21st Century Doctor Who Reviews: Voyage Of The Damned

Christmas TV is pretty much a dead cert year in year out. Right from way back in the ‘70s when I was a kid (and being spooked by that revolving melted Santa head globe on BBC1 in 1978), the same old types of Christmas programme crop up. Whether festive versions of well-established comedies, horrible screechy carol services or doomy Bah Humbug soap shenanigans, Christmas TV always runs along tried and tested lines.

And then there are the films. There's usually a select pool of about four or five films that make an annual appearance around Christmas. The Sound Of Music: quite possibly my least favourite film ever – a never-ending shrill parade of twee noise; Mary Poppins: a similarly joyless experience of naff songs and Fearne Cotton-esque gorbloymey accents; Annie: more out of tune histrionics starring a nine-year-old Leo Sayer with a bad case of orange hair dye; and The Poseidon Adventure: a wilfully depressing trudge around the wreckage of a luxury liner.

It's the latter example that's the inspiration for the third Doctor Who Christmas special called Voyage Of The Damned. In retrospect, so far, all of the Christmas specials have looked to film genres for inspiration. The Christmas Invasion was a big blockbuster Independence Day-style ratings grabber. The Runaway Bride paid homage to those screw-ball comedies from the 1950s. Voyage Of The Damned puts its own spin on the dreaded disaster movie after the Doctor finds that the TARDIS has collided with what appears to be the Titanic. Naturally, it's a big spaceship liner that's based its appearance on the legendary ship.

Backtracking a little bit, I should just mention that the “What? What?? What???” cliffhanger did lead into the charming Children In Need skit, Time Crash, in which Doctor Number Ten came face to face with good old Number Five. Peter Davison slips back into the part like a pair of comfy slippers, just like he'd never been away. Davison has said that he would have liked to have been a bit older when playing the Doctor, and he gets his wish here, even if it's only for five minutes. There's lots of fun references to old companions and foes. Overall, it's a fun little piece, only hampered by Moffat's tiresome Timey Wimey phrase. The “All my love to long ago” adieu is rather sweet.

Back to the main story as the current Doctor dons his James Bond suit again for Voyage Of The Damned. Interestingly, reactions seem to be decidedly mixed from the fans after the heady rush of The Christmas Invasion with regard to the specials. Take your pick from comments along the lines of “RTD is treading the same old ground again” or “Doctor Jesus rears his ugly head yet again” or “Doctor gets to snog the leading lady for about the millionth time”. Well, Voyage does have its faults, but at the same time, Rusty is gleefully dismantling all the time-old clichés of disaster movies, not to mention the central hero.

Now you'd think that given his track record, Doctor Ten will manage to save all his ragtag mob of followers from fiery oblivion. He's been giving his usual spiel about how he's going to get everyone to safety, even breaking into a lengthy diatribe about how he's the Doctor from the planet Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous.

But intriguingly, this time around, the Doctor proves that he can talk the talk but can't walk the walk. The Chief Steward, Morvin, Foon, Bannakaffalatta and even Astrid bite the bullet before the end credits roll, despite the Doctor's reassurances. This will become a bit of a running theme in the next season, especially in stories such as Midnight and The Stolen Earth/Journey's End, when the Doctor's bravado won't stand him in very good stead. The Doctor's often been portrayed as the fallible hero in the past (especially in his fifth incarnation), but for such an over-confident boaster like Number Ten, that's got to smart a bit. David Tennant carries on the good work from his last season, turning in a performance that again achieves the right balance of good cheer (his appropriately loopy confrontation with Max Capricorn) and serious contemplation (his reaction to Slade's money-grubbing begging at the end). Given his personal circumstances at the time of filming, it's all the more impressive that Tennant turns in such a strong performance.

