It got the highest ratings the show has had since 1979, it starred one of the most marketable and famous stars of popular culture anywhere in the world, it cemented Doctor Who as a Christmas fixture and scored a massively high audience appreciation index figure, so Voyage of the Damned was undeniably a successful episode of Doctor Who. I’ve a lot of sympathy with the view of Russell T Davies that Christmas specials should be extravaganzas, and I’m certainly not going to criticise him for ripping off The Poseidon Adventure when he is on record as saying that he wanted the show to be an homage to disaster movies. But all the same, I thought the episode had its problems.
It was enjoyable enough, don’t get me wrong: it was a decent runaround, and at times very funny. And Kylie was fantastic – I mean, Kylie Minogue in Doctor Who! And not in a “mid-career trough Street Fighter” kind of way either! And she was very good too, I thought – the role was written for her, of course, but she gave a well-pitched performance. Indeed the whole cast were excellent: Tennant was on utterly commanding form, and Clive Swift was thoroughly engaging and likeable, in contrast to his appearance as the lecherous Jobel in 1985’s Revelation of the Daleks. Only Clive Rowe as Morvin didn’t really shine, but as he was clearly not meant to be a likeable character Russell T Davies perhaps didn’t give him especially good material to work with.
My main problem with the episode was that I just didn’t care very much about the characters or what happened to them: the script was a typical RTD effort – indeed, it would be unreasonable to expect him to write anything else! – but had some of the shortcomings his Who scripts occasionally throw up. Above all, it was wafer-thin: not necessarily a bad thing, bearing in mind that these specials should be extravaganzas and not deep drama, but even so it was a tad unsatisfying. There were the usual twin climaxes: the showdown with Max and the saving of the ship. And while Astrid’s self-sacrifice was well-played and quite touching, it was also predictable as soon as the scene started – not least as Debbie Chazen’s character had sacrificed herself in an almost identical way a few scenes previously. And all that blather with the teleport stasis function was effective for showing the Doctor frustrated and unable to save Astrid, but the stuff about turning her to stardust or whatever just served to drag things out.
More generally, RTD makes a point of developing minor characters and giving them a bit of a back story, so that the audience is able to identify them as they face danger over the course of the episode. The problem with this is that the execution often makes them come across much like the patronising “human interest” case studies so often seen on TV news, where we are presented with sad relatives leafing through a photograph album to show how Normal People are affected by whatever-it-is. So the guests on the Titanic get a short scene to themselves each, and then are shunted off to meet their fate (or not), much like the journalist in Boom Town who talked to the Slitheen on the bog, the space station workers who joined the battle in The Parting of the Ways, the character played by Freema Agyeman in Army of Ghosts and others too tedious for me to remember. RTD isn’t the only writer guilty of these uninteresting minor characters we are supposed to engage with – think of the bride and groom in Paul Cornell’s excellent Father’s Day, for instance – and they certainly have their place. But compare them to Sally Sparrow, or even Billy, in Blink, for instance, and it’s clear that they are not always as well-used as they could be.
None of this matters in the context of a lot of these episodes, but given that the whole point of a disaster movie is for the viewers to sympathise with the various characters, when they prove unsatisfying there’s not an awful lot left. It’s particularly awkward when half of them are despatched in the same sequence, namely crossing the bridge. That said, Geoffrey Palmer was highly effective in his few minutes on screen, albeit playing a typical RTD line: “I’m doing a terrible thing, but I’m dying anyway and it’s all for my family” – I’m sure we’ve seen that before in previous episodes.
So, what remains? For a 70-minute programme, not an awful lot. It was slow to get going and slow to end: the farewell scene with Mr Copper was nicely played, but far too long. All told, the extra ten minutes of screen time don’t seem to have been used for anything much other than to avoid having to tighten the script up. Max Capricorn was amusingly played by George Costigan – who I did not recognise at all from Rita, Sue and Bob Too and So Haunt Me – but I struggled to care much about him. Given RTD’s warning to fans to avoid spoilers about the ending, I had rather expected the surviving Dalek from Daleks in Manhattan to turn up, but it didn’t happen. And the business with the Queen… well, I’ve nothing against a bit of fun now and again, but I can’t for the life of me see what it added to the episode. Why did it need to be there?
So, while a resounding success for the show, assessed on its own merits Voyage of the Damned was a moderately enjoyable but ultimately unsatisfying outing for the show. A bit like scoffing half of a selection box on Christmas morning and spoiling your Christmas dinner.