TV EYE: Doctor Who – ‘Voyage of the Damned’

Better late than never…

We live in a world where Doctor Who is one of the BBC’s biggest guns in the Christmas TV lineup, a fact that regularly causes me to think I’ve accidentally skipped realities. The trouble with Christmas specials, of course, is that it’s very easy for them to lapse into over-indulgent rubbish, as they’re really designed for little else other than to be engaging nonsense to be watched by people who’ve had way too much to eat. As a result, I was rather amazed by the first Who Christmas special, as apart from the campery of the Killer Santas, we got a suprisingly dark story with an authentic aura of vintage Doctor Who. It was enjoyable stuff that rather blind-sided me- but then, of course, The Christmas Invasion was a post-Regeneration story, and so had a purpose beyond being a jolly (or not so jolly) Christmas runaround.

Unfortunately, it turned out that far from avoiding Christmas campery, Russell T. Davies had simply delayed it for a year. The Runaway Bride wasn’t the worst episode of New Who yet (an honour that, for me, is still divided somewhere between World War Three and Boomtown in Season 2), but it was fairly dispiriting stuff, going for a Christmas Panto feel and showing once again that throwing big images at the screen doesn’t matter two figs if you haven’t got a decent story with which to back it up. Voyage of the Damned was certainly an improvement, and the abscence of Catherine Tate was a definite plus point (we might as well enjoy the calm before the oncoming 13-episode storm), but there’s a distinctly perfunctory air appearing in the show (and RTD’s scripts in particular), and there wasn’t quite enough energy, humour or invention to disguise the fact that this really wasn’t a story that was screaming out to be told.

In the same way that Torchwood’s ‘Countrycide’ episode existed for no other reason than to pastiche Backwoods Horror movies, VOTD was upfront about being a disaster movie pastiche, and despite the setting of Titanic, the main target was actually The Poseidon Adventure (complete with a cheery Shelly Winters analogue). As a pure pastiche, it was fairly effective, and once again the production team are getting exponentially better (at least technically) at doing big-scale action sequences, but RTD was so busy following the traditions of disaster movies that he didn’t bother to even attempt to subvert them. About the most adventurous that the storytelling got was to kill off all the nice working class characters while having the unrepentant First-Class bastard survive- yes, it’s a nod to the classist cliches of Cameron’s Titanic, but it’s also a sign of how happy RTD seems to be to say “Oh, that’ll do.” Characters remained as two-dimensional at the end as they were at the start, and certainly didn’t deserve the lengthy pauses for meaningful emotional heart-to-hearts, or more clunky discussions of “Ah, so what is this thing the humans call ‘Christmas’?” Even one-off companion Astrid was barely more than a thinly disguised Rose substitute (pretty, blonde, working class, plucky), while the story didn’t move fast enough to disguise the many flaws, regularly screaming to a halt for some hilariously overblown Michael Bay-style slowmo, while finally descending into the hallowed halls of Total Bollocks Overdrive(TM), with RTD crossing another important London landmark off his list, and creating a cameo appearence for the Queen that somehow managed to be even worse than the one in 1988 Who story Silver Nemesis (something which shouldn’t even have been possible…)

But then, this isn’t the first weakly thought out, over-flashy and ultimately unimpressive RTD story, and it’s unlikely to be the last. What it does show, however, is that the show’s reliance on pastiche is getting dangerously close to the French and Saunders movie spoof routines where the only real gag is how accurate the costumes and make-up are. Who has always relied on pastiche throughout its lengthy history (especially in the Phillip Hinchcliffe era), but plenty of episodes of the new series don’t seem to exist as much beyond an exercise in spot-the-influence, and the cracks are starting to show. Only three years in, and Who is already starting to self-consume, with Voyage of the Damned being the second story to rip off classic Who story ‘Robots of Death’ (the other being the Impossible Planet/Satan Pit two parter, which has already been pillaged for 42), while it’s the third Christmas special in a row to feature killer Christmas-themed robots, following on from a third season finale which once again saw humanity facing off against a mechanical enemy that were (shock, horror!) also somehow human themselves. Who is an almost limitless story engine with the ability to go anywhere and do anything, but New Who can’t escape from the distinct whiff of formula, and the fact that RTD is happy to give his audience exactly what they want and no more (for fear that intellectual demands might make them switch off in abject horror). Considering that the fourth season sounds likely to be drowning in inter-continuity (by the end of the season, we’re rumoured to be seeing Rose, Mickey, the other Tylers, Martha (and probably Martha’s family), Captain Jack (again), and Sarah Jane), the chances for a surprising change of direction are fairly remote, and with the BBC going out of their way to give RTD the working conditions he wants by ‘resting’ the show for a year, it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon. Who lives or dies by its ability to change, and placing it in a creative stasis isn’t going to do it any favours, and will probably result in more ‘Voyage of the Damned’s and fewer ‘Blink’s. Of course, while RTD may have claimed that Season 3 went too dark, and that ‘Dark doesn’t always equal good’, he might be wise to remember that light, fluffy and forgettable pastiches don’t always equal good either…

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