The other cliché that RTD turns on its head is the survival of the guest characters. A lot of the time in these sorts of films, the bad guys get their comeuppance, while the good guys always live to see another day (although as in The Poseidon Adventure, this isn't always strictly the case). In the first few moments of the programme, you can picture Astrid, Morvin, Foon, Mr Copper, Midshipman Frame and Bannakaffalatta waving goodbye to a departing Doctor, as Slade burns in the fires of hell. All those expectations are turned on their head, as only Mr Copper and Frame survive by the bitter end, with Slade celebrating the fact that his shares have made him a very rich man. “Of all the people to survive, he's not the one you would have chosen, is he?” notes Copper. Clever stuff, and a shrewd move to kill off the likeable characters in such a brutal manner. Poor old Morvin's sudden fall into the pit of flame is harrowing in its almost casual fashion.

But maybe Slade's survival is a classic case of art imitating life. OK, drag out the sleeping bags and pillows everybody – It's John Bores With Politics Time.

Basically, at the time of transmission of Voyage Of The Damned, Britain was starting to feel the pinch. By the end of 2007, the dreaded phrase 'The Credit Crunch' had been used to death by melodramatic news hacks, which signalled a shocking change in the country's economy. Basically, due to over-spending, and a notable increase in the bonus culture, Britain had found that it had reached the end of the line financially. And just like greedy bankers, transport bosses and politicians, the rich prosper without punishment in Voyage Of The Damned, while those struggling to make ends meet end up paying the price.

Finance and materialism are everywhere you look in Voyage Of The Damned, from Rickston Slade's shares through to Morvin and Foon bankrupting themselves over a foolish competition. We also get mentions of credit cards, retirement plans and homelessness, not to mention hee-hawwing snobs, the sort of blinged up Royal Ascot types who think they're the bees knees just because they wear silly hats. There's that great scene in which the Doctor craftily sprays champagne over a braying mob of poshos who have been laughing at Foon and Morvin (“Can't have that, can we?”).

Everything that the Doctor prizes, such as learning and initiative seem to have gone the way of the Dodo Chaplet on board the spaceship Titanic. Mr Copper, for example, claims to have found his history from Mrs Golightly's Happy Travelling University And Dry Cleaners. The Titanic space cruiser is the perfect setting for a society that mirrors 21st century Britain: a locale that on the one hand is striving to maintain some sort of lavish, decadent lifestyle, but on the other is struggling desperately to make ends meet.

The main bad guy behind all the disaster is none other than the enigmatic Max Capricorn, who's somehow managed to keep himself alive in a malfunctioning futuristic mobility scooter. Max is reminiscent of three previous Doctor Who enemies – Davros, Arcturus, but the key inspiration is the Collector from 1977's Sun Makers. Like the Collector, Max is driven by greed and money. Basically, his business has gone belly up, thanks to a duplicitous board. But all Max has to do is to “scupper the ship” and set it on a collision course with the Earth, causing mass murder, and more to the point, scandal and outrage for the takeover boys. In the process, Max gets a nice little retirement package for the future, as six billion are consumed in a holocaust. A greedy old boss is prepared to let countless others suffer all for the sake of greed – now if that doesn't sound like a modern-day parable, then I'm Fred the Shred. Basically, as the Doctor says: “Max Capricorn is a loser”. I'd bet my life savings of 2p that Davies is summing up the whole unjust system of greedy bosses and bankers helping to throw the country into financial disarray.

OK kids, you can come out now. No more droning on about politics and the economy. How about instead I drone on about the guest actors? Typically, for a Christmas special, Doctor Who goes all Morecambe And Wise with a glittering guest cast. Generally, the quality of the cast is of the highest calibre with old veterans such as Geoffrey Palmer (Doctor Who And The Silurians /The Mutants) and Clive Swift (Revelation Of The Daleks) turning in typically strong performances. Swift's likeable old cove Mr Copper makes for a good sub-companion, although his odd rant in a closing section of Doctor Who Magazine suggests that maybe the experience was somewhat one-sided.

Elsewhere, there are equally impressive performances from the likes of George Costigan as Max, plus Debbie Chazen and Clive Rowe as the engaging Foon and Morvin: the sort of characters who will get the audience on side with their fun likeability. But at the same time, they've got “WE'RE DEAD” tattooed in invisible ink on their foreheads because of this. Other famous faces cropping up include Russell Tovey (George from Being Human) who still has a tendency to scream like a woman as Midshipman Frame and Gray O'Brien (Tony Gordon from Coronation Street) who is memorably slimy as the vile Rickston Slade (there has to be at least one Slade reference in a Christmas special).

