“The Curse Of The Black Spot”, the third episode of Doctor Who’s sixth season, is written by Stephen Thompson, who previously worked with Steven Moffat over on “Sherlock”. “The Impossible Astronaut / Day Of The Moon” combined cowboys and aliens for a good old fashioned sci-fi western, while “The Curse Of The Black Spot” dives into a different (but equally iconic) genre of adventure stories and takes us back to the age of sail for a high seas romp with pirates.
After how intense the Series 6 premiere got, dropping multiple game-changing bombshells on the audience in short succession, “The Curse Of The Black Spot” is a much more light-hearted and laidback story by comparison, which arrives in a timely fashion as a breather episode. The producers of the series were excited about creating a Doctor Who story with pirates for the first time in decades (previous tales include “The Smugglers”, “The Space Pirates”, “Enlightenment”, and “The Pirate Planet”), so they wanted to include as many tropes and traditions of the genre as possible: like beguiling, predatory sirens, sailors being forced to walk the plank, the infamous black spot marking men for death, a stowaway cabin boy, and a morally dubious pirate captain who serves as an anti-hero.
“The Curse Of The Black Spot” was originally intended to be the ninth episode of the season, positioned right after “A Good Man Goes To War / Let’s Kill Hitler“, but during the production of Series 6, Steven Moffat decided to move it up earlier in the year and swap it around with Mark Gatiss’s “Night Terrors“, because he felt like there were too many dark and creepy stories in a row (where the Doctor and his friends wander down corridors) in the first half of the season. I think moving these two episodes around was the right choice in the end, because thematically, “The Curse Of The Black Spot” fits a lot better in the first half of Series 6 (before “A Good Man Goes To War”) than it would have in the latter half.
“The Curse Of The Black Spot” is the show’s annual celebrity historical episode, where the Doctor befriends a significant figure in European history, though Henry Avery is a pretty obscure pick, compared to Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Vincent Van Gogh and Winston Churchill. Henry Avery was a pirate who disappeared without a trace at the end of the 17th century, and unless you had a pre-existing interest in the age of sail, you probably wouldn’t immediately recognize him as being a historical figure – though Doctor Who has namedropped him before, in “The Smugglers” from 1966.
The Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) is a lot of fun to watch this week. He’s thrilled to meet a gang of swashbuckling pirates, even if they’re not so thrilled to meet him, and of course, he snags himself a tricorn hat at one point, because he couldn’t resist it. He loves discovering new things, so he’s enthralled by the Siren that’s haunting these lawless marauders and fascinated by what she might be, though his main priority is trying to keep everyone safe from her. As the danger increases, “The Curse Of The Black Spot” explores the Doctor’s whole thought process as a detective: he keeps revising his theories about the Siren every time he gets a new bit of information about her, making plenty of costly mistakes along the way, until he eventually deduces that she’s not what she seems and works out the proper way to placate her.
We’ve seen how harsh and ruthless the Doctor can be, plenty of times, but this episode displays how he can also be a very nice and forgiving time lord as well. The pirates try to make him walk the plank early on, and he doesn’t seem to hold much of a grudge about it afterwards. After the Doctor and Captain Avery join forces to save their friends, not only does he save the captain’s life at one point, but he also takes it upon himself to help the man get his priorities in order and repair his broken relationship with his son, Toby. In general, the Doctor spends a lot of this episode supporting other people: during the climax, he gives Amy some much-needed emotional support when she has to save Rory’s life with CPR – and like Amy, he’s given a terrible scare by the ordeal when it briefly looks like they might have lost Rory. From his scenes with Captain Avery (where the two men trade plenty of snark at each other’s expense), we’re reminded that the Doctor is actually a captain, the captain of the TARDIS, which nicely sets up the next episode, “The Doctor’s Wife“: a story that’s all about his special connection with his ship.
In “The Curse Of The Black Spot”, Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) shows how brave and resourceful she can be, when she takes up a cutlass and fights off some pirates to protect her boys from harm in a delightfully silly sequence early on. One of the perks of the Doctor having two companions instead of one is that the Ponds get to take turns being put in grave danger every week, and here it’s Rory’s turn to become the damsel in distress. Rory gets marked by the Siren as one of her next victims, and while he’s entranced by her song, getting high off his backside, we get to see Arthur Darvill act drunk and delirious – and it’s hilarious. The Siren has Rory in her sights, so Amy tries her best to protect him – all the while being more than a bit miffed by how appreciative he is of her beauty.
Amy’s love for Rory is on full display throughout this episode, especially during the last act: once the Siren’s true nature is revealed, Amy manages to win her over and convince her to release Rory into her care, when the Siren isn’t human and she barely even understands human emotions. “Day Of The Moon” dealt with Rory’s self-doubt and his insecurities, while “The Curse Of The Black Spot” deals with Amy’s apprehension and puts her to the test, when she has to perform CPR on Rory to save his life. Rory has total faith in her, even while she lacks faith in herself, and he quite literally trusts her with his life. As you would imagine, she’s terrified that she might fail – especially since she’s already lost Rory before last season – and the scene that follows is a gripping, harrowing experience, but she just barely manages to pull it off. Karen Gillan has multiple crying scenes in Series 6, because this season really puts Amy through the wringer, and she is pretty phenomenal at making Amy’s grief and devastation feel raw and real whenever the people she loves are threatened.
Captain Henry Avery (Hugh Bonneville) is characterized as a rough, tough, grizzled brigand. He’s a stern, superstitious man with a dry and sarcastic personality, who can also be pretty ruthless, since he has no problems with making stowaways on his ship walk the plank. He’s not someone to be trifled with lightly and he frequently tries to assert his authority around the Doctor, who is not even remotely intimidated by him. Still, he’s the most adaptable member of his crew, and he’s willing to entertain the Doctor’s mad ideas because he’s their best chance at survival. Out of all the side characters in this episode, Captain Avery has the strongest character arc where he starts to mellow out and becomes a more likable rake over time.
In order to save the people they care for, Henry and the Doctor put aside their differences and join forces, and the two men gradually find they have a few things in common. They’re both captains who are responsible for the people traveling with them, they both have a lot to lose at the moment, and they both have a similar wanderlust – a desire to travel the world and see everything there is to be seen. Once they find some common ground, they frequently rib each other and trade banter, and eventually they start to become friends – as a result, Avery starts to show concern for the Doctor’s friends as well (who he previously didn’t care about) as a sign of growth. The main source of his character development in this episode is his status as an absent father. Like a lot of sailors, Captain Avery used to serve in the navy, until one day he and his crew decided to mutiny and became pirates. Once that happened, he never returned home to his wife and son, and instead fully embraced an outlaw’s life. Now his past is catching up to him, since his sickly, orphaned son has stowed away on his ship and is currently marked for death by the Siren.
Once he’s confronted with the reality that he completely abandoned his family and his duties as a father, he’s not exactly proud of his decision, but he’s convinced that even if he wanted to make it right, it’s too late to do so now. He can’t go home without a noose around his neck, and Toby deserves better than a life as a fugitive. Most of Henry and the Doctor’s exchanges in this episode are played for laughs, but in a fairly serious scene, the Doctor decides to take him aside and share some wisdom with him – captain to captain, father to father. The Doctor used to be a family man, a long long time ago, and he’s lost it all now, so he has a pretty good grasp of what the important things in life are: what you should hold on to.
The Captain is clearly having an attack of conscience, and he clearly cares for Toby, but it’s not enough to stop him from prioritizing his gold fever over his son’s safety – so when his greed nearly gets Toby killed, he’s overcome with guilt and he nearly gets himself disintegrated by the Siren trying to get Toby back. As it turns out, Toby is not in any danger from the Siren herself, but he is in danger of dying from his illness, and the Siren can save him. After nearly losing Toby once, Avery decides to step up and take responsibility for him as his father, by staying with him (something the Doctor clearly approves of). He does what pirates do best: he commandeers a ship and becomes its new captain, and his crew comes with him, because they figure they might as well stick with their boss. Henry and Toby patch things up as they become space pirates, and now they’ve got the whole great wide universe to explore. For the emotional core of his episode, Stephen Thompson was enamored with the idea of a selfish pirate captain who isn’t an evil, heartless monster, who receives a bit of redemption in the end, even if it’s just in the eyes of his son – and Captain Avery’s characterization is the final product of that idea.
