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08 May 2011 @ 05:46 pm
The Curse of the Black Spot  
So, "The Curse of the Black Spot," huh?

I found this episode to be curiously unsatisfying, in part because it was hard to figure out why I was finding it so unsatisfying, while I was watching it, because all of the pieces were there. If the first two episodes of this season perhaps bit off more than they could chew in terms of trying both to set up season-long questions and be satisfying in and of themselves, this episode feels like it simply didn't properly chew the manageable amount it had bitten off.

There are basic inexplicable plot things, like the fact that if the siren puts everyone she takes back to the sick bay into stasis, it doesn't make sense that the Doctor, Amy, and Avery are just left to wander the ship. Nor does it really make sense that the Doctor just leaves Avery's son Toby to die of typhoid fever rather than try to cure him, while, you know, in a sick bay. (I suppose this is more of an overarching meta-problem for Doctor Who than one specific to this episode: if the Doctor can save one little boy from typhoid fever, then why not others? If typhoid fever, then why not cholera, or measles, or plague? Basically, why doesn't the Doctor go around cleaning up all the crimes and losses of human history? But I think the way around that meta-problem [aside from writing an episode that avoids it] is to take the Doctor out completely as a solution--to give some reason why, in this particular case, the Doctor can't step in--and this episode doesn't provide us with a reason for that.)

Then there's the fact of Avery's pirate status, which is flagged by the Doctor as a story that must have more to it--and then, abruptly, it turns out that, nope, he just likes the gold. I think this moment is indicative of my issues with the episode overall, actually. In theory, I like it when the Doctor is fallible, when he doesn't have all the answers. And the episode keeps telling us that the Doctor keeps getting it wrong, that this isn't one of his better days. So in theory it should have really worked for me that he keeps making mistakes and having to throw out his previous theories. After all, this is a thing that I love about "The Time of Angels" and "Flesh and Stone," where the Doctor first apologizes to the clerics for leading them cockily into danger because he's missed what was right under his nose, and then apologizes to Father Octavian for misjudging him and not knowing him better. But the problem with "The Curse of the Black Spot" is that the Doctor's theories seem largely to come out of nowhere, and to be revised largely on the basis of evidence we don't see or that goes by too quickly (or too incompletely) to register properly. The Doctor has no real evidence that Avery isn't the kind of man who would run away from his family and become a pirate, so why does he offer up the theory that maybe Avery isn't that sort of man? (Does Avery ever do anything that doesn't seem "piratical," in order to warrant this theory?) Similarly, the Doctor spends much of the episode operating on the hypothesis that the siren is picking off the crew one by one, then suddenly decides that the siren must be rational, and that they could reason with her to get Rory and the others back. Yes, this is a move born of desperation, but giving us an earlier moment for the Doctor to draw on, in which he observes the siren doing something contrary to the behavior of a mere malevolent spirit, would have allowed this moment to work. (For contrast, think of Amy deciding that the starwhale actually came to the rescue because it couldn't stand to watch the children crying: her decision is triggered by a specific moment of observation in which the starwhale doesn't hurt Mandy, and reinforced by the knowledge that the starwhale won't eat the children and the information in Liz Ten's recording, as well as Amy's own familiarity with another lonely alien who couldn't stand to watch children cry.) The Doctor's decision that the siren is rational and that the others aren't dead seems totally unmotivated by anything except his hope that it's true. So I think my problem with this episode is that it keeps trying for effects it hasn't earned by laying down the groundwork first. Theoretically it's good when this Doctor is fallible--madman with a box, remember, not the Lonely God, and madmen make mistakes--but his suppositions should still seem reasonable given the circumstances and the evidence he has.

I wonder how useful this episode will prove to be, at the end of the season. I suspect that the big plothole-looking-thing--er, why are the two ships on top of each other in the first place?--will have something to do with the season arc, but it did feel like everyone was startlingly incurious about how that happened, in the moment. But my dissatisfaction with that dangling thread and how it was handled sits oddly next to my feeling that the Doctor is simply hiding his cards and waiting; that moment when he says "We've all gotta go sometime," and Amy and Rory exchange a look, feels a bit like he's testing them. So he may be storing a lot of information away, in that easily distractible way of his--just as he did last season, when he discovered that there was a great big crack in time and space...and then wandered off and had adventures for a while. I've seen some complaints about this--why isn't the Doctor more concerned about the mystery of the little girl?--but it seems pretty standard for him, I'd say.

