Thursday, December 27, 2007

Doctor Who: Voyage of the Damned


Another Christmas, another Doctor Who Special ... after one year it was a tradition, after two years it was expected, and as far as the ratings go, over 12 million people tuned in to watch the Doctor and Kylie go through their paces this year.

But what of the production ... any good? A television classic? Or something best forgotten? The word that came to mind for me was 'anodyne' ... fairly bland and unmemorable. Not horrendous or awful, but not spectacular or classic either. To be honest all of the Christmas specials have fallen into this bracket for me ... something nice and light for Christmas day, but which fail to really have any meat or bite to them.

I think part of the reason for this is the way that the production team approaches them - as a special, rather than as a great piece of drama. The first one was David Tennant's first full outing as the Doctor and so had a lot to prove. All the messing about with Sycorax in giant spacecraft was incidental in that regard. Last year and we had the dire Catherine Tate to contend with - screaming out that she was Catherine Tate (ie unfunny and unable to act) in every scene and really distracting from the lightweight but chokka with meaningless technobabble plot about giant spiders, plug holes and secret bases under the Thames. And this year we get Kylie Minogue overshadowing everything else.

First and foremost though, we have to deal with the cliffhanger ending from last season ... the Titanic crashing through the inner wall of the TARDIS. The Doctor just presses some buttons and it's all sorted. A little anti-climactic really and nothing to do with the plot as a whole. Just a mcguffin to get the Doctor onto the ship, which turns out to be a space cruiser rather than the real mccoy, visiting the Earth as a sort of holiday jaunt for a bunch of aliens (shades of 'Delta and the Bannermen' there). Unlike the aliens in 'Delta' though, these all look totally human. All, that is, with the exception of a red spiky conker-like creature called Bannakaffalatta. There's no explanation for this, nor that, despite having researched Earth history to the extent of having authentic period details in the outfits, music, food, culture, Christmas, as well as the Titanic herself, they don't actually seem to know a thing about the actual Earth, having a strange (and faintly amusing) hybrid mish mash of facts, fiction and myth all rolled together and accepted as fact by the tour guide (Clive Swift in a winning role as Mr Copper).

The plot unfolds. For obscure reasons the Captain (a nice cameo from Geoffrey Palmer) attracts some flaming meteoroids to the ship, smashing into it and making it 'sink'. At the same time, the android 'Hosts' - speaking information points - turn bad and start killing all the humans. Now we're into 'The Robots of Death' territory, though not handled nearly as well. And how did they know that the meteoroids would be there anyway?

The Doctor and his merry band of friends (waitress Astrid Peth, Foon and Morvin Van Hoff, Bannakaffalatta, Copper, and the boorish Rickston Slade (is that another veiled Christmas reference ... Slade?)) have to make their way to the ship's Bridge to try and save the day while being attacked by Host, having to cross a chasm on a rickety bridge, and with people dying all around them.

Some of the deaths were very underplayed, and I felt it was perhaps a little too dark for Christmas. Foon and Morvin were established as a very likable couple with some great character writing by Russell T Davies, and believable performances from Debbie Chazen and Clive Rowe. But then they both die. Quite suddenly and nastily, and without even any build up to the event. I found it a little shocking. Then little Bannakaffalatta dies as well ... but he was a cyborg and apparently the planet Stole, from where the Titanic came, is intolerant of cyborgs. So why have human-looking androids as information points then? What sort of society develops a technology to be able to create the Host and then fails to use any part of it to improve the lot of their members? Strange.

So the Doctor gets himself captured and heads down to Deck 31 to confront whatever is behind all this. I did wonder if the ship should have had more decks, and then this could have been on D84 rather than D31 (making another nice in-joke to 'The Robots of Death' - one of the Host's hands being sliced off by the door was another such reference). The Doctor discovers that Max Capricorn, the owner of the Titanic, is behind it all - and he's nothing but a head being kept alive by cybernetics. His plan is to get back at his board by making his company go bust through bad publicity while he retires to an island somewhere. He has an impact chamber to hide in and men to rescue him from the ruins of the Earth after the crash. But why bother? Why be on the ship at all? But then Kylie to the rescue and she drives a fork lift truck into Max and eventually pushes him over into the chasm, following him down herself.

