Saturday, 5 July 2014

Voyage of the Damned written by Russell T. Davies and directed by James Strong

This story in a nutshell: A disaster movie in space...

Mockney Dude: Generally speaking I think Tennant does an excellent job with this script (especially when you think that he was suffering a bereavement at the time) and my issues are generally with the characterisation more than anything. Davies just can't help a little hero worship sometimes, can he? I wish he had somebody there who could restrain him on occasion because sometimes it overflows from a natural love of the Doctor to saccharine gushing. ‘I’m the Doctor, I’m a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey…’ – I had my head in my hands during that speech and it was rightly mocked by Moffat in Day of the Doctor. I don’t need to be told how good the Doctor is, just show me. Davies' era is affected by a number of these arduous moments of Doctor love (The Next Doctor sees the Doctor being applauded once he has taken down the Cyber-King and there is similar applause during Planet of the Dead) that could have happily done without. There are enough demonstrative moments of how wonderful the tenth Doctor is throughout his tenure and heaping all this praise on top feels like overkill. Perhaps that is why the Doctor is so bruised at the moment of his regeneration, the ultimate selfless act to an audience of nobody. He is gotten to a position where he feels as though he needs a 'reward' for his services. Donna Noble cannot turn up quick enough to crush is magnificent ego. The other moment I find hard to the swallow is when Davies tries to mythologise the character by having him borne aloft by angel about laying it on a bit thick (the music doesn't help). It is superbly realised but this is one of those moments where I wonder if there is something in the criticism that Davies pushed this a bit too far on occasion. Perhaps that is the fault of the Christmas specials, giving the showrunner (whoever it maybe) carte blanche to over characterise the lead for the extra three or four million that will tune in on Christmas Day. Those are my only issues with the Doctor in Voyage of the Damned and they consist of about two minutes of material which isn't bad going. There is a great deal to celebrate about the Doctor in this story too. I like it when Tennant travels alone and how he effortlessly ingratiates himself into whatever setting he has found himself in (it worked in Smith and Jones, Partners in Crime, Midnight and his final run of specials too). He looks great in a tux and immediately catches the eye of the prettiest girl on the ship. There's something of the trampish vagabond about him, materialising without a ticket or money and yet acting as if he belongs that really appeals to Astrid and it easy to see why she is seduced by his lifestyle. There is lovely moment where he mentions Martha which is much subtler than his entire season of mooning over Rose. A few years ago the Doctor was made homeless and the Earth became his surrogate home. Astrid is spot on when she realises the Doctor needs somebody to watch out for him. When push comes to shove the Doctor will grab whatever he can find to defend himself and he brandishes a saucepan like an unhinged Pauline Fowler to hold back the Angels. Described perfectly as being all banter but not a word wasted. One thing that Tennant has in abundance (aside from immense skill as an actor) is energy and it is precisely what Voyage of the Damned needs. It isn't a character led script that pushes him like Human Nature or Midnight but it is one that physically demands a great deal of stamina and charisma which he displays in abundance. Clearly that first kiss with Grace in the TV Movie awakened something in Doctor because he can't get enough of it these days, despite Tennant trying to show a degree of confusion after the event. Let's just say his first seven regenerations were pre-puberty. He tells Mr Copper that he travels alone which is a massive fib to avoid travelling the stars with a doddery old fart. I wonder if the situation would be different if he was a she and blessed with a winning smile and curvy figure. Throughout the Doctor seems to be improvising in a blazing eyed state of madness as he reacts to the many dangers and it is easy to admire his tenacity.

Angelic Astrid: I cannot comprehend the reasoning behind securing the talent of national treasure Kylie Minogue and sticking her in an unflattering wig and serving outfit and forcing her to climb through miles of dirty rubble and wreckage. I've heard that he can be quite the charmer but Russell T. Davies must be extremely persuasive if he sold her on this story. Who said acting was glamorous? Astrid is such obvious companion material but Minogue plays her with such guileless charm it pretty much subverts the characterisation. I genuinely think she is simply reeling off the lines rather than truly thinking about the character and her journey but that straightforward approach works very well because another actress might stress those 'please take me with you' qualities and the result could be as painfully obvious as the Doctor's hero worship. Her life must be desperately dull if an empty street in Cardiff presses her buttons. Astrid flirts with the Doctor but she has such an air of innocence about her that it is rather appealing for a change (compared with the overt sexual advances on Matt Smith's Doctor it is practically chaste). Even the kiss is romanticised and rather adorable, having to grab a medical box so she can reach his lips. It feels like somebody saying goodbye before they head off to get on with a dangerous task rather than somebody trying to shove their hands down his trousers (Amy Pond's speciality). Kylie takes control brilliantly when the Doctor heads off to find Capricorn. I didn't think she had it in her to lead this cast but she displays real confidence in these scenes. Killing off Astrid was a good move, her perky sweetness probably would have grated after a while (you would probably have to continually do awful things to such a nice character to make make her tolerable over an extended period of time) but as a one off she is as appealing as a cuddle with a loved one on a snowy day (or about as appealing as Catherine Tate wasn’t at the beginning of The Runaway Bride). Starlight is a fairytale end to a fairytale character. Who said that approach was unique to Moffat?

