Voyage of the Damned

Story No. 202 The Doctor and Kylie... er, Astrid
Production Code Christmas 2007 special
Dates Dec 25 2007

With David Tennant,
Written by Russell T Davies Directed by James Strong
Executive Producers: Russell T Davies, Julie Gardner.

Synopsis: The starship Titanic is doomed from the start. And this time, the Doctor won't be able to save everyone.


Voyage of a Lifetime by Stuart Cottrell 17/1/08

Unofficial figures say that over 12 million people sat down on Christmas Day to watch the Doctor's latest adventure aboard the Titanic. It's not hard to see why.

Russell T Davies had surpassed himself this time, with a much darker, more mature storyline, brought beautifully to life by a stunning cast. I myself was extremely grateful for this. I am fourteen years old, and I know that a lot of writers, when writing for children, tone their work down in the most horrible patronising way because they think children can't understand things. Russell T Davies has shown great respect for the younger audience, by putting forward some very challenging issues, and the response I have seen and heard from children has been one of great excitement and deep thought.

The story begins where we left off, with the Titanic wedged in the TARDIS, and the Doctor yelling 'what' a few times. (Isn't it nice when he doesn't know something for a change?) A slight anti-climax as he sorts that out very quickly, but then, within 30 seconds, we are on the phenomenon that is the Titanic. A beautiful set, with amazing costumes on every extra. And then we look out the window, and see the Titanic sailing through space. Words cannot describe the brilliance of the art department. It looks stunning. And then everyones jigging up and down to the newly arranged theme tune, much funkier, but does lose a bit of the TARDIS sound to it. And then, there she is. A quick flick, and it's Kylie. Double take, yes, it is her. The Doctor meets her very soon as well, and soon the two of them are helping each other in and out of scrapes already. (How does he click so easily).

Geoffrey Palmer plays an amazingly real charcter, who you can really understand. Everything that follows does so for a reason, and you can almost sympathise with him. (It's so hard to write this without spoilers). Because before long, the Titanic is sinking, having been hit by meteors. The Doctor, Astrid and their little survivor group are amazing. You have Bannakaffalatta, the little red alien (don't you just love alien good guys?), Morvin and Foon van Hoff, the most adorable couple who won their tickets, Mr Copper (Clive Swift), the slightly eccentric tour guide and the loathsome Rickston Slade. Just like traditional disaster movies, you can see charcters from different social backgrounds having to integrate, and respond to each other. In true Doctor Who style, not everyone survives, and just like life, it is usually the nicest people who die. There are moments when you really just want to cry, especially at the climax, where you can really feel the Doctor's hearts break again.

Having slightly sidetracked, the effects are amazing, definitely the biggest budget yet. The Heavenly Hosts are amazingly creepy, yet do not distract from the bigger picture, and Murray Gold's score is divine. The solution is so ridiculously funny, and you come away from it feeling thoroughly entertained. There will be a moment's pause from everyone as they finish watching it, as everyone sits back and takes it all in. Sadness, laughter, darkness, joyfulness... they all create a perfect Doctor Who.

And of course, the amazing Coming Soon trailer...

Your 903 year-old SUPERHERO, Good for Something on Christmas by Graham Pilato 24/3/08

It's a little tired and very depressingly familiar for it. More subtle continuity-bursting goes on. It's very, very, very pretty. And it's Shame about the lost opportunities.

When the Christmas Special is all there is of new Doctor Who in the many months between new seasons, it's easy to be both very forgiving and very frustrated about anything that bothers one due to the special nature of the Special.

And, dammit, this Special was pretty fucking special. It really irks one that it does irk so. So many little things bother me (and I'm sure they bother many other Doctor Who enthusiasts) about Voyage of the Damned that I think I may have to resort to some pretty rant-shaped comments. I hope this doesn't just become a long list of gripes with an eventual inevitable guarded recommendation at the end and the kind of apologist remarks I've already written for a rather embarrassingly kind-despite-the-faults Time and the Rani review. Hope not, but it's going to be very tough to stop exactly that from happening.

You know, the greatness of being a fan is that you don't have to apologize for hating things you love and making more contradictory statements than a socially conservative Republican running for president in the 21st Century. It's a relief. But I'm going to show a lot of my true colors here, 'kay? Not at all like a Titanic going down, it's not too pretty.

Now, getting into it: One line that's dead wrong... unless it's fixed eventually retroactively due to some sense actually being made from this... "903 years old"?!

