was going to get cut and that, along with my alien nurse theory, was one time when I would have liked to have been disappointed. Throw in the drowning and you really have to wonder why too many writers can think to do with him is to make him suffer like the female companions of old. It’s some sort of penance, isn’t it, for all that sexism of the past. Even if some writers think of the guy as a tool, that’s just more reason to actually make use of him.

Matt Smith is on good form, bumbling his way through in hyper-Troughton mode, but as I say his Doctor seems to be dragging his mental heels just too much on this one. Hugh Bonneville makes for an oddly sympathetic captain, especially given his foolish greed and the fact that he abandoned his wife and kid. But he’s the only real character among the crew. Obviously pirates pre-dated the Star Trek red shirt syndrome, but there’re none of the standout scurvy knaves of the Caribbean series and I tend to think that even if – or possibly especially because - your story is going to be killing your characters off one by one, then you owe it to them to make them as colourful and individual as possible.

Not much to do with this particular story, but as a side note I am enjoying the little and genuinely "What the-?" appearances of the strange woman in the sliding panels who keeps cropping up to speak to Amy. (She’s this year’s crack, I guess, if she’ll pardon the expression.) And of course the ongoing pregnant-not situation, although I hope that’s not going to be laid on quite as thickly every week.

All in all, there’s probably more I could say of the Black Spot, but I think we get the picture already. It’s almost certainly not as poor as this review makes it sound – it’s just unfortunate that the positives all appear to be qualified with countering negatives. With a Gaiman story to look forward to next week – and let’s hope it’s more Stardust than Day Of The Dead (his Babylon 5 episode) – I can imagine the Spot being one of the less memorable episodes of this season. I currently have a bruise on my foot that’s similar. Must have been some impact at the time, but I can’t recall for the life of me how I got it.

As a fantasy concept, I did like the idea of the Siren’s song as an anaesthetic, although the stricken crew launching into a chorus of Cabin Fever from Muppet Treasure Island would have brightened things considerably. Just one of a number of other pirate tales on which this was not a patch. Yo ho ho.



iCowboy said...

This one was really not a good programme and I can't work out why it got made. All of a sudden it was like RTD was back at the quite literal helm. There was the 'how cheap?' spaceship set, some really appalling dialogue that no one ever speaks, another ending that doesn't quite work and a bargain budget storm.

'Everyone lives' is a nice idea, but it makes for less interesting drama. At the end of the day, adventures are most exciting when there's a prospect that someone's bravery is only going to repaid by their death.

But the real problems were that we've seen the caring AI getting it all wrong story twice before on DW since it came back. It was there in 'The Empty Child' and back in 'Girl in the Fireplace'. It's a pretty poor excuse for a story first time round, but by the third it's just getting tiresome.

That's linked to the other problem I have with modern DW, when they decide to have a traditional monster like a ghost, werewolf or now a siren, the explanation is a little trite. Why can't we actually have a genuine monster?

Then there was a scene where we're meant to accept the Doctor doesn't know CPR. We ended up with a painfully long scene where Matt Smith basically knelt in the background trying to look worried. We know they're not going to kill Rory again without coming over all South Park, so I'm not exactly sure why they thought of doing it.

And then I'm very worried that eyepatch lady is ringing my familiarity bell. There's a superb story in Series 6 of Buffy called (I think) 'Normal Again' where the viewer is left uncertain whether Buffy's adventures are genuine or the result of deluded mind. I really hope DW isn't copying that idea.

But more piratical Pond would go down nicely, especially if as you suggested, a song or two and puppets were added to the mix. Something like this?

Amethyst Greye Alexander said...

"You killed Rory! You bastards!" So South Park. I agree on that one. I pretty much agree all over (that female anatomy thing was totally rolling around my head). Also, if The Doctor had told us to disregard his previous theories one more time I would called for a Drinking Game based on that phrase alone.


SAF said...

Haha, thanks for the link. Lazy Town may even have been where this episode was written. ;-)

Stuart Douglas said...

Rather than being "almost certainly not as poor as this review makes it sound", it's much, much worse. As iCowboy says like a return tot he worst of the RTD Years,

SAF said...

I have been too kind. Bear in mind, I quit writing before I got onto the whole CPR question and other flaws like the cheap spaceship etc.

Fact is, I can't disagree with iCowboy - there's some rare planetary conjunction going on there, cos that never happens :-)

And good call on the Drinking Game, Ames. Will have to remember that for future poor episodes.