Sparkling Dialogue: This is written by Russell T. Davies, of course it is stuffed with great lines...
‘She’s an old ship. Full of aches and pains.’
‘Information: You are all going to die.’
‘’Allo sailor!’
‘You drive me barmy, I don’t half love you’ – what’s that? Nine words and Davies sums up love perfectly.
‘You can’t even sink the Titanic!’
‘You’re not falling Astrid, you’re flying.’
‘It’s just France and Germany. Only Britain’s Great.’

The Good Stuff: The exterior effects shots of the Titanic gliding into the atmosphere above the Earth are visually stunning, by far the sexiest spaceship ever seen in Doctor Who. I remember a friend who doesn't watch the show seeing this footage on BBC News before the episode aired and it peaked her interest enough to give it a try. Now she watches every week with her daughter (although admittedly she doesn't understand what is going on half the time). Geoffrey Palmer’s understated performance automatically gives this story a great deal of kudos. There are some astonishingly dressed sets; that gorgeous globe that dominates the passenger lounge, the ship made of lights, the Heavenly Hosts gleaming on the sidelines, hundreds of smartly dressed extras…this is without a doubt one of the best looking NuWho adventures.  The Hosts are a genuinely creepy robotic creations. Who cares if they are Robots of Death knock offs? If you going to steal an idea, you might as well steal from the best. Mr Copper's Christmas tale that puts all the details in a blender and serves them up entirely out of context is hilarious; human beings worship the Great God Santa, a creature with fearsome claws and his wife Mary. Every Christmas Eve the people of UK go to war with the country of Turkey and then they eat the Turkey people for Christmas dinner. I bet the kids were lapping that up. I'd much rather watch that tale than the nativity. Doesn't it warm your heart to think that there is still room in Doctor Who for ridiculous looking monsters like Banakafalata that the audience will take to their hearts? Bernard Cribbins is a delight, can you imagine a better ambassador for Britain if you were only going to pop down for five minutes? This years Christmas record (an idea that has unfortunately been dropped) was a massive hit in my house and Simon plays The Stowaway every Christmas as part of his playlist. The direction of the meteor attack beautifully captures the drama and the spectacle of the disaster; the rising music, the shot of the Captain through the set, gusts of fire, screaming guests, guests being crushed to death... James Strong's direction must be applauded, this is a story that lives and dies through it's visuals and he deserves a great deal of kudos for pulling off a stylish disaster movie on a BBC budget. This could be shown on the big screen with relatively few alterations. There are some great touches such as the camera being the POV of the hosts halo as it screams towards its terrifying victim. Russell Tovey is very, very good; he plays Midshipman Frame with an appropriate earnestness that makes you feel for the character, shot in the gut and forced to endure the Host murdering their way through the passengers and crew. He contrasts very nicely against the cast of comics and grotesques that the Doctor is lumbered with below decks. His high pitched scream as the Host try and force their way in is priceless. He would have made a great companion. The scale of the storm drive FX is immense. Sometimes the epic nature of the effects on NuWho unbalance a simple story and sometimes they are absolutely appropriate. This is definitely a case of the latter where bigger is definitely better. Davies creates a number of likeable characters and kills them off one by one in a perverse but realistic manner, little touches of malfeasance in a blockbusting script. Standing atop a deadly ball of energy, armed with pipes and deflecting lethal halos, the Heavenly Host Game is rip for a theme park to swipe. Mr Copper is charmingly written and played and whilst the humour is occasionally forced it is his more thoughtful moments that really endear him to the audience. He talks the Doctor into leaving Astrid as stardust and ponders on the horror of dictating life and death (a wonderfully prescient observation considering the events of Waters of Mars) in scenes that prove him to be much more astute than I had previously given him credit. Copper could have been a comic caricature but Clive Swift gives him a real sense of dignity (and quite the actor too as he seems to be an arsehole in real life as his interview in Doctor Who magazine exemplified). Max Capricorn doesn't get spoken about much when it comes to the great Doctor Who villain but I think he has a lot to offer. He's visually delicious; confined to a steam punk contraption that only allows us to see his head protruding from oily wires and his retirement plan of destroying the Earth, slaughtering the board of his company and spending the rest of his days copping off with metal obsessed nymphs is inspired lunacy. No you can't take him seriously at all...but there are very few Doctor Who villains that I can. He's a materialistic, psychotic despot with a penchant for one-liners and I think he is marvellous. The comedy gurn from Capricorn as he plunges into the storm drive always makes me die with laughter, it punctures the slow motion melodrama of Astrid falling to her death hilariously. Murray Gold’s music as the Titanic plunges towards the Earth is genuinely dynamic and exciting, capturing the madness and the pace of the conclusion. The Doctor’s hilarious reaction to where exactly the Titanic is going to crash almost makes the sequence worthwhile (almost). Sometimes the bastards survive is a point worth making. Slade is a complete slime ball and remains in character right up until his parting shot. I respect Davies for that. What happened to the next time trailers for the new seasons? This is one of the most exciting examples. Catherine Tate! Sontarans! Martha Jones! Stone monsters! Sarah Lancashire! Ood! The piano addition to the theme tune is superb, I don't think this has been improved before or since in NuWho.

