Another year, another collection of famous faces making fools of themselves as Mr David waves his magic screwdriver around and rattles off the exposition nineteen to the dozen. But enough about the end of "Extras"…
Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without Daddy reviewing an hour of Doctor Who, a tradition that's as old as the hills. At least, any hills that have been thrown up in the last three years, and yet it seems like it's been with us forever. As the attached Doctor Who Confidential told us at some length apparently without conveying any other information at all.
You can almost hear Russell T Davies saying to himself "this year I shall write against the cliché" as he sat down to write a story that doesn't just kill off the heroine, but sacrifices decent people with casual abandon and allows the bastard not only to survive but to survive and remain a money-loving bastard.
Traditionally, you'd expect sympathetic (but guilty of deception) Mr Copper to be the "sacrificial lamb" with investor Rixton getting a (possibly ironic) comeuppance, while the others manage to survive. In fact, the reverse happens.
Of course, this just leaves Russell writing the anti-cliché: almost as predictable. It quickly becomes very obvious that Kylie's Astrid has to die as she bluntly spells out how absolutely perfect she'd be as a companion – blonde, shared wanderlust, love of the alien no matter how mundane, blonde, no one at home to miss her, recently unemployed, did I mention blonde? The foreknowledge that Kylie is not doing the fourth series only makes it more obvious.
More startling, shocking even, are the deaths of Marvin and Foon. Marvin in particular just comes right out of nowhere, as he falls into the engine shaft with no warning either on screen or from the plot. It makes for tragic and melodramatic watching out of all proportion to the frothy Christmas disaster movie story as we agonise with his desolated wife Foon, and then realise just in advance of her doing it, what she is about to do too.
And include the self-sacrifice of plucky cyborg Bannakaffalatta – the ever re-employable Jimmy Vee – and that one set-piece crossing the chasm wipes out fully half the Titanic's survivors.
It is a huge scene, a much more impossible peril than anything else the survivors face in their escape attempt, before or after. Structurally, that unbalances things a little – though not so much as the way the TARDIS/taxi chase unbalanced "The Runaway Bride" by doing the best scene in the first twenty minutes.
Don't let me give you the idea that I thought "Voyage of the Damned" was bad, though. There is much festive fun to be had here. The opening is nicely paced, with a nice comic turn from Bernard Cribbens (who looks to be more significant from the Coming Soon trail at the end), a sly reference to the last two years specials and an introduction to Astrid and the rest of our potential survivors – all of whom score points in the "deserves to live" stakes by chasing after the Doctor when he is detained and trying to defend him. Which is handy, because that's why they do live. For a bit, anyway. The build-up to the crash itself is nicely done, with escalating tension matching up on the Bridge, in the "space" shots and down on deck with the Doctor.
Similarly, the climactic confrontation on Deck 31 is also fast and fraught with the right energy from Tennant and Max, with an especially fine moment for the Doctor when he's literally lost everyone he cares about and he's still damn well going to save the Earth.
Points deducted for the "Silver Nemesis"-like role for Her Britannic Majesty and comedy corgi, though.
There's rather too much of "The Robots of Death" in the mix for it not to have any of the Asimov-esque commentary on why robots can't kill humans (as spotted by Adam, oldest of the Fear Forecasters); the Host clearly can, their programming is just to obey orders, so why in that case reference a more interesting story about robots.
Villainous Max, though excellently played by George Costigan and a deliciously grisly piece of design, is alongside Cyber-loon John Lumic yet another villain-in-a-wheelchair. I'm not suggesting this is disability prejudice; just that should – say – the creator of the Daleks turn up, his USP may have worn a little thin. And exactly why is Max aboard anyway? Wouldn't it be safer – indestructible box notwithstanding – to skip straight to Pen Haxsico 2 (where the ladies are so fond of… metal) and let the ship take the fall without him?
Also, someone needs to explain to television writers the difference between a debit card and a credit card. It seems to be a common mistake, as we've seen it again recently. When Mr Copper waves his credit card at the end and says he's got a million pounds on it, we must presume he means a credit limit of a million. Unless he's already red-lined it to the Max (sorry). But it's a credit card – even if he spends his million, he'll have to pay it back. What the story is really trying to tell him is that it's a debit card or a bank card drawing on a bank account with a million pounds in funds. You wonder if this is why productions go horribly over budget.
And the traditional "gay agenda" moment, is this year awarded to the nod that "cyborgs can marry now!".
Kylie – oddly not looking like Kylie; it must be the wig – is in fact rather lovely in the role of Astrid Peth, sweet for her rather direct approach and it clearly appeals to the Doctor. Though she does appear to be the only waitress on the Starship Titanic. Russell Tovey is also very charming (and easy on the eye) as Midshipman Alonso Frame. Though the most kudos (okay, Tennant aside) has to go to magnificent Geoffrey Palmer as Captain Hardaker who dooms the Titanic: he ought to be a monster – about to murder two-thousand people and potentially six billion more below – but he does it with such sadness that you end up sympathising with the dying old man doing it for his family.
The thing about that "Extras" skit – apart from asking has Ricky Gervais actually seen the series since the Eighties – is how come Russell, who is so careful about everything connected with Doctor Who allowed it to go out looking like a bad bit of French and Saunders or Victoria Wood dressed as Crayola? Or was Gervais just taking an uncalled for swipe at Peter Kay in "Love & Monsters"?
Back in the real world, Doctor who gets twice the ratings of "Extras"; half of the people watching television on Christmas Night chose to watch this, and they'll never have seen Doctor Who looking so good. The visual effects, the interiors, the Doctor in a sharp DJ. It pushes the envelope, certainly, going for colour and humour and the odd mass homicide. Russell has said he wants to eschew the emotional darkness of the recent run of stories ("Human Nature", "Blink" and "Last of the Time Lords"), but that certainly doesn't happen here, with the death of a companion and corporate expenses for a motive.
This isn't what anyone would expect for Christmas – and that must mean they are doing something right!