By Ross Ruediger
The chefs in the Doctor Who kitchen get more technically ambitious with each new season, and the annual Christmas specials are appetizers dished up to satiate diners between the seasonal main courses. "Voyage of the Damned" is first and foremost a spectacle echoing the infamous disaster movies of the sixties and seventies (especially The Poseidon Adventure). Clocking in at 72 minutes, it's the longest single episode of the new series yet. It also snagged 13.31 million viewers upon its Christmas day BBC broadcast—one of the highest figures in Who history and the largest audience for the new series so far. (I believe the number translates into something like 50% of the TVs in Britain being tuned in.) Clearly Doctor Who isn't losing any steam as far as the general public goes, but aside from all the flashy effects, frenetic pacing and high profile guest stars, is "Voyage of the Damned" any good?
The precredits sequence begins where Season Three ended. The Titanic inexplicably crashed through the exterior of the TARDIS...or has the TARDIS crashed into the nose of the Titanic? With a few flicks of the console, the Doctor (David Tennant) fixes the breach with ease, and rematerializes onboard the luxury liner. Some weirdly out of place robotic angels and a diminutive alien tip him off that all is not as it appears. A quick peek through a window followed by an overhead announcement reveals the truth:
"Attention all passengers! The Titanic is now in orbit above Sol 3, also known as Earth. Population human. Ladies and gentlemen—welcome to Christmas!"
The reveal that this isn't the real Titanic but some sort of spaceship replica makes for a somewhat lackluster intro—but Murray Gold's new arrangement of the theme tune is strong enough to hold an underlying promise of greatness ahead. (It is frankly amazing the number of times Ron Grainer's composition has been successfully rearranged, revamped, and reinterpreted over the past 45 years.) On the ship's bridge, the stern-faced Captain Hardaker (Geoffrey Palmer) dismisses his crew. Midshipman Frame (Russell Tovey) insists that according to regulations, the bridge should be manned by two crewmembers at any given time; Hardaker begrudgingly relents.
Hardaker: "It's only a level 5 planet down below. They don't even know we're here. Silent night, I believe they call it...a silent night."
An advertisement from Max Capricorn (George Costigan), the owner of the vessel, fills the screen. The guy is so noticeably sleazy we don't have to think twice about who the primary villain is going to be—writer Russell T Davies spells it out and punctuates it with a sparkle of the guy's gold tooth. The Doctor views the ad and, having made a career out of dealing with such unsavory characters, should see the writing on the wall. But he moves on, making his way toward one of the angels—"Heavenly Hosts," they're called—and quizzes the robot for more info. He learns the Titanic is from the planet Sto and the cruise's purpose is to experience primitive cultures. The ship's name was chosen for being the most famous vessel of the planet Earth (which is debatable). When the Doctor pushes further, the bot malfunctions and some crewmen quickly remove it, owing it up to a "software problem." Turns out this is the eighth such problem of the cruise.
The Doctor witnesses waitress Astrid Peth (Kylie Minogue) receiving a tongue lashing from Rickston Slade (Gray O'Brien)—a near carbon copy of Billy Zane's Cal Hockley from the Cameron flick. He comforts and befriends her, immediately hooking into her dreams and desires to travel beyond the boredom of Sto, and confessing that he's a stowaway (a Sto-away?). If we hadn't seen Minogue's name in the opening credits, her place - as the Doctor's temp companion - is once again choreographed. An announcement is made that select guests are invited to take a trip down to the planet below. The Doctor, with his handy psychic paper, invites himself along and steals Astrid away from her duties so she can join in. Leading the tour is the comically misinformed Mr. Copper (Clive Swift) whose verbal mish mashing of Christmas traditions is a hoot, and Swift's performance an episode highlight (but then again, Swift is damn fine wherever he turns up). The group teleport to the surface via bracelets (paying homage to Blake's 7 in the process), only to discover a deserted London. Copper warns them to be careful: "Any day now they start boxing." Astrid's amazement over the ordinary is a charming bit of Davies writing:
Astrid: "...it's beautiful."
The Doctor: "Really? Do you think so? It's just a street. The pyramids are beautiful, and New Zealand."
