Remembering Voyage of the Damned
Tony Fyler makes it out alive.
The Doctor Who Christmas Special is always a bit tricky. It has to fundamentally tap in to something associated with Christmas, and make it threatening. Hence killer Christmas trees, a Narnia parallel, A Christmas Carol (with flying sharks, obviously), a Christmas star, The Snowmen and the like.
How far you can push this association into things that technically aren’t Christmas-related depends largely on how much chutzpah you have.
Russell T Davies does good chutzpah. Really good chutzpah.
One of the UK’s Christmas traditions, at least one from the 70s and 80s when Russell was growing up alongside a healthy percentage of ‘serious’ Who-fans, is that after the enormo-meal, and the present opening, and a good dose of family tension, with Granny mentioning things that everyone else was hoping had been finally forgotten, the family settles down either for the Queen’s Speech, or for the slice of grand cinematic tragedy habitually scheduled just after it – if Infernos aren’t Towering, or the good ship Poseidon’s not having a very bad day, or Bruce Willis isn’t yippee-kay-aying Alan Rickman to death, it doesn’t, somehow feel like a memorable Christmas.
That’s the principal spirit of the doom-titled Voyage of the Damned – that Christmas slice of death and disaster. But Voyage of the Damned is rich with so much else, it’s sometimes hard to work out why, as a Christmas Special, it doesn’t quite work. Ultimately, it’s probably because it would be a better Doctor Who episode if you lifted all the spiderweb-strands of Christmas-themery out of it, and just boiled it down for a half-hour more. Voyage of the Damned as just Doctor Who is excellent stuff – a parable of corporate greed, and a gold-plated head nod to one of the series’ own relatively flawless disaster movies, Robots of Death, with an ending that plays both tragedy and triumph out for all they’re worth. As a Christmas episode, the Christmas elements feel a little too heavy-handed and throwaway – the cruisers have come to see Earth at Christmas, despite having a lamentably bad idea of what that means, and accepting without a word Mr Copper’s ‘expert’ advice on the planet and its ceremonies. Yyyyyeah, OK, Russell.
That said, as pure Doctor Who, Voyage of the Damned is very rich. The core idea of the Titanic in space, and the Host – robots that are just aching to be reprogrammed and go on a killing spree - are classical elements, while the cynical corporate motivation is something you’d expect from Robert Holmes in Sun Makers or Androzani mode. Kylie Minogue – yes, really, Kylie freakin’ Minogue - breaks out her naturalistic acting face to give us Astrid Peth, a wannabe-star traveler who could have made an excellent companion. Certainly, she’s got the excitement the Tenth Doctor needs to bring him back up to full bounce after the Year of Hell with the Master and the complication of Martha, and she’s also got the instincts to realize that while the Doctor’s all about heroic self-sacrifice, occasionally, he needs someone to look after him and have his back. Plus – she drives forklifts. Who doesn’t want a companion who drives forklifts? Imagine Astrid Peth against the Daleks! ‘Oi! Conquerer of the universe? Alley-oop!’
But it doesn’t stop there – the guest cast of this Christmas Special is studded with impressive names, like plums in a pudding – there’s Bernard Cribbins as Wilfred Mott, before the Donna connection was even a glint in Russell T Davies’ eye. There’s Geoffrey Palmer, layering his Captain with that nuance of misery and self-sacrifice that make you remember how good an actor he actually is. There’s Clive Swift, giant of stage and sit-com, in his second Doctor Who role, perhaps slightly less well served as Mr Copper than he was as Jobel in Revelation of the Daleks. There’s apparent gay pin-up and solidly skilled actor Russell Tovey as the heroic Midshipman Alonso Frame (probably helps improve your chances of surviving till the end if Russell T Davies fancies you rotten – just saying). And there’s George Costigan, of 80s classic Rita, Sue and Bob too and…well, these days, practically everything, including Happy Valley. And there they all are, Poseidoning their socks off on the Starship Titanic, an idea, not for nothing, nicked entirely from probably still the most successful Doctor Who Script Editor of all time, Douglas Adams. Heady stuff indeed.
As soon as the Captain has ensured the ship will be hit by meteors and crippled, the Heavenly Host start doing their Voc Robot thing – ‘Information – you are all going to die’ - and the episode becomes The Poseidon Adventure In Space…but pursued by the Robots of Death. The weird thing about this is that it really rather works. It shouldn’t – it should be genre-slam overload, but Davies is careful to sacrifice enough people along the way to deliver the Robots scares as well as the Poseidon chills, with nods to the Towering Inferno along the way. One thing Voyage of the Damned is not is a story of plucky survivors winning through – Davies sacrifices his cast with a wantonness that looks casual, but mostly isn’t – Morvin Van Hoff admittedly steps on the wrong bit of metal and plunges to a fiery grave, but his death does pave the way for his wife Foon to sacrifice herself to save the others from the Host. Banakafalatta – one of Jimmy Vee’s rarer good guy appearances – is another purposeful death, and one that’s given additional poignancy by his connection to Astrid. And Astrid herself, plunged into the firepit of the starship’s engines by her determination to save the Doctor, is an example of Who as modern Shakespeare: it’s often been said that what determines which of Shakespeare’s plays are comedies and which are tragedies is one moment – if the villain, or the poison, is discovered in time, it’s a comedy; if not, it’s a tragedy. In Astrid’s case, any time when the Doctor was looking for a companion not played by a massive international pop megastar, he would have fixed the teleport in time, and reconstituted her from its buffers. But this is Christmas, and Astrid’s played by Kylie Minogue. We all know she has to die, and so his usual techno-wizzery fails, leaving Astrid to roam the universe as stardust.
Voyage of the Damned has been accused of occasionally veering into ‘style over substance’ or ‘needlessly messianic’ territory – the Doctor giving his credentials straight to camera, the slo-mo shot of David Tennant looking ridiculously good after Astrid’s death, and being picked up and flown into the sky by angels to – ahem – conquer death and become the savior of the world. There’s valid criticism there, but on the one hand, it’s a Christmas Special, and if you can’t equate the Doctor to Jesus and grin on Christmas Day, when can you? And on the other, it’s not that there’s not substance in Voyage of the Damned – there’s absolutely bucketloads of substance in the corporate satire, the social bullying of Rickston Slade and his mob of the chavtastic but rather delightful Van Hoffs, in Astrid’s companion potential and in the realism of the Captain and Midshipman Frame. There just…happens to be a lot of relatively unconnected style too, in the Host, the Titanic almost crashing onto Buckingham Palace, the not-queen cameo and yes, that angel-flight of the Doctor’s.
In essence, Voyage of the Damned is cracking Doctor Who. Is it up there with classic Christmas Specials? No, there’s not enough air-punching for that – the kind of redemptive power we get from the end of A Christmas Carol, or from the Doctor defeating the Sycorax with a satsuma. To make it a properly cracking Christmas Special, you’d have needed Astrid to be saved at the last minute by the teleport buffer trick. The survival of Mr Copper, and his post-spirit Scrooge impression as he dances off, clicking his heels in the air at the thought of a house with a garden, isn’t quite enough to compensate us for Astrid’s death. So the trick to loving Voyage of the Damned is to not watch it as a Christmas Special. Watch it in January, or March, or mid-July. Then you’ll have a fantastic time, and a really rewarding Who experience with the Tenth Doctor.