All very sad and all that ... but why didn't she jump free at the last moment? Why did the Host then obey the Doctor (and I winced at the angels escorting the Doctor up to the Bridge, complete with Superman-like clenched fists punching the air) ... since when was the Doctor the second in command to Max ... and since when was Max second in command to the ship's captain? What sort of command structure do these androids follow? Thinking further about it, why didn't the Doctor send a Host down to try and rescue Astrid? And why did he give up so easily on using the teleport system to re-create her?

The Doctor saves the day and manages to pilot the damaged ship down through the Earth's atmosphere (no explanation as to how it stayed intact through the heat of re-entry), narrowly missing Buckingham Palace, and then up into space again (and for a craft to exit the Earth's atmosphere you need an incredible amount of power ... that ship must have some thrust in its engines!)

And that's about it really. Kylie was pretty good as Astrid. She had some nice lines, and flirted with the Doctor well. I was almost sad that she didn't survive the story - but her being turned into stardust was cute beyond reason. I almost wish they had gone with the rumours. That Astrid being an anagram of TARDIS and Peth meaning 'thing' in Welsh, suggesting that she would become a TARDIS, or part of it at least, in something reminiscent of Lawrence Miles' groundbreaking work in the 1990s range of BBC paperback books. Maybe this is what is yet to happen - her TARDIS-blue pixie dust could merge with the TARDIS as it leaves the Titanic.

The other actors were okay with perhaps the worst being Russell Tovey as Midshipman Frame, who reminded me all the time of Lee Evans who played a similar role in The Fifth Element. Jimmy Vee was great as the conker-headed Bannakaffalatta, even if he refers to himself in the third person when he speaks ... no race does that!

There's a cameo from Bernard Cribbins as a newspaper seller in Camden ... what was that all about? If London has been evacuated then why man a stall selling newspapers ... and what newspapers is he selling anyway? London is evacuated so there's no-one to write, print or distribute them. Maybe he hopes the Queen will stop by and buy one. Speaking of which, that whole sequence was just embarrasing ... the Queen, corgis ... 'thank you Doctor' (voiced by Jessica Martin who played a werewolf called Mags in the story 'The Greatest Show in the Galaxy') ... no ... not clever, just cringeworthy.

So overall, while the 71 minutes passed by fairly painlessly - I even quite enjoyed the revamped theme music which sounds like the old theme played by a heavy rock ensemble - it was all a bit bland and non-eventful. The touches to the original series stories were nice (I spotted bits of 'Planet of Evil' and 'Earthshock' in the mix as the kitchen staff were massacred, and there's probably lots more as well), but when 'The Robots of Death' is superior in just about every way to this modern version then you know that something is not quite right. I also found myself playing spot the merchandise opportunity, with characters leaping off the screen and into the toyshops. Astrid with tray accessory, Astrid in fork life truck, Max in his box, Doctor in tuxedo, Bannkaffalatta with removable shirt and EMP device, a host of Host with removable halos, Host Halo Frisbys ... With this in mind, though, it is very strange that there weren't more background aliens present on the ship - a wasted opportunity to bring in a pile more creatures for turning into action figures perhaps, or a deliberate attempt to try and rein the temptation back?

To try and summarise it is a little like trying to hold a snowflake in your hand ... it was nice to look at, rolled by quite well, but if you try and look closer at just about any aspect, it all comes apart at the seams.

8 comments:

Abu Yair said...

I was glad to see that you more or less shared my own views on the episode. I have to admit that I am becoming increasingly bored of the new series, which for me has never reached the heights of the old series, nor for that matter the depths (anything post Peter Davison).

