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.

Sunday, December 09, 2007


I made my first trip to Chicago a couple of weeks back, to the Doctor Who convention held there each year, Chicago TARDIS. It was a fun trip all told. Getting to the airport was a complete pain though. The trip should take about 30 mins, or around 1 hour maximum, but on this particular morning it took 1 hour 45 mins to get there! The traffic was insane!!! When I eventually arrived, which was still an hour and a half or so before the plane left, the first thing I discovered was that the Virgin flight was not a Virgin flight any longer and was actually going to be on American Airlines as Virgin had 'mislaid' their plane and it was in Bombay or somewhere like that. How can you mislay a plane? And it was leaving an hour later. So I headed off to the AA booking desks and managed to get a window seat (luckily, as initially there wasn't one, but then in the departure lounge they managed to move people about a bit and I got the seat I wanted). I like to sit there as I can lean against the wall slightly and it's a little less claustrophobic than the other seats. Then, on the plane, to add insult to injury, I discovered that AA don't serve alcohol free with meals, you have to pay for it ... it's all free on Virgin and apparently they were supposed to give us vouchers. So I stuck with orange juice and water when I could have really done with a nice glass of red wine with my meal ... But the flight was OK and arrived the expected hour late - I had managed to ring Rosemary from the airport and asked her to email the people meeting me to warn them that I was on a different flight and arriving an hour later on - and all was well. I was picked up and driven to the hotel where I checked in fine and dumped my stuff in the room. On Thursday evening I went out with a couple of friends to a restaurant called Harry Caray's where we had an extensive Thanksgiving meal. Harry Caray was a Baseball commentator and this place is quite famous in Chicago apparently. The food was lovely but as usual in the US, there was way too much of it to eat - the turkey portion was 4 massive slices, each a cm thick and about 15cm diameter ... but the sides were lovely - stuffings and cranberry and bread sauce and all manner of things - a meal in themselves! One of my friends decided that we should have some champagne for the meal as well which was most welcome, and when we had finished it all came to about £15 equivalent each!!! The exchange rate is very friendly to us Brits in the US at the moment. Then it was back to the hotel and sleep ... Friday was spent shopping. I met up with friends in the morning and we headed off by taxi to a local mall where we spent most of the morning and early afternoon shopping. I got a pile of DVDs, and various other Christmas presents for people as well. We stopped by a Borders for a coffee as well ... then back to the hotel for the start of the convention, some panels and the opening ceremony. I hooked up with more friends for the evening and enjoyed drinks and the most massive take-away Chicago pizza pies for dinner, and then we headed off to several room parties where I chatted to people and made new friends :) About midnight I think I crashed and headed off to bed. Saturday was Convention day and so I spent the day chatting with friends, did a couple of panels, and generally relaxing. It was a nice convention, friendly and with a good mix of panels and people. Apparently numbers were down on usual as there wasn't a Doctor-actor as a guest, but it was still very friendly and enjoyable. The main guest was Eric Roberts but it transpired that he was stuck in Bulgaria on a film shoot and the weather had snowed off the planes. He eventually managed to arrive Saturday afternoon and gamely met people and did a panel and signed things for everyone without a murmer of complaint. What a star! He must have been so tired and jet lagged ... not to mention all the waiting around at the airport to get the plane in the first place. In the evening I went out to the Theatre to the Steppenwolf theatre to see a brilliant play called Wedding Play (you can see a review here: Very interesting and well acted and with some excellent use of sound and lighting ... I was very impressed as were the people I saw it with. From there it was back to the hotel for more drinks and parties and chatting ... this time until about 3am when I finally went to bed! Sunday and generally a quiet day at the convention ... more wandering and chatting to people, some panels and then goodbyes to all your friends which is always sad. I bid farewell to my new friends and then hit the bar for an evening with those staying over. Went to bed about midnight again when the bar closed ... Monday morning and I'd arranged to spend most of the day with another friend called Michael. He picked me up about 9.30 and we drove to his apartment in the middle of Chicago. His place had stunning views over the city - really nice to see. We were also looking after his baby daughter Vera and we went out for a long walk taking in the museum, the park, a vast sculpture called the Bean and took in a nice coffee and brunch along the way as well. We even stopped for a drink at the legendary House of Blues :) though it was nice and quiet when we were there - and Vera was asleep in her stroller. After my whirlwind tour of the city, Michael delivered me to the airport to catch the flight back to England which again all went smoothly - except for a potential panic where I realised I had been seated in a window seat but next to the fattest man alive! Luckily the plane was less than half full and so I managed to get a different window seat to myself. It was also a night flight, but only took 6 hours because of the gulf stream running in the right direction - it took around 8 hours to get there. Overall I had a great time, managed to relax and get some shopping done. Met friends old and new and hopefully will be returning next year when there is a Doctor in attendance ... For more details on Chicago TARDIS head to: