Sunday, 22 September 2013

Voyage of the Damned

Much confusion has developed around the Christmas Specials in the age of 'catch-up' TV. Do they count or don't they?  The Christmas Invasion obviously has to, post-regeneration and all, and The Runaway Bride should (or else Partners in Crime might be confusing) - although we didn't know that when it was first broadcast. Either way, they were packaged neatly into the boxsets, and it seemed that this was to be the natural order of things. However with The Next Doctor and The End of Time things went squiffy because they both counted as one (or two) of the special Specials, which had their own boxset and - bafflingly - ended up on Netflix listed as a separate series distinct from the main run of Doctor Who.

Things went downhill after that. I just wrote a long and fascinating explanation of what actually happened to The Christmas CarolThe Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe , and The Snowmen. But then I cut it, realising that anyone who cared enough to read it would know it all already. Suffice to say that their availability has been difficult to predict: Netflix ignores one entirely, and another was apparently going to be left off the DVD release. All very puzzling, but there's almost certainly no editorial reasoning behind any of this. It'll be to do with how series are sold and shipped in lumps, and the simple fact will be that sometimes odd standalone episodes get lost. It's a shame, especially if you're trying to work out how to buy the complete run without doubling up on an episode or (worse) missing one, but there you go.

But it leaves the viewer (or purchaser) with the idea that some of these episodes don't matter, that they don't advance the overarching story and are therefore optional. This is a shame because there is a danger that a casual audience might miss a treat.

Watching with hindsight, Voyage of the Damned is the first Christmas Special that really does stand alone. It is also the first to try and tell a Christmas story rather than a Doctor Who-story-at-Christmas. Okay, this particular Christmas story happens to be the one about the expensive celebrity-laden disaster movie extravaganza, but the point is that whilst this feels different from normal Doctor Who, it is definitely the sort of thing one would expect to sit down and watch after dinner on Christmas Day.

I didn't see it that way at the time. I thought the episode was alright, but because I was expecting something more Doctor Who-y than Christmas-y, it felt disposable: throwaway festive fluff. Stupidly, it's only now, binge-watching the entire show and viewing Voyage of the Damned in context, that I can see that it is precisely this idiosyncrasy that makes it such fun.

This episode is littered with pleasing little moments but the opening ten minutes is like pulling your all your favourites from a tin of Quality Street. First off, David Tennant's Doctor is a star in his own right by now. We get to drift along with him, an invisible companion as we take in the sights and explore the Starship Titanic. Then, up pops Kylie! Her appearance here isn't a surprise given the publicity the BBC made of it, but the initial reports of her involvement were staggering. Kylie Minogue in Doctor Who? What? It still feels odd to see her here, as if the Universe should have snapped back into its original state by now, one where Australian pop megastars didn't do this sort of thing. Then we get a couple of lovely old hands, Geoffrey Palmer and Bernard Cribbins, both of whom have been household names in Britain for as long as I can remember. In fact, they were both doing Doctor Who before I was even born. Palmer, adorably lugubrious, has a short but beautiful stint as Captain - and seems to sketch out a whole life in just a couple of scenes. Cribbins turns out for a one scene joke, the gist of which is how ridiculous having Christmas specials year after year is. But it works, largely because it is Bernard Cribbins sat there, twinkling away.

These star turns are treats, but there's a main course too. The core of the episode is the disaster movie. Tension builds, disaster strikes, and the Doctor excitingly takes charge, leading the survivors through the innards of the stricken ship. Considering there's only half an hour and a BBC budget with which to do this, this section of the show is excellent: plastered with danger, heartbreak and noble sacrifices. Russell Tovey is outstanding as Midshipman Frame. It's another small part (one I've taken for granted in the past) but, my goodness, he's good. Naive, wounded, scared, brave, dutiful, Frame is absolutely convincing and grounds the whole outlandish disaster format in a very human way. The Doctor gets more than his share of moments: one minute he's beating back the Heavenly Host with a steel bar, the next he's trying to prise information from them, grappling to come up with the one question that will allow him to survive. We get the beautiful but distinctly odd sight of him being hoisted by the robot angels, literally raised up, and then, finally, he gets to buzz Buckingham Palace in a Titanic-replica spaceship.

But no matter how much fun the rest of this all is, the question of whether Voyage of the Damned sinks or floats is largely down to Kylie. Her casting is a big deal, especially with the people who tuned in to watch her (13.3 million,giving the show its highest ratings since 1979), and in that sense it's a gamble that pays off handsomely. Astrid Peth is a little too sweet for my taste, and could have been a more interesting, rougher-edged character - but then many of the wider audience were here just to see Kylie, not Astrid, and I think they went away more than happy. Overall, I think it was a great decision and a piece of very good fortune for the programme that she was able to participate - but I would have had to have drunk an awful amount of Christmas spirit for that that 'stardust' ending to be anything other than overcooked schmaltz.

Christopher is still happily giving out scores. He's got into the habit of taking marks away from ten, effectively punishing episodes for what he sees as their failures. Voyage of the Damned got a 9 - one off  because he "didn't like how everybody died."

I explained that it was copying the disaster movie genre and that that was just what happened in such a story.

"Yes, but this wasn't the Doctor in a disaster movie, this was a disaster movie in Doctor Who, so the Doctor should have saved everybody anyway. It his rules."

"Ah," says William, who's been paying attention. "But if the Doctor can choose who lives, that would make him a monster."

Well quite. Who said this was a standalone adventure, cut off from the ongoing narrative?


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