Voyage Of The Damned also includes two more notable cast members. One of the big USPs of Voyage is the appearance of part singer, part actress, part celebrity, Kylie Minogue. Problem is, she looks slightly ill at ease in a waitress uniform and the haircut of a Women's Institute tea lady. Don't get me wrong, it's not a bad performance by any means – it's just not the show-stopping centrepiece that you might have expected, given the big hoo-haa made over her cameo appearance in the story. Not much to say about Astrid really. She doesn't turn out to be the TARDIS as was rumoured at the time. Instead she's a slightly down-on-her-luck waitress who wants to see the stars and who again, inevitably gets bumped off because of her likeability factor.

Talking of which, I remember stumbling across an article about the Greatest Death Scenes in Doctor Who. For some inexplicable reason, Astrid's death was at the top of the pile. Which beggars belief, because the whole death scene looks ridiculous. Two reasons – one: The ridiculous forklift battle with Max is filmed in laughable slow-mo. Personally, it cracks me up every time I see it, simply because they keep showing close-ups of Max gurning, and also because Astrid's slow-motion fall into the pit of fire is more campy than one of Kylie's stage shows.

The other point of ridicule is the fact that it goes on forever. Astrid somehow comes back as a teleport ghost, but even the Doctor can't save her this time. Cue ill-advised schmaltz and another opportunity for the frisky Time Lord to bag one last tongue sandwich with the fading waitress before her spirit goes all Tinkerbell into the night sky. Incidentally, given the Doctor's treatment of Martha, it's a surprise that he's so keen to snog Astrid with such persistence. I don't know – maybe he's got a thing for blondes. Discriminating, much?

Voyage offers up a living legend. Sir Bernard Of Cribbins makes what you think is just a one-off appearance as Wilf the likeable old scamp who's got a thing about those ruddy aliens invading our shores. It's a fantastic cameo, full of good-natured charm – but this is only the tip of the iceberg, given that Cribbins turns out to be a series semi-regular throughout the rest of Tennant's time as the Doctor. RTD must have sensed Cribbins' popularity and ability at the time of filming Voyage, so perhaps it was inevitable that he would look to Cribbins when replacing the sadly passed Howard Attfield. So much so, that Wilf's popularity would sky-rocket to the point where he would be one of the main focal points of the all-important Tenth Doctor swansong, The End Of Time.

Voyage Of The Damned looks just as lavish as the other Christmas specials, maybe even more so with the swanky sets of the Titanic and the convincing obstacle course wreckage. It feels like a blockbuster film, full of high-budget visual effects and set-pieces.

The monsters are rather good. The Hosts: a group of angel android drones, who have deadly weaponry at their disposal in the form of vicious halos that can cut through flesh and bone as easily as paper. It's a throwback to both the Axons and the Voc Robots, but they are a memorable monster of the month, especially with the eerily calm voices, which – like the Voc Robots – are totally at odds with their murderous intentions. The only minor issue with the story is the whole farcical Queen nonsense, especially with Mrs Maj waving goodbye to the Doctor as he pilots the Titanic into the sky and away from a national disaster. Odd, given that Queen Vic must have kept some sort of diary warning future generations of a skinny rogue with too much hair gel and a penchant for smug frivolity.

Another strong Christmas special. On the one hand, a simple tale of survival in the face of disaster. On the other, a wry nod to over-excess on wealth, material goods and the whole dreaded Credit Crunch culture that had permeated 2007 like a deadly disease. Mix the whole lot together and you've got a Christmas package that will suit all ages and tastes. The public certainly agreed with mightily impressive viewing figures of more than 13 million. That's one of the best NuWho ratings to date. A faithful salute to the traditional disaster movie, but done with good humour (loving the amusing nod to The Apprentice) and actually quite a lot of heart (Mr Copper's happy ending).

Damned good stuff.

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