THIS EPISODE TAKES
RUSSELL T. DAVIES
'THE COMPLETE FOURTH
SERIES' HMV EXCLUSIVE
DVD BOX SET (BBCDVD
2609) RELEASED IN
A SPACESHIP SET
WITH EARTH, KILLER
ROBOT ANGELS AND AN
MASTERMIND - IT'S JUST
FOR THE DOCTOR...
25TH DECEMBER 2007
(75-MINUTE CHRISTMAS SPECIAL)
This time last year, when The Runaway Bride was broadcast, the Doctor Who Christmas Special was hailed as being part of the “Christmas Tradition”. This year, the Doctor Who Christmas Special has managed to go one better and establish itself as a national institution.
Like its two predecessors, Voyage of the Damned is a star-studded and (relatively) big-budget blockbuster. Obvious parallels have been drawn with epic disaster movies like Titanic and The Poseidon Adventure, but I was also put in mind of a few classic Doctor Who serials to boot. The notion of the sailing ship in space evokes strong visual imagery from the Peter Davison serial Enlightenment, and the art-deco ‘Host’ robots are nothing
if not a modern spin on Chris Boucher’s Robots of Death, last seen on television in Tom Baker’s day. Even the villain of the piece, Max Capricorn, looks a bit like something out of Frontios, though I wouldn’t let that put you off.
is not just a disaster movie; it’s a disaster movie with a twist. The Titanic doesn’t just sail merrily into the stellar equivalent of an iceberg – it’s sabotaged. There’s a baddie. There
are homicidal robots on the loose. And the stakes are higher too. The Titanic has a nuclear stormdrive which, if the ship does indeed crash on Earth, will obliterate all life.
The episode starts well. I particularly like the first couple
of minutes where the Doctor is just strolling about on
board the ship, soaking in the atmosphere and getting
his breath back after all those ructions with the Master
and then his former self. Not only does it give Russell T
Davies an opportunity to do a little bit of world-building,
but it also allows Murray Gold and Yamit Mamo to get
their faces seen on screen as they together perform
Winter Wonderland; I Wish It Could Be Christmas
Everyday; and this year’s Doctor Who Christmas Song
(there’s another “Christmas Tradition” for you!), The
Stowaway. I’m sure a few fans will have also noticed the
revamped theme tune that played over the opening titles,
the first time that the theme tune has been significantly
altered since David Tennant first took on the role of the
Doctor back in The Christmas Invasion. The new theme
tune is very similar the old, thankfully, but Gold has given
it a bit more oomph; it sounds like a rock band is playing
it, not an orchestra! I love it.
These establishing scenes also introduce us to
the story’s plentiful and diverse cast of support-
ing characters. One has to admire Davies’ skill
here; the way that he can squeeze so much of a
character’s essence into such a short amount of
screen time is truly remarkable. Take Geoffrey
Palmer’s Captain Hardaker, for example - all
that conflict condensed into about a page of dialogue, if that. The script is actually quite reflective later on when Max Capricorn says something about the Doctor’s banter having
“not a word wasted” – Davies could well have been describing his own script.
Indeed, each of the Doctor’s little band of wannabe-survivors are fantastic and fascinating characters with captivating little back-stories. As well as the horrible git (Gray O'Brien) that everyone just knows is going to survive, we have Bannakaffalatta, the cyborg with a complex about what he is (an allegory for homosexuality if I’ve ever seen one); Midshipman Alonso Frame (oh yes – “Allons-y, Alonso”); Clive Swift’s (who fans may remember from his outst-anding performance as Jobel in Revelation of the Daleks) comical, and really quite amiable Mr Copper; as well as both Morvin and Foon Van Hoff, two down-to-earth, adorable fatties that the Doctor instantly befriends.
Though I found it hard to take Russell Tovey’s (The History Boys) Frame seriously as he’s the spit of my elder sister’s boyfriend, I really loved all of the others, in particular Mr Copper who had me in hysterics at times owing to his great “knowledge” about Earth. I’d even go so far as to say that without the absurd humour that Mr Copper brings to the script, Voyage of the Damned might well have proven just that bit too grim for a Yuletide transmission.
But, despite the terrific performances of each and every member of the cast, there’s only one name that people are going to be talking about when they mention Voyage of the Damned – Kylie Minogue. I must admit that in the lead-up to Christmas, I did have some reservations about the pop princess being in Doctor Who, but thankfully these were all dissipated within about thirty seconds of her appearing on screen. Minogue is superb as Astrid; superb. She embodies all the qualities that a companion should possess, and quite possibly just that little bit more.
The companion is the audience’s anchor, and because Astrid is an alien (albeit a human-looking one), for the first time in the revived series we get to see things from a new and refreshing perspective. Astrid’s awe at a mundane, stinking London street is in principle exactly the same as Martha’s wonder at New Earth or even Rose’s reaction to Platform
One, but in practical terms Astrid’s joy even makes the Doctor look at the Earth, his home from home, with different eyes. I think that the highest compliment that I can give to Minogue is that when I was watching Voyage of the Damned, it didn’t really enter my head that I was watching ‘David and Kylie’ at all. I was watching the Doctor and Astrid.
The baddie is also very well done. Max Capricorn may look like a cross between a redress-ed prop from Frontios and Dr Evil from Austin Powers, but George Costigan brings him to life with incredible charisma – no small feat when considering that all he had to act with was his face, one eye of which had been blanked out by a comically-oversized contact lens. I also like the fact that Capricorn is a beautifully honest crook, ruthless and unprincipled to the core and proud of it. His business is failing and he wants to set himself up for retirement, so what does he do? Engineer a scam that will see a planet destroyed and his former associates incarcerated, all so that he can make a buck. Brilliant.
I’m also very impressed with the Host robots. The designers have taken those strong and distinctive art-deco characteristics that made the Voc robots of The Robots of Death so memorable and combined them with a traditional angelic form. The result is that much more haunting than any other artificial life forms that we have seen in Doctor Who ever before.
These Hosts have a sort of ‘fallen angel’ thing going on which works phenomenally on so
many different levels, a bit like the Beast in The Satan Pit. As one would expect though,
the Hosts’ appearance has caused some considerable hullabaloo within the religious world,
some groups taking issue with Voyage of the Damned most vociferously. If the production team ever needed proof that their series has equalled, and in all likelihood surpassed, the dizzy of heights of the mid-1970s serials, then they now have it - I don’t think a Doctor Who story has caused this much pandemonium since the days of legendary television watchdog Mary Whitehouse!
“Information: you are all going to die.”
Nevertheless, if one is able to put their blazing moral outrage aside, the high-octane action here matches anything that one would pay six quid or so to see in the cinema. There are some truly amazing set pieces – the steward being blown into space; the riveting chase through the ship; the crossing of the stereotypically precarious bridge whilst Host robots
hover above; I could go on. We even get to see the Titanic narrowly avoid a collision with Buckingham Palace. Cheesy as hell, but unquestionably compelling.
What I like the most about Voyage of the Damned though is its brutality. Despite the festive setting, it is not a kind episode by any stretch of the imagination. The majority of the Titanic’s passengers and crew die, including Astrid.
Now the death of a companion always comes a shocker (and a bona fide companion she is too, according to Davies), particularly when it is kept under wraps and particularly when it is done as expressively as it is here. What’s more, unless like myself you follow the Doctor’s adventures away from the television screen, then the death of companion is extremely rare. In fact only Katarina, Sara, and Adric have been killed on television. To put this into sharper focus still, the first two were both killed in the same 1965/66 serial, meaning that in well over forty years only one companion has ever bought the bullet on television. Well now it’s two. Quite fittingly though, Astrid’s death is noble, epic and profoundly cinematic.
“I’m the Doctor. I’m a Time Lord. I’m from the planet Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous.
I’m 903 years old and I’m the man who is gonna save your lives and all six billion people on the planet below.”
And then there is the man himself, David Tennant. He is making it so hard for viewers to maintain their allegiances to Doctors past; he’s just so damn good. His big Time Lordy speech about being 903 years old (how magnificently naff - he has aged three years in
three years of telly! But are those Earth years or Gallifreyan…?) and about how he’s going
to save the world is absolute gold. His confidence, whilst well founded, borders on conceit and sets up his loss that is to come perfectly. Tennant somehow manages to walk that fine line between making the Doctor brilliant and making him vulnerable. One minute he’s saving the world at the same time as claiming to have “got the last room” in Bethlehem just over two thousand years ago, and the next minute he is kicking a transmat that he just can’t fix as his newest friend (one whose name is an anagram of TARDIS, note) fades away into stardust.