Toby Avery is the second most notable side character in this episode, after his father, and despite how much of a minor role he has, I grew to like this kid. Toby is frequently shown to be a kid with a lot of backbone: he’s perfectly okay with stowing away on a voyage away from home by himself for weeks, and he later has a showdown with a mutinous member of his father’s crew where he does not back down, despite being threatened by an adult man. Toby has a sizable amount of hero worship for his father: he barely knows him really, but he wants to believe the best of him, the same way any child wants to think the most of their parents. However, Toby’s rosy image of the man is quickly shattered, when he realizes his father is a deadbeat who ditched him and his mother for gold, and he’s quite rightly pissed off. When the two have a private talk later, Toby calls him out on it and lays down one hell of a guilt trip, going straight for the jugular, and I completely approve of that.
The end of the second act is pretty brutal towards Toby: discovering his father wouldn’t give up his gold obsession, even to save his life, has to got to sting like hell. After that, Toby is about to ready give up on him and write him off as a lost cause entirely, until Henry nearly gets himself killed trying to save him, and decides to give up his old life on Earth for the sake of his welfare. When it becomes clear that his father does indeed care about him, Toby decides to give him one more chance and the two patch things up as they leave home. My only question is, should we be concerned about how this space voyage will affect Toby’s moral compass? He’s essentially going to be raised by pirates now, and I don’t think a gang of thieves is going to be a very good influence on a growing boy. That kid is going to go so native.
Over the course of this episode, Toby was made painfully aware of his father’s faults when he let him down, and the pedestal he put him on was completely destroyed. But their relationship was rebuilt again, when the man resolved to do better, allowing it to grow and progress into something healthier and more genuine. All of that makes for a good, complete arc on its own, for a story about a father and son reconciling, but it also foreshadows events that will happen later in this season to the main characters. During the latter half of Series 6, Amy’s hero worship of the Doctor will steadily be whittled away as he lets her down again and again, until she starts to grow disillusioned with him – and eventually, that causes their relationship to change as they both acknowledge his shortcomings, but ultimately, it proves to be a change for the better.
Lastly, Doctor Who puts another sci-fi spin on a mythical monster with the main antagonist of this episode, the Siren (Lily Cole). The Siren is a mystifying, ghostly green creature who haunts Captain Avery’s ship when he and his men are stranded in the middle of the ocean, coming for their sick and wounded: she’s a beautiful sight, but she gets nasty very quickly whenever someone tries to get in her way of getting her man. We’re given a hint very early on that something is amiss here, since the Doctor detects a distress signal around Avery’s ship: an anachronistic piece of technology to find in the age of sail. As it turns out, the Siren is the artificial intelligence of a crashed spaceship: the virtual doctor for an alien crew who died, running on autopilot. The final twist about the Siren’s true nature is extremely similar to the one Doctor Who did with the main antagonist of “The Lodger“, only a few stories ago, but I’m pretty okay with the show going back to that well again already, because I enjoyed this episode considerably more than “The Lodger”.
“The Curse Of The Black Spot” is directed by Jeremy Webb, who does a fine job of handling the tone of this story: making it a fun and light-hearted adventure as well as a visually appealing one, with some beautiful CGI from the Mill whenever the Siren makes an appearance. The exterior shots of the Fancy were filmed on an old, antique boat docked in Cornwall, while the interior scenes below deck were shot in Upper Boat Studios. The show’s set designers were given the lofty challenge of recreating a 17th century frigate from the ground up, and I would say they pulled it off laudably. In a similar vein, this is one of those episodes like “The Vampires Of Venice” where the costume department gets to have a lot of fun tailoring fashions from centuries ago, giving every member of the Fancy’s crew their own distinct, nautical look: the Captain for instance always seems to be wearing a very sporty neck tie.