Astrid: "It's a different planet, I'm standing on a different planet. There's concrete, and shops, alien shops! Real alien shops. Look, no stars in the sky. And it smells. It stinks! This is amazing! Thank you!"
A newspaper vendor (Bernard Cribbins) explains that given the alien invasions of the previous two Christmases, most Londoners have fled to the country out of fear, which is pretty amusing (and logical) given the fictitious London that's been crafted over three seasons. The Queen and the Royal Family, however, have stayed put, in order to show there's nothing to fear. The Doctor, warning signs be damned, agrees with the Queen, and then, as quickly as the party arrived, they're teleported back up.
There are power fluctuations due to the presence of a nearby meteoroid shower. Hardaker magnetizes the hull, much to Frame's shock. Won't this drag the meteors towards the ship? Oh, and the shields are offline. The Doctor attempts to warn Hardaker via the ship's com system, but is ignored. Frame tries to fix things but is ordered to step away by his superior. Hardaker pulls out a gun and, against his own principles, shoots the boy. The shouting Doctor is taken from the party against his will. Several guests pay attention, though most carry on with the revelry, oblivious to the impending doom. Hardaker confesses to a bleeding Frame he's dying already with only six months to live, and that "they" offered him plenty of money for his family. Noting that a palm-sized rock has broken through a window, Slade questions a Host about the shielding.
Host: (to Slade) "Information: You are all going to die."
It's a smart narrative twist to have the slimy Slade take a proactive role, as he's a man motivated by self-interest. Even though it's been mostly by the book (albeit witty) Who up to this point, "Voyage of the Damned" shifts into an even more predictable rollercoaster gear. The meteors hit the Titanic and all manner of disastrous hell breaks loose. People scramble and the meteors keep coming. Don't get me wrong, it's great fun to watch, but no more so than a typical action flick. The Hosts begin assembling, taking on their roles as the monsters of the story, as the Doctor assembles his own rag tag group of survivors (consisting of the numerous characters we've already met) who will undoubtedly have to fight, fight, fight to beat the odds. The Doctor intends to get everyone to the safety of the TARDIS, only to immediately spy the old girl spinning away towards the Earth. He contacts the still-bleeding Frame on the bridge (Hardaker is toast) and realizes the Titanic has basically become a giant nuclear bomb, headed for Earth and primed to wipe out the entire population. (Those AWOL Londoners might be in for a big surprise!) The Doctor technobabbles instructions for Frame to initiate until he can make his way to the bridge—along with his band of not-so merry men, women and Bannakaffalatta. Will they all make it safely? I think not...and neither did you. In an attempt to make sure "Voyage's" second act kicks off with a bang, the Doctor gives an obnoxiously self-important speech.
The Doctor: "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's gonna save your lives and all 6 billion people on the planet below. You got a problem with that?"
Everyone looks at him with awe. The music swells, punctuating every line until a heavenly chorus joins in the soundtrack. Perhaps within the narrative this makes sense, but from a viewer standpoint, it's the episode's low point. I dare speculate that even Tennant appears uncomfortable spouting this nonsense. There's a fashion tip stating that once you're dressed up for a night out on the town, quickly turn toward a mirror. The first item that catches your eye should be removed from the ensemble. In this script, this speech should've been that item. I defend Davies' writing all over the place, but here's an instance where I'm forced to call bogus. He's done variations on the same several times throughout the new series. It worked beautifully, for instance, when the Ninth Doctor ranted to the Daleks at the close of "Bad Wolf." Here it feels bloated and packs no resonance.
Nevertheless, the followers follow. (I suppose in lieu of anyone else, why not go with the madman? He speaks the loudest and with confidence.) Along the way there are many tragedies, numerous attacks by the Hosts, and both good and bad character moments coupled with revelations that one expects from a disaster yarn. One sequence jam-packed with drama, action and sacrifice features the group trying to cross some sort of collapsing bridge (stop me if you've heard this one) whilst being attacked by the Hosts. It's great television and good fun, but lame Doctor Who. There's nothing here not seen a hundred times before, and Who should, at the very least, recycle the old into something vaguely new.
The Doctor finally encounters Max Capricorn—an old, rich fat-cat reduced to living as a cyborg. His plan is revealed to be a revenge scheme against the board who voted him out of his failing business. The remaining shareholders will be thrown in jail over the destruction of an innocent planet, while Capricorn skates away free. Even though it's a variation of the theme, one can't help but recall Cassandra's scheme from "The End of the World." Yes, rich people are corrupt, although as I pointed out early on, Capricorn is so clearly the villain, the only payoff is the "Why?"—which ends up being more of a "Who gives a shit?" Why Capricorn's onboard the ship at all is perhaps the height of the episode's stupidity, though perhaps his presence is intended to be the big surprise. There's more action (and ludicrous action at that) at the end of which Astrid sacrifices herself in order to kill Capricorn. Do not even get me started on the shots of the reprogrammed Hosts "escorting" the Doctor to the bridge. Perhaps the Doctor's speech wasn't the low point after all?
The Titanic plummets toward Earth. The Doctor struggles with the ship's wheel and averts its crashing into Buckingham Palace. The Queen, in curlers and a pink robe, waves at the ship saying, "Thank you, Doctor, thank you! Happy Christmas!" I can't explain why, but amidst all the hot air, I got a huge chuckle out of that bit. Back onboard, the Doctor realizes there may be a way to save Astrid due to the fact she was wearing the teleport bracelet when she died. It doesn't work and instead her essence floats away to be eternal celestial dust (or somesuch) traveling forever through the cosmos. (Oh, and he kisses her ghost before this happens.) Aside from the Doctor, the only survivors appear to be Slade, Frame and Mr. Copper. Slade confesses that the entire affair has made him richer than ever. Copper laments that if the Doctor could've chosen anyone to survive, it wouldn't have been Slade.
Mr. Copper: "But if you could choose, Doctor—if you could decide who lives and who dies—that would make you a monster."
These Christmas specials are not designed to get viewers thinking—they aren't even really part of the overall story arc. They're one-offs made primarily to entertain families on Christmas Day, which I'm sure they do. Believe it or not, on the first viewing I quite enjoyed "Voyage of the Damned" for the sheer spectacle of it all, which was undoubtedly the intention. But on second viewing, its charms quickly began wearing thin. Ultimately it's excessive eye-candy, and the 72-minute running time only underscores the "special" aspect of it; certainly nothing in the narrative warranted its length. It's a shame the Christmas specials end up being marketed as the "season premieres" here in the States. Not only do they feel out of place playing near the start of summer, but they are also an inaccurate representation of what an upcoming season will be about.
All that said, "Voyage" is probably more entertaining than "The Christmas Invasion," but not nearly as tight as "The Runaway Bride." I'd like to see what could be done with a good script and 60 or 70 minutes, yet this sort of thing makes me wary of any possible Doctor Who feature film. The Kylie factor is a strange one for America. Much like the Doctor, she's never been a noticeable icon in our country—unlike say, the U.K. or Australia; there are plenty of Americans on whom the novelty of her casting would be lost. Her work was good enough here, but is in no way as memorable as Catherine Tate's from "Bride," or even someone like Sophia Myles in "The Girl in the Fireplace." The Doctor's interest in her seems odd, unless one assumes he's trying to forget about the Martha debacle.
Lastly, mention should be made of what a fan-fest "Voyage of the Damned" is. Between its iconography and cast, it echoes loads of Who from days gone by. The Heavenly Hosts are clearly inspired by "The Robots of Death," not only in their look, but also in their malfunctioning. Astrid's waitress longing for adventure seems reminiscent of Ace as presented in "Dragonfire." The ship itself recalls similar vessels drifting through space in "Enlightenment." Both Geoffrey Palmer and Clive Swift—their otherwise impressive track records aside—have both appeared in Doctor Who before: Palmer in both "The Silurians" and "The Mutants," and Swift in a standout role as Jobel in "Revelation of the Daleks." And Bernard Cribbins starred alongside Peter Cushing's Doctor as policeman Tom Campbell in the 1966 feature film Daleks - Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D.
Ross Ruediger is a San Antonio-based writer. In addition to contributing to The House Next Door, he also publishes The Rued Morgue and writes for Bullz-Eye.
NEXT WEEK: The return of Catherine Tate's Donna Noble, Bernard Cribbins' Wilf, and a diet plan that would put Richard Simmons out of business for good in "Partners in Crime."
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: "Planet of Evil," starring Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen.