Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...
Day 773: Voyage of the Damned
I’ll confess I’ve not been looking forward to reaching this one. Not that I have any bad memories of it (indeed, I’ve quite happy memories of it - at Christmas, we used to rotate every year between which family member was hosting the evening meal, so I got to watch The Christmas Invasion at home, and the same for The Runaway Bride, because while Christmas that year was at the grandparent’s, they only lived thirty seconds the other side of the farm, so I could nip home in time to see the Doctor and the Bride. Christmas 2007 was spent at the aunt’s house, but myself and another family member were outvoted on who got the TV remote, so we ended up watching Voyage of the Damned on the tiny little telly in the kitchen instead - the irony of watching what it arguably the first real ‘blockbuster’ of Doctor Who on the smallest screen ever still isn’t lost on me, but it was fun to sit and watch and laugh our way through it, while picking at the leftover turkey).
No, the thing that’s been putting me off is the sheer size of this episode. It’s over 70 minutes! I’m easily able to set aside 45 minutes a day to sit and watch the latest Doctor Who for the Diary, but having to find a slot significantly longer than that was making me dread this a little bit, and then I started to think of the episode as being a bit bloated, over-long, and rubbish. It didn’t help that over Christmas, I routinely saw this episode listed second to only The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe as the worst of the Xmas specials. In short, I was worried that I’d be setting aside a large chunk of time to watch an episode that wasn’t very good.
But in that wonderful way that’s happened time and time again throughout this process, I sat down, hit ‘play’, and absolutely fell in love with the episode I was watching! Why on Earth are people rating this so low among the Xmas specials? There’s so much to love here! Remember last Christmas (Oh, fine, ‘remember two weeks ago’), when I said that you could suddenly see the production team stretching their wings and really showing us what they could do? That feels like nothing compared to the scale of what we’ve got in this episode. That old irony of watching this one on such a tiny TV screen suddenly hit home even harder today, because I don’t think I’ve ever realised just how grand this one is.
And as for being bloated and over-long? Not a bit of it! I didn’t once find myself checking the tine (as I’d feared I might do). The story moves at exactly the pace it needs and wants to, and then ends when it’s done. The episode is 70-odd minutes because that’s how long it takes to tell it. It also means that we get to take a step back and really enjoy the story. I said a few days ago that Human Nature was quite a slow episode, devoting real time to setting everything up so that we really felt embedded in that world by the time things kicked off in the second half of the tale. We get to see that same system at work here again - with loads of time given over to just the Doctor wandering around the crowded room, meeting various people who we’ll be spending the adventure with, and setting everything in to place. Oh, it’s glorious. Even once we’ve done that initial set up, pulled back to reveal the Titanic is a spaceship hovering over the Earth (Which, by the way, is a great image to hook in your casual audience, perhaps more so than anything since the Daleks came back), we come out of the titles and resume at that same pace. The extended running time allows us to really enjoy the story, and not have to rush through it at breakneck speed. As if to underline that point, we don’t get our first sight of Kylie Minogue until five minutes in… and even then it’s only in passing, as we cut between images of different people in the room. A major guest star like Kylie on board, and they can afford to be leisurely about it!
Oh, but then the meteorites crash, and the action kicks into gear. We don’t lose that measured pace once everything kicks off - far from it, there’s plenty of time to stop, take stock, and share real character moments - but we get action sequences like the entire scene of the cast crossing the open engines, which really show off what this programme can do. A friend the other day described Series Four as being the most confident that Doctor Who has ever been, and that starts right here in this episode. This is Who made by a team who are absolutely certain of themselves, and all the better for it.
I’m not going to list everything that I’ve enjoyed in this one, because I’d be here all night (I’ve mentioned Kylie in passing, but not said how good she is, nor praised the performance of Geoffrey Palmer, who dies fairly early on but gives perhaps the best performance in the entire episode), but I do want to draw attention to something else - there’s subtle foreshadowing of the Tenth Doctor’s demise creeping in here, and it’s not something I would have noticed before, because when this aired, we still had another few years of Tennant to go (and I’m fairly sure, from repeated readings of ‘The Writer’s Tale’ that the Tenth Doctor’s downfall hadn’t even been dreamt up by this point).
No, I’m not talking about the first appearance of Wilf, though it’s fitting that he shows up here when these threads start to draw together. It’s the end of the episode, where the Doctor suddenly realises that Astrid was wearing a teleport bracelet, and tries desperately to bring her back to life. When it’s suggested to him that this simply can’t be done, the Doctor screams, and shouts, and kicks the stand of bracelets, while proclaiming that he can do anything. It’s the kind of arrogance that we see later on from the Time Lord Victorious, and I love that it’s then thrown into focus by Mr Copper just a moment later;
If you could choose, Doctor, if you decide who lives and who dies, that would make you a monster.
It was only afterwards, discussing this with a friend, that it was pointed out this theme really runs from now right up to the regeneration, and it’s certainly something that I’m going to be keeping an eye out for in the next few weeks…