“Let the Christmas inferno commence!”
There are some very gay things in the world. The Pet Shop Boys cover of Village People’s Go West. Rufus Wainwright recreating Judy Garland’s classic Carnegie Hall concert. Anything at all involving John Barrowman. And then there’s Doctor Who. A show whose most rabid fanbase seems to consist primarily of gay men (I should know, I’m one of them) currently being run by the bloke who wrote Queer as Folk and featuring numerous appearances by the aforementioned John Barrowman. Straight fans often bemoan the show’s supposed “gay agenda” (which seems to consist of occasional lines suggesting that being gay might, actually, be OK).
The challenge, then, facing Russell T Davies and his team must have been – how do we make this show even more gay? One can imagine much brainstorming at BBC Wales until someone came up with the obvious answer – put Kylie Minogue in it! After all, short of getting David Tennant to dress in drag and fellating a Dalek, she’s about as gay-friendly as it gets.
So it was with some trepidation that I approached this year’s Christmas special. Was this just a gimmicky piece of stunt casting? Kylie’s guest appearance has been trumpeted so much for so long, you’d be forgiven for thinking it wasn’t a drama after all. Perhaps she was going to spend the whole thing performing her greatest hits. She was so ubiquitous that even the normally objective (and very pretty) Ben Cook of Doctor Who Magazine had a photo of her standing next to him as his Facebook avatar.
But I needn’t have worried. Lest we forget, before she became a loveable diva, Kylie Minogue was actually an actress. Well, insofar as being in Neighbours constitutes acting. Voyage of the Damned gave her a chance to demonstrate this with more aplomb than the Erinsbrough suburbs ever did, in another surprisingly good script from Russell T himself.
Russell seems to be on a genuine learning curve as a Who writer. Already a skilled dramatist, his previous efforts for the programme have shown an occasional lack of logic obviously borne of him being such a fan of the show. I’ve had genuine, and I believe justified criticisms of his scripts in varous ways since the series returned. But lo and behold, every time he turns out another script, it’s as if he’s been listening to me! (Be still, my giant ego). It’s just that he seems to avoid every pitfall I’ve previously had a go about and produce a script that’s a real improvement.
Take Voyage of the Damned. I was distinctly unimpressed by last year’s Christmas effort The Runaway Bride for various reasons – the plot lacked logic, the robot Santas were in it for no good reason, and most importantly, the story lacked a sense of jeopardy as no-one appeared to be in real danger and no-one died. This year, Russell redressed the balance with a script that had a higher body count than Rambo. And it was more than just a retread of last year’s show, being almost entirely not set on contemporary Earth.
Not that its roots weren’t showing. The most obvious source of inspiration was 1970’s disaster epic The Poseidon Adventure, about a luxury liner which comes to grief – at Christmas. The ensemble cast of survivors were true disaster movie archetypes as well, right down to the snivelling Richard Chamberlain-style weasel Rickston Slade and Shelley Winters-alike Foon Van Hoff. I was only surprised that there wasn’t a small child and a dog. Yet even here, Russell confounded expectations. In a classic disaster movie, it would be a given that Slade would die, and yet he was one of the few survivors at the end.
Russell’s other occasional weakness – a fondness for action/emotion set pieces jammed in with little regard for logic – was also not in evidence. There were some great set pieces, to be sure – the sequence of our heroes trying to make it over that rickety bridge while being besieged by the Host was a humdinger. But each of them arose naturally from the plot, rather than seeming shoehorned in because they looked good but had no place in the drama.
Of course, the other obvious “homage” here was classic Who story The Robots of Death. From the moment the Doctor first encountered the placidly polite Host and it started to twitch, it was obvious that they’d be wandering around the ship slaughtering everyone soon enough. And so it was, their “Information: you are all going to die” catchphrase not too dissimilar to SV7’s calm declaration “You have to die. All of you. That is the order.” The moment when Midshipman Frame slammed the door on them only to trap and detach one of their hands was also a straight nick from the scene where Pamela Salem is menaced in her Sandminer cabin by one of the robots.
But Doctor Who has always nicked from other sources, often with excellent results. After all, The Brain of Morbius is simply Frankenstein, while Pyramids of Mars is nothing more than an old Peter Cushing Mummy film. And the Host were very effective, their angelic design an excellent counterpart to their murderous intentions. It’s got to be the first time a halo’s been used as a murder weapon.
David Tennant was on fine form, expressing the Doctor’s loneliness with none of the irritating smugness he displayed in his debut season. The relationship he built up with Astrid was genuinely touching, and paid off nicely with his desperation to save her after her noble sacrifice (though, to be fair, she could easily have jumped off that slow-moving forklift before it plunged into the abyss).
