Monday, April 28, 2008

“Information: You are all going to die.”: Doctor Who

As any show grows in popularity, in acclaim and in budget, the greatest worry is always going to be self-indulgence. Sometimes a little self-indulgence is a good thing – so far Battlestar Galactica’s fourth season has made a shift from plot-driven to character-driven narratives which has resulted in a loss of urgency but far greater intimacy. Usually, though, self-indulgence is to be discouraged at all times. Too bad there was no-one there to discourage Russell T. Davies when he was writing Voyage of the Damned, a love letter to disaster movies such as The Poseidon Adventure which came off more as an extremely pale imitation of the genre’s worst conventions.

Following straight on from the end of last season’s finale, The Doctor boards the Titanic, which turns out to be a luxury spaceship hovering above Earth. In quick succession we meet a cross-section of passengers with whom we will proceed to spend our time. First of course is Astrid (Kylie Minogue) a wide-eyed waitress who dreams of travelling the stars. Then there’s Mr Copper (Clive Swift), a kindly old man who (quite amusingly) fakes a knowledge of Earth’s history, at one point declaring that humans worship the vengeful god Santa. And then there’s….erm, to be quite honest I can’t remember much about the other ones. I remember the vague stereotypes they all fulfilled – evil corporate bastard, friendly chubby couple, and your obligatory alien with a funny name (in this case, Bannakaffalatta – a UK review of this episode speculated that Davies invents these names by leaning on his keyboard), but that’s about it.

The first 20 minutes or so are strong. After the principal players have been established, the Doctor takes a quick trip down to a deserted London. A newspaper man (Bernard Cribbins, sweetly funny) explains that after the calamities of the last two Christmases, everyone in London has abandoned the city for the day. I really love this idea, partly because it’s so off-the-wall, but mostly because it ties in past events in a way that feels gratifying to long-time viewers such as myself. After beaming back up to the ship, the Doctor barely has time to poke around before disaster strikes. Meteors strike the hull, killing most of the passengers and crippling the ship. The few survivors are naturally the folks we’ve already met. The Doctor quickly starts barking orders, and when evil corporate guy questions who he is to take charge, he establishes his dominance with possibly one of most ill-conceived pieces of dialogue of the series: “I’m the Doctor. I'm a Time Lord. I’m from the planet Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous. I'm 903 years old and I’m the man who’s gonna save your lives and all 6 billion people on the planet below.” See what I meant about self-indulgence?

From this point onwards, everything else about ‘Voyage of the Damned’ is extremely forgettable. The survivors are picked off one by one in a manner so heartless it’s almost distasteful. As in so often the problem with disaster movies, Davies seems less interested in making you care about his characters than he does in dreaming up inventive ways to kill them. Even Astrid is thinly drawn, and while Kylie Minogue is kinda cute in the role, she shows disappointingly little emotional range. Her death is another instance of ridiculous self-indulgence. While the close-ups and slow motions leave us in no doubt about how beautiful the production staff find the moment, its excessiveness kills any trace of emotion I might have felt.

Disaster movies, especially those of the last decade or so, are generally concerned more with impressing their audience than emotionally engaging them. ‘Voyage of the Damned’ suffers from this to an almost ridiculous extent. Sure, it’s a visually spectacular episode, and the CGI is the best Who has yet pulled off. But when I start praising the technical people in my review, that’s when you know something’s very wrong. I have always liked Davies’ episodes for combining impressive spectacle with smaller emotional moments, but here the spectacle stifles the emotion and I was left feeling cold. Only the final scene between the Doctor and Mr Copper made me smile. A few more sweet, simple moments like that please, and a few less overwrought slo-mo death scenes.


The proper season four opener, ‘Partners in Crime’ is light-years aware from the theatrics of ‘Voyage of the Damned.’ Instead it’s a simple affair, the simplest Who has produced since its revival. There’s an alien corporation, a sinister businesswoman and cute little creatures called the Adipose. There’s no great twist or grand dénouement, but the lightness of the tale allows plenty of breathing room for Catherine Tate, returning as Donna Noble, to reintroduce herself to the audience.

Some have noted that the Donna of ‘Partners in Crime’ is toned-down from her first appearance in ‘The Runaway Bride,’ but I contest that. In ‘Bride’ Tate certainly had her shrill moments, but only as a reaction to the extremity of the situation. If you really look back at ‘Bride,’ specifically at the final scene, her real character is exactly as she is in season four. Regardless, Tate has surely silenced the doubters with ‘Partners in Crime.’ Her regret at having turned down the Doctor is instantly believable, especially in her touching conversation with her grandpa Wilfred Mott (Bernard Cribbins again), and her comedic delivery is naturally top notch.

‘Partners in Crime’ is essentially a comedic story, and Davies’ natural talent for humour comes through. I especially enjoyed the series of near-misses between the Doctor and Donna as they both investigated Adipose at the same time. If occasionally the episode was too light for its own good – the culmination of the Adipose plan, with the giant spaceship and the mass of creatures in the streets of London, was dull rather than exciting – mostly I loved it for making possible sequences like the Doctor and Donna’s silent reunion and hilarious miming.

Finally, and most excitedly, there is the return of Rose. Like every Who fan, I knew that Billie Piper was returning but had no idea she would show up this early. That moment of shock, when Rose turns around and the Doomsday music que kicked in, had me literally gobsmacked. Don’t you just love it when television does that to you? And I’m only guessing here, but I have a feeling season four will produce several more moments just like that one before it’s over. Anyone else as excited as me?


Dan said...

A fair summary of both episodes. As a Brit I find it interesting to see how Americans view the show, as it's such a mainstrea, Saturday family-friendly staple here in the UK, whereas it's tucked away on Sci-Fi as a little-known import Stateside.

It seems to travel well, and has captured an audience anyway. And it's actually the only sci-fi show with much visual scope episode-to-episode -- as US "pure" sci-fi tends to be shipbound (BSG), or utilize forests every week (SG1). DW may be smaller in budget, comparatively, but it does far more with the cash. I can't remember anything in US TV to get close to Voyage Of The Damned (outside of Futurama!).

Without Star Trek on the air, it's the only sci-fi show that's really taking viewers on big journeys through time/space every week now.

Joey Sims said...

I sort of straddle both perspectives. I was born in the US and watch mostly US TV, but I live in London and watch Who on the BBC as it's intended. So I appreciate the novelty of the show, but not in a 'aren't those crazy Brits funny' kind of way. (Not that I think all US viewers see Who that way.)

You're right that Who does amazing things with its budget. Even back in season one, when they obviously had much less money, they still did some very impressive stuff. Now of course it pulls off beautiful stuff every week, as will especially be evidenced by the next two episodes. The effects are arguably better than those of Heroes, if not Battlestar Galactica.