The good points: the production looked superb, David Tennant is beginning to get into his stride, some very nice performances as you mentioned, particularly by Clive Swift. Nice cameo by that charming singer (incidentally, Yamit roughly translates from the Hebrew as "thing of the sea", which was ironically quite apt) and by Bernard Cribbins, whom it's nice to see again after all these years. There were some nice one-liners and some nice ideas - I particularly liked the play on the class issue, the tribute to the disaster movie scenario in which everyone has their little secret to hide, and that moving line at the end wherein Swift's character declared that it's a pity that one can't choose who gets to survive, a fact that all of us who have lost dear friends before their time know is as true in life as it is in fiction.

The bad points: I once saw Alan Bleasdale on the television saying that until he was 18 he never met a girl he wasn't in love with. Those of us old enough to look back to our teenage years and early twenties with perspective know how true that is. It seems that at nine-hundred and something the Doctor is now in his teenage years. He can't meet a little blonde thing without falling in love with her. Far from making the Doctor a more rounded character and the programme more adult, I find that this greatly detracts from its quality, diverting his character from the path absolute right to narrow self-interest. I also find the plots to be simplistic, with a sudden burst of techno-garbage thrown out to solve the problems. The angels themselves reminded me of those statues in the last series, and the fly over London was ... just another fly over London. In short, Russell Davies is excellent at producing show-biz entertainment, but seems to be increasingly running out of original ideas and also likes to add a little bit of love/sex interest to spice things up.

A final minor gripe, which may perhaps be somewhat churlish given the English origins of the programme; as one of the billions of people around the world who doesn't celebrate Christmas (others involved in this episode include Clive Swift, Debbie Chazen, Yamit Mamo, Murray Gold and, I assume, Jason Mohammed; we could also mention Verily Lambert and Sydney Newman) I do wonder why the Doctor does. For Russell Davies, as for so many other multiculturalists in Britain, multiculturalism means casting people of different skin colours and given aliens Asian and African sounding names. But when it comes down to it, the Doctor is a white Christian, and it's white Christian assumptions that underlie its production. This is somewhat strange given that today, non-white non-Christians no longer have to fit in to that model is they were once required to do. Personally, I wish that they were given more of a voice in the script writing.

Anonymous said...

"Bored" is the operative word these days. It's beyond love, and hate, it's just exhaustion. I've loved the new series, it IS the classic series and nothing can change that for me...but my word does it treat it's Hugos and viewers choice trophies like the shape of middle fingers.

I can eat the same meals every day, I loved VOTD and it's pros outweighed the trappings of traditional RTD-tenure Whom but the series can only delight me for so long as I feel sorry for those who dont "get it", or do, but dislike it and want more of the guest writers.

Rob said...

firstly, i dont agree with you at all about this episode. Ill admit it wasnt the best of the episodes, but it wasnt bland. Anything but!

Firstly the deaths of the husband and wife. The fact they are such as suprise is kinda the point; its more powerful than if theres a big huge death scene.

Secondly; the captain of the ship. He explains that he is paid for 6 months labour, which he profvides for his family. He is presumably hired by bald-wheelchair-guy. He then states that the asteroids are common occurence in that area.

Astrid. The reason she doesnt jump free is that the brake lines have been cut by blady (the dr shouts it too her!)so she cant actually jump from it anyway.

The thing about the command whasit, thats to do with the authority not of the STAFF but of the person. Boss guy is obviously first as he led them, but then the doctor take immediate 2nd due to fact he is who he is. He didnt send a host down because if you hadnt noticed he was kinda in shock!!!!

As to little red dude usin the 3rd person to name himself, it could be that was how he was programmed?! hes an android after all. Also he is a different species. how many species of alien do you know????

The queen part was complete trash ill give you that!

Anyway, each to his own i guess....... but your wrong! =D


Ill agree that the first mate was kinda weark compared to the rest of the cast, but he was still good in the role.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, David. I disagree ...

anodyne fluff with extremely dark moments.

The public will never sit down to watch thought-provoking heavy drama. Other episodes have come closer to providing that - Cornell's 2-parter being IMHO the last - but families (hell, adults and children) want to be entertained on Christmas Day. That doesn't mean that RTD dumbs down everything. Like it or not, he is telly-savvy and I think the entire production was pitched at the right level.