And it was scenes like that which allowed Kylie to really show off her acting chops. From her first appearance, she was charming and likeable as a girl who still saw the wonder in the universe. The scene of her expressing delight at the “alien” shops and streets of Cardiff… er, London was enchanting, and her final scene as a half-there teleport phantom was heartbreaking. It’s a testament to Russell’s skill as a dramatist that he didn’t go for the easy happy ending of letting the Doctor save her, but at least she didn’t, technically, “die”. As well as being a touching scene, it served as a welcome reminder that the Doctor’s just as fallible as everyone else, and sometimes he can’t save everyone.
With these two at the centre of attention, it would have been easy for Russell to reduce the rest of the characters to two-dimensional disaster movie cyphers. But all the characters were nicely rounded, and played to perfection by a splendid guest cast. It’s always a delight to see old hand Geoffrey Palmer popping up, and here as Captain Hardaker he used his jowly, hangdog face to real advantage. He really made you feel for the guy even though he was about to be responsible for a mass murder and you then saw him shoot that nice young Midshipman. It actually seemed rather a shame that he died so early on, as I’d like to have seen more of his character’s haunted, guilty personality.
There were plenty of characters blessed with that earthy humour Russell likes too. The most obvious were the Van Hoffs, a likeable pair of proles who’d rather unfortunately won passage on the ship in a competition. The scene of the Doctor immediately siding with them over the snobs who were the rest of the passengers was great, and the characters went on to display real depth. It was more believable than in your averager disaster movie that Foon really went to pieces after her husband was killed, but she still pulled it together enough to make the heroic self-sacrifice demanded of likeable characters in disaster movies. The shot of her plunging to her death in slo-mo was genuinely moving, though it has to be said that the almost identical shot of Astrid plunging into the abyss might have had more impact if we hadn’t already seen this one.
Clive Swift, another old hand, was on fine form as Mr Copper, the loveable old codger of the piece. He got some of Russell’s best lines as the “academic” who didn’t quite get what 21st century Earth was really like. The coda, with him happily running off to spend all his money, was sweetly joyful, though I had to wonder why the Doctor didn’t warn him off marrying that awful Hyacinth woman…
And then there was Bannakafalatta. At first glance just an action figure opportunity made flesh, Jimmy Vee made him a loveable but believable figure. It was nice to see him getting a real character to play for once, after the last few years of incarnating any alien that happens to be a bit on the short side. And it was his secret cyborg status that cleverly held the key to the whole mystery, neatly setting up the concept that here was a society that treated cyborgs as underdogs who couldn’t even get married. The gay agenda? Possibly. I’m sure certain fans will take it that way…
Cyborgs brings us neatly to the villlain of the piece, Max Capricorn. the revelation of him as the force behind events didn’t entirely come as a surprise, since I was doubtful they’d hire an actor of the stature of George Costigan and confine him to a few shipboard commercials. Costigan was as good as ever in a role, which, let’s face it, was the standard villainous businessman. His scheme to ruin his betrayers on the board was a little reminiscent of Morgus’ business manipulations in The Caves of Androzani, but was nonetheless a clever motivation. I had to wonder whether some of the younger viewers would grasp the idea of share price manipulations, mind.
So what else was there? Well, it was a joy to see Bernard Cribbins, who by the looks of the trailer will be back next year. It was also a nice touch to have London deserted after the repeated alien incursions of the last two Christmasses. The set piece of the Titanic plunging down towards Buckingham Palace was genuinely heart in mouth – you wondered whether Mike Tucker and his crew were going to blow up another London landmark. Though I’m not so sure about the from-behind appearance of Her Majesty, in a pink dressing gown and curlers! And her cry of “Thank you, Doctor!” was pretty toe-curling, too. I guess she just knows that whenever anything like that happens, the Doctor’s bound to be involved somewhere.
On a final note, I’m likely to be in the minority of saying that I rather liked Murray Gold’s beefed up new arrangement of the theme tune. But I definitely didn’t like the new, hyper fast end credits, which sped by so quickly I could barely read any of them. Apparently this is due to a new BBC rule that credits can only be thirty seconds long, lest the viewer’s tiny mind and attention span be distracted by thoughts of turning to the other channel. Whatever, it made the end of the show seem unpleasantly American.
So another Christmas gone, and a huge improvement from Russell and crew this year. Kudos to the bloke for apparently learning from previous pitfalls and producing a fun and thrilling piece of family entertainment. And how gay was it, really? Actually not much. John Barrowman was nowhere to be seen….