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Scary mechanical angels and Kylie Minogue replace the council estates of the previous two Doctor Who Christmas Specials in “Voyage of The Damned,” but somehow, it ends up more festive than when we were on Earth and in the middle of the holiday sales. How exactly did that happen…?
For an episode that barely takes place on Earth, and doesn’t really include anyone beyond the Doctor who even understands the concept of Christmas properly – The Earthologist’s carefully researched history of the season is one of the highlights of the episode, as it gets more and more wrong: The people of the UK worship the great god Santa and go to war annually with the people of Turkey? Really? – there’s something that just feels particularly right about “Voyage of The Damned” in terms of it being holiday viewing. Perhaps it’s just a British thing, but there’s something weirdly nostalgic about disaster movies during Christmas; I have… not exactly fond memories, but memories nonetheless, of watching reruns of The Towering Inferno or similar epics of destruction and human suffering as a kid, half-paying attention and half-playing with whatever new toy I’d become particularly enamored with that year.
As a tribute to those old movies, “Voyage of The Damned” is spot on; not only does it have the various survivors being killed off, one by one in various heroic and/or tragic circumstances, not only does it end up ultimately as one man fighting back against what seems like a permanently doomed fate, but it fits all the other requirements as well: It’s overlong, it’s kind of dull and you find yourself waiting for the next death with more anticipation than you’re probably meant to feel. “Voyage of The Damned” is possibly the weakest of the Who Christmas Specials, in part because it’s just so sloppy; it feels as if it needed someone to come in and edit things, taking out the bits that don’t serve any purpose (The trip to Earth, really, is a waste of time outside of the fact that it further bonds the Doctor and Astrid, for example) and trying to bring some sense of urgency to everything that’s going on.
It doesn’t help that the threat feels so weak; not just Max Capricorn – who is neither evil nor camp enough to really have an impact, but too camp to be evil and too evil to be camp – but the Host, as well. You can tell that the Host were supposed to provide the chills of this particular episode, but they just don’t work; they feel like Russell T. Davies had tried a Steven Moffat-esque faceless villain and not quite managed to make them scary in any way (In part because of small details; their mouths move when they talk, but not in any seeming synchronization with what they’re saying, for one thing, which makes them look slightly ridiculous. And using their halos as deadly frisbees is just… silly). The threat of the Spaceship Titanic crashing into the Earth, too, falls flat because you just don’t believe that it’s going to happen once it’s been established that the impact would wipe out six million people – That’s a threat so big that it would break the show.
All that’s left, then, is the performances to try and salvage some fun, and everyone involved tries their best. David Tennant is charming and manic, and Kylie Minogue is much more winning than you might expect, even if Astrid is a disappointingly flat character. The other supporting characters suffer from this flatness as well; they’re more stereotype than character, disappointingly, especially Morvin and Foon (They’re fat! And jolly! And that’s pretty much it!).
What “Voyage of The Damned” really feels like is something that was too rushed for its own good – Everything feels like it needed a second draft to bring it into focus and tighten it all up. It’s a wasted opportunity that is a pleasant enough diversion once, but really doesn’t stand up to repeated viewings. Maybe that sense of disappointment is weirdly fitting for Christmas as well, come to think of it…