"Yo, ho ho! Or does nobody actually say that?"
It seemed rather inevitable that Doctor Who would return to the action-adventure of the pirate genre at some point in the course of its revival since 2005. Naturally, it is no stranger to this type of action-adventure, having dabbled with this staple of adventure fiction in the past.
Most notably this takes us back to 1966 with The Smugglers, one of the last straightforward period adventures (or 'historicals' as we fans like to regard them) produced for the series, and then the mash-up of pirate and science fiction genres in the likes of The Pirate Planet and, more recently, The Infinite Quest. Pirates are of course still flavour of the month because of Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, the latest of which Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, is just a week away from release as I write and so this episode arrives with uncanny timing.
With Doctor Who now firmly repositioned as family viewing on Saturday night, it's no coincidence that Moffat and his team, building on the popular success of the series engineered by Russell T Davies, would continue to look at successful cinema franchises and classic adventure texts to ensure that the series kept its finger on the pulse. In the past year alone we've had fairy tale allusion aplenty tapping into a myriad of classic texts and mythology in the series.
Disney, and all the 'Disneyfication' of the genre that this implies, developed their pirate franchise from hugely successful visitor attractions and the films derived from them are seen as the epitome of the market-driven approach to adapting material for the screen, where theming, hybrid consumption and merchandising often drive the creation of such sequels. The BBC series recently seems to be doing this in reverse, creating material on screen that might perhaps enjoy an extended life in the Doctor Who Experience. Is it therefore only a matter of time before material created for a visitor attraction becomes the inspiration for an episode of Doctor Who?
... 'Doctor Who and the Pirates'With Doctor Who itself no longer immune from this process, The Curse of the Black Spot is simply one episode, visually stunning but shallowly plotted, among many others that now inform and connect to, in a very commercial sense, an ever expanding franchise of arena shows and interactive visitor attractions. As Doctor Who becomes a globalised commodity it begs questions about the function of genre, character and narrative and the dominance of the shopping list style commissioning where Moffat now instructs a writer with the simple by-line of 'Doctor Who and the Pirates'.
On Doctor Who Confidential he also proceeds to reel off the de rigueur elements for such a story - treasure, stowaways, curses, walking the plank and storms - and marks out the territory of expectation. Granted, Davies himself was not averse to this process but one gets the feeling that unlike Davies, who worked on all the scripts that came across his desk, Moffat is perhaps less hands-on. It also has to be said that scheduling it after two episodes of Moffat's puzzlebox narrative really doesn't give it much more credence than moderately diverting filler.
Surprisingly little discussion turned up in Confidential about the characters, particularly about Avery and his son. Hugh Bonneville, who plays Captain Avery, fleetingly provides one of the 'talking head' soundbites that litter the programme and then only in relation to the location.
A very handsome looking episode, The Curse of the Black Spot is worth watching for the performance of Bonneville as Avery and it will entertain you if you have a spare 45 minutes. In its favour it at least avoids some of the over-exaggerated language and performance codes of previous screen pirates and Bonneville quite distinctly eschews the Robert Newton and Johnny Depp school of pirate pantomime while the likes of the Doctor and his companions also knowingly deconstruct many of the cliches of the genre, including all the "arhhh, arhhh me hearties" nonsense, perhaps best seen in the walking the plank sequence where the Doctor encourages his pirate audience to cackle away at his fate because "laughing like that is in the job description."
This leaves Steve Thompson's episode with no choice but to end up as becalmed as Captain Avery's ship, too busily accruing as many tropes of the pirate sub-genre as it can, a bit like stockpiling the cursed treasure of the story, and all the while drowning out the more emotionally satisfying story of Avery's relationship to his son Toby, his moral ambiguity as father and pirate. And clearly 'Doctor Who and the Pirates' becomes an exhausted concept just after halfway into the episode, because there are only so many sword fights, storms and threats of mutiny to recreate before you need to go in search of some actual drama.
Thompson then has to invert the story, cashing in his ghost ship chips, and offer us the alien spaceship sharing the same space-time coordinates as Avery's ship, accessible by reflections and mirror-like portals (rather akin to Moffat's The Girl in the Fireplace). This comes with a virtual doctor seeking to heal the injured crew in a sick bay that's visually a riff on Michael Crichton's Coma (1978) and thematically a re-run of those rogue sub-atomic healing nano-genes that featured in The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances. Perhaps he's also preparing us for the bubble universe that the Doctor will visit in the following episode with all the talk of "lots of different universes nested inside each other."
So as the story proceeds we also see the nods to Treasure Island (the Black Spot) and to Peter Pan (Avery as a misunderstood Captain Hook) amidst the gloriously sumptuous production design where Michael Pickwoad is turning out to be a more than suitable replacement for Ed Thomas, and the location filming all beautifully photographed by Dale McCready. Some depth to the story, beyond the perfunctory pirate fiction tropes, sporadically emerges. The key moments involve Avery and his son, the motivation behind Avery's transformation from naval officer to high-seas brigand.
... "the long lost comfort of the mother's lullaby"One of the other major symbols here is that of the Siren. The seductress and temptress of ancient mythology here fulfills her role, according to Linda Phyllis Austern and Inna Naroditskaya in Music of the Sirens, as "a sort of hallucinogenic stimulant that gives the sensitive man a feeling of fullness in life - by paradoxically killing him." Rory's soporific reaction and his amorous attentions to Amy are a good example of this in the story and to a point we believe, along with the other characters, that all those cursed with the Black Spot have been killed by this femme fatale.