“I can do anything”, the Doctor yells, knowing full well that he can’t.
What rounded the whole sequence off so well for me though were Mr Copper’s wise words about how someone would inevitably become a monster if they had the power to choose who survives and who does not. How many people would have marked Rickston Slade for death, who survives only to make a fortune and then gloat about it? How many people would have saved both the fatties and Bannakaffalatta? It really makes you think.
And to think that Tennant lost his mother during the filming of Voyage of the Damned, you really have to take your hat off to him in how he gives such a controlled and credible perfor-mance. Whether he will be around for the 2010 series or not is still anybody’s guess, but if
in postponing Series 5 for a year the production team have managed to keep Tennant on
for even just a precious few specials longer then it was well worth it in my book.
But did I have any gripes with Voyage of the Damned? The honest answer is not really. I was a little bit irritated by some of the guest stars that had been really hyped up – such as Doctor Who veterans Bernard Cribbins and Geoffrey Palmer – making only fleeting appe-arances, though it seems that this is going to be remedied at least in Cribbins’ case as his character is set to be revealed as Donna’s Grandfather next year.
“Unsinkable, that’s me.”
Personally I’d have also liked to see that old master of Earthonomics, Mr Copper, leave with the Doctor in the TARDIS at the end, but deep down I know that it wouldn’t really have been feasible. Swift’s face on the cover of a Doctor Who Annual or DVD just would not have the same sort of commercial impact that Billie Piper’s or Catherine Tate’s would. That said, speaking as a Doctor Who fan now, rather than a regular telly watcher, this sort of thing is
my one aggravation with the revived series – they can’t do anything that takes the show off the beaten track. It has to be the Doctor and an attractive young woman, preferably from London, travelling the universe and fighting monsters. You might get the odd firecracker
like Captain Jack thrown into the mix, but essentially the format must remain the same.
The above notwithstanding, at its peak 13.8 million viewers – over half the Christmas audience – were watching Voyage of the Damned, a statistic that I feel speaks for itself, especially considering that we live in an age of multi-channel digital television. Doctor
Who hasn’t enjoyed such ratings since industrial action briefly took ITV off the air in the
late 1970s, meaning that the audience had a choice between watching Tom Baker run around Paris in a big scarf or watching static. Unsurprisingly about fourteen and a half
million of them chose Baker.
Regrettably though, such profound success brings with it the vilification of everybody from thin-skinned religious zealots to a befuddled Titanic survivor. The latter, for some unfatho-mable reason, apparently took offence because Doctor Who had the gall to set its third Christmas Special on board a space ship called the Titanic. Why was this survivor not whinging to The Sun when James Cameron was counting his money in 1997, hmm?
How a Doctor Who episode set on board a spaceship called the Titanic can be accused
of causing offence when Hollywood really went to town on making a megabucks movie specifically about the Titanic disaster I have no idea. And what do these people reckon to war films, ey? Why do the brave men and women who have fought for their country not kick off when people make films and write books about the wars in which they fought? What about the real life issues raised in soap operas? I mean, come on! All art and literature is derived from life in some shape or form. Where do you draw the line? I think on balance, nearly fourteen million people giving up more than an hour of their Christmas Day to be entertained (and thoroughly entertained, if the Audience Appreciation figures are anything
to go by) by Doctor Who easily outweighs the bellyaching of a few conscientious objectors who, let’s not forget, always have those two magical options of turning over or turning off.
Voyage of the Damned closes with a dedication to Verity Lambert, Doctor Who’s founding producer who sadly passed away on the eve of the series’ forty-fourth anniversary. I think it’s fair to say that she would have doubtlessly enjoyed this rip-roaring adventure, and more to the point that she would have been incredibly proud of the show as well as all those involved in its production. In my opinion, Voyage of the Damned is a tremendous improvement upon The Runaway Bride last year and, whilst I don’t think any Christmas Special is ever going to top The Christmas Invasion, this feature-length epic came damned close. Already, I find myself wondering what we’re going to get next Christmas; what blockbuster movie Davies is going to pay homage to next. My money’s on dinosaurs…
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2007
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
When is now? This episode is set between The Runaway Bride (Christmas 2007) and Partners in Crime (late December 2008). As such it must be set on Christmas Day 2008, exactly one year ahead of its transmission.
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