“The Curse Of The Black Spot” has a fairly infamous production error: the Boatswain, the mutinous crew member Toby confronts, just disappears between scenes and no one acknowledges his absence until he turns up again in the climax. There was a planned sequence where Captain Avery sends him to the brig in disgust, and the Siren takes him there, but it was cut for time, which leads to a pretty glaring continuity error in the final episode. Murray Gold’s swashbuckling, maritime score is consistently fantastic throughout the hour, with eerie, entrancing strings and plenty of bombastic brass in tracks like “You’re A Dead Man“, “Deadly Siren“, “Perfect Reflection“, “All For One” and “The Curse Of The Black Spot” (“Deadly Siren” in particular features some mesmerizing vocals from Halia McGuid as the glowing, green temptress). Notably, there’s also an early appearance of “Loving Isn’t Knowing (The Almost People Suite)“, since the score for this episode was recorded during the same session for “The Almost People“.
I’ve always had a soft spot for “The Curse Of The Black Spot”: it’s a cute historical adventure that has a lot of fun playing around with the buccaneer genre, and it tells another nice story about the Doctor managing to improve the lives of the people he encounters.
* “Yohoho! Or does nobody actually say that?”
* Amy really enjoys wielding a sword, for the short time that she has one. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a sword is her weapon of choice when she has to survive on her own in “The Girl Who Waited“, later this season.
* “Okay, groovy. So it’s not just pirates today, we’ve managed to bagsy a ship where there’s a demon popping in. Very efficient. I mean, if something’s going to kill you, it’s nice that it drops you a note to remind you”.
* “Leave the cursed one, captain. The creature can have him” “Yes, please”.
* “And the gun’s back. You’re big on the gun thing, aren’t you? Freud would say you’re compensating. Ever met Freud? No? Comfy sofa”.
* “We have to get Rory and Toby away. She’s out there right now, licking her lips, boiling a saucepan, grating the cheese” Doctor, you are way too into this.
* “Do you want to draw lots for who’s in charge, then?” “Darkness? Demon? You can have first go”.
* “You had to gloat, didn’t you?” “I’m not gloating” “I saw that look just now. Haha, his ship is rubbish” “True”.
* “You don’t know how to fight with a cutlass, boy!” “I don’t need to, do I?” You don’t need to be an expert to know how to cut a bitch.
* “I’m confused” “Yeah, well, it’s a big club. We should get T-shirts”.
* “The TARDIS runs off on her own, that’s a new one. Bang goes our only hope of getting out of here” “Not much of a captain without a ship, are you?” Damn, bro.
* “He’s got the last of the supplies. We should go after him” “Never mind the damned supplies. What about my treasure?!”
* “Come out of there, you mutinous dog!” Quick question: how is ‘mutinous dog’ even an insult in an established crew of mutineers? How is it even remotely surprising that they would also backstab each other?
* “Where are we taking it?” “The ocean” “No! No. This is the treasure of the Mogul of India” “Oh, good. For a moment there, I thought it was yours”.
* “You know, people stared at it for centuries and they never knew. Things can suddenly change, when you’re least expecting”.
* “How long has this ship been marooned here?” “Long enough for the captain to have run out of grog”.
* There’s a scene where the Doctor sticks his hand in something gross, so he decides to wipe it off on Amy’s sleeve. There was a pirate captain standing right there who the Doctor could also have used as a towel, but I imagine Amy was a safer pick if the Doctor didn’t feel like getting shot.
* “Toby!” “Rory!” “The TARDIS!”
* “What about him? I mean, why do I have to be the one? Why do I have to save you?” “Because I know you’ll never give up.”
* On a more lighthearted note: Captain Avery and his crew do indeed have brilliant beards, and they are very easy on the eyes.