Review: DOCTOR WHO “Voyage of the Damned” (S04E00)

Doctor Who - David Tennant as the Doctor

(Also doubling as a short piece on Christmas TV in the UK)

Episode zero? Episode zero??

It must be an odd thing, from a US perspective, Christmas TV in the UK. On Christmas Day, virtually everywhere shuts down and people stay at home, digesting their Christmas dinner and watching the TV. In times gone by, the BBC and ITV used to fight to unleash the biggest blockbuster movies on Christmas Day itself – until specialist movie channels, video and DVD rendered this tactic obsolete. There’s a tongue-in-cheek history of this practice here (warning: contains obscure cultural references; swearing; idiomatic English; swearing; British humour; and swearing).

Another tradition on Christmas Day (and on the days around it) is the Christmas Special. Most famous are the Morecombe and Wise Christmas Specials in the 1970s; and the Only Fools and Horses Christmas Specials, especially those shown in the 1990s. I know there are plenty of US Christmas Specials (here is a comparative list) but my understanding is that none of them were first broadcast on Christmas Day itself. Nor, as far as I know, have there been ratings phenomena like the 1977 Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special (which got 28 million viewers on Christmas Day, approximately half of the UK population at the time) or the series of three 1996 Only Fools and Horses Christmas Specials (which all exceeded 20 million viewers).

To give you an idea of the kind of entertainment that the British public traditionally lap up on Christmas Day, here’s a clip from the first of those Only Fools and Horses Specials:

And while Only Fools and Horses specialised in great situation comedy set-pieces at Christmas (requiring a location filming budget that went beyond the series’ origins as a studio-bound sitcom), the big draw on the Morecambe and Wise Show was the celebrity guest appearances. Here is famous appearance by André Previn on the 1971 Christmas show:

As I’ve already mentioned in a post about the history of TV in the UK, the two most watched programmes on UK TV, for the whole of 2007, were both broadcast on Christmas Day. At number one was a Christmas episode of the soap, EastEnders. And this is also a Christmas tradition – dating from 1986, when they got 30 million viewers by screening the thoroughly miserable climax of an ongoing storyline on Christmas Day. This clip explains more:

As well as entertainment, the British love a bit of extreme misery on Christmas Day, it seems. The many Yuletide catastrophes that have befallen Walford, the fictional London Borough where EastEnders is set, have even been referenced in a scene from the Doctor Who episode The Impossible Planet:

Well… we’ve come this far. There’s no turning back.

Oh, did you have to? No turning back? That’s almost as bad as “nothing can possible go wrong” or “this is gonna be the best Christmas Walford’s ever had” —

And it was, indeed, Doctor Who that was the second most watched programme in 2007. More specifically, it was the episode I’m reviewing, “Voyage of the Damned.” It was shown between the two EastEnders episodes that day – forming a bizarre kind of interlude to the story of Bradley discovering, by watching his wedding video, that his new bride, Stacey, was having an affair with his father, Max. Incidentally, Bradley is a Doctor Who fan, and Stacey’s later attempted reconciliation with him was set at a Doctor Who convention (see this blog post for more details).

Thus, EastEnders exists as a fictional programme in Doctor Who (it also features in the episode Army of Ghosts) and Doctor Who is a fictional programme in EastEnders – a recursive paradox creating an anomaly the exact size of Belgium*. This situation is further complicated by the fact that Bradley’s stepmother, Tanya is played by the actress who played Lynda in the Doctor Who episodes Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways. And that’s without even mentioning the disastrous 1993 charity Doctor Who/EastEnders crossover, Dimensions in Time. But enough of that…

“Voyage of the Damned” is the third Doctor Who Christmas Special, following The Christmas Invasion, in 2005, and The Runaway Bride, in 2006. They are not EastEnders style festivals of misery (although Doctor Who has never been scared of darkness or of death) but, somewhat in the tradition of Morecambe and Wise and Only Fools and Horses, they were designed to provide a set-piece entertainment for the Christmas Day audience (and The Runaway Bride even went as far as casting Catherine Tate, well known in the UK for her comedy sketch show, as a guest star). More than that, though, these Doctor Who Christmas Specials resurrected the tradition of Christmas movies with their blockbuster-style action sequences (the Sycorax spaceship over London, in The Christmas Invasion; and the TARDIS car chase in The Runaway Bride). And Voyage of the Damned takes this one stage further: it is, in essence, a disaster movie. Not that disaster movies were a Christmas staple (although the BBC did show a couple on Christmas Day: Airport in 1975; and Airport 1975 in, um, 1980), but the likes of The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure were prime-time TV hits.