The Bad Stuff: I have absolutely no clue as to the purpose of the Titanic crashing into the TARDIS if this painfully simple resolution was always going to be how it was going to be concluded. It is just there to provide a good cliffhanger without any logical purpose beyond that and that's not good enough. The characterisation can be Paul Cornell obvious at times (that's the Paul Cornell from Father's Day, not the Paul Cornell of Human Nature), trying to push you into a certain opinion on characters so forcefully. The toffs laughing at Marvin and Foon are clearly supposed to make us feel for these characters. Who on Earth would dial a phone line 5000 times? Davies has a funny obsession with numbers, always going for one which is far out of the realms of believability (see also the dating of New Earth and Utopia). Cyborgs with equal rights is a metaphor for the fight for homosexual rights and I'm not sure if it was needed, even to provide Banakafalata with some substance. I can usually defend this show to the high heavens but what hope have I got with a parting cry of ‘Thank you Doctor!’ from the Queen? Clever? Funny? Cute? Embarrassing.

The Shallow Bit: The things I could do to Russell Tovey. Look at how stunningly Kylie Minogue scrubbed up on The Voice last year...what the hell happened here?

Result: Voyage of the Damned is a fast paced, sexy disaster movie in space and when taken as a blockbusting Christmas special it is very well done, executed with panache and performed in style. You wouldn’t want many stories of this ilk but as an attractive one off with piquant visuals, pace, excitement and some pleasant touches of character it is a highly engaging experience. I’m pleased one of the highest rated Doctor Who stories is such a shameless crowd pleaser because the generally increased viewing figures of series four would seem to suggest that some of the uninitiated came back for more. Kylie Minogue isn’t the world’s greatest actress but she is effortlessly likeable and clearly a great draw and actors Jimmy Vee, Clive Owen, Russell Tovey and Geoffrey Palmer provide fantastic moments along the way. David Tennant is no slouch either, keeping the energy levels up and the Doctor's relationship with Astrid reminding us of how seductive a life with the Time Lord can be. Only when Davies tries to push the hero worship does the characterisation really sink and fortunately that is reduced to a few scant scenes. Voyage comes in for a lot of bad press but I think it is a story that knows exactly what it is doing and gets on with doing it very well indeed, more amusing than The Runaway Bride, less static than The Next Doctor, more compact and easily digestible than The End of Time, far less up its own arse than A Christmas Carol and a world away in terms of quality compared to The Doctor, The Widow & the Wardrobe and The Time of the Doctor. Only The Christmas Invasion and The Snowman triumph over this in the Christmas Special stakes as far as I am concerned, a fun packed thrill ride which plunders the disaster genre and does some pleasing things with it. Voyage of the Damned is a great example of how your opinion can be revised upon watching a story again. I was left distinctly unimpressed after my first viewing but now this one of my ultimate comfort stories; a splash of colour, noise, action, charm and great lines that never fails to amuse me: 8/10


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David Pirtle said...

I know opinions vary, but I have always found this to be a terrific 1970's disaster movie pastiche with a fun and occasionally moving script and a fine stand-in companion in Kylie Minogue. I even enjoy the Doctor's ridiculous speech. I am glad to see you enjoy it, too.