Tuesday, December 25, 2007 by Jack Kibble-White
If ever an episode of Doctor Who was designed for a specific space and time, this was it.
The story began with a wonderfully muscular and adrenaline-fuelled new version of the theme tune, and concluded with end credits flying up the screen in double-quick time. This was 70 minutes of high octane stuff that managed to make you feel as if you’d failed to pick up on loads of subtext, while also leaving you with the contrary suspicion that perhaps there had been nothing more to this story than smoke and mirrors.
“Voyage of the Damned” probably shouldn’t be viewed again. Like an old Marx Brothers film, or a fondly remembered sitcom, it’s better to leave it in its Christmas Day-induced warm fuzziness than risk confirming it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Not that this was an entirely frivolous outing for the Doctor. In terms of effects, setting and – most importantly – spectacle, this was the most impressive Yuletide special yet. Doctor Who promises to tell big stories, but while episodes such as “Daleks in Manhattan” are undermined by limited sets and a lack of any real expansiveness, “Voyage of the Damned” was totally epic.
We knew the tale took The Poseidon Adventure as its inspiration, and this helped condition the viewer for what lay ahead. With the audience waiting for the impending disaster to occur, the decks were pretty much cleared for writer Russell T Davies, to use extreme shorthand to put in place the set of circumstances by which the Titanic would meet its doom. Sadly this meant Geoffrey Palmer was denied much opportunity to shine in his role as ship’s captain. It also meant we never really got much opportunity to get a sense of the type of society which had put together this intergalactic vessel.
Instead much of the pre-crash time was spent allowing David Tennant’s Doctor to go all doe-eyed at Kylie Minogue. Clearly Minogue is a hugely popular figure, who – like Ant and Dec and perhaps few others in this country – transcends the public cynicism usually directed towards celebrities. Securing her services for the Christmas special was a master stroke (and one that perhaps helped the episode secure best-ever Yuletide ratings), but having the Doctor so clearly in thrall of Astrid, slightly diminished him. In fact, the manner in which he mooched around, proffering his best combination of comedy and mystery to attract a girl he liked the look of is a little bit off-putting – not to mention contrary to his well-held belief it’s what’s inside that matters.
Still when Tennant wasn’t attempting to chat up the staff, he was able to craft a few brilliant moments of Doctor-ish behaviour. In particular the early scenes of him mixing with the passengers showed this incarnation at his most charming since “Smith and Jones” – but then of course he was trying to chat up Martha Jones. Sadly, Minogue wasn’t anything like as good a foil for Tennant as the just departed Freema Agyeman. Astrid lacked any sense of shape or solidity. Clearly part of the problem was we needed to care about her by the time she met her demise, and this meant everything she said or did had to contribute to the piquancy of her sacrifice. It didn’t help either that Kylie isn’t really that good an actress …
George Costigan’s problems had nothing to do with acting ability, rather his character seemed pulled straight out of the pages of 2000 AD – and not from a particularly good strip either. You have to wonder why Davies has so far resisted a returning enemy in any of the Christmas specials. Max Capricorn was the least memorable foe the Doctor has had to vanquish since Simon Pegg, and in a way the failed shipping magnate’s rather weak death-by-forklift-truck seemed quite appropriate.
Was Davies trying to recreate the trick he had used so effectively in “The Parting of the Ways”? In that episode the juxtaposition of a fleet of Daleks being brought down by a tow rope worked brilliantly, but that was because said rope was located on Earth. Here, the presence of something as mundane as a forklift truck on a futuristic space vessel was just too opportune and too silly even for Christmas Day. Astrid’s remarks about equality for cyborgs, the overcooked earthiness of the two competition winners, and even the Queen (voiced by 1980s ‘Who turn Jessica Martin) proffering the Doctor her thanks were all permissible by comparison.
But, even with all that, “Voyage of the Damned” was still great. Watched from within the cocoon of Christmas Day it outshone everything else in the schedules. It was big, exciting and exhilarating, and the notion of Londoners fleeing the capital city at Christmas a masterstroke. It’s just that under the merest scrutiny, this episode of Doctor Who, like the vessel featured therein, falls apart.