We all saw the tease at the end of Last of the Time Lords: the Doctor’s TARDIS busted in, debris everywhere, a ship bellowing its horn. The Doctor finds a life preserver at his feet and picks it up. It reads: TITANIC.
And, as he did a year before, he says: “What?!”
And, of course, he does what any self-respecting lone Time Lord would do: he fixes the breach, then goes out to explore.
The picture above (courtesy the BBC) is a spoiler, but a mild one. The ‘surprise’, such as it is, is revealed quickly and without fanfare, although the presence of all the aliens running around the lounge is a bit of an early giveaway. The Doctor has landed in a space-faring recreation of the Titanic, orbiting Earth on Christmas Day 2007, an expensive cruise ride for very-human-looking humanophile aliens eager to sample old Earth culture. “We picked the name because it’s the Earth’s most famous cruise ship,” says one of the tour guides. “Ah,” says the Doctor. “Did anybody tell you why it was famous?”
And, of course, karma being what it is on this program, it’s not long before people start screaming, and the unsinkable ship runs the risk of colliding with the planet down below.
The Voyage of the Damned is remarkably free of baggage. For two years in a row, Doctor Who’s Christmas specials have had to do double duty in augmenting the Tennant Doctor’s character. The Christmas Invasion became the tenth Doctor’s introduction story, while The Runaway Bride showed us how much deeper, lonelier and more alien the tenth Doctor was without Rose. But with all that now set aside, The Voyage of the Damned becomes surprisingly pedestrian. Thanks to Martha (and Donna), he knows now how to function without Rose, and whatever issues he still has after watching the Master (his mortal enemy and only other Time Lord in existence) die has been kept below the surface.
The result is a little unsatisfying. Which is ironic, because after two years of excusing homicidal robot Santas and TARDIS-car chases on a London motorway as “its Christmas”, we now have a confection whose sole purpose is to entertain us at Christmas. Indeed, one that does so without being very seasonally silly at all. There is no sense of wonder about a new Doctor launching his journey to the stars, no “Mr. Saxon” comment to get us wondering about season three. We’re a little adrift, here.
But that said, Russell T. Davies has written a tight thriller, borrowing elements from several sources, from Titanic to The Poseidon Adventure, to Murder on the Orient Express and even Doctor Who’s own Robots of Death. We are introduced to a motley cast of characters, from the young midshipman who becomes the highest ranking officer of the ship when disaster strikes, to various passengers rich and poor. There’s an “Earthologist” tourguide (played by Clive Swift, who makes a welcome return to the series, and who many may recognize as the henpecked husband on Keeping Up Apperances) whose misconceptions about humanity make for good comic relief, and there’s the nominal companion character Astrid (played by Kylie Minogue), a poor young woman who took a job as a serving girl to see the stars and got more than she bargained for. Set a bunch of meteorites to crash into the ship and send it on a collision-course for the planet below (set for an explosion that will destroy humanity), leave the Doctor to try and marshall the survivors to safety in time to prevent disaster, and hamper everyone with rampaging angelic-looking servant robots, and you’ve got yourself a story.
Indeed, you almost got too much of a story. Russell struggles in order to give each character a proper introduction to the audience, and the result is that the first half of the episode is laden with characters explaining who they are and why we should care about their existence. There isn’t enough time for these aspects to come out naturally, or for us to soak in the atmosphere of it all, but Russell’s choice here to give us these introductions is a good one. When the first extras died, I hardly batted an eye. Then when more of the characters went, I winced. When we moved into the characters that Russel had taken some time to develop, we sat up in shock.
The second half of Voyage of the Damned is surprisingly dark for a Christmas special, but I don’t begrudge Russell for this. By the end of the story we are caring for a lot of these characters, and the sacrifice they make as they help others and the Doctor escape are heartwrenching to watch — and they should be. I have to give Russell every credit for not coping out here. The ending is surprisingly joyful, but its the surviving joy of having survived all the terrible mayhem.
And of course all of this is a testament not only to the writer but to the director, the actors and the production crew that helped make this happen. It’s getting almost cliché to mention this, but the best improvement Russell T. Davies made in bringing Doctor Who back was hiring the best directors, getting them a decent budget, and hiring crew members who knew how to work within that budget. There were no effects (aside from people falling down shafts, but that’s hard to do) that stuck out as being fake, and everything looked good.
The end of Voyage of the Damned presents us with something we haven’t really had for the past two seasons of the revival: a clean slate. There’s no Torchwood, no Mr. Saxon, no Bad Wolf references to make us speculate what we might see or where the Doctor’s character is going to go. It’s an uncomfortable position, but in a way it’s one that offers the most potential for the season that’s to come. It’s the frustration of waiting for a Christmas present being opened — one whose parents have taken particular care not to reveal. We’ll just have to wait and see, when the fourth season of the program debuts this March.
Random Doctor Who Notes
- Unfortunately, we have no reports of when the CBC will air this special, despite the fact that they remain co-producers for this series with the BBC. C’mon guys, get your act together!
- The Queen’s cameo appearance, and the reference to the previous Christmas specials, were all much appreciated (Londoners, sensing a pattern over the last two years, scarpered), and it’s nice to have an English monarch who isn’t out to get the Doctor this time around.