I’m the Doctor. I’m a Time Lord. I’m from the planet Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous. I am 903 years old and I’m the man who’s gonna save your lives, and all six billion people on the planet below.
Yes, it’s a Christmas special review – but probably not the one you were expecting.
Long-ish term readers, of which I’m sure I have at least three, will probably remember this on and off series of retrospectives where I look back on and review whatever David Tennant was up to a decade ago. It is largely but not exclusively filtered through the lens of my own personal recollections – i.e. that of a small child who was only vaguely aware of who Kylie actually was and really wished that everyone would just stop talking during Doctor Who, though I suppose that’s really not all that different to me today.
The three of you who have been following this for a while probably have also noticed that I never quite got around to posting my full season retrospective on Series 3; a combination of procrastination, nominally important exams, and near-catastrophic computer failure meant that those kept getting postponed to the point that it never quite materialised. Currently, the plan is to write that up – or finish writing it up, half the document still exists somewhere I believe – between now and April, which I believe is when I’ll start reviewing series 4 (I’m not entirely clear on the dates off the top of my head).
And, of course, for those of you who are more interested in the more pressing and current issue of the day – Twice Upon a Time, ahh! – I’m hoping that I’ll be able to get something written about that in the next few days. More likely than not it’ll be something of a commentary on the Twelfth Doctor’s era as a whole, rather than a straightforward review as such; I’m still hoping to do a series of reviews on all of Capaldi’s episodes between now and Jodie Whittaker’s first episode, so we’ll see how that all shakes out.
In any case, though, I suspect I’ve probably waffled on enough to fill up the wordcount. Let’s get onto Voyage of the Damned.
A big part of these Tenth Doctor reviews has been a re-examination of the wider perception of an episode, and how that contrasts with my own memories of such. It’s not exactly a perfect process; a decade on, my memory of it all is usually fairly shake-y, and I didn’t exactly have massively sophisticated opinions beyond “It’s Doctor Who, of course I love it!” (some would contend that my opinions have not yet developed beyond this). There’s also the fact that, generally speaking, I tend to be comparing said opinions to standard fan myopia – the accepted rules that incorrectly state, for example, that Love & Monsters is rubbish.
Interestingly, though, this time there’s the opportunity to take a slightly different tack. Famously, this is the Doctor Who episode with the highest domestic viewing figures of all time; seen by 13.9 million viewers, you can make the case that this is probably the resounding impression of Tennant’s Doctor left across the country. It received pretty positive reviews overall (even if it did offend certain Christians and a survivor of the Titanic) and, per Wikipedia, received an “Appreciation Index rating of 86 (“excellent”), above the average score of 77 for drama programmes, and was the highest Index rating for any programme shown on terrestrial television on Christmas Day”. Just to contextualise that in terms of the rest of the show, that’s better than Father’s Day, equal to The Eleventh Hour, and just shy of Journey’s End. Now, the numbers shouldn’t necessarily be taken at face value on their own, but it’s worth remembering that on release the episode got largely rave reviews from most mainstream outlets.
In short, then, this episode is largely beloved. Or, if not beloved, certainly it’s one which is generally held in quite high regard by quite a lot of people. And that certainly runs counter to the traditional fan belief that it’s a duff episode, doesn’t it?
All of which is to say that it’s worth finding something to love in this episode; after all, in amongst every episode you’re not so sure about there’s something that someone’s going to enjoy. Watching it back again today, I couldn’t help but think the opening was really nice, and very Doctor Who; a simple moment of enjoyment, where the Doctor just throws himself into it all with gleeful abandon, poking around and making friends and having fun. It felt like a nice reminder of what it’s (sort of) all about, in contrast to recent years where the focus has been a little more on the ‘Doctor of War’ (or even a contrast to distant years of the Time Lord Victorious!) than on this sort of thing.
Granted, though… well, it’s not without flaws. Much as I enjoyed it back in the day – and, don’t get me wrong, it was perfectly entertaining now – and as much as I still think it’s worth highlighting what was good about it and what worked about it, there’s still a few noteworthy issues.
Part of the benefit of rewatching these episodes with a decade’s worth of hindsight is the new perspective – more specifically, though, the perspective of someone who pretends to be a professional television critic, and wants to pretend to be a professional television writer. Plus, it’s also that of someone who’s read a lot of books about Doctor Who, and the production of it – in this specific case, it’s having read The Writer’s Tale, and knowing about the difficulties Russell T Davies had writing this episode.
Davies was right, I think, to be concerned about the disaster movie format fighting with the Doctor Who format. The easiest flaw to point out is structural; where disaster movies tend to pick off the cast one by one, Voyage of the Damned more or less just disposes with a large chunk of them all in one lengthy set-piece. It doesn’t exactly work, dividing the episode into two slightly disjointed halves. On top of that, though, there’s the feeling that maybe none of it quite lands – that tonally, as it swings from tragedy to broad humour, the impact doesn’t always register. (And I don’t think that’s a rule, as such, rather that it just doesn’t quite work here.) Arguably, in a way, that makes it feel darker – as the loses aren’t quite acknowledged, the moments of levity feel out of place, leaving it all just a little bit grim. Part of the issue feels difficult to articulate exactly, because it’s not really one thing that’s wrong – rather, there’s lots of nice moments and fun details that don’t exactly add up to the potential sum of their parts. In the end, it doesn’t quite work as well as perhaps it could have.
But, I suppose, it returns to another little fact from The Writer’s Tale – an anecdote where a journalist describes Voyage of the Damned as being fun. They meant it dismissively, but you know what? It is fun. And there’s a place for that – especially at Christmas.