(shallow note: oh, these hipsters and their plaid this season. Rory is wearing two plaid shirts, which just makes me giggle.) (Other note: it is very true that it would probably make a lot more sense for the Doctor to perform CPR on Rory than to have Amy do it with no training. But sometimes people make dumb choices for love, I suppose.)

One thing that the first three episodes of the season all have in common is that my interest was captured much more firmly by the emotional complications between the leads than by the plot (though this is for different reasons in the two stories). "The Curse of the Black Spot" puts Amy and Rory through the ringer yet again, only this time it's Amy's turn to save Rory. I love his calm (he can even joke), his complete trust in her, as he puts his life into her hands--and it's telling that Amy's first move is to question it: it's too big, it's too much responsibility, having someone else belong to you like that. Earlier in the episode, Amy is all roleplay and bravado, swashbuckling like it's no big deal, like she does it every day, and when the Doctor asks her what she's doing, she tosses off the line: "Saving your life--okay with that, are you?" But when Rory asks Amy to save his life--to save it for real, not just to bluff and cause a distraction--Amy quails at it, uncertain of herself. "Why me?" she asks--why not the Doctor? For all her bravery--and don't misunderstand me; Amy Pond is brave--she doubts herself, doesn't always believe that she is capable of meeting the needs of the challenge (and sometimes that's saving a life, and sometimes that's getting married, and sometimes those things aren't so different from one another). But last week Amy showed us that she believes in Rory always to be there, always to be listening, and this week Rory tells us that he believes that Amy will never give up on him. The most engaging part of the episode for me was probably when Amy said, in that small, broken, frantic way, "He trusted me, he trusted me to save him," when she thinks she can't; Rory's death would be terrible any way it happened, but in that moment, for Amy, the most terrible thing isn't that he's dying, but that she thinks she's disappointed him, that she's betrayed his trust in her, that she couldn't be the person he needed her to be.

The other wretched-making thing about this scene--and I was talking about this with sadcypress, in comments on her episode post--is the way the Doctor (and particularly this particular Doctor) reacts. sadcypress made the astute comment that it reminded her of the way he was with Vincent in "Vincent and the Doctor": he can take on whole fleets of aliens, but when faced with the small enormity of human pain and grief, he's utterly lost--he goes almost completely still, he can't do anything--and this despite how much he loves both Amy and Rory; we can see the heaviness of his own grief in his face, but he can hardly even dare to touch Amy's shoulder, completely unsure about whether this is the right move to make. (It reminded me of Rory's--first--death in "Amy's Choice," where the Doctor's hands just hover, heartbreakingly, over Amy without ever landing to touch her--as though that touch would be a mistake or an intrusion, as though he doesn't have the right.) And then when Rory finally takes a breath, the Doctor just staggers back away from Amy and Rory, heavy now--not light--with relief. (Dear Matt Smith: you brilliant thing. How do you do that? How do you break my heart just by moving?) They're so fragile, as the Doctor tells us earlier in the episode, in a throwaway line: it doesn't take much to hurt a human. And here these two are, both stronger and more fragile for their dependence on each other--rattling around in the TARDIS with the Doctor, bouncing themselves off the edges of space and time, open to every bruise and break and cut. Small wonder that the Doctor is always worried.

Oh, my darlings--all three of them. I want them to travel together forever, and I also want them just to sit down somewhere quiet and be safe.
Constant Readerskirmish_of_wit on May 9th, 2011 12:15 am (UTC)
Argh, THIS EPISODE: so much better when considered in theory and on an abstract level than how it was executed. In another writer's hands, I think this could have been great. But isn't Steve Thompson the one who wrote that appallingly racist episode of Sherlock?
Constant Reader: made of AWESOMEskirmish_of_wit on May 9th, 2011 12:16 am (UTC)
... And I can't believe I said "Argh" in a comment about a PIRATE EPISODE. LOL.
tempestsarekind: free radicals and tanninstempestsarekind on May 9th, 2011 08:18 pm (UTC)
THIS EPISODE: so much better when considered in theory and on an abstract level than how it was executed

Yes, exactly! How did it go so pear-shaped? I think Steve Thompson is the one who wrote that episode, yes--or so I remember reading on the internet, so it must be true. :)

And "argh" and "arr" aren't really the same, are they? I think you're fine.