A Special Look at: Voyage of the Damned

Continuing from The Christmas Invasion and The Runaway Bride is Voyage of the Damned, which features the first time a companion of the Doctor dies in the revived series. It also marks the first appearance of Wilfred Mott, who would return during Series 4 and The End of Time.

Astrid-peth-kylie-minogue

Regarding one-off companion, Astrid Peth, I really, really, really disliked her. Much like Clara Oswald, her appearance seems ultimately connected to helping save the Doctor.

Additionally, I rather liked Mr Copper, played by Clive Swift, better than the companion by comparison, who only appears in this story. Swift, however, previously appeared as Jobel in Revelation of the Daleks.

Additionally, Geoffrey Palmer, who plays antagonist Captain Hardaker, is the first actor who appeared in the classic series to return in a new role. He originally played civil servant Edward Masters in The Silurians, and Administrator in The Mutants.

According to the m0vie blog review:

I’m the Doctor. I’m a Time Lord. I’m from the planet Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous. I’m nine hundred and three years old and I’m the man who’s going to save your lives and all six billion people on the planet below. You got a problem with that?

No.

In that case, allons-y!

– of course, the Doctor’s boasting would be much more effective if most of the cast didn’t die

Voyage of the Damned is an ambitious piece of Doctor Who, at least in terms of scope. It’s very clearly an attempt to do The Poseidon Adventure in space, on a television budget, with a sinister corporate conspiracy layered on top. It’s all this and a big Christmas Special guest starring Kylie Minogue to boot. That’s a lot to pile into a single episode, and Voyage of the Damned strains under the pressure.

There are various flaws that chip away at Voyage of the Damned. It’s very hard to do a disaster movie with about six sets and only one big set piece. The fact that this was all planned ahead of time gives the Doctor a convenient adversary to face, but it does over-crowd the script somewhat; Max Capricorn feels like a cardboard cut-out of a baddie. And Astrid feels less like a fully-formed companion in the style of Donna and more like a generic secondary character.

And yet, despite that, Davies’ ambition is infectious. Even if Voyage of the Damned struggles to carry off everything that it attempts, it’s still a remarkable accomplishment of tea-team Christmas viewing.

Davies’ Christmas Specials tended to cross over into genres associated with Christmas television viewing. The Christmas Invasion was very clearly inspired by Independence Day, right down to the movie’s patriotism. The Runaway Bride was an odd-couple action adventure. The Next Doctor plays on Victorian period drama, with a dash of magical steam punk thrown in for good measure. Voyage of the Damned is perhaps the most obvious genre mash-up. It’s a good old-fashioned disaster movie.

The disaster movie is a staple of British Christmas viewing, with many such blockbusters repeated throughout the festive season. It is somewhat paradoxical. After all, watching a bunch of random people die brutal deaths doesn’t seem like the most festive of viewing. Still, disaster films tend to invite large-scale epic spectacle and feature gigantic set pieces, threaded through with relatively simple plots. As such, they are the perfect fodder for relaxed Christmas viewing.

Voyage of the Damned sort of alludes to how bizarre all this is, with Mister Copper’s grotesquely mangled Christmas traditions parodying the surreal excesses of the holiday. One would imagine that “families gather around the table to watch lots of characters die in brutal and visually interesting ways” is a Christmas tradition that is as difficult to explain as Boxing Day or Santa’s “naughty or nice” list.

Voyage of the Damned is just a bit hamstrung by the fact that Doctor Who is a BBC television production. It’s a lavish production with a generous budget, but it never really had the capacity to properly visualise a disaster-in-space movie. As a result, Voyage of the Damned features a bunch of CGI explosions, lots of wandering around service corridors and one gigantic impressive sequence that kills off a significant portion of the disaster survivors.

Voyage of the Damned would flow a lot better if the production could have afforded two or three more sequences on par with the “nuclear storm drive” scene. Instead, it winds up feeling like Voyage of the Damned is building towards a scene where the cast has to cross a precipice very carefully. Since this is where the production has spent all the money, it means that the sequence also racks up the highest body count, killing off Foon, Morvin and Bannakaffalatta.

So there’s no real suspense after that point. Barring the episode’s bad guy, Astrid is the only character who dies after this point, and that was preordained the moment the Doctor invites her to travel with him. As a result, the entire sequence saps Voyage of the Damned of its energy and momentum, and represents the single biggest problem with the episode. Which is a shame, because it’s easy to see why “disaster movie in space” was something that Davies really wanted to make.

The Max Capricorn plotline also weighs the script down a bit. It doesn’t make too much logical sense. Why does Max need to be on board when he crashes the Titanic? Surely there’s a less convoluted way to get his revenge on the board? More than that, the story would flow a lot better if the Doctor were simply fighting a natural disaster. While Max and the Heavenly Hosts allow the Doctor to face a clear antagonist, they also tangle up the plot a bit, leaving Voyage of the Damned feeling a little over-plotted and bloated.

Still, Voyage of the Damned is at least interesting. As with most of Davies’ Christmas Specials, Voyage of the Damned is designed as television that can be watched by the whole family in various states of alertness or engagement. Max’s evil plan is handily explained in one dialogue scene just before he’s killed, so it’s hard to get lost, even when Davie over-complicates the plot a bit. It’s full of catchy visuals and pushes all the buttons you expect from blockbuster family viewing.

Interestingly, Voyage of the Damned still manages to hit on two of the big themes of Davies’ writing, particularly heading into the show’s fourth season and Davies’ last full season as executive producer. There’s a healthy bit of class-based subtext to this space adventure. Which makes sense, being a show set on board a luxury liner. After all, the Doctor helpfully instructs Astrid to call him “just Doctor, not sir” in their first conversation.

Foon and Morvin are identified as distinctly lower class when compared to the rest of the passengers. Foon won the tickets in a competition, relying on her knowledge of By the Light of the Asteroid, which is heavily implied to be a galactic soap opera. (“Is that the one with the twins?” the Doctor asks.) Foon jokes that the fees on the competition line will have put them in massive debt for this romantic holiday. The couple are openly ridiculed by the upper-crust passengers. “They think we should be in steerage.”

Indeed, class conflict bleeds into Voyage of the Damned quite frequently. The Stewart is frustrated by the malfunctioning Heavenly Host because they almost broke the neck of a woman in first class. The Captain is coerced into participating in this fiendish conspiracy through economic pressure. He’s suffering a terminal illness, and can’t provide for his family. “I’m dying already,” he admits before crashing the ship. “Six months. And they offered me so much money for my family.”

Both Max and Bannakaffalatta are the victims of social prejudice, living as exiles due to their cyborg nature. (Given that cyborgs are half-way between human and machine, the prejudice metaphor is hardly subtle.) Bannakaffalatta had to hide his status, and Max talks about trying to conceal his status from the board, by using holograms. Mister Copper adds some context to all this, talking about spending time with the “cyborg caravans”, inviting comparisons to modern gypsies or travellers. “Good people,” he insists.

The other aspect of the Davies era that shines through, and one particularly relevant as the show prepares to enter its fourth year, is the notion that the Doctor isn’t necessarily as good as he might claim to be. Davies has been characterising the Tenth Doctor as hubristic and arrogant for quite some time now, arguably dating back to The Christmas Invasion. However, the fourth season and the specials really kick that into overdrive.

While The Last of the Time Lords suggested that the Doctor’s perspective could easily be distorted – unable to understand why humanity might want some say in what happens to the Master – Voyage of the Damned is an episode built around the complete and absolute failure of the Tenth Doctor. His bad ass boast to the survivors is quite heart-warming and inspirational, but only two of the people listening to that speech make it out of Voyage of the Damned alive.

Sure, the Doctor saves the Earth. So, on the balance, Voyage of the Damned should definitely go in the “win” column. However, this was modern-day Earth during the Christmas Special. There was no way that Doctor Who would gleefully destroy (and leave destroyed) modern-day Earth as part of the Christmas Special, even if Davies hadn’t worked so hard to anchor the show in modern Britain. When we get a glimpse of how Voyage of the Damned could have turned out differently in Turn Left, the explosion still only destroys Southern England, rather than the entire planet.

So it’s hard to consider “doesn’t destroy the planet” as major victory for the Doctor here. Instead, he promises to protect a whole bunch of people and fails miserably. Most of them die, quite brutally. Even with the cheesy “among the stars” sequence, it’s worth noting that Astrid is the first companion to properly die (and stay dead) in the revived series. Even if she never sets foot in the TARDIS, she’s still credited in the title sequence. Davies has to soften the scene because this is Christmas tea-time viewing, but it’s a pretty catastrophic failure for the Doctor.

The last time the Doctor failed this badly was in The Parting of the Ways, where he lost both the Earth and a potential companion. That episode ended with a convenient deus ex machina that conveniently saved the day and pressed the gigantic friendly reset button. Voyage of the Damned has absolutely no such magic “out” clause for the Doctor. He screws up, and he has to live the consequences of his actions.

Voyage of the Damned directly connects this to the Doctor’s arrogance. As Mister Copper repeatedly tries to convince the Doctor that Astrid is dead, the Doctor refuses to listen. “I can do anything!” he yells, with all the bluster and confidence we’ve come to expect from the character. Of course, he fails miserably and spectacularly. Ranting and raging at the heavens will not change the outcome of the episode.

This is important, because it really sets the tone for the rest of Tennant’s run. Midnight and The Waters of Mars are both episodes that build off this theme. In those episodes, the Doctor’s arrogance is not just contrasted with his failures, but the root cause. Voyage of the Damned is vitally important as the first episode of the show’s fourth season, paving the way for a lot of what follows.

Indeed, Voyage of the Damned ultimately foreshadows The Waters of Mars quite effectively. Observing that the greedy capitalist was the only surviving passenger, Mister Copper remarks, “Of all the people to survive, he’s not the one you would have chosen, is he? But if you could choose, Doctor… if you decide who lives and who dies… that would make you a monster.” That might even be the key to the whole “fixed point in time” mystery.

Perhaps the Doctor is only a hero as long as he saves whoever he can, even if it’s blind luck or whoever is nearest the TARDIS at the time, as in The Fires of Pompeii. It’s once the Doctor starts consciously deciding that some levels are worth more than others – that Adelaide is worth saving because she’s “important” in The Waters of Mars– that the Doctor becomes a truly horrifying figure. He’s not a saviour in that case, but a judge. Or maybe that’s an attempt to justify convenient plot logic.

What’s weird about all this is the way that Voyage of the Damned ties back into the patriotism of The Christmas Invasion. Is the Doctor’s arrogance ironically and subversively reflected in the fetishisation of Great Britain? Or is it just a way to make the audience feel good about themselves on Christmas Day? Still, we get some nice examples of British resilience, as Wilf and the Queen refuse to be driven from the capital by all those pesky invasions.

The Doctor even gets in on the act, as Mister Copper asks about “Great France” and “Great Germany.” The Doctor is quick to correct him. “Only Britain is Great,” the Doctor assures Mister Copper. The pound sterling is even held up as a very valuable currency on the interstellar markets. “Mister Copper, a million pounds is worth fifty million credits.” Well, actually, “fifty million and fifty six.”

Speaking of Mister Copper, his final scene with the Doctor feels a little weird.  He suggests travelling with the Doctor, but the Doctor is having none of that. “And, what about me?” Mister Copper asks. “I travel alone,” the Doctor responds. “It’s best that way.” Of course, Davies is just trying to underscore the idea that the Doctor is going through an emotional phase, but it has the unfortunate side effect of making it look like the Tenth Doctor simply wants to recruit a companion with better legs. (Still, at least Donna represents a break from the age range of the typical revival companion.)

While we’re on the subject of companions, it’s worth noting that Voyage of the Damnedintroduces Wilf. Wilf is played by Bernard Cribbins, who is a British institution. Among other roles, Cribbins played a companion in the classic Peter Cushing Doctor Who films in the sixties. While Davies’ Doctor Who has used classic guest stars before (Voyage of the Damned features Clive Swift from Revelation of the Daleks) and had even spun off The Sarah Jane Adventures featuring an old companion, this is a nice demonstration of how Davies’ attitude to the franchise is expansive.

Those sixties films were never a part of the franchise’s internal continuity, but they are a massive part of its history. Steven Moffat would borrow the technicolour redesign of the Daleks in Victory of the Daleks from those films. (It’s worth noting that Davies’ fourth season finalé, Journey’s End, also features a bright red Dalek.) Although Cribbins only became a vital part of Davies’ Doctor Who by chance, he’s a nice link to the franchise’s unofficial history.

It’s arguably quite like Davies’ decision to include The TV Movie in continuity and to get Paul Cornell to write Human Nature for the show and to adapt Spare Parts and even to make reference to “kronk burgers.” These were not elements that were firmly set in stone as part of the franchise’s continuity, and so it’s nice that Davies goes out of his way to acknowledge their contribution to the franchise’s history.

In a way, even the use of the Starship Titanic here seems like an attempt to acknowledge the expansive web of Doctor Who. The premise of the episode seems to have been loosely inspired by Douglas Adams’ Starship Titanic game. Adams was script editor for Doctor Who during Graham Williams’ tenure as producer, one of the more maligned periods of the show’s classic run, due to its emphasis on silly comedy. Appropriately enough, the fourth season of the revived Doctor Who features two explicitly comedic scripts – including the season opener, Partners in Crime.

Much like the way Davies wrote the first season as the spiritual successor of the Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy eras, Davies seems to be stressing that all of Doctor Whocounts in one way or another, and all of it is important to the franchise’s history. Not just the parts that everybody likes and can agree on. There were some great ideas in the extended periods where fans seemed to hate the show. So dropping a great big Douglas Adams homage in the middle of the Christmas script seems like a conscious effort to rehabilitate the contributions made by Adams and Williams to the show.

Voyage of the Damned is a very flawed episode, but it’s an intriguing piece of Doctor Who nonetheless. At the very least, it sets the right tone for the year ahead.

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