The Who Verdict on Curse of the Black Spot is in: acquittal! Spoilers follow: proceed at your peril!
1. “What made you do it? What made you turn pirate?”. Curse is, as many have noted, a Who on Splenda after the Rockstar Soda hyper-caffeinated episodes we saw in Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon. But that’s only in comparison. Curse is also a lovely, character-driven episode, with the character-driven elements impeccably placed to draw us in.
And the character-driven highs are held aloft by some nice tension. All before our first shot of pathos only 13 minutes into the show: (a) we lose an off-screen crew member in an already skeleton crew: (b) we lose a second crew-member on-scene and see the enemy in full glory; (c) the monster of the show, the Siren (Lily Cole), comes for Rory, and makes to attack Amy; and, (d) the crew is scared to death by a leech. The first character scene, with the little boy, is a surprising tear-jerker; barely a quarter way into this show some are calling “lite,” we care about this scraggly Captain (Hugh Bonneville) and the little boy (Oscar Lloyd).
The second dose of pathos comes half-way through the episode again with the Captain and the little boy: and again it is small, intimate, lovely, and it opens up a significant question about this relationship–reprised later in a nice moment between the Doctor and the Captain, topsides. This question is finally answered in an action scene, with most of the remaining crew members, where it all comes together. (I believe one pirate’s fate was left on the cutting room floor, but who’s counting.). And of course the answer sets up the catharsis in the episodes’ final minutes quite nicely. So again, Curse is small, but it’s tightly and coherently written. It focuses not on our time travelers, but on the Captain and the boy. (And the kid, Oscar Lloyd, simply shines–he’s fantastic. As is Hugh Bonneville. Another inspired round of casting, after Mark Sheppard last week as Canton Delaware.)
2. “Two cars parked in the same space.” But that’s not all, folks. Curse isn’t relegated to the two non-time traveling protagonists: it’s also about two cars, parked in same space–not an infrequent plotline in the Whoniverse. (See also Inferno, Battlefield, Rise of the Cybermen, inter alia.) As the Doctor explains his newfound TARDIS troubles, she “can’t see because it thinks the space doesn’t exist.”.
The Curse of the Black Spot was meant to be Series 6, Story 9. But the move to Story 3 must have worked perfectly, in Moffat’s mind, and if my hypothesis is correct about the season. Why? Foreshadowing. The idea of parallel universes will, I suspect, play large in this series. After far too much perusal of the evidence thus far spread out by the Moff, I expect parallel universes to be the key to understanding the arc.
It’s just circumstantial evidence, but circumstantial evidence is enough to convince me. I suspect the Doctor that died in The Impossible Astronaut isn’t our Doctor, but either (a) a Doctor from an alternative universe whose timeline is running the same direction as River Song, or (b) an amalgam of the Doctor and some big bad like Omega (see Arc of Infinity or the excellent audio drama Omega). Whichever one it is (or even a third), I think Beach Doc is really dead.
And that’s the simplest explanation, which in reality would be favored (don’t bother me with trivialities: this is only tv you say?): the Beach Doctor, whether amalgam Doc/baddie on a good day, or an alternative/parallel universe Doctor, needed to save the universe from the crossovers between universes, so set up the meeting and his own death to save both universes. Tragic, the more so if and when we realize what really happened.
Amy’s Choice then becomes almost a parable (more?) of what’s happening now: if they die in the dream (that is, in the the other world), you’re fine in the real world–but what happens when you cease being able to tell the difference? Don’t forget, Amy was pregnant in one of those worlds too–but now she’s both pregnant and not. And in Vampires of Venice, Rory understood the TARDIS a little, mentioning he’d studied all about FTL travel and parallel worlds. And of course Signora Calvierri, speaking of her race fleeing the Silence/Silents (but which?), spoke of cracks, some as big as the sky, and seeing through to parallel worlds. No, the roads have led to this parking lot, and the lot is now full: twice over. (I love a show with a canon big enough to encourage this sort of irresponsible but irrepressible speculation.)
I half expect that Amy is supposed to tell the Doctor about his future because that’s the only way the Silents/Silence/our Big Bad/whomever can ensure the Doctor and his future self “merge,” or to avoid the Doctor sealing off the cracks between the universes once and for all, or because it will somehow cause a greater rift, furthering our baddies’ ends (that the Silents demand that Amy tell the Doctor “what he must never know” sounds pretty portentous.) That is, I expect that first Impossible Astronaut scene, the immolation and somber sunset on the beach in memoriam to a Time Lord, will one day become more poignant. It was a pretty significant death–and perhaps (well, with Moff this is expecting a little too much) it will even close out this series or make the half-way point. I think we’ll be back on that beach.