The image of the sea-siren holding her reflecting glass is subverted here (replaced by the image of a siren on Avery's medallion) and briefly she takes on all the symbolism of the predatory female vampire with her singing a beguiling, erotic entreatment to male victims. If we also look at the story of Avery and his son, male figures who have abandoned their home and with the son bringing news to his father of the mother's death, the siren and her enchanting song can also be seen as "the long lost comfort of the mother's lullaby, the acoustic embodiment of mother-love in all its allurement but with the grim promise of death."
As an interesting contrast to the seductive siren we also have Amy as the pirate queen, offering a nod to those female pirates Mary Read and Anne Bonny who had remarkable strength and perseverance to stay the course in a very male-dominated world. Again, Amy is subverting and reinterpreting the hyper-masculinity she finds herself dominated by and her sword fight and dress momentarily codify her as tough and masculine, as a stronger female action figure that wouldn't be out of place in Jerry Bruckheimer's pirate franchise. Inadvertently, her machismo is of course the reason why Rory is accidentally cut by her sword and is 'cursed' to then face that other representation of female power, the siren. When affected by her song, Rory also finds Amy's male attire sexually arousing too with "you should dress up as a pirate more often. Cuddle me, shipmate", and let's not forget that Amy quite enjoyed dressing up for a living back in Leadworth.
In both the Avery and Toby character sub-text we see Thompson strip away what Erin Skye Mackie calls "the figurative masks of pirate violence and brutality" that epitomise the excessive masculinity of the rake, the highwayman or the pirate - the Freudian over-compensating that the Doctor correctly accuses them of. They effectively become as sensitive as the figure of Rory, the ineffectual male unable to resist the pirates and the siren and who has Amy trying to rescue him. This is a continuation of the trend that we saw developing through most of the episodes featuring Rory last year.
Instead we are shown Avery and Toby as a father and a son attempting to bond over the death of a wife and mother and are provided with some backstory about Avery's position as captain in the Navy and his status as "an honourable man." We also discover that Toby is already marked for death and that the siren is targeting the sick and wounded. Later, codifying Avery's dishonour as a man, the Boatswain confirms that Avery is no such honourable gentleman, goading Toby with stories that his father killed a thousand men and now flies the black flag as a pirate on the high seas.
... Peter Pan in conference with Captain HookToby confronts his father about his disappearance for the three years and begins to question his father's honour after his broken promise to a mother and son that he would eventually come home. "What made you do it... what made you turn pirate?" asks Toby, casting doubt on the adult man before him and his embodiment as a pirate because, as Lester Friedman concludes in Second Star to the Right, pirates "incarnate a reckless disregard for conventional responsibility and traditional morality." When the Doctor and Avery talk on deck, a scene almost suggesting Peter Pan in conference with Captain Hook beneath that second star to the right, Avery denies that he is the father that Toby needs. However, the Doctor reminds him that his course can suddenly change and when he least expects it, that masculinity is also in constant flux.
After the stolen crown falls onto the deck during the storm Avery, shamed by his lust for the treasure, is forced to make a choice between his greed and his son as the Doctor berates him for giving up his family and his commission for the lure of gold. However, by the story's conclusion Avery, having lost the treasure, his ship and crew, elects to stay with Toby on the alien vessel. Realising that has no other place to go, we see Avery, Toby and the crew happily sail off into Neverland, a conclusion that repairs the bond between father and son and ties up the story in a nice big 'straight on till morning' bow.
On the alien ship, a War of the Worlds like scenario seems to have played out and the alien crew have died from infectious human bacteria passing between the two planes of existence. It is also a place where we come to understand each of the character's priorities when Amy rushes to Rory's side, Avery finds Toby and the Doctor gives the missing TARDIS a hug. The story concludes with the Doctor realising that the siren is a virtual doctor who has placed all of her 'victims' in stasis in a sterile sick bay but with no knowledge of curing them.
Poor old Rory looks like he's for the chop again but it's a false sense of jeopardy created here (we've seen him in the trailer for other episodes) and you do wonder just how many times is Rory going to die or nearly die in this series? The resuscitation scene as Amy performs CPR on him, while it reinforces the marriage bond in a terribly overwrought way (those very annoying strings sawing away in the background seem to go on forever), once again plays out the Rory 'deaths' we've already seen in the end of Amy's Choice and Cold Blood. Besides, shouldn't the Doctor have a CPR type gizmo in the TARDIS somewhere? It would save on all the crocodile tears. How many more episodes are going to end like this. Surely it's time for Amy to be on the death list just for a change.
In the middle of all this mayhem and soul searching, we're reminded that the series's arc is not too far away. Earlier in the episode, as the Doctor prepares to leave the ship's magazine, Amy warns him to be careful and as he quips "we've all got to go some time" the look exchanged between Rory and Amy flags up the secret that they have seen the Doctor already meet his fate in The Impossible Astronaut.
After Toby and Avery's conversation, while Amy sleeps she hears the voice of the 'Eye Patch Lady' ("It's fine, you're doing fine. Just stay calm") and she wakes as the woman (last seen in Day of the Moon) once again disappears behind a closing panel in the wall. What this means is anyone's guess but it perhaps suggests that much of what Amy is experiencing is some induced dream-like state. Later, in the episode's conclusion we see Amy and Rory pop off to bed and agree between them that the Doctor must not know about his own death and this is ironically contrasted with the Doctor's own knowledge about her quantum pregnancy, the image of which looks like it'll be popping up on the TARDIS scanner with alarmingly regularity from now on.
For more on Series 5, including all the expanded reviews from 2010, try my book Doctor Who: The Pandorica Opens - Exploring the Worlds of the Eleventh Doctor published by Classic TV Press and also available on Amazon.