This review is late again, partly because I’ve been ill but partly because I just couldn’t get excited about this episode. It’s perfectly fine and entertaining stuff, it isn’t a horrible failure. But nor is it a cast-iron copper-bottomed classic. And that makes it hard to write about, especially because I was left with a vague feeling of disappointment when it was over, despite the fact that it hardly put a piratical boot wrong.

This, of course, is part of the problem with establishing a very strong season arc but (wisely) not committing to fully-serialised storytelling. The “non-arc” episodes automatically have less heft to them than the “arc” episode which means they have to be better than usual in order to compete. But even this really isn’t quite as new as perhaps it seems. Like any non-fully-serialised and long-running series, Doctor Who works because the premise generates any number of stories. Like a medical show in which life-and-death stories can walk in the door every week, the TARDIS can deliver the TARDIS crew to literally any situation imaginable. We don’t need The Death of the Doctor, The Return of the Time Lords, or The Secret of the Eye of Harmony every fucking week. We just want a good story.

But episode two left so many plot threads so ostentatiously dangling that to basically ignore all of them – certainly to develop none of them – and have the Doctor, Amy and Rory seemingly lose all interest is jarring to say the least. It’s rather like watching Jack Bauer surrounded by terrorists armed with automatic weapons, claymores and rabid dogs at 4:59 and then tuning back in for 5:01 to watch them all cheerfully playing softball together. For an hour.

So, maybe the problem – if there really is one – is just in the running order. Black Spot might have played much more strongly if it had come first in the season. We’d have seen the new TARDIS crew functioning as a unit for the first time, without any time-travelling archaeologists obscuring the chemistry. We would be perfectly happy for a carefree pseudo-historical romp, with no strong expectations that the half-remembered plot threads from the end of the last series were going to be urgently addressed. Then you chuck in River Song at the end to set up the arc and you’re off and running. It’s what Davies would have done, I suspect.

Anyway. Taken on its own terms this is basically fine. Some good jokes, especially the captain-on-captain banter between Matt Smith and a very sturdy Hugh Bonneville. Decent pirates – hey look it’s Lee Ross off of Press Gang. A pretty strong central mystery / threat, with the repeated motif of the Doctor proclaiming “ignore all my previous theories” a nice way of keeping the tension up. Some of the details are a little foggy. I think I understand why even moppety Toby can wander the spaceship, free of tubes and wires but will drop dead as soon as he leaves it, but I’m not sure I’d want to explain it to a nine year old. Also, protecting Rory from the “demon” seems to be simply a matter of holding him back (even spindly Amy can do it) so it’s a little peculiar that none of the pirates even try to save their shipmates. And the whole business of her jumping out of reflections is just magic as far as I can tell. Still, so’s the TARDIS being bigger on this inside.

Okay, proper complaints. I have two. Firstly, a series which is really committing to the idea that we have seen the Doctor die, actually die, for realz, Matt Smith is the last incarnation, and he’s only got 200 years to live, a series like that really, really, really needs to stop killing and resurrecting Rory who is rapidly becoming the Kenny of Doctor Who. Following non-fatal terminations in Amy’s Choice, Cold BloodThe Big Bang (sort of) and Day of the Moon (in other words, last week’s episode!) to have him seemingly snuff it only to pop back up again like a novelty birthday candle is a little ridiculous. And, it’s been a while since I did my St John’s Ambulance but Amy’s CPR looked all-sorts-of-wrong to me.

Secondly, I’ve moaned before that Moffat doesn’t write proper villains, so it’s particularly disappointing here that the striking Lily Cole turns out not be a vicious alien beast in urgent need of termination, but yet another automatic system gone awry. Since the series returned in 2005, this has been the solution to the central mystery in a total of four stories – The Empty Child (nanogenes), The Girl in the Fireplace (clockwork androids), Silence in the Library (CAL computer) and The Lodger (emergency holographic program). Depending on your definition of “automatic” and “system” you could also add Fear Her, Smith and Jones, The Eleventh Hour and even Amy’s Choice, although at least there the psycho-pollen was given a charismatically malevolent face by Toby Jones. Examples from the previous 26 seasons are vanishingly rare – The Edge of Destruction, Ghost Light (sort-of), um, er…

Why should this be? Well, firstly, not because no-one had ever thought of it before. It had been a staple of Star Trek for years. Not just implacable computerised killers like The Doomsday Machine, VGER and its TV predecessor Nomad but also in its revelation that horrible monsters have feelings too – the Farpoint creature in the Next Gen pilot, and its original series predecessor the Horta. The appeal of this kind of ending is twofold. Firstly, if your series is identified by its championing of rationality, understanding and humanity instead of featuring heroes who solve problems with fists, guns and explosives, then an heroic epiphany which transforms the threat into an empathetic character is a neat variation from the normal kill-or-be-killed approach. But it’s only a neat variation if you don’t do it all the bloody time.

Secondly, it’s faster. If you have to determine your foe’s weakness, devise a plan, put that plan into action and then confirm it succeeded, then you’d better not be too close to the end of the story when you start that process. On the other hand, it hardly takes any time to at all to say “Wait! It’s just a robot / protecting its young / nanogenes – let’s not kill it.” In the old days, after forty minutes of running-around-being-captured-escaping-and-running-around-again during episodes two and three, it was quite a relief when the plan to kill the bad guy or wipe out the monsters reared its head fairly early in part four. Often, the murdering was all done with five minutes to go and we had plenty of time for smiles, handshakes, goodbyes, tag-lines and “But Doctor, there’s just one thing I still don’t understand”. Nowadays, we can’t hang around. We’ve got 45 minutes and that’s it, including titles, throw-forward and incongruous “arc” moments, to tell a complete non-arc story. We can’t hang about.

But it’s just less satisfying for the solution to be “I know! Let’s do nothing! Everything is in fact okay, despite seeming disastrous mere moments before,” rather than “I’ve got you now” (or even “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry”) followed by “I’ll get you for this, Doctor, I’ll… aaarrrghhh!” Where would The Seeds of Doom be without Harrison Chase, or The Invasion without Tobias Vaughan? Even Voyage of the Damned, flawed in all sorts of ways, sputters into demented life whenever Max Capricorn is on-screen. He may not be the best and most layered antagonist the Doctor has ever faced, but when so much else seems so out-of-kilter, it’s reassuring to be in the presence of a genuinely pop-eyed megalomaniac in a funny wheelchair, hurling hubristic insults at the Doctor – before being dumped into nuclear storm drive. By Kylie Minogue. Driving a fork-lift.

Three stars.

So... what did I think of Day of the Moon?
So... What did I think of The Doctor's Wife?