Back to Time and the Rani for a second. Totally fannishly, sorry, as this is perhaps the little niggle that gets me most annoyed the at the second: The last time on the TV series that the Doctor actually revealed his age was right there, back in 1987, with cartoony Mel at his side and in the clutches of the cartoony Rani. He says that 9-5-3, the combination for a doorlock, is the same as his age, and the Rani's. Fans took permanent note twenty years ago. We thought. But RTD was a Pertwee/Tom Baker fan, and David Tennant is an out-of-the-closet Davison fan. Guess they didn't notice. And the Tenth is undoubtedly a good deal older than the Seventh. Say that it's so.

I don't know who was going to point out to RTD that the Doctor turned 1,000 in the novel Set Piece -- brilliant as that NA was, and surely during the period of Russell's awareness of the novels, seeing as he wrote one around that time -- or that the Eighth Doctor lived for at least a century and a half or so more in the later novels. I don't even care that much if he's ignoring all the novels' continuity, he's certainly not ignoring the existence of the established Seventh and Eighth Doctors thus far, as they did turn up in the Human Nature journal in drawings and the Tenth is admitting himself that he is the "Tenth". The 900 year-old Time Lord bit was something that could easily be glossed over previously because it was strictly a case of pointing out the alien, but this time it's not simply an unspecified 900-something years-old bit of alienness. It's a rather striking moment of "I'm your superhero" that just barely works if one is able to keep from thinking about "903 years old."

This is a case in point of a detail that has not been thought through at all well yet by a busy team of producers and writers trying to make magic all the time. And the most frustrating and forgivable thing about it, the "bitch of it" as they who do say do say, is that this is a detail that can easily be overlooked as long as it's not a part of a greater problem, which, on the face of it, it's not. But, in the guts of it, it is. Dammit. This is a key to a show that is being lovingly recreated and exalted on British television without the kind of intelligent detail that really matters when it comes to filling up the imagination and the continuity. And let's face it, you can't ignore all of the massively long series continuity. Who would want to, anyway? Certainly, it need not be paid worship every moment, but I'd hope that someone could at least have mentioned to Russell that his proper Doctor Who fandom might need a backup of sorts; some experts in the necessary details could be employed without pay, surely?

It's the creeping sense that this is a really strangely warped ordinary superhero we're looking at now, who wants to be that and do that, a Spiderman with no secret identity left, getting called in to save the day. It's the moldering of a hero that never would have had this presence in the past. It's a kind of betrayal that this is a guy with exactly three years of experience since he was last announced to be 900, not something like it, but it. A kind of shrugging admittance that what you see is exactly what you get, now that we can show you anything we want with our big new shiny hit show with the money.

Did that make any sense? I'm saying that I think forgetting about the age of the Doctor is about as small and glaring an error as misspelling your own middle name on an exam. You didn't have to put the middle name there, but you did, and you got it wrong. You really suck.

Regarding expectations not lived up to, though: nice they aren't Axons. I'm talking about the robotic hosts. And it's clear from the previews what the fans are being expected to think these guys are. Just like the Titanic misdirection from the end of the third season, these guys are so obviously not what we were thinking. Everything in the first three minutes of Voyage of the Damned is utterly divine in that respect. It's as beautiful as the ads made it look and here were all of the shiny weird dramatis personae on display. It started so well.

Too bad they're inferior to the Voc robots, or the "Robots of Death" -- well, inferior because they're less creepy by far than what was created in one of the truly classic Doctor Who stories of the mid-seventies. And this means that we get another opportunity to look at the new series as inferior when it's riffing on some earlier greater things, eating its own tail, chomping at the business of making a good story for the sake making a familiar one. The moment-for-moment recreation of a couple of scenes from the 1976 original comes off not a little awkwardly, though, as the disembodied hand just doesn't seem to be half the horror here, nor does the "kill the humans" bit. We're looking at certain doom for most of the ship, for certain, and it's all in the title that we've known about for months.

These folks are eponymously "damned" and the robots and their cyborg counterparts are surely into creating disasters, but what exactly is going to happen when the golden discus comes? Plot. These robots do whatever weird stuff they need to be able to do, and it doesn't half destroy their mystique. Of course they can fly. Yet again, Russell T. Davies pushes his limited ingredients to the impossibility point for the sake of making wacky Doctor Who. It's never 50,000 when it can be 5,000,000,000 with him. And we love him and hate him for it.

Let's call for a moratorium on all characters ever again who are cute and say things without verbs, like "me Tarzan", "you cute", or "Bannakaffalatta proud!". It's not cute if you keep thinking that the character should be able to say a verb and is just choosing not to because it looks cute. It's frightfully annoying.

