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Friday, January 18, 2008

Voyage of the Damned 

For a show that has weathered more than its fair share of painfully literal story titles, Voyage of the Damned still manages to feel like a particularly acute name. Even considering that the average fatality rate for Doctor Who is around the 90% rate, writer Russell T. Davies still managed to put out a particularly bleak and down-beat special episode for family-hour Christmas viewing. And remarkably it works quite well. This is largely due to the deft hand Davies has developed on the show in balancing humor and drama. A good portion of that humor in the episode comes from a clever inversion of the usual Doctor Who formula; instead of taking a human into space and exposing them to the wonders of the universe, the Doctor takes aliens to Earth. Kylie Minogue's Astrid is given a particular good moment as an example of this, expressing amazement at the beauty of an ordinary street, much to the Doctor's befuddlement. Davies takes full advantage of Hoka-ish misunderstandings of Earth culture on the part of the "people" of Stow on their journey to Earth for jokes, building engaging personalities for the supporting characters and putting the audience at ease before the horrible things start to happen.

The inversions of the usual Who tropes becomes an important point in the story. Davies is fond of foreshadowing character developments far in advance, by happy accident or design. The Doctor's absence in The Christmas Invasion leading to disaster sets up the Utopia, The Sound of Drums, The Last of the Time Lords trilogy. The Doctor and Rose's cavalier attitude towards danger and death sets up their separation in Doomsday; it's the consequence of their flirtation with danger. Donna's comment in The Runaway Bride that the Doctor needs someone him presages Martha's role in the third season, by establishing both the need for a companion and the required personality type. The theme that is hammered home in this episode is, chiefly, that the Doctor in the end is fallible. After the build-up the Doctor has had over three seasons as the "lonely god" and a savior figure, the Doctor is now returned to the role of a single man struggling against fate and inevitability. He's knocked back several notches and humbled in the worst way possible. In the end, to a certain degree, the Doctor can't save people. The wrong people live. The wrong people die. The question of who lives and dies has nothing to do with virtue or worth, but chance. It's an important lesson for the Doctor to learn, and as Mr. Copper tells him, in a thematic continuation of Donna's warning from last year, "If you could decide who lives and who dies, that would make you a monster."

Kylie Minogue work as an actress isn't familiar to me, but she's charming, and immediately makes alien waitress Astrid an appealing character. Astrid has a loneliness and wanderlust that resonates nicely with David Tennant's portrayal of the Doctor. Clive Swift is also quite good as well-meaning but horrendously mis-informed Earth-tour-guide Mr. Copper, and is the source of most of the misunderstandings of Earth culture humor that worms its way through the episode. In fact, apart from some scenery-chewing from the ultimate villain, which rather undermines the notion of the ultimate banality and selfishness of evil which he represents, the entire cast turns in good performances, ranging from the slightly slimy to the good-hearted but out of depth. It all makes for a very good episode of Doctor Who, easily one of the best of the new series.



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