the kind of living conditions which don’t lend themselves to excellent hygiene

"Big huge pirate ship ... that's a win."
"Welcome to Doctor Who doing pirates."
"It's got pirates. Double win."
"Hugh Bonneville is amazing."
"We've got Lily Cole which is a bit of a coup."
"Watch out for Amy with a sword, that's all I'm gonna say..."

TV Say what you like about the often padtastic Doctor Who Confidential but tonight, once Matt had frightened the kids half to death by talking to them through the lens breaking the fourth wall for the first time since Attack of the Graske and basically telling them to be as creative as possible in three minutes or something bad will happen (like Chris Chibnall’ll writing another script for the series instead perhaps), they (they being Karen and Arthur and the editor) managed to offer as good a review of The Curse of the Black Spot in forty-five words as I'm about to offer in the next thousand.

For a genre magpie that tends to be quite comfortable nesting in other narrative styles, Doctor Who’s rarely pitched up on the decks of ships amongst sea dogs. Space pirates have notoriously been a staple (The Space Pirates, Enlightenment, The Infinite Quest, The Pirate Loop) but its been a time and relative stranger to the Robert Louis Stevenson paradigm with (I think) only the 60s historical The Smugglers in the tv series and the Big Finish audio Doctor Who and the Pirates as prominent adventures, with the latter more interested in allowing Colin the chance to give it a bit of the Gilbert and Sullivans. Not cockney rhyming slang by the way. The man sings. Maidenhead 1, Cardiff 0.

So it was fairly inevitable that nuWho would hoist the main brace at some point, especially with Pirates of the Caribbean at the cinemas but typically this was a more literary reading with, as Confidential noted later, the treasure, the small boy stowaway, the mermaid and I’m noting the Captain calling his crew dogs, barrels and the kind of living conditions which don’t lend themselves to excellent hygiene or as Ween sing, Don’t Shit Where You Eat, although they may have been singing about something else which is probably more applicable to the Tennant years but I digress. Where was I? Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight! Yes, right, pirates, plank walking.

Walking into the past because this was a semi-prequel to The Smugglers which depicted the search for the gold Avery left behind. Surprisingly, the episode didn’t make more of this though given the story is missing from the archives and only available in audio form (until BBC Books reprint Terry’s Target novelisation) that’s probably to the good. It’s one thing to educate kids new to the franchise about pirates with dubious morals, quite another to scare them with horrific tales of episodes being skipped and burned, some visuals only surviving in Australian censor clips which ironically are less enthusiastic than anything in this episode.

Because this is really good fun, tick boxing all the elements of the genre off the list, and Karen does indeed look very fetching in the pirate get up over her Angela Chase shirt. With yes, a sword.  Look, she's swinging!  Swinging! Then as the episode goes about the business of transmuting into a Doctor Who story, a good old fashioned bit of base under siege business, the pirate elements receding in favour of the sci-fi, writer Stephen Thompson almost seems to be turning the format of the old historicals inside out, so that instead of the Doctor, his blue box and his entourage being the sole fantasy element in a period setting, Bonneville’s Captain and ultimately his crew incongruously steering the spaceship.

The problem is, and unfortunately for The Curse of the Black Spot it’s not really it’s fault, I would much rather have been watching next week’s episode. Slotted between the season opener and The Doctor’s Wife, it’s in the inauspicious position of being a true filler episode, flexible enough indeed to be swapped with another one in the next tranch of episodes due to be published later in the year. In a show which is now priding itself on the number of “event” stories it can cram in, that’s a problem because it means that perfectly entertaining fare like The Curse of the Black Spot can seem even less consequential somehow.

Indeed, under the original schedule, The Doctor’s Wife, with its Doctor Who Magazine cover and teasing preview was in this slot and while you can understand Cardiff’s need to stretch out the audience’s expectations for another week it does rather mean that no matter how much Boneville is emoting (in his second Doctor Who role incidentally) and his is a beautifully layered performance exploring just why a man apparently capable in spirit to be a well loved family man would turn to piracy, you wish he was Suranne Jones revealing who her old friend with a new face is (at this point I’m guessing Romana, her whole spin-off mythology crumbling to dust).

This is one of the dangers of sneaking over into a stricter sense of a story arc, there will always be the odd episode that doesn’t really contribute to the overall story, other than to restate some of the jeopardy, and without the shorthand of a crack this time, now it’s Francis Barber's walking convention anecdote saying something creepy through a hatch which may only be in Amy’s mind and suggests this is all a dream anyway, Rory reminding Amy that she can’t tell the Doctor that the future version of himself and her Schrödinger's womb (which isn’t as funny as the rhyme which cropped up on twitter in the week but is more factually correct) (ish).

Of course it’s entirely possible that like Boomtown, which as I noted a few weeks ago seemed like the nil plus ultra of filler episodes until it turned out to be what amounted to a secret pilot for Torchwood, The Curse of the Black Spot will turn out to be an idea Steven Moffat’s been working on for years and once Merlin is wound up we’ll have the adventures of real sea dogs in space, Hugh Bonneville leading a band of scurvies as they pillage the Whoniverse with their beautiful holographic medic patching them up at the close of each mission, nuWho’s own Blake’s 7 with a Treasure Planet vibe.

But that’s unlikely. So instead let’s just enjoy it for all its incidental pleasures. The regular cast, Matt so attuned to his Doctor now he doesn’t just say the words, he feels them, not just commenting on how comfortable Freud’s couch is, demonstrating, enjoying the memory even as the mayhem continues around him. The guest cast, Lily Cole who is cornering the market on enigmatic waifs and whose otherworldly features which have made her so beloved by the fashion industry work perfectly within the fairy tale imaginarium that’s been created by Moffat, the franchise’s own Doctor Parnassus.

The combination of make-up and digital effects used to bring Cole’s mermaid to life evoke Victorian paintings especially Waterhouse and Grimshaw actually, whose Sprit of the Night I have on the wall above my desk and similarly depicts a green hewed sprite in the business of bewitching. I don’t remember it being explained in the episode why this emergency medical hologram has to enchant her patients though [several readers later: "It's an anaesthetic!" "Thanks!"]. Perhaps we’re meant to believe that as part of the programme, the medic had to also select the best way to grab the patient’s attention and this old legend is as good as any [me later: and far less brutal than a punch in the face or a gassing].  We were sadly denied the sapphic delight of Amy falling under her spell though. Ahem.

About the only sticking point of the episode (other than the sudden disappearance of a pirate from locked room -- someone call Jonathan Creek) (or Sherlock) is this climax; you might expect an show with pirates to conclude with those pirates fighting aliens but instead we had another of nu-Who forays into medical science, and in this case the potential death of Rory again which is turning into the narrative equivalent of the boy who cried wolf. Still the the production design of the ward did impress, influenced as it was surely by the poster for Michael Crichton’s film Coma with its patients suspended from the ceiling, albeit in this case with beds to keep the actors comfortable (in the film they’re magically if uncomfortably suspended in the air).

Ultimately, there have been worse filler episodes (Fear Her) and this was well worth the Doctor’s conscious detour from investigating the identity of the little girl. Sometimes it’s good that the television show essentially enters the territory of the spin-off fiction if only because it allows some nice gaps for that spin-off fiction to inhabit and reminds us of its core values.  Unfortunately, we’re all like Captain Avery desperate to grab the shinier treasures, the crowning achievements, when the thing that really matters is right in front of us, his son Toby for him, exciting adventures in space and time for us.  Perhaps we too need a change in priorities.

Next Week:  Who is she?  WHO IS SHE?

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