How about that midshipman healing from that bullet? Maybe a little line of dialogue -- already asked for at this point, surely -- describing the alienness of these so very human looking aliens could have justified this miraculous oddity of survival of the most-needed characters for Plot. But no, I don't think there was even one. Despite so much damned groaning on the part of our little good guy young middy.

So, do these aliens actually look like humans? Is this the first time the new series has done that particularly embarrassing cheat? I think it is. Did I miss some line of exposition about how this is how they look just when they're visiting Christmas? Wouldn't it be nice if RTD made these guys just a little bit like the Navarinos in Delta and the Bannermen, who simply turned into human-looking people for the fun of the trip, looking a lot more like giant purple blobs with pseudopods and eyes most of the time?

A beautiful opening and a wonderful first half, quick though it is to get to the predictable inevitable "iceberg", must not be forgotten. What a ride, in the end, like the last two slaphappy Christmas Who specials, this is. For the most part, let it be remembered, this is still such a pretty 70-something minutes of fun TV. It's just that it's so incredibly familiar a thing, this ride, that I think I may be missing something new that I thought might have been coming... but is just not here yet, not until this dashing Tenth is actually given a reason for being so damn enamored with fake snow and maybe it's coming. The acting on the part of the popular lead is still as good as it was last year.

The best bits are certainly all in the first half. Although, the bit when the Doctor gets flown up to the bridge via a pair of golden hosts was just mighty heavenly. Though, that awe didn't last as long as it was supposed to, as the whole will-they-collide-or-won't-they bit just comes off terribly cheesy, especially once the queen gets her remarks in. From the departure of most of the extras upon the big slaughterhouse section of the middle act of the story to the end, with the bizarre celebration of falling particles, and the chance to have a kitchen and chairs for an old alien fraud with quite the credit card, we get some truly weird and inexplicable themes. Well, the one theme being: you can't always save the ones you'd prefer. And that's solid, but so meaningless to a Time Lord who knows better. And it really makes one wonder what was the point of getting so inexplicably fixated on Rose in the second season... especially as that came off so poorly.

Prettier and far more cinematic than The Runaway Bride, this is, but a lot less fun to think about, actually; a bitter aftertaste sets in just moments after you begin to think about what in the world that was all about. Here's hoping the madness means something later, because I believe we have a great example here of a story pulled in many directions in theme, none too clear but one and that one is a retread. The pictures were so pretty and Christmas got its due adventurous representation here, just what does it mean?

Christmas itself is perhaps best not returned to by Doctor Who after this, at least not so literally. This story was all corn. The fantasy world of present-day RTD-era Who has finally turned the Doctor into the kind of superhero of comic book lore that I never associated with Doctor Who. He's getting to be well known and loved or hated by society just for the sake of humor and fitting a sort of traditional heroic mould. People on Earth do know him well, and his adventures. That Elizabeth I wants him dead, Victoria wants him exiled, and now Elizabeth II wants him to go on saving the world just makes me feel a little bit sick, actually. I don't want my Doctor to be famous, at least not in the present day.

I was still reeling from the weirdness of a present day that seems to keep getting hit by impossible-to-deny alien attacks that doesn't seem to change much at all when the maybe-silliness of this new "London Deserted" premise fell upon me. What do we do with that? Would we run? Who are these people in this London who hide from nothing?

Part of the problem of making huge changes to the "real world" of a story in sci-fi is that it automatically makes everything about the change from the norm that much more compelling to an audience, dwarfing whatever other pretty spaceships may be orbiting in the story for consequence. Once the Titanic doesn't kill everyone on Earth, I think we're looking at a huge potential unrealized and the more frustrating for it. We need to know what's going on here. Maybe it's more Torchwood's purview, but I don't expect them to get their heads out of their own scandalous asses for very long over there. Plus, they're in Cardiff.

God, I hope the fourth season of new Doctor Who can finally deal with the new world that it has made out of the present day. We've seen the profound impact of the Doctor on individuals in this new series -- with the likes of Rose, Mickey, Elton, Jackie, LInDA and Martha -- but we do need to know about the new world as a whole, I think. So far, the 21st Century -- the time when everything changes, according to Captain Jack on Torchwood -- is. Let's see what that means please. Change us.

