Random loves a Christmas special, and so it is that we come to the biggest and boldest of them all. We can recite Voyage of the Damned‘s list of ingredients off by heart: space Titanic, disaster movie, The Robots of Death, Kylie flippin’ Minogue. But watching it now, nearly eight years on, it seems to me to represent something greater than the sum of its eclectic parts. It just might be the peak of new Who‘s powers.
It does, after all, hold the record for the new series’ highest rating, 13.3m festive viewers. Ratings, though, are slippery things. The Day of the Doctor managed 12.8m, but do we count cinema attendances? And if we could count worldwide audiences, would Voyage still come out in front? I don’t know. But anyway, you could argue that Voyage‘s spectacular ratings represent a peak that Doctor Who has never achieved again. Compared to the ratings for the most recent festive special (Last Christmas, 8.3m viewers), they seem vertiginous.
DWM regularly runs a column about ratings (which itself says something about the sensitivity fans feel about them) which has, in recent years had a theme of “it may look as if ratings are falling but they’re not really”. We’re all time shifting, or watching it on iPlayer or no one’s watching TV anyway, or something. All well researched and well considered arguments. But the fact that an argument has to be mounted in the first place adds to the general feeling that perhaps the show is not attracting the attention it once did. Even if ratings on average are stable, or just a little but down on previous year’s, there’s a sense that its heyday has already passed.
And if Voyage of the Damned is not that heyday, then it must be somewhere around it. It’s an episode that feels triumphant. Big ideas, big effects, big screen inspiration and big guest stars. I mean, it has a replica SS Titanic divebombing Buckingham Palace. It’s fcuk off audacious. Not for nothing does this episode have a grandstanding moment for the Doctor, (“I’m the Doctor, I’m 903 years old…” And so on. David Tennant in top form) where he sets out his credentials as a hero to end all heroes. This is an episode reveling in its own success. If it had We are the Champions on its soundtrack, it wouldn’t be out of place.
Except of course, this isn’t a story about triumphalism. Anything but. The Doctor’s barnstorming speech about saving lives is delivered to a group of mostly doomed people. One of those unlucky souls is Minogue’s Astrid Peth, and although the Doctor launches a last minute attempt to resurrect her via a teleport bracelet, he fails there too. ‘I can do anything!’ he shouts in frustration when he realises this last ditch jiggery-pokery isn’t going to work. And that’s the point, of course. He can’t.
No, this is a story about facade. It’s set on a copy of a famous ship, and the passengers and crew are a load of phoneys. The Captain (Geoffrey Palmer) is on a secret suicide mission. Mr Copper’s (Clive Swift) degree’s a fake. Bannakaffalatta’s (Jimmy Vee) hiding his cyborgness. The Van Hoffs (Debbie Chanzen and Clive Rowe) shouldn’t be there at all; they’re competition winners who rigged the competition. Astrid’s a waitress but really she longs to travel. And the Doctor? Flashing that psychic paper around, pretending to be a stowaway. Even the Host are killers disguised as beautiful angels. Only bad egg Rickston Slade (Gray O’Brien) and heroic young Midshipman Frame (Russell Tovey) are who they really say they are.
Then there’s Max Capricorn (George Costigan), hidden on board, and another phoney. He’s a villain in a box with a cheesy public persona. Disaster movies are all well and good (and interestingly, this is the latest in a run of random stories stealing liberally from film genres), but they tend to lack villains. In The Poseidon Adventure, for instance, the ship is rolled by no more sinister a force than a tsunami.
Doctor Who needs a villain to act as the story’s impetus, so here the adventure is not a matter of bad luck, it’s an insurance job. Voyage keeps its villain a mystery for most of its running time, and then reveals him in the next-to-final reel. A huge revelation it’s not though, because aside from some talking wallpaper, the audience has never met Max. It’s a twist which makes logical sense (if we avoid the question of why Max has made his HQ on board the very ship he intents to scupper) but not much dramatic impact.
Despite being the linchpin for the story, Max feels like a minor element in this blockbuster. He’s there mainly to give Kylie someone to drive a self-sacrificial fork lift into (and surely there’s no better addition to an actor’s resume). Kylie’s our SACRIFICIAL BLAM! for this post, but self sacrifice is not her’s alone; its another theme played throughout this episode. Both Bannakaffalatta and Foon die to save other people’s lives and Alonso Frame is shot trying to raise the alarm. Death walks the decks of this ship, which is to be expected when you reference the Titanic, I suppose. Still, this is a bloodier Christmas than most, with scores of people killed in the initial collision and a few gruesome murders of survivors (the death of the kitchen staff’s a good example). Jolly festive viewing.
What stops it from being too grim for Christmas is pace. This is a story which moves rapidly from set piece to set piece, with the stakes steadily rising with each iteration. A chase through creaking infrastructure gives way to a stand off on an implausibly placed metal gangway. A showdown with the villain becomes a race to avert a crash becomes a poignant farewell to a love cut short. The story’s structure and its thumping beats might be all too visible, but they keep us watching.
Russell T Davies’ scripts are often a thrill ride concocted from an unlikely mix of elements. But more than any of his other stories, Voyage of the Damned feels like utter, end of year abandon. All caution has been thrown to the wind. “Let’s make a Christmas action adventure epic, with the Titanic and Kylie Minogue! Because people will totally watch that!” And 13.3m did. It’s big, bold and on BBC1. Here’s a series at the height of its powers, truly thinking “I can do anything.”
LINK to The Moonbase. Yet more mechanical bad guys. And more interestingly, both feature Chanzens (Arnold, the father in The Moonbase and Debbie, his daughter, in Voyage.)
NEXT TIME. These shoes… they fit perfectly! It’s a warm Gallifreyan night and we’re watching the TV movie.