Crystal Bucket said...

Hi David - thanks for the interesting review. Here's my two-pence worth to explain some of the plot holes:

" But then they both die. Quite suddenly and nastily, and without even any build up to the event. I found it a little shocking."

I think it's a 'hommage' to the sudden death of Shelley Winters in "The Poseidon Adventure".

"Then little Bannakaffalatta dies as well ... but he was a cyborg and apparently the planet Stole, from where the Titanic came, is intolerant of cyborgs. So why have human-looking androids as information points then?"

It could be an analogy to any society dependent on slaves - their place is literally to serve, but any possibility of 'mixing' with their masters is forbidden.

"What sort of society develops a technology to be able to create the Host and then fails to use any part of it to improve the lot of their members? Strange."

Not so strange - after all we live in a world which put a man on the moon but can't provide food or clean water to two-fifths of the population.

"The Doctor discovers that Max Capricorn, the owner of the Titanic, is behind it all - and he's nothing but a head being kept alive by cybernetics. His plan is to get back at his board by making his company go bust through bad publicity while he retires to an island somewhere. He has an impact chamber to hide in and men to rescue him from the ruins of the Earth after the crash. But why bother? Why be on the ship at all?"

I suppose to avoid the collapse of his company and any awkward fraud/murder investigations by faking his own death?

"But then Kylie to the rescue and she drives a fork lift truck into Max and eventually pushes him over into the chasm, following him down herself. All very sad and all that ... but why didn't she jump free at the last moment?"

Giving the benefit of the doubt - this bit's played in slow motion - it's essentially a forklift, moving less than 10 metres forward (even though it's carrying a heavy load). The brake cable is cut by the Host, so once Astrid put her foot on the accelerator, there wasn't time for her to get out.

"Why did the Host then obey the Doctor (and I winced at the angels escorting the Doctor up to the Bridge, complete with Superman-like clenched fists punching the air) ... since when was the Doctor the second in command to Max ... and since when was Max second in command to the ship's captain?"

The ship's captain was presumably following Max's orders by attracting the meteoriods to the Ship, and so Max was always at the top.

As for the Doctor being next in command - thematically it could be part of the 'Doctor as Lonely God' , he is literally the last authority. Although if there was any logic it would be Midshipman Frame.

"And why did he give up so easily on using the teleport system to re-create her?"

He only gave up when Mr Copper pointed out that there wasn't enough power to collect all of Astrid's molecules. What was left was a few atoms with the semblance of consciousness.

"Jimmy Vee was great as the conker-headed Bannakaffalatta, even if he refers to himself in the third person when he speaks ... no race does that!"

Well, unless it's part of the Tarzan tradition of using mangled speech patterns to create sympathy for apparently ugly or savage characters more sympathetic - like with Condo and Control in the Original series. The Bannakaffalatta could be the name of the individual, rather than the species (as with the Slitheen and the Jagrafess).

There's a cameo from Bernard Cribbins as a newspaper seller in Camden ... what was that all about? "If London has been evacuated then why man a stall selling newspapers"

The impression I got was that it's the people of London staying away on Christmas Eve voluntarily because of fear - the headline on Wilf's stand is "London Deserted", not "London Evacuated" , and there's no problem with Nicolas Witchell reporting from the front of Buckingham palace. There aren't any newspapers published on Christmas Day in any case, so presumably Wilf is there, as he says, to 'stand vigil' to show he's not afraid.

David said...

thanks for all the comments folks. I realise that just about everything can be explained ... but I'm more asking the questions rhetorically to try and make a point that there are holes and places where things maybe don't make that much sense.

Re the brake lines being cut - I got that ... but still no reason to kill yourself and not even try and jump free ...

The little red dude was a Cyborg, not an android ... and I think it was more cliched writing than anything else.

As I say, I know that everything can be explained - I have done enough of that with people online - but things like this throw me out of the narrative and when that happens, you lose the involvement in the show which is not good.

Anonymous said...

