Doctor Who is developing a proud tradition of providing work to pop stars: Billie Piper, McFly, Leeeeee John and now Kylie Minogue. Like Billie, Kylie was an actress before she became an icon of pop, and a very good one at that. Who can forget that Neighbours wedding? Kylie has herself been mentioned in Doctor Who (The Idiot’s Lantern), which creates what is known as the “celebrity paradox”, something that is only a problem if you take the inherently flawed immersive approach to your television viewing. More interestingly, it marks Astrid out as somebody who is inevitably not going to survive to the end of the story, because we all knew that Kylie’s schedule was not going to allow for Astrid to depart in the TARDIS at the end. There are ways in which the episode plays with our expectations of what will happen to the characters, which I will get to, but this is the one that had to be predictable by its very nature.
The Doctor seems to fall for the women he meets on his travels very easily nowadays, but who can blame him when he meets people like Astrid, who would have made a brilliant companion. Her name is an anagram of TARDIS, which caused a lot of speculation, and seems to be supported on a vague level by her desire to explore and how she ends up flying through space. Remarkably, it was nothing more than a coincidence. In The Writer’s Tale, Russell T Davies says how he thought about “Astra”, so he was clearly going for the “star” reference, but thought it was “too obvious”, whereas Astrid sounded “spacey”.
Voyage of the Damned is all about the Doctor as a hero, but a flawed one. He promises to protect everyone and then fails to deliver on the promise. He strides into danger and nearly gets killed, needing yet another pretty girl to sacrifice herself for him. He saves the idiot and loses most of the good people. This is one of the things that make Doctor Who so fantastic – the Doctor is not a flawless superhero. He is a person, with flaws like us. That’s why we don’t always need a regular companion with which to identify any more – we can aspire to be like the Doctor: brave, but not perfect.
The most interesting distillation of this idea is the fate of Rickston Slade, and the Doctor’s reaction to it. As I mentioned above, the script plays with our expectations. Characters like him almost never get to walk away, rude and greedy with no real redeeming features. We are led to a point from which we expect him to get his comeuppance, and while we care for the other characters, who are given sympathetic back stories and then bumped off, we don’t develop any emotional connection with Rickston. He is not given any kind of personal background. His character basically adds up to “the one who is not very nice”. So when the Doctor seems to be disappointed that he didn’t die instead of one of the others, we are supposed to be thinking that too, but there is no real reason for that. Yes, he’s an idiot, but he hasn’t actually done anything that means he deserves to die. We are looking for a “comeuppance” that is disproportionate, and the script shows us where disproportionate justice gets you, with Max Capricorn’s revenge on his board of trustees, which involves the attempted murder of billions of people. Mr Copper calls the Doctor out on his disappointment in a subtle way, reminding him that he can’t choose who lives and who dies because it would make him a monster, and that by reflection calls us out on it at the same time. This is a useful foreshadowing of The Waters of Mars, because when the Doctor does indeed forget that lesson and “go too far”, we should cast our minds back to this and realise that his flaws simply reflect our own. Like him, we are a bit disappointed that Rickston gets to walk away at the end of this episode.
Without being a direct sequel, this special episode is a call-back to a couple of past successes: Enlightenment (which gave us sailing ships in space) and The Robots of Death (which gave us near-identical robots to the Heavenly Host, being reprogrammed to kill humans). In fact, they are so obviously the same robots that it is a bit of an oversight that Chris Boucher doesn’t receive a credit for their creation – not just in appearance but in the spookily similar voice. The way they say ‘kill’ and the hand-in-door moment are lifted straight out of that story, but if something worked so well before, why not try it again?
This is one of the most watched Doctor Who episodes of all time. How fitting that so many people (probably drawn in by the presence of Kylie) should get to enjoy such a magnificent episode, complete with stunning special effects, excitement and emotion.
Some bonus random thoughts for you, as it’s Christmas:
- Bannakaffalatta (one of RTD’s ridiculously long names) is the only alien who looks much like an alien. This was entirely a budgetary issue, and RTD expressed frustration with it in The Writer’s Tale.
- Astrid’s teleport bracelet is a fine example of the “Chekhov’s Gun” approach to script writing, where seemingly unimportant objects later gain significance (and in fact shouldn’t be in the script at all if they don’t).
- ‘Take me to your leader – I’ve always wanted to say that.’ But he has – in Aliens of London and The Face of Evil!
