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Boy was I wrong!
"Voyage of the Damned" turned out to be a decent solid adventure populated by an alien culture worth exploring, without the predictability of the historical Earthly Titanic story taking all the suspense out of things. Unlike in the previous two holiday specials: "The Christmas Invasion" (story no. 171), and "The Runaway Bride" (story no. 182), the Yuletide robotics make sense this time, on par with (and evoking memories of) "The Robots of Death" (story no. 90), and the story has just enough Christmas in it to be appropriate for its broadcast slot without impeding the story. No extra wedding or regeneration trauma dynamics intrude to mess things up. Good show.
Without knowing anything at all about Kylie Minogue (unlike many others who seemed keen to label her appearance here before seeing it or turn somersaults in awe of the fact that she deigned to appear on the show), I approached her and her character with a completely open mind and was actually quite pleased with this companion choice for once.... only once again it seems that the one-off guest companion is better suited to long-term chemistry and travel with the Doctor than the actual companions who stick with him. Bizarre....
In this tale, character moments abound, and they are done with far more feeling and succeed much better. Perhaps unnecessarily, some alienness is lost to achieve this though. Although largely populated by creatures from a planet called "Sto" in the Casivanian Belt (already an excuse to peak much more interest in learning about their unique culture), the people of Sto and most of their technology turn out to be almost exactly like those of Earthlings - they simply have a bit more advancement in space travel capabilities. They still use cell phones too much, don't bother with better or different economic models than we do, imitate our manner of dress and decor.... on and on. Thankfully, there are other aliens on board as well, helping to add variety. Bannakaffalatta is a good example of a character who can throw the twists and surprises of alien culture at the protagonists and the viewers constantly. Nice one. In the end, the presentation of alienness here is more believable and satisfying than in "The End of the World", even if there is still too much human imitation going on.
Clive Swift plays one of my favourite characters from this story: Mr. Copper, the passenger's tour guide to going ashore on Earth. Very enjoyable acting, and a nicely written part. Geoffrey Palmer is also an enjoyable and familiar face, having previously appeared in the Jon Pertwee stories "The Silurians" (story no. 52) and "The Mutants" (story no. 63). His performance is excellent as usual, bringing yet another enjoyable characterization to life sympathetically, under perhaps the greatest challenge yet.
And then there's Bernard Cribbins, veteran of many highly successful "Carry On..." films, whom Doctor Who fans may know best as playing Constable Tom Campbell - a successful big screen replacement for Ian Chesterton's heroic protagonist character in the second Peter Cushing film "Daleks' Invasion Earth 2150 A.D." (theatrical version of Doctor Who story no. 10). Cribbins appears to have just a cameo role here, where his character's name (Wilfred Mott) has practically no chance to make any impression on the audience. But he is enjoyable as ever, especially for those of us who know where his future leads....
Hosts of DeathWhere previous Christmas specials had murderous robots thrown in gratuitously, having no true motivation for their actions and making little sense, the Heavenly Host androids in this tale are fleshed out quite well. Firstly, they have a proper intended purpose on the ship, to serve the guests, provide information, and fit in with the theme of the current cruise. Much mileage is gained from the many scenes in which their service seems to be slightly, suspiciously off, just as was the case back in the Tom Baker story "Robots of Death" (story no. 90). Sadly, these robots also have their predecessors' fixation for strangulation, but on the plus side, they also seem to have a new affinity for making frisbee throws with their halos, leading to some action sequences very reminiscent of the movie "Tron". A bit derivative, and "Tron" still rules over this, but a good improvement on strangulation nonetheless.
This second phase culminates in a huge set-piece action scene, which reveals its cliché content immediately. Yes, Russell is back to the horrific chasm with a narrow bridge of safety running across it. As with the teaser for this story crammed into last year's finale, one easily anticipates predictable routine action with predictable results. Yet despite the cliché nature of this setting, writer Russell T. Davies gets superb mileage out of it, delivering many of the character interactions that make each character's presence in the story worthwhile, and using the chasm in surprisingly unique ways to give you action that you didn't expect on top of the action that you did. Nicely done. Yes, the chasm is still a crutch, but a worthwhile one. Disguising it a bit and making it less obvious may be a way to take things up another notch in future though.
The story catapults into a rich and busy concluding phase, including a confrontation with the power behind it all. Russell actually tackles a male lead villain here, and doesn't do too badly with him. Then again, he isn't quite all humanoid, is he? He may not rank too highly in many lists for best Doctor Who villains, but he remains a competent & satisfying one. Many may complain that his plans and motivation aren't all that smart, but if he was smart, he wouldn't have to do anything villainously now, would he? His relationships have clearly degenerated into what Dr. Barbara deAngelis calls the "revenge and retardation" phase, which works for me. Of course, this brand of villainy is not sustainable in the long term, but here of course it doesn't have to be.
This final phase provides the richest emotional tapestry of the story, and satisfies with many successful, heroic action beats right up to the end of the final scene. And there's no cheesy line at the very end to bugger things up like last year.
Deutsch: "Reise der Verdammten"
Magyar: "Az elkárhozottak utazása"
Français: "Une croisière autour de la Terre"
Русский: "Путешествие проклятых"
Italiano: "Il viaggio dei dannati"The French present the only non-literal title translation listed here, going for "A Cruise Around the Earth".
This story has become available on DVD.
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Note: The full season sets contain commentaries, behind-the-scenes featurettes, and other extras. The smaller volumes only feature the plain episodes.
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