Stars: Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill, Hugh Bonneville, Oscar Lloyd, Lee Ross, Michael Begley, Tony Lucken, Chris Jarman, Carl McCrystal, Lily Cole, Frances Barber
Writer: Stephen Thompson
Director:  Jeremy Webb
Network: BBC America, airs Saturday nights
Original Telecast: May 7, 2011

Series 3 of DOCTOR WHO takes a deep blue detour from this year’s complex story arc with “The Curse of the Black Spot,” a well-timed down-shift of a tale that turns up on our screens just as a certain Captain Jack – no, not that one, the other one – is about to come back to movie theaters in a fourth PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movie. As we all practice saying “Arrr,” the Doctor (Matt Smith), Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill) are trapped on pirate Captain Avery’s (Hugh Bonneville) beleaguered vessel.

Avery’s crew are dwindling one by one as a glowing green siren (Lily Cole) marks each one with a black spot on their palm and apparently disintegrates them with a touch. Anyone on board that receives so much as a single cut receives the mark. Believing her to be a creature drawn by blood, the crew are convinced there’s a curse on them all. Now that the Doctor is here, the odds of survival have just gone up – if he can just stop coming up with incorrect theories.

After two intense, sweeping episodes involving lots of mysteries and arc-related developments, it’s a welcome break to go somewhere for a one-episode romp. It’s just a shame this one is so thinly plotted and predictable. The moment we learn that any physical damage brings the siren, I said “if it doesn’t turn out that the siren is some kind of medical program collecting tissue samples, I’ll be shocked.” This is also a very familiar gimmick, instantly bringing to mind “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances,” which also involved a little boy being tended to by a misguided alien automated healing system.

For this painfully obvious idea to work, it also requires the Doctor to be far more stupid than usual, which the episode tries to turn into a virtue with a running gag about his theories proving to be inaccurate. There’s something off about his characterization as a result, although he’s certainly been known to be oblivious before. Smith does what he can to maintain his charming persona, and he’s still a joy to watch. As for other familiar elements, there’s the ‘mirrors lead to another time/universe’ bit from “The Girl in the Fireplace,” which also doesn’t bear close scrutiny. Just how small can that reflective surface be?

While the production values are mostly top-notch, featuring excellent costumes and set design, it feels strangely contained with most of the episode too clearly shot in a far smaller space than out on the ocean blue. A few CGI seafaring ship shots do help, though, and in this case, it’s not all that important that it utterly convinces. The emotional current running through the two focal relationships in this story is far more satisfying, and that’s the only thing that makes this episode worthwhile.

Besides a nice if standard father-son tale that gives Bonneville the chance to win us over as a warmer and more sympathetic pirate than you often see, this episode once again reinforces the much stronger bond of love and devotion between Rory and Amy that was evident in this year’s two-part opener. While Rory’s apparent death – yes, he almost does it again – is stretched out way too long, at least it gives Gillan the chance to show how much she’s improved and how much Amy actually does love the man she married. And yet she still manages to be a strong and independent woman that can take up a sword and battle pirates with the best of them. Balance at last.

My wife’s stunningly clever contribution this week is to point out that the Siren is a perfect symbolic choice as a medical program since we also associate “sirens” with ambulances. I wonder if that was intentional on the production team’s part. Speaking of the siren, I should mention something about Lily Cole’s performance, but that would require there to be one. Since she really just stands around for the special effects team to apply green or red lighting to her, she’s probably better classified as set dressing.

There’s a spin-off somewhere in this episode’s resolution. Anyone for THE ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN AVERY IN SPACE? As for classic WHO fans that might want to interpret this episode as a prequel to the classic William Hartnell story, “The Smugglers,” in which Captain Avery’s lost treasure was a plot point, there’s nothing that contradicts it.

For those wondering about this year’s story arc, there’s another mysterious appearance by the Eye-Patch Lady, and another is she-isn’t she pregnancy scan for Amy. Ultimately “The Curse of the Black Spot” is a pleasant but utterly forgettable episode that ends on exactly the same plot point as last week, making it a bit too obvious that we’ve been running in place for forty-five minutes or so. Still, it was a nice jog.

Next time, the Doctor thinks there may be another Time Lord out there. Place your bets now on how this will prove to be some sort of trick!

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