- ‘He’s like a talking conker.’ When you stop to think about lines like that, funny though they are, the Doctor is actually being racist (or ‘speciesist’?). We seem to be expected to accept that it’s OK for the Doctor to make fun of somebody’s appearance but when Rickston Slade refers to the Van Hoffs as Mr and Mrs Fatso – what’s the difference?
- The Doctor confirms his exact age: ‘I’m 903 years old’. Either he is seriously rounding down, or something weird is going on, because he has lost 50 years somewhere since the Seventh Doctor. Perhaps he is now over 1000, but is embarrassed to admit it. It seems improbable that he has lived just three years since Aliens of London – he’s really squandering his regenerations now, if that’s the case. More likely, he simply can’t remember any more.
- The Doctor claims to have been present at the birth of Jesus. One of the three wise men, perhaps?
- It is interesting that the Doctor readily agrees to Astrid travelling with him, but turns down Mr Copper, using the excuse that he travels alone. Of course, the truth of the matter is that he travels alone unless there’s a pretty girl who wants to go along for the ride. RP
The view from across the pond:
For the third year in a row, we had new Who on Christmas day in 2007! Settling down for a bit of televised joy was just what the Doctor ordered! And for this year, it was “Super Star meets Super Hero”!
I will be coming back to this in the future, but Voyage of the Damned is an odd title for an episode where nearly everyone is likable and decent; a far cry from being damned. Doomed? Sure! But not damned! The Titanic might be doomed, like its earthly predecessor was, but I wouldn’t say it was damned. Besides the connection with the title of the ship, the Titanic of this episode doesn’t even sink; it drops, but climbs again. It bears a far more striking resemblance to another disaster at sea, The Poseidon Adventure. In both, the title ship is damaged so badly that the stars of the show have to traverse some dangerous terrain to get to a safe place. In The Poseidon Adventure, Gene Hackman’s character plummets to his death after saving the rest of the crew. (Astrid, I’m sorry… I’m so, so sorry, but I just compared you to Gene Hackman!) Both movies have the overweight characters that someone feels is slowing them all down but does something selfless to save the day… you know the tropes! Check, check, and check!
But this is a much more fun adventure. It’s the first Christmas without Robot Santas. Instead, the Heavenly Host are the killers of the season. (Yeah, so basically robot angels instead). They turn the Christmas season on its head, halo and all. One of the biggest things that distinguishes it from the disaster movie is the cast of characters.
- The Doctor is perfectly on form investigating his surprise arrival on the cruise ship. Tennant nails the part!
- Max Capricorn is what happens when someone builds a full scale Davros chair out of Lego. It looked ridiculous. That said, Max himself may have been a caricature villain but he was still fun to watch. It’s enhanced by that little twinkle whenever he smiles. “It really does that?” For all the over-the-top silliness, he’s a remarkably enjoyable villain.
- Astrid Peth, played by the wonderful Kylie Minogue, is instantly lovable. She should have joined the TARDIS, even if only for a season! Her interactions with the Doctor are delightful. (Doctor: “you should see me in the mornings!” Astrid: “okay!”)
- Wilfred Mott makes a cameo, although at this point, we had no idea that he was to be Donna’s granddad! (Neither did the writers, but let’s stay in story here, ok?)
- Bannakaffalatta is a fantastic little cyborg chap that really should have been part of the TARDIS crew too. Mostly it’s just really fun to say his name. So much so that he refers to himself in the third person. (If “Mike” sounded half as much fun, I’d refer to myself that way too.)
- The husband and wife team of the Van Hoffs, Midshipman Alonso Frame and Mr Copper top off this great cast. Only Rickston Slade is a hard-to-like, self-interested individual that might have been part of the “damned” crew.
There’s a dichotomy in my viewing of this episode. Partly because the best of it comes when Astrid goes all Gene Hackman. It’s epic and poetic and lovely and horrible. I really wanted her to stay with the Doctor, even for some untelevised adventures. Yes, I went there; I’d even have accepted that, just to have her there. But then the most marvelous thing happens. The Heavenly Host brings the Doctor to the bridge where, beyond nearly giving Alonso a heart attack, the Doctor has to pilot the Titanic. The music is so much fun as the Doctor captains the ship and Tennant gets the best line of the episode: “You’re kidding me!… That’s something else I always wanted to say! Allons-y Alonso!” And then we’re brought back to the heartbreak of losing a marvelous character when a Christmas Ghost shows up in all the wrong ways. In the end, it’s a tremendously fun episode though and while better ones are yet to come, this does do what it should: it brought some Christmas joy!
Christmas is a great time of year, filled with family, friends, food, and cheer. And a new episode of Doctor Who works like an Angel on top of the Christmas tree… ML
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