Tuesday, 8 July 2014

The Poseidon Infringement

Doctor Who
Voyage Of The Damned
2007 Christmas Special 

Well, at least it makes a change from robot Santas and killer Christmas trees.

You know how certain movies are on every Christmas?  I never understood the festive appeal of The Great Escape, but there it always was, Christmas or Boxing Day.  I suspect the same applied to The Poseidon Adventure (although I don't know, I never watched that much TV at Christmas), so I guess it's sort of Christmassy to painstakingly recreate it in this year's (well, 2007's) Doctor Who Christmas Special.  It's like changing the channel to find the action movie du jour is, by magic, also Doctor Who.  Anyway, Russell T Davies is (per The Writer's Tale) an encyclopaedic Poseidon Adventure fan, so he probably jumped at the chance to apply tracing paper to it.

I know Russell wrote the cliff-hanger way before the resolution,
but how does this work?  What does it look like on the outside?
Didn't anybody on board notice crashing into a weird big/little box?
The trouble is, a lot of other people have seen The Poseidon Adventure as well.  It's sufficiently iconic and oft-imitated that, although I haven't seen it, I could still tell you how it goes.  If the intention was to avoid boring the fans with something they've already seen (and we still get fake snow at the end), all they've really done is switch one rerun for another.

Let's get the plot over with: we've got the good (space)ship Titanic, coming all the way from the planet Sto to Earth on Christmas Eve.  The captain, paid off by persons unknown, wrecks the ship and dooms everyone on it.  Those that survive the meteor strike are picked off by the seemingly helpful robot Hosts – which look like angels, aka this year's Santas – and it all has something to do with slithery capitalist Max Capricorn.  You know to set your brain to Relaxation Mode pretty much the moment you notice a capitalist called Max.

Anyway, the crash is really a ropey old insurance-scam-meets-revenge plot.  Calling the ship Titanic (groan) is a practical joke courtesy of the villain (oh, un-groan then).  As for the Hosts, oy: besides the hilarious pointlessness of filling a soon-to-be-shipwreck with murderous robots, they're boringly reminiscent of the Ood (spouting death threats in a monotone), the Robots Of Death (crap title, good story) and, entirely by accident, those smashingly successful Weeping Angels from four episodes ago.  (Whoops.)  Add to that the Doctor's inability to sonic them because their heads are double deadlocked, and Russell T Davies may as well have sent his brain out for pizza.

Oh well.  Sometimes it's not what you've got, it's what you do with it.  (Ahem.)  Voyage Of The Damned comes fully equipped (ahem) with a dazzling guest cast, ooh-inducing special effects and lots of extra minutes.  (Making a grand total of 71.)  Reassuringly there is quite a bit to like.

The cast are the highlight, which helps as not many of the characters have much meat on them.  Geoffrey Palmer is outstanding during his two minutes as the guilt-ridden captain.  Russell Tovey is sweet as you'd expect as fresh-out-of-the-academy Midshipman Frame, but it's his agonised gunshot-wound acting that really sells the character.  Bernard Cribbins has a hilarious cameo as the only newsie brave enough to still be in London on Christmas (after what happened in previous years, which is a fun way to reuse old continuity).  Even the doomed Terribly Nice Steward, who goes to check on an airlock with space-themed consequences, makes his scenes count.

Surprise!  Max was stowed aboard in a box that can "survive a supernova,
or a shipwreck".  Um... why, though?  Why be at the scene of the
crime at all?  And if he's just going to retire somewhere else
afterwards, why not just do that?
But then there's the Ragtag Team Of Survivors (TM) of whom the Doctor finds himself in charge, who are pretty much one-sentence gags.  (Albeit funny ones.)  We have Mr Copper, a befuddled "Earth historian" who doesn't know anything about Earth; Bannakaffalatta, a red spiky-headed dwarf who's controversially also a cyborg (!); Morvin and Foon, two poor but eccentric Fat People; and Rickson, a greedy, self-serving capitalist.  (What, another one?)  There isn't time to develop any of them, although everyone except Rickson gets some sort of heart-to-heart, especially as three of them die in the same scene.  This means three separate versions of "Oh no, he's dead!", all pretty much on top of each other.  Eek.  But, there are 71 minutes to fill, and deaths are one way to move a scene along.  ("It's been ten minutes with no one dying!  Fall off of something!")

All the character development is saved for this year's one-shot companion, Astrid the space waitress.  (Is it too late to trademark that?)  Kylie Minogue is reassuringly more than just stunt casting.  She's great as the doe-eyed, slightly disillusioned nobody, and her reaction to London ("It stinks!  Thank you!") is genuinely adorable.  Unfortunately, since she's Kylie Minogue, you know she's not going to be back for Series Four, so when she agrees to be the Doctor's new companion, things can only go pear-shaped.  Dun-dun-DUN, they do.  This brings us to the Doctor, who promises to save everybody in the previous paragraph, including Astrid, and all but two of them get killed anyway.  Including Astrid.

I know I bang on about this a lot, but the Tenth Doctor is absolutely useless here.  Voyage Of The Damned has him urging the captain to raise the shields (he won't), begging the stewards to listen to him (they don't) or at least listen to somebody else (still no), trying to console Foon (doesn't work), pleading with Foon and Astrid not to kill themselves to save others (they both do), and asking killer robots not to kill him (which actually works, but only because he guessed the override code – which is 1, incidentally).  I feel like I'm staring at the Emporer's new clothes asking this, but how is it that such a famed, heroic incarnation of the character is also a complete blundering whelp?

David Tennant is effervescent as ever, and some effort is generally made so that he'll seem grand and impressive, but I'm not convinced.  There's the (silly) bit where he's lifted in the air by Hosts (who "revert to the next authority", which for some reason isn't the only crewman left on board), and the oft-quoted "I'm a Time Lord from Gallifrey!" speech, aka another handy way to fill 71 minutes.  (Did we really need his home address?)  However, when he heroically declares "No more!", as in people-getting-killed, more people die afterwards anyway.  Astrid calls him a "Time King from Gallyboo", which is cute and everything, but it's also a lot closer to the mark.  I mean, he manages to avoid crashing the Titanic, thus saving the Earth and, y'know, Christmas, so that's a pretty big win.  But by that point, virtually everyone on the ship is dead.

Who could not love Midshipman Frame?  Not only is he sweet,
loyal and heroic, but he recovers from a bullet wound
using sheer willpower.  Presumably.
The aforementioned special effects are excellent, at least.  The ship looks great, the firey "storm drive" is pretty to look at (albeit weirdly easy to fall into and die), the Hosts are simple but effective, the meteors look cool, and the direction is uber snazzy.  It's a blockbuster production, with gobs of big-sounding music.  (Including a new version of the themetune, which I hate.  It sounds like an orchestra banging pots and pans together while Riverdancing for their lives.)

Unfortunately, Voyage Of The Damned seems content to aim for empty spectacle.  The aforementioned plot (and title) could not be creakier.  (Come to think of it, 42 already took a whack at some of it.  Spaceship crashing, TARDIS lost, killers aboard?  Tick.)  This year, we haven't even got the emotional kick that infused The Runaway Bride, with the Doctor suffering the loss of a companion – although he should be, after what happened with Martha, he still spends the end of this one mourning the girl he's just met.  Which is absolutely bloody typical, isn't it?

It's an example of what a great show Doctor Who can put on, in terms of how it looks and how it sounds.  But this Christmas, or whenever curiosity moves you to watch it again, it seems there's sadly nowt going on underneath.

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