We did have Rob Shearman's Dalek, where we learned that, like it was often suggested by Who in the past, e.g. John Peel's novelization of The Power of the Daleks, the alien technology being discovered and harnessed gradually by today's humans is having an impact on progress and responsible for so much advancement. That's happening already, and that's good, but what about all the wonder and the religious significance? Where is our Childhood's End moment? Will we have Sontarans teach us a lesson this coming year? Something worthy of the build up from so many disastrous Christmases?

And, finally, will Kylie Minogue, so very much another Rose stand-in, ever live up to the fact that we're all going to think of her as Billie Piper's inferior from now on? The less we get manipulated to cry about that best-forgotten Rose, I say, the better.


A Ship That Sank by Greg Long 9/6/08

The episode takes place on a spaceship. Only it doesn't really. Davies doesn't like spaceships and such science-fiction nonsense. So, while the episode is ostensibly set on a spaceship, it really, and unimaginatively, takes place at a 1930s English Christmas party on a steamship floating in space. That way, they can easily evoke movies like Titanic and The Poseidon Adventure, without actually having to put in the thought required to make sense.

There is nothing innately clever about referencing other material, despite what Davies seems to think, though there is something very lazy about lifting symbolism without putting it into some sensible context. Doctor Who at its best is groundbreaking, but in Davies' hands, it all too often follows where it should lead, content to copy rather than be inventive. Never is this clearer than when the program is cannibalizing its own history, such as when it deliberately copies the magnificent Robots of Death.

Such arbitrary "homage" isn't myth building as logical continuity would be; it is illusion-destroying, reminding us, yet again, that it is just a television program. It goes without saying that, since we are constantly reminded that this is TV, there is no tension in the episode and nothing feels like it is at stake. It also goes without saying that the plot is resolved by a dues ex machina, as always in Davies' scripts. Out of nowhere, for the first and last time, it is decided that cyborgs have the power to destroy robots. Oh, and the Doctor guesses what you have to say to the robots to stop them from attacking, a weakness that their programmers have inexplicably built into them. Oh, and there just happens to be a forklift at just the right place and time to shove the villain into a pit.

I am not surprised that a lot of people watched this episode at Christmas. After all, not only is it Christmas themed, it is also empty, mindless fluff, full of motion and packed with sumptuous eye-candy, like a hit, bubblegum pop video. However, like hit, bubblegum pop, there is nothing here to provide longevity. This is disposable, throw-away television not worth revisiting, and Doctor Who is capable of being so much more than that.

It is ironic that the episode is dedicated to Verity Lambert. What she gave us was simple but startlingly original, a vision of something new. Voyage of the Damned is flashy but derivative, an unimaginative rehashing of old movies.

A Review by Finn Clark 2/9/10

I didn't particularly like Voyage of the Damned back in 2007, but rewatching it was a revelation. I was expecting a shallow action movie, but what I got was whole orders of magnitude beyond that. It's ironic. It's gleefully sadistic in its subversion of the disaster movie formula and that's what let me enjoy the kitsch. By the time the Doctor's ascending to heaven in the arms of golden angels, I was on board with every second and relishing all the scenes in which the story would top its own macho silliness.

I should emphasise that I could hardly have been more surprised by this. I think it's great now yet, on first viewing, I only saw what was on the surface and dismissed it as an action movie. What's more, I think this reaction is fairly predictable. Exactly how much irony do you expect from a Christmas audience, bloated with turkey and in large part tuning in for Kylie Minogue? 13.3 million people watched, you know. Unbelievable. Put in that context, Voyage of the Damned is doing something appallingly dangeous. It's sticking a knife in disaster movies, but doing so by deliberately being glossy, overblown kitsch. That's why I love it, but it's also exactly why I didn't in 2007.

Of course it's obviously deliberate. Even haters surely couldn't deny that the episode's setting out to subvert the genre. Rusty marks all out his victims as "nice" and "nasty", then goes out of his way to kill the wrong ones in the wrong order. He spare the obvious "marked for death" characters and kills the people the Doctor promises to save. The slimeball survives and learns nothing from his experiences. Mr Redemptive Death gets a beautiful, heartbreaking scene in which he... um, lives. Meanwhile the Doctor is going around doing that action hero thing of making big dramatic vows, only for reality to bite him in the arse. "We'll get you out of here, I promise." "I am coming back for you." "I promise." "No more."

All this I adore. It's sadism as an art form, deliberately setting up cliches in order to blow their brains out with a shotgun. How often does the hero of a Hollywood movie make this kind of impossible promise to the girl, but then get called on it by the script? Not nearly enough, that's how often. As for the deaths... ooooh, I love those deaths. The first to happen to one of our heroes is basically the equivalent of tripping on a paving stone. It's the kind of thing Jim Mortimore would like, that's how evil it is.