3. “Things can suddenly change when you’re least expecting.”. The Doctor asks: “who are you, Henry Avery? …How did you end up here with rogues?”. The captain: “I’ve set my course.”. And the Doctor: “things can suddenly change when you’re least expecting,”. And I think that’s the theme of Moffat’s second series, season 6. Moffat’s grand scheme was to, I suspect, lead us to think that Season 5 was about several things–the alliance of baddies trying to trap the Doctor and ruin the universe with cracks, and the Doctor foiling their plans with River’s help by sealing the cracks and “rebooting the universe.” But as I mused before, I’m not sure that’s what it was about at all. I think that was merely prologue.
Similar to the “two cars”/two realities issue, I suspect that River will, indeed, surprise us. Her being the wife of Omega or Other is a favorite theory I’ve heard. (And who wouldn’t be thrilled by Sherlock‘s Benedict Cumberbatch emerging either as a multi-episode or recurring Omega?) River’s encounter in Impossible Astronaut with future/Beach Doctor lends some circumstantial evidence to the alternate/parallel universes theory too: in a complete turnabout, this Doctor broke out an identical “TARDIS diary” that was being completed, and he had shared experiences with River (“Jim the Fish”), indicating timelines that aren’t getting progressively further from each other, but share a common direction. If Beach Doctor was our Doctor, 200 years hence, River would scarcely know him.
But she knows him well, and they swap stories. No: unless I’m missing something, this cannot be our Doctor. Which leads me back to the alternate universes idea: she’s traveled with this other Doctor–or it’s really a Doctor-Omega/pick your baddie amalgam. Perhaps she’s a baddie too. Now that would be a change from what most expect–and a delicious one. And of course River fulfills the “prophecy” by emerging from the lake to, or being complicit in, killing the Doctor/amalgam Doctor.
(Or the little girl, Amy, or some nefarious other suited baddie, pulls the duty.)
That’s admittedly only my latest theory. But tea leaves are in support. There are also abundant alternate theories out there, each with merit: River will turn out to be our Doctor’s wife; River is Amy’s daughter (which I could see happening); & many other variations. Cheers to all of them. I’ll just say I’m licking my lips at the return of the wonderfully deep Who lore that underlaid the series for three-odd decades. It’s wonderful stuff. Worshipful and Ancient Law of Gallifrey, anyone?
4. This is the second story with a “prequel,” the first being Impossible Astronaut. Unlike the first episode’s prequel, you’re missing little if you miss this one: this one is nice, but tells us little we don’t discover during the episode: primarily we learn that the ship has been becalmed for 8 days.
5. And some new and old questions: (a) The previously mentioned eerie twittering sound in the TARDIS is now joined by at least half of the roundels in a lights-out or lights-flickering state. Why? Symbols of something big happening? Signs of simple disrepair in the TARDIS? Merely Moffat’s symptom of an episode-specific rift in Curse? (b) The Doctor’s tie here is red–my understanding of one theory is that Eleven’s tie was blue in the “past” episodes.
And then there’s just the wonderful fluff. I count five: (1) we learn that in Eleven’s TARDIS, there is not only the previously mentioned swimming pool and library (the latter officially portrayed in the BBC Adventure Game TARDIS), but now we also know about a kitchen and three loos (see also the wonderful TARDIS chase scene in the Fourth Doctor story Invasion of Time); (2) Amy’s performance is stellar, from swashbuckling start to the finish, saving Rory: it has been a hard-earned trust, but from Amy’s, well frankly, shallow beginnings, we can now plainly see new depths in her feelings for Rory, the more so after last week’s “stupid face” confusion and late-episode righting. And Arthur Darvill, again, is great. (3). The finale, the pirates traipsing off to actually visit what the Doctor and Captain mused about way back when, standing on the ancient vessel and staring at the double stars–a very nice touch, when paired with the Captain/son denouement. (4) The Rat-faced creatures’ uniforms read “D.I.H.S.”. A joke? A clue? Some spin on R.O.U.S.? (5). Nice touch, VR consent form! Future of the law!
Who Verdict: acquittal!