BBC1 - Christmas Day - 6.50pm
There's a big present under the tree. You're very hyped up about it and as soon as Christmas Day arrives it's the first one you go for. However, after unwrapping it you find that it isn't all that it's cracked up to be even though you sort of like it. 'Voyage Of The Damned' was a gleaming toy where the batteries seemed to run out about half way through.
Its obvious inspiration was 'The Poseidon Adventure' and the story acts as a series of character sketches of the survivors making their way through the wrecked Titanic. Despite all being interesting characters you suspected the Van Hoffs and Bannakaffalatta were marked souls and would die horribly as most are expected to in disaster films. Despite the very broad strokes utilised by this script there was a much darker tone to the fates of these characters with many of them losing their lives either through sacrifice, blackmail or murder. Even the companion by proxy, Astrid, whose expectations for survival were high, was ultimately revived as a ghost and then reduced to star dust.
I liked the Van Hoffs and to me the writer Russell T. Davies was having a wry poke at television phone in competitions by making them winners from an under class but only because Mrs Van Hoff had spent a fortune calling in. Their class status, in opposition to some of the hee-hawing business types on the ship, was also a quick reference to the film 'Titanic' and its treatment of class structures and 'steerage'. Their best moment, provided by Davies, was when Mrs. Van Hoff confessed her phone bingeing and her husband touchingly professed his love for her anyway. The 'who ate all the pies' personal attacks from Rickston Slade didn't really strike me as funny. I know he's supposed to be a horrid, sneering businessman and the nature of the game is the survival of the characters you're not supposed to like but kids already labelled as obese who were watching may not have found any of it funny at all. The jokes overall just seemed a touch crueler this time around.
And Bannakaffalatta the brave little cyborg with the whole cyborg sub-plot was perhaps an opportunity where Davies could trot out his appreciation of 'otherness' and make certain social comments, including the one about 'cyborgs now being allowed to marry on planet Sto'.
Mr. Copper, as played by Clive Swift and who incidentally stole the show completely from both Tennant and Minogue in the acting stakes, was by far the most interesting character. A former travelling salesman pretending to be an authority on Earth history, Copper became the audience identification figure for me. He was just a man who wanted a house and a garden but had nothing to retire with. His main role was to contain the Doctor's messianic tendencies and the scene where he discussed the Doctor's potential to bestow life or death and offered the suggestion that such power would make him a 'monster' was a very welcome shift in tone after we had just seen the Doctor literally rise up to the heavens on the arms of two angels. Davies is still peddling a quasi religious notion of the Doctor that's now becoming rather predictable. Copper also appropriately formed the opposite side of the coin to Max Capricorn, the cyborg corporate, akin to something out of 2000AD or Hitch-Hikers, who simply wanted to burn the Earth for tax reasons and fund his own retirement. Capricorn was surely just another Cassandra and the villain's motive did seem rather a re-hash from 'The End Of The World' in Series One. Nicely played though by George Costigan.
Kylie Minogue aquitted herself well as Astrid and it was a genuine shock to see her perish. I would have laid off the heavy handed 'Alien' and 'Alien 3' visual references for her battle with Capricorn and her demise but her revival as 'atoms' was sad and quite a bleak ending for a Christmas episode. However, Davies was perhaps trying to say, at last, that the Doctor cannot fix everything and there is a limit to his abilities which is something that the series really needs to reinstate after the cosmic-godhead ending to Series 3. Minogue's performance was subtle and understated but as an actress I'm afraid she is no Billie Piper and I often found her underwhelming in some scenes. I would have liked just a bit more chemistry with Tennant.
David Tennant is now so confident in the role he could probably do it in his sleep and he was absolutely fine in this. The story didn't give him very much to work with emotionally - let's face it he's done the companion departure stuff an awful lot now - but I liked his scenes with Clive Swift and Bernard Cribbins. His scenes with Russell Tovey as Alonzo Frame were particularly good and Tovey was quietly impressive in handling all the solo scenes on the bridge. And it would have been great if Geoffrey Palmer had managed to get some more scenes as he turned in a very satisfying cameo as Captain Hardaker.
There is some very interesting material in the midst of this rather rich pudding. Certainly the trajectory of the Astrid character is akin to what the Sufi mystics referred to as the development step of the soul. The Doctor allowed her to broaden her horizons, to see creation as it were, and her willing sacrifice and her transformation into star dust is perhaps trying to say that there is an existence outside of the human body, with the death of self, the dissolving of ego into something more angelic. Swedenbourg wrote of the united souls of men and women entering heaven as angels after they had undergone an 'earthly death' and Astrid's relationship with the Doctor seems to follow this route. Max Capricorn also described the crash of the Titanic as a 'Christmas Inferno' and this reference to Dante's poetic vision of the afterlife fits with the story's concerns with how all of the characters have differently developed souls dependent on their closeness to God or, in this case, the Doctor. The title of the story, 'Voyage Of The Damned' is the biggest clue to a narrative that is about the complexity of earthly vices and sin and your class position in the afterlife.
There were a few odd plot points...an obsession with royalty where the Wilf Mott character remains behind in a deserted London just out of loyalty to his monarch. The bizarre thing was...who is he selling newspapers to in a deserted city? I felt the deserted London scenario was slightly unrealistic. Yes, some people would leave after such disasters but are you telling me that New York was deserted after the 9/11 attack? The whole scene with the Titanic almost crashing into Buckingham Palace and the Doctor being thanked by Her Majesty in her rollers and dressing gown was for me a ridiculous step too far. It's an in-joke about the Queen's apparent love of the series that's a tad over-indulgent. And if Rickston Slade had a working phone, as we clearly saw, then why didn't he phone for help and why exactly did Max Capricorn need to be on the ship to carry out his dastardly plan?
Visually, it looked splendid with the production design, visual effects and costume departments excelling. The ballroom of the Titanic looked magnificent and the CGI from The Mill was motion-picture quality and often breathtaking. The Host robots, reminiscent of the robots featured in 'Robots Of Death' were also lovely designs and the period costumes were stunning. The team should be applauded for creating such scale on a television budget.
However, at 70 minutes this did struggle to maintain its pace. The first two thirds were, on the whole, well constructed and exciting but there seemed to be a few longeurs beyond the Titanic's plunge into the atmosphere. The padding wasn't particularly badly written but it was padding nonetheless and I reckon they could have comfortably edited this into 60 minutes. James Strong's direction was visually pleasing, with a penchant for good close ups and breaking the fourth wall by looking through the scene behind windows or scanner screens. He did get over-indulgent in the use of slow motion, particularly in the sequence of the Doctor striding in slow motion through the explosions and wreckage on the ship which quite frankly was the kind of nonsense you'd see in a Michael Bay film. It was surplus to requirement and looked rather pompous. I can see the use of the cinema blockbuster as a template for the scale of the episode but touches like this are not necessary.
Overall, an entertaining episode, with some typical Davies metaphysical underpinnings and a brave decision to be a little bleaker in tone, but some badly handled and misjudged humour, pacing and directorial flourishes, a villain with little screen time and a poor motive do handicap it.
- Freelance writer and film and television researcher (for hire).
He has contributed to a number of books and websites about British archive television and cinema as well as recent television series including work for Moviemail, Frame Rated and Arrow Video. Publications include I.B Tauris's 'Doctor Who: The Eleventh Hour - A Critical
Celebration of the Matt Smith and Steven Moffat Era' (2013) and 'Doctor
Who - The Pandorica Opens' (2010).
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