Though it pains me to give in to the conventional notion that adding pirates to anything makes it more awesome, a view that has found a particularly vocal contingent on the Internet, I have to admit that the introduction of not just pirates but a whole heap of pirate lore to Doctor Who this week made it a great deal more sprightly and fun than the two-part opener, which I have warmed to over time but which still didn't engage me half as much as this one did.
The episode opens with a group of sailors, led by Hugh Bonneville and his GREAT BIG BUSHY BEARD, discovering that one of their own has a black spot on the palm of his hand. They then put him out on the deck where he promptly disappears, with no sign of a struggle to indicate that he has been taken. It's at this point that they open the hold to discover The Doctor, Rory and Amy, who they take for stowaways thanks to The Doctor's inability to come up with a convincing lie to explain how his blue box was actually a ship. To be fair to him, an 18th-century boat floating out in the middle of the sea is probably the one instance in which no amount of psychic paper is going to be of any help.
Just as Matt Smith is about to take a long walk off a short plank, Amy gets hold of a sword, a hat and a long coat and starts buckling some swashes. I liked the return of kick-ass Amy Pond after the first two episodes, which largely confined her to being a supporting player/damsel in distress, which is fine, since The Doctor needs someone to save every week and the companion will always handily fill that role, but part of the reason why I and others fell for Amy last year was seeing her hold her own as a character in her own right. Karen Gillan got to do some fine work this week, both in terms of swinging through the air on ropes, cutting motherfuckers up, and getting to e-MOTE when trying to save Rory from drowning.
On top of saving The Doctor, Amy's actions reveal the monster-of-the-week; a Siren, played by Lily Cole's Massive Forehead, who marks anyone who has been injured with a tell-tale black spot, sings at them, then makes them disintegrate as soon as she touches them. Pretty much as soon as the first sailor got turned into black smoke, I suspected that the Siren was more than she appeared to be, especially given the previously used idea of The Stone Angels being able to "kill" by moving people into different eras in time. Once Bonneville's son got smoked, I was pretty certain that there was going to be some "The Siren is actually teleporting people" twist, and I was proved right. (Which is a shame, really. On the one hand, I liked the switcheroo halfway through in which The Doctor and Amy used the Siren as a means to save Rory, but on the other I sort of wanted the show to go down a darker route and actually kill off the little boy.)
I will admit to losing a little interest once the action moved from the pirate ship to the space ship where the Siren existed - mainly due to the talk of how reflections were gateways to other dimensions, which stopped an episode that up until that point had barrelled along at a phenomenal speed - but that was more than compensated for by the two reunion scenes on the spaceship. Firstly, Rory tells Amy that she will have to resuscitate him when he is disconnected from his life-support machine, which was a great showcase for both Gillan and Arthur Darvill, and even though I knew that he was going to live, I thought that the show beautifully handled the scene in which Amy tries and tries and tries to keep Rory from dying. (Even if it looked like she was doing it wrong.)
Secondly, the captain was reunited with his son and decided to stay with him on the spaceship, rather than take him back to his own time and watch him die slowly of fever. His arc - former decorated sailor turned pirate who can't give up his treasure and ultimately is responsible for his son being taken by the Siren - felt really rushed, and his turnaround at the end didn't really feel all that earned as a result, but again the performance of the actor in that moment saved the scene. Bonneville really captured the sadness of the character and the mixture of shame, love and devotion that drove his decision.
One of the aspects of this episode that I really liked, since it revisited one of my favourite themes from last series, was the fact that The Doctor kept getting everything wrong. He kept coming up with theories that were proven wrong as the story moved along. He thought that the Siren could travel using water, then realised that she moved using reflections. He thought that the Siren was a hunter, then he realised that she was actually a doctor, just one that did not know how to heal humans so she kept them in state where they could only survive whilst hooked up to her machines. I said last year that the thing I really responded to about Matt Smith's portrayal of The Doctor was the way in which he did not play him as an all-knowing lonely god, but as a fallible being who just tries to do his best with what the situation gives him. His constant reappraisal of his theories based on evidence also worked as a nice illustration of deductive reasoning, too, even if the situation was anything but logical.
So, a strong episode all in all that only really faltered in its shift from the second to third act. since it went from full speed ahead adventure romp to slow, contemplative sci-fi, but the two different sides to the story were both so individually strong that the fact that the show didn't quite bridge them successfully is easily forgivable.
The show dialled back on the over-reaching arc of the series this week, with no mention of The Silence that I could detect - though that makes sense since The Doctor thinks that he has defeated them and isn't in too much of a hurry to find out what they are all about - and only a brief glimpse of the weird woman that Amy saw in the orphanage. A nice reminder that something else is going on, but not really anything that we can read into.
I'm on holiday in America for the next two weeks, so I don't know if I'll be writing those episodes up, but next week's (written by Neil Gaiman!) looks like a hell of a lot of fun.