Russell T Davies is a big fan of disaster movies and Voyage of the Damned is, unashamedly and without irony, a Doctor Who version of The Poseidon Adventure. For this reason, it is exciting, bold and watchable – but, in terms of making an emotionally satisfying drama, it has all the limitations of the genre. As he does with all his Doctor Who scripts, Russell T Davies pushes as hard as he can at these limits, and manages to touch on some interesting philosophical points about the morality of outcomes and the randomness of the universe, but ultimately the technical requirements of this type of story deny him the space to make a properly affecting drama.

In keeping with what may be becoming a Doctor Who Christmas Special tradition, this episode also has a celebrity guest star, Kylie Minogue. Minogue is probably most famous in the US for her hit single Can’t Get You out of My Head and in many other countries (especially the UK and her native Australia) she is a huge pop star. She started her career as an actress in the Australian soap opera Neighbours** and also had parts in a couple of prime examples of the art of Hollywood filmmaking: Street Fighter and Bio-Dome.

Minogue brings a great deal of charm to the role of Astrid, a waitress on The Titanic, but not a great deal of anything else. To be fair, though, the nature of the story is such that she doesn’t have that much to work with – and this means that her performance is pretty good within the context of the episode. There is also some excellent work from the supporting cast, especially Geoffrey Palmer as the Captain, Russell Tovey as Midshipman Frame and Clive Swift as Mr Copper, a tour guide with (apparently) a degree in Earthonomics. David Tennant is reliably superb in the role of the Doctor, as expected.

The Sci-Fi Channel is promoting Voyage of the Damned as the “Season Four Premiere” and have it scheduled in a 90 minute slot (it ran for 72 minutes, without commercials, on the BBC, so the Sci-Fi version will probably have cuts), but it isn’t properly a part of Series Four of Doctor Who at all. In UK terms, it is an interlude, some entertainment for Christmas Day, with the real start of the series still four months away. With the first two Christmas Specials, there was some “overall story” work to be done (The Christmas Invasion had to introduce the new Doctor, The Runaway Bride had to deal with the aftermath of Rose leaving) – and so they did feel at least connected to the episodes that followed them. Voyage of the Damned, by contrast, has no such work to do and exists very much as a standalone episode (although one character does have a recurring role in Series Four, see if you can guess which one). So, yes, episode zero is probably an apt description (as well as being the convention when listing Christmas Specials). In previous years, Sci-Fi has scheduled the first episode of the series immediately after the Christmas Special, this time you will have to wait a week.

Immediately after Voyage of the Damned had finished airing, I was extremely pleased and had thoroughly enjoyed myself – but that was Christmas Day, in the UK. I’ve no idea how it’ll come across in mid-April in the US. So, if you find yourself slightly disappointed, remember that this is episode zero and that the real start of the series is a week later, with Partners in Crime (which I’ll be giving you a spoiler-free review of soon) – oh, and thank your lucky stars that it isn’t The Star Wars Holiday Special.

Voyage of the Damned starts at 8.30pm EDT/PDT on Friday April 18 on The Sci-Fi Channel, there is a repeat showing at 11.00pm EDT/PDT on the same day. NB: the Sci-Fi channel has separate East Coast and West Coast cable feeds, satellite transmissions are all EDT. Here is the BBC trailer:

*If you get this joke, award yourself 45 geek points (redeemable for a wide range of items, including flying toasters); if not, then you’ll have to wait until the end of the month for an explanation.

**Alan Dale (the O.C., Lost, Ugly Betty) played her father in Neighbours. When Kylie was in Cardiff filming Voyage of the Damned, he was also there filming his episode of Torchwood. It was the first time they had met since they were both in Neighbours in the 1980s.