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New Who 6.3: The Curse of the Black Spot

I saw this late, as I was staying with my sister while it was broadcast, which meant that I'd already read a lot of negative reviews before I got the chance to view it for myself. Perhaps inevitably, then, by the time I saw it, I found myself inclined to give it a more sympathetic viewing than I might otherwise have done.

It's certainly not what you would call a great episode. The story is enjoyable so far as it goes, but it doesn't stand up to particularly close scrutiny. And the dialogue was serviceable, but not exactly outstanding - and featured rather far too much goofy Brit-out-of-water on the part of the Doctor. But not every episode every week can drive the plot forward in huge and tantalising ways, or stretch the parameters of the Whoniverse. And this one was certainly better than some filler episodes we have known - Fear Her, for example.

Meanwhile, I felt that it waved away a lot of its own failings by so cheerfully acknowledging its own light-weightedness. Right from the Doctor's first line ("Yo ho ho! - or does nobody actually say that"?), our attention is drawn to the mis-match between the real pirates of history and the fictional traditions about them. And although nobody on the ship does say 'Yo ho ho!', it is made pretty obvious that we are to imagine ourselves amongst fictional pirates, rather than their real counterparts. They can do the laugh (as the Doctor notes), they've got the treasure, and they're suffering from an entirely literary trope.

Once we've grasped all that, anything goes, really. We might, for example, pedantically ask why Amy takes the time to get changed into a pirate costume before going to save the Doctor, when he is already in mortal peril before she gets thrown below deck. The answer here is blatantly that it makes her swashbuckling rescue attempt look much cooler, and more in keeping with our expectations of fearless girls on the high seas (drawn especially from Keira Knightley in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies). Indeed, at this point, setting Amy up to look as awesomely fierce and dashing as possible also works rather nicely in terms of bringing out the next stage in the plot. We think the pirates are so scared of her because she is just Amy being awesome, and are sitting there thinking "Hah! There's a modern woman for you! Stick that in your 17th-century pipes!", when our expectations are suddenly undermined as we come to understand the true consequences of even the tiniest of scratches for them. None of that would have worked so well without the pirate costume - so pedants be damned.

Elsewhere, parrot_knight provides some very helpful notes about the historical figure of Henry Avery, whose surname historians now seem to have agreed to spell as 'Every'. As parrot_knight points out, this disdain for the new historical consensus is yet another signal that this episode is not really trying to be strictly historical, but instead focusing on the cheerfully fictional. And of course the preference for the spelling 'Avery' in this particular case allows the idea that we might be dealing with the same (deceased) character who lies behind much of the action in The Smugglers to be preserved.

So to finish off, just for a giggle, I combed the Wikipedia pages for The Smugglers, The Curse of the Black Spot and the historical Henry Every, to see whether it is possible to reconcile them. It's a slight stretch, but I think it can be done as follows:
  • 1694 - Avery leads a mutiny on the Charles II, then docked on the coast of north-west Spain. He makes himself the captain of the ship, renaming it The Fancy.
  • Avery commits various acts of piracy in the Cape Verde islands off the west coast of Africa.
  • After this, unknown to the historical record, he stops off briefly in Cornwall to bury his first haul of treasure in a graveyard. (This is the hardest bit to reconcile, since it isn't very likely Avery would have gone back to England at this point - but he needs to have buried some treasure there for it to be discovered in The Smugglers).
  • Avery then continues back around the coast of Africa and into the Indian ocean, where he attacks the Mughal ship, Ganj-i-Sawai, and seizes a vast treasure.
  • Avery and crew arrive at New Providence in the Bahamas, complete with the Mughal treasure.
  • The Fancy is wrecked, and the governor of New Providence betrays the pirates to the British government.
  • Avery and the crew seen in The Curse of the Black Spot flee in a new ship, which they also name The Fancy after its predecessor, taking the Mughal treasure with them.
  • They become becalmed somewhere en route to Ireland, follow the events of The Curse of the Black Spot, and thus disappear from the historical record.
  • Meanwhile, another segment of Avery's former crew, headed by Samuel Pike, flee from New Providence in another ship, which they name The Albatross. At some point, they hear that Avery has disappeared, and assume that he has died.
  • They head for Cornwall to retrieve Avery's earlier treasure, and follow the events of The Smugglers.

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( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 18th, 2011 09:48 pm (UTC)
Thank you for the citation! I didn't write the details down, nor run the compare-and-contrast exercise you did, but I thought that the events of the two stories and the life of Every would be reconcilable. The Smugglers has never been a story I've had a great affinity for, but the fragmentation of Avery's crew makes sense.

I was amused to see that Jon Preddle in the second volume of Timelink dates the events of The Smugglers to 1672; I'm sure Brian Hayles/Gerry Davis/whoever intended the Avery of that story to be the historical pirate, and it was to their advantage that so little was known of him at the time. As I wrote in my post it was only recently that I realised Avery was a historical figure.
May. 18th, 2011 10:07 pm (UTC)
Yes - I was prompted to try the reconciliation exercise by your comment about the possibility in the threads below your review. Of course, the fact that Avery doesn't actually appear in The Smugglers helps a lot. Not much is actually said about him, and anything which is can be treated as a mistake or an over-romanticisation. So there isn't much to reconcile between the two Doctor Who stories, really.
May. 18th, 2011 10:15 pm (UTC)
While they are different sorts of stories in that they draw on cultural expectations of pirate conduct which are four and a half decades apart from each other, they are both self-consciously 'undemanding' as regards how much effort the audience is expected to put into imagining the historical setting; though I should really see or at least listen to The Smugglers before advancing this argument any further!
May. 18th, 2011 10:35 pm (UTC)
Yes, indeed. My line when I reviewed The Smugglers was basically that the Doctor's increasing tendency to interfere with historical events for moral reasons was making him a liability, so that it was necessary by this stage to keep him as far away from 'real' historical events as possible. It's probably the least historical of the '60s historicals, with Avery being the only historically-recorded character mentioned.
May. 20th, 2011 08:54 pm (UTC)
Yes, I didn't think this was a terrible episode, but then again, I wasn't especially looking forward to pirates anyway, which it seems a lot of people were. But I did like the "Yo ho ho! - or does nobody actually say that" line - really because it stuck out to contradict Ten's handling of similar vernacular situations (the way Rose starts speaking in Tooth and Claw, or Martha in The Shakespeare Code).
May. 20th, 2011 08:58 pm (UTC)
Oh, good point about the contrast with Ten's approach! We'll have to look out for any further examples of that - and there should be a fair few, given how fond Moffat seems to be of historical stories. :-)
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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