Then there's the kitsch. Of course, this is tempered by the knowledge that New Who is perfectly capable of drowning in schmaltz with no irony at all, but even so I was astonished to find myself loving the "heavenly ascension" scene. No, not just tolerating. I actually loved it. The sequence that starts with Astrid's "I resign" is overpitched just right, if that makes sense. In particular, what leads up to the death is perfect, with the overblown music and the slow-motion somehow managing to work both ironically and sincerely. This episode is taking the biggest movie cliches in the book and making this a worthwhile experiment by turning them up until the knobs fall off. See what I mean about all this probably being a bit much for a Christmas audience?

I wasn't so sure about the Doctor's "I am the Doctor" speech, mind you.

Nevertheless, despite all that, a story that's deliberately aping one of Hollywood's stupidest genres somehow manages to include some of the most touching scenes to date in New Who. Both the deaths and the later goodbyes can be lovely. The first farewell is yet more gratuitous authorial sadism. Hey, I can be the hero and save the... um, actually I can't. Er, sorry. Nevertheless it's still "tear in the eye" time, as is the last scene on Earth. Who'd have thought that old idiot could be so touching? This is a story full of tragedy and sadness, yet it manages to end on a note of hope. Of all the scripts Russell T. Davies has written for Doctor Who, this is probably the one that posed the greatest challenge in terms of tone and was the most likely to crash and burn. I'm in awe that it didn't.

The cast is noteworthy. Kylie Minogue is the big guest star and does everything asked of her, i.e. she's beautiful, sweet and wears a maid's outfit that in the eyes of, er, someone, makes her look like a prostitute. I thought she was fine. Geoffrey Palmer is magnificent, managing to be at once both sad and sinister. Clive Swift astonished me, David Tennant is great as always and there's even Bernard Cribbins.

The story deviates from the disaster movie formula. Doctor Who tends to require a villain, so here we have... um, some guy. It feels like a surprise that he's not the Daleks or the Cybermen. He's fine as well, though. If nothing else, his presence gives Tennant one of my favourite lines: "You can't even sink the Titanic!" Oh, and while I'm discussing the characters, what was the deal with Red Spiny Midget Alien? The steward keeps making him sound like a hermaphrodite or something. "Ladies, gentlemen and Bannakaffalatta." Admittedly he has a secret, but I'm not convinced that the steward would have gone referring to that in public even if he'd known about it in the first place. Maybe he really was a spiny red hermaphrodite after all?

The production is of course spectacular, even for New Who. It had to be. It's a blockbuster. It helps a lot that they have a clear design hook on which to hang the production, i.e. the real Titanic. My favourite bit of design was the angelic Host, who reminded me of The Robots of Death and had one of the nastier murder methods I can imagine being allowed on BBC1 at teatime on Christmas day. Admittedly it's not exactly Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but it's a million miles from the usual CGI light ray. Those metal discs might cut through bone if you threw them hard enough. Get one in the face and you'll lose half your skull. Ewww. We don't see any blood, but we don't have to.

Random observations:

  1. I liked Rusty making a gag out of Christmas having become a time of terror in the Whoniverse, even if it seems a bit much for London to evacuate on the basis of only two incidents. Nevertheless, if the story hadn't said it, we would have.
  2. I liked Kylie's excitement about the ordinary street. The story doesn't need that entire sequence at all, but it's still charming.
  3. It's Tennant's non-reaction that makes Clive Swift's first educational speech so funny.
  4. "Information: you are all going to die." Hehehehe.
  5. "You should see me in the mornings." "Okay." Whoah, girlie!
  6. I was sad that they didn't flatten Buckingham Palace, of course.
  7. "You're coming with me" was a good moment, but shouldn't she have held on to the rope? Those things can fly! How stupid would she have looked had it just floated back up while she kept on plummetting?

Overall, a triumph. What's particularly stunned me is that I'd never expected to be having this reaction. Until today, I'd have written this off as overblown tosh. Of course, it still is, but in a way that means that's only half the story. This story isn't just "less painful than I thought", but genuinely interesting. It has the disaster movie stuff, but also some of the best character moments in New Who. One goodbye in particular is strange and a little magical. She could yet come back, you know. Right now I'd half agree that she was a companion.

Hugely underrated. If you think I'm off my head after reading this review, I'd seriously recommend a rewatch.