‘The Curse of the Black Spot’ reveals the curse of the ‘meh’ slot. It’s a return to workaday Who after a two-part series finale, a Christmas Special, and a two-part series launch imitating a finale for good measure, all of which carried the signature of showrunner Moffat. By contrast, this is self-consciously “ordinary” Doctor Who, coming after mission statements from ‘The Impossible Astronaut’ and ‘Day of the Moon’. Even its arc elements feel reheated already – oh, it’s the eyepatch lady looking through another impossible hatch, and Amy’s Schrodinger’s pregnancy, along with flashbacks to the Doctor’s future death.
This episode doesn’t, at first glance, appear to carry any ‘author-function’, beyond copying last week’s arc stuff. It isn’t identifiable as carrying a specific writer’s preoccupations, tropes, and repetitions. The guiding parameters seem instead to be pastiche – as Steven Moffat remarks in the accompanying Doctor Who Confidential, you want certain things in a pirate story: a storm, swashbuckling, a stowaway child, and so on. And ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’ serves up these warmed-over intertextualities with gusto. But such manic repetition of generic fare seems to over-ride considerations of authorial distinction. Somewhat reinforcing a sense of non-authorship, Confidential writes out the flesh-and-blood writer of this piece, Steve Thompson. Mentioned once in passing by director Jeremy Webb, Thompson is otherwise absent, being neither interviewed nor appearing on camera, and not even being referred to in Moffat’s commentary. (By marked contrast, Neil Gaiman is fronting next week’s making-of; the show looks set to become one long paratextual cue for ‘written by Neil Gaiman!’)
So, where’s Steve Thompson? Why has this empirical writer been forgotten about and cast out into the (Authorial) Silence? (He similarly disappeared from paratexts for Sherlock, where his episode alone had no DVD commentary).
Television authorship is a fickle business, it seems. All TV drama is written, but not all of it is ‘authored’. And this is the major value of Michel Foucault’s concept of the ‘author-function’ – it allows consideration of authorship as a discourse, granted in some cases and denied in others. Showrunners and ‘star’ writers are often extratextually present in promotional, paratextual content and fan readings – Richard Curtis even got special publicity trails last year. And at the other end of the spectrum are jobbing writers, yet to achieve paratextual presence let alone pre-eminence; those who professionally write TV drama but don’t yet publicly ‘author’ it.
Enter Steve Thompson. What preoccupations and tropes demarcate a Thompson script? We don’t know, and Confidential doesn’t help us find out because all statements about the story’s contents are entrusted to Steven Moffat, who in effect ventriloquises Thompson. And yet Steve Thompson appears to be Moffat’s discovery or protege – entrusted with the second episode of Sherlock, and reappearing here. On Sherlock and Who, Thompson has thus far been a (literally) middling writer – he’s done the stuff that showrunners need to farm out, the bits in the middle, after the important set-up and before the important finale (though Sherlock series 2 seems set to promote him to the finale of all finales, intriguingly). For now, Thompson is working his way up the industry ladder, aided by Moffat’s powerful support and mentoring.
And this makes Moffat’s standing in for Thompson both telling and ironic. Telling because Thompson himself can act as a sign of Moffat’s industrial power – the showrunner’s status being indicated by his very gift of patronage (likewise, Russell T. Davies supported Tom MacRae; Paul Abbott recently entrusted the writing of Exile to Danny Brocklehurst, and Jimmy McGovern has used The Street to mentor and develop new writers). In a sense, ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’ is Mentor Who, with Steven M paternalistically building the TV career of Steve T.
But Moffat voicing Thompson in Confidential is also ironic, because this is surely a script marked by choice Moffatisms. Automated technology carrying on, saving humanity whilst being misinterpreted as evil – that’s textbook Moffat, right out of ‘The Empty Child’/’The Doctor Dances’. Moving from a historical setting to a futuristic spaceship… say hello to ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’. The story’s basic premise seems designed to appeal to Moffat’s sensibilities as a writer; one might even suggest this is pirated Moffat, with Thompson imitating and voicing his patron. Authorship thus self-deconstructs; the protege appropriates his master’s voice in a process of indeterminate doubling. But this indeterminacy – authorship flickering between two states like Amy Pond’s pregnancy – means that piracy cannot quite be fixed or located. Perhaps Thompson (un)consciously appealed to Moffat with his initial story pitch; perhaps Moffat pitched in across the story’s development. Industry discourses can ‘t be trusted to resolve this ontological mix-up, as hierarchies and careers have to be protected and conserved.
What this suggests about TV authorship is not merely that it is multiple, but rather that it is extra-textually and paratextually bestowed on some while discursively denied to others. In short, authorship is hierarchical, forged here through a mentor-apprentice dialectic. Unsurprisingly, Steve Thompson’s Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who represents rather less of the former Steve and rather more of the latter Steven. ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’ devolves into a menu of pastiche pirates with a side order of pastiched, pirated Moffat. Last week saw the showrunner copying himself and introducing difference into repetition; this week introduces repetition into difference via the sincerest form of showrunner flattery.
‘The Curse of the Black Spot’ is standard Doctor Who – just a spot along the way on Thompson’s career arc, and a step towards the ultimate finale of ‘The Final Problem’. Unrecognised writing is what typically gets done in the middle; recognised, paratextually-promoted industry prestige begins and ends with the prize of authorship.