Voyage of the Damned
First things first. I would like to begin my review by tackling the spurious argument that you can't expect anything as good (or as challenging) as Blink or Human Nature to go out at Christmas, a statement that gets trotted out whenever somebody has the temerity to criticise this lazy piece of grandstanding garbage. I just don't get it. Is it because you honestly believe that the audience prefer camp and frothy spectacle over plot and characterisation, or is it that they simply can't bear the thought of genuine and complicated emotions invading their post-turkey stupor? Is that how EastEnders ended up with even more viewers than Doctor Who's remarkable 12 million? I'm not suggesting that Doctor Who has to be grim, dark and miserable - at any time of the year - but surely audiences want mystery, suspense, a few laughs and some proper drama. I'm really sorry but Voyage of the Damned falls disastrously short at almost every turn.
Andre Previn wasn't draped in tinsel...
But credit where credit is due: the premise to Voyage of the Damned is great. In fact, the first 35 minutes really touched a nerve with me and I was genuinely enjoying every daft moment of it, especially the sight of aliens reacting to a Specsavers shop front like we would the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. And I can't get enough of disaster movies; as John has already pointed out, it's a genre that has become inexplicably linked with Christmas after appearing perennially on the box during the holidays when I was a kid, and in the case of Die Hard and The Poseidon Adventure, by actively taking place during the festivities themselves. I just hope that they skip the obligatory Christmas theme altogether next year. Having recently re-watched all of Morecombe and Wise's Christmas Specials I was immediately struck by the distinct lack of Christmas trappings up there on the screen. Andre Previn wasn't draped in tinsel. Angela Rippon wasn't a dancing Santa Claus. Somersaulting newsmen were on a bloody beach, for christsake! And the added bonus is that you can watch these shows all year around. Admit it, you can't really do that with a Christmas-flavoured special. Point of fact: try watching The Runaway Bride in early January. Within ten minutes you'll finding yourself feeling ill disposed towards it because you are in the midst of the back-to-work post-Christmas blues. It's a real downer.
Russell plunders from two classic Who stories, and one really shit one...
And of all the Christmas themes you could plunder, like the classic ghost story, the historical period piece (Capra or Dickens?) or even a Christmas future, why does Russell insist on plunging contemporary earth in mortal danger every bloody year? He even has to shoe-horn in a stupid (but ultimately necessary) reference to how everyone in London has done a runner. And if the rumours are true then Bernard Cribbens was playing Donna Noble's granddad, which just makes that scene ten times worse, if you ask me.
Anyway, the initial set-up was pretty engaging. Sure, it was derivative but who cares? The very best Doctor Who's of old were always derivative, it's what they did with the source material that really mattered. And if you are going to steal then you may as well steal from the best, and I don't care what anyone says, The Poseidon Adventure is one of the very best, and I dare anyone to dismiss Gene Hackman's final tirade to God as anything but a classic moment in cinema history.
Russell also unashamedly plunders from two 'classic' Who stories (Enlightenment and The Robots of Death) and one really, really shit one (Delta and the Bannerman). And I loved it. For large swathes of the audience this would be their first exposure to the concept of flying ocean liners, homicidal servo-bots with art deco heads and goofy, ill-informed alien tourists, and I didn't have a problem with that at all.
Strangely, the one thing that Voyage of the Damned doesn't really riff on is the most obvious contender of all - James Cameron's Titanic. Where was the moment where the Doctor and Astrid are standing on the prow of the ship in some sort of sonic screwdriver-ed oxygen bubble, as they stare wistfully out towards the galaxy, just as the asteroids make a bee-line for the ship? It can't have been that expensive - even Barry Letts could pulled that off. It couldn't have been because they didn't have the time either - the episode had more padding than Shelly Winters stunt double - and it certainly can't have been because it would have been too cheesy. Maybe it wasn't cheesy enough, given what's coming...
Anyway, up until the moment when our merry band of heroes set out along that strut I was having a whale of a time. Geoffrey Palmer was utterly fantastic as the affable uncle about to commit genocide for the sake of his kids (why couldn't he have been the villain of the piece?) and the initial disaster was portrayed wonderfully, climaxing in that great moment when the petty officer got sucked out into space. As the Doctor delivered his chilling 'Kasterborous' speech I settled into a mildly euphoric belief that everything was going to be OK.
And then everything went tits up as Russell hit his own personal iceberg: his lack of self-restraint.
Meet Max Capricorn. The fact that he was the bad guy wasn't surprising to me in the least. No, the real surprise was the fact that he arrived in the guise of a comedy Davros! He looked like he'd been cooked up by a couple of hard-up fans in a garage! Gliding into view as a bizarre cross between the travel machine in Kinda, an ASDA shopping trolley and one of those grab-a-prize cabinets you find in amusement arcades, you just can't take him seriously. A boo-hiss pantomime villain would have been bad enough, but a boo-hiss pantomime villain stuck in a box? Oh dear.
But Max's laughable entrance isn't the worst part of it. No, his arrival also heralds the moment when the plot holes suddenly converge and engulf the entire script. A disaster within a disaster, if you like. I'm not talking about problems with the metallic consistency of asteroids, or whether the Queen's flag should ripple a bit more, or even the miraculous healing powers of the officer who has been shot in the gut. No, I'm talking about the really serious problems, like: why is Max Capricorn on the Titanic in the first place? And why are the Hosts killing witnesses who are all going to die in a nuclear explosion in the next few minutes anyway? It just doesn't make any sense!
Any why bother with a villain at all? You didn't see Gene Hackman investigating the source of the Tsunami that overturned the Poseidon, did you? No, he was content with just getting off the bloody ship! Why not concentrate on that aspect instead? Surely it would have been more exciting and dramatic than facing off against a villain that no one seems even remotely interested in taking seriously.
A disaster within a disaster...
And then, just when you think things can't get any worse there's that moment with the fucking Queen. What was Russell thinking? Has he never seen Silver Nemesis? Is he after a quick knighthood? What? Was there anyone in the audience who didn't groan when that scene unfurled, like a tape-worm, on screen? Do you think Primeval would stoop so low as to have a velociraptor attacking a Gordon Brown look-a-like? I think I would have preferred it if Tennant had turned to the audience back home and wished us all a Merry fucking Christmas.
And RTD should never be allowed near numbers. Each and every time he hits a numerical key on his keyboard an alarm should go off and someone with a rudimentary grasp of mathematics should rush into Russell's flat so they can check that what he's just written isn't "oh, that'll do" bollocks. Or employ a script editor. Whichever is easiest. Just look at the evidence: he can't get the Doctor's age right, he locates adventures in the year 5,000,000,000,000,000,000,004, and he creates societies where people travel 10cm in 10 years. Why won't somebody stop him?
The most shameful example of Russell's numerical dyslexia can be found in Voyage of the Damned. I am, of course, talking about the revelation that Shelly Winters' phone bill, the one that will take her 20 years to pay off (yes, 20 years!), is approximately 100 quid. I've seen ming-mongs on the forums desperately trying to wave this away by insisting that Shelly Winters must be on a really low wage, conveniently forgetting the fact that Mr Copper, a glorified tour guide, believes that a million quid's worth of credits is enough to spend on a few trinkets, which therefore implies that 5,000 credits must be worth (factoring in exchange rates and inflation) a couple of quid, tops. Shameful.
But it's not just RTD's grasp of numbers that winds me up, it's his preoccupation with messianic imagery. Just like that other raging atheist, JM Straczynski, he too feels compelled to litter his sci-fi opus with god-like beings of light and resurrected heroes with mystical, magical powers. And it makes me cringe every single time. However, I guess this is counterpointed by the fact that the Doctor isn't really harder than Jesus in the final analysis. He can't stop Astrid from dying for a start; he can only postpone her agony so he can give her a quick tongue sandwich. You know, it says a lot when the Doctor snogging the face of a woman is only mildly irritating when placed next to the image of him being lifted up on the wings of angels. It managed to make his Obi-Wan levitation in Last of the Time Lords look like something out of fucking Akira!
More padding than Shelly Winters' stunt double...
I suppose I'd better talk about Kylie. I'm not a fan of the songstress and the whole thing stank of stunt casting from the very beginning to me. Despite the fact that I may have tapped my toes to a couple of her more recent gramophone records I wasn't exactly sold on her acting credentials. Neighbours and, er, um, Street Fighter?! Still, I decided, it could have been a lot worse - it could have been Catherine Tate again. Or, failing that, another sitcom star with an equity card. This is why Andy Millman being asked to appear in the show during last night's Extras felt so right to me - he's a shit comedian in a low-brow sitcom, of course he's going to be invited to appear in Doctor Who!
Having said all that, Kylie was pretty good as Astrid. The problem is she wasn't given that much to do. OK, so she kills the villain, snogs the Doctor (twice), gets herself killed (twice) and then turns into Tinkerbell (don't get me started on that), which looks like quite a lot on paper, but in reality it's hard for me to really give a damn about anything she does because her character is so two-dimensional. Even Bannanakafka made more of an impression on me and he was a walking deus ex machina! And why make Kylie look so dowdy? She's a glamourpuss in a maid's outfit and yet she still managed to come across as bit, well, meh. That takes some doing. And who wasn't laughing their ass off when Astrid picked up Capricorn on that pallet truck? What should have been a gut-wrenching scene that conjured up images of Ripley taking on the Alien Queen, it had as much dramatic gravitas as a bad French and Saunders sketch.
The fact that the Doctor falls for Astrid within moments of meeting her (despite a distinct lack of on-screen chemistry) is either more evidence of his incessant longing for Rose (Astrid's blonde and a bit feisty, you see) or it's just really bad writing. And then there's the bit at the end where the Doctor dumps Mr. Copper in Wales because he wants to travel alone. You might interpret this a battle-damaged Doctor trying to protect Mr. Copper from further harm, or maybe, if you're like me, you'll believe he can't be bothered with Mr. Copper because he a) isn't blonde b) hasn't got a pair of magnificent tits and c) he hasn't flirted with him for the last hour. Sad, isn't it?
And there you have it. Yet another expensive looking Christmas cracker stuffed with bad jokes, shiny bits of disposable tat and paper-thin, er, hats. Quite a nice bang, though.
If the Doctor Who Christmas Special really is the franchise's shop window then isn't it about time we got the Fenwicks treatment instead of another gaudy sale at What Everybody Wants?