I agree with David's comments, I have also enjoyed the other contributions due to their warmth, moderation and sheer maturity. This is clearly not a shrill site for overexcited new fans nor the Whovian equivalent of a snobbish, reactionary golf club that lacks perspective about the series and its past faults as well as new ones.

But I cannot agree Abu Yair about the festive specials being a result of cultural assumptions that everyone who watches Doctor Who is a white Christian.

This is a show helmed by RTD,the same RTD who wrote the "Second Coming"- a show that made "The God Delusion" seem like a sane and dipassionate dicussion on the ethical implications of theism.

While the specials play with iconography of the nativity:- St Nick, trees, angels & a star, none of them are positive reinforcement of any belief system. In fact, a few centuries ago they could have been banned for blasphemy!

This show in recent years has explicitly alluded to the struggle for gay rights and appears to have identified, whether correctly or not, the gay demograthic as key chunk of its audience. While there are gay christians I don't think an unthinking uncritical pro-christian series would do this.

The thorny issue of ethnic diversity & casting is a good point but this must be handled in a mature way. I'm old enough to remember lots of well-meaning but glib, bloodless TV drama that patronised both their viewers and the issues they attempted to address.

I would like to thank Abu for raising the issue as I agree that story set outside England would be great. "Unquiet Dead" & "Tooth and Claw" could have been set on Pluto for all the local colour they displayed. Why not story set in Africa, Asia etc....?

To change the subject,I have found all the "Who" Christmas specials to be dumbed down,camp,unoriginal but still enjoyable. My worries are essential threefold:- firstly, during JNT's reign he attempted to keep the show in the public's consiousness by courting the media & celebrity cameos. I am concerned that companions such as Tate or Minogue are an unwelcome return to this approach. It must be borne in mind JNT intentions were benign and there was little or no pride nor respect for the show in the BBC let alone the wider media. It has to be said that JNT unintentionally added to the show's decline.

Great plotting, drama, dialogue lead to long term affection and success for a show not headline grabbing cameos. (Kylie, I felt, delivered a rather forced, hammy performance.)

Secondly, the series in its previous run didn't let its limited budget seriously restrict the imagination of its writers. "Voyage of the Damned" is an exquisite feast of special effects with a warmed set of leftovers for a plot i.e. "Robots of Death/ Poseidon Adventure/ Titanic".

There is nothing wrong with borrowing motifs, plots or ideas- Robert Holmes was master fusing disperate elements like a gourmet chef to form great stories. But let's put it this way, you don't need to expend much mental energy to spot the stories that influence for " ...Spearhead" or " ..Caves". In fact, new "Who" cleverly exploited the cultural zeitgeist for Bluetooth technology and Jamie Oliver's campaign for healthier school dinner to good effect.

But it does seem silly to knock out a rip-off of a classic episode.

Thirdly, as "Abu Yair's" post suggested- since when has "Who" became a mixture "Gallifrey's Next Top Model" and "Blind Date"? Will the Doctor ever have another male companion? What is it about Astrid that charges his Sonic Screwdriver that Martha doesn't seem to possess?

From the evidence of "The Green Death" it could be construed that Jo and the Doctor are more than just friends but clever use of amiguity dialogue and subtle suggestion leave it open to tantalising debate.

I certainly don't mind sexual chemistry in the series but I'm worried, at this rate, Tennant will regenerate into Russell Brand!

My comments certainly aren't original or new but I feel a definite sense of genuine concern about the show's upcoming run as I feel that "Who" is a currently copper-bottomed hit show that has built up a reservoir of good will from critics and the media so could occasionally take a few more risks.

Matthew said...

I agree with pretty much everything you said. But my main annoyance was why were the Host even killing everyone in the first place? To get rid of any witnesses... who are about to be in the middle of a fiery planet destroying nuclear blast? Seems kind of pointless, but then there wouldn't be a plot. It seems they don't think about logic in the Christmas episodes (injecting whatshisface with the particles in the Runaway Bride, why bother with Donna then?). But on the bright side, Catherine Tate seems to be much better in the new series, not nearly as shouty and annoying.