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Dec 29, 2007

Light Years

It is rather fitting that Voyage of the Damned was the succulent meat in the centre of a wholemeal old-school EastEnders sandwich on Christmas Day. Not simply because this helped create the perfect storm of a ratings juggernaut that the evening became for BBC One, but because the EastEnders storyline in question revolved partly around the character of Tanya Branning, played by Jo Joyner whose performance as Lynda-with-a-Y forever won the hearts of many a Doctor Who fan back in the good old days of 2005, when the world was young and all things seemed possible.

Astrid is perhaps forever to be preceded by the expression ‘poor old’ from hereon in.

Anyhow, this was a fitting piece of scheduling because it’s Lynda-with-a-Y who most comes to mind as a comparison when you come to think of another character perhaps forever to be preceded by the expression ‘poor old’ from hereon in. Astrid Peth, played, as if you didn’t know, by ‘Pop Princess’ (yes, it’s a legal requirement to use that prefix, too) Kylie Minogue.

She gets her name in the titles and everything!

Kylie – come on, everyone calls her that – is one of those pieces of casting that transcends character. We care more about her, or are at least more interested in or more aware of her, because of by whom she is played by than because of any character traits, no matter how sympathetic and endearing they might be. She is a genuine pop culture icon in the UK, and to try and shy away from that would be counter-productive. It’s as if they had actually managed to persuade Laurence Olivier to play the mutant in Revelation of the Daleks – you’d focus on that small part all the more simply because of who was playing it.

You know, you just know as soon as he uses the word ‘promise’ that he’s not going to be able to do it.

The casting is one of the reasons Astrid evokes Lynda, because you know pretty much from the start that both of them are doomed. In both cases, the Doctor promises these eager young one-off companions that he will save them, and take him with them on further adventures. And you know, you just know as soon as he uses the word ‘promise’ that he’s not going to be able to do it. With Lynda, it was simply because that was always the way the story was going. With Kylie, because of who she is, you knew the moment she asked to travel with the Doctor, and he said that she could, that she would die. She couldn’t go with him. They could never have kept her.

Which is a bit of a shame in one respect, as it would be nice to go into these things blind with a bit of genuine surprise, but even without the casting aspect, there are so few surprises we fans allow ourselves to enjoy these days that anybody could have played the part and we would still have known she was doomed. That’s no reason not to cast her, and I enjoyed Minogue’s performance – without wishing to sound too patronising, I thought that she made Astrid a rather sweet character. A woman just beginning to pass from youth into middle age, who has realised that she is in danger of allowing life to pass her by, and has taken one last chance to see those alien skies before it is all too late.

At least she did actually get to see that sky and touch the surface of an alien world, and her little off-world trip was all the better for allowing us to enjoy Bernard Cribbins’s cameo as the newspaper vendor. This is where the knowledge of fandom can be a positive thing, because we can look forward with great anticipation to his return, knowing that he will be reappearing in series four. Hurrah!

As Barry Norman wouldn’t say, ‘and why not?’

He only briefly got to interact with the Doctor, unlike most of the rest of the supporting cast who formed a core group of survivors with the Doctor as their leader, along the tried and tested pattern of any standard Hollywood disaster movie of the 1970s, definitely one of the templates Russell T Davies used for Voyage of the Damned. And as Barry Norman wouldn’t say, ‘and why not?’

One of the central points, the founding philosophy perhaps, of Davies’s vision for Doctor Who is that the Doctor is a character who makes people better – not simply in a medical sense, but a moral one. He brings out the best in those around him, or encourages them to bring out the best in themselves.

He cannot save everyone, though, and the Doctor’s pain and frustration at being unable to save Astrid – “I can do anything!” – was a nice counterpoint to the Godlike-powers this incarnation has been imbued with at times. It’s nice to see that he can’t win everything, and he is sometimes vulnerable.

Midshipman Frayme getting shot in the stomach appears to have bothered people in some of the online verdicts I have read on the episode, because by the time the story comes its end he’s pretty much walking around as if he received nothing more serious than a light scratch. While this is true, I didn’t really see it as a problem – and it certainly didn’t bother me on first viewing, but perhaps I am simply too forgiving a viewer. In any case, it is pretty clearly established that none of the passengers and crew are human, so Framye’s alien – presumably Stowish – physiology could well help him to recover more quickly from injuries, and he is shown to be treating himself at points during the story, probably from the bridge’s medical kit.

Apparently the BBC high-ups liked it so much that they allowed it an extra ten minutes, but I think they could probably have done with being a touch more ruthless.

Voyage of the Damned was by no means a perfect episode though, let’s be clear about that. Part of this was, I think, down to the running time – apparently the BBC high-ups liked it so much that they allowed it an extra ten minutes, but I think they could probably have done with being a touch more ruthless. If had been tightened up a little and brought down to the same sixty-minute length that the previous specials came in at, I think it would have been a better – and certainly more streamlined – story overall.

A chunk of this could have come from the excising of the filmed slow-motion scenes at the end, which I found to be rather mawkish and almost comedic, seeming more like a parody of melodrama than something from a melodrama itself. I am sure I have read or heard an interview or possibly a commentary with Russell T Davies in the past where he has expressed a dislike for such scenes, so it was something of a surprise to find that this sequence was included.

I also didn’t much like the scene where the Doctor calls the Hosts to him and then orders they flightwards with a click of his fingers. It seemed oddly like the beginning of a pop video, and jarred rather with everything else that was going on during the special… Just a slight misstep with the direction, really, which is a pity as overall I thought that James Strong did his usual… erm… strong job.

It was so unashamedly silly that I think they just about got away with it.

As for the bit with the Queen thanking the Doctor for his help and wishing him a Happy Christmas… It was very silly, but on the other hand it was so unashamedly silly that I think they just about got away with it. It certainly made all of the general audience types I was watching the programme with laugh, in any case, if that’s any justification for it, and oddly I can actually imagine it being the sort of thing the Hartnell era production team might have shoved into a Christmas special if they had thought that they could get away with it.

All in all, this was a fun, entertaining and yes, even at times moving little episode, which I think is exactly the sort of thing you’re after for this sort of show in this sort of slot. And what’s more, it had that fantastic-looking series four trailer at the end – I cannot wait for Donna’s return, now. Every time I see or read about more of her, she feels increasingly like exactly the sort of character the show needs to give it a bit of a push in a new direction.

Roll on 2008!


This is closest to how I felt about VOTD I guess, although on reflection I can see and somewhat agree with the dislike of Davros Max at the end. If they'd knocked off the 10 minutes like you suggested, it would've both tightened things up and also removed the need for a bad guy like that.

Jury's still out for me on Donna. A bit of a Tegan character possibly, which could mean her usefullness and likeability vary wildly depending on the writer.

I do think you needed some sort of villain, though - something that was *purely* a disaster movie story without any kind of bad guy would have seemed a bit small for Doctor Who, somehow. As Davies said on the Confidential, there's little interest in that story alone as you know the Doctor will survive any disaster movie obstacles.

Off-topic Question:

How long is each episode poll up for?

Just wondered because this one was really tight, and I hope there's a specific time limit so there's no taking it down when it's in favour of the poll creator etc.

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