|What’s this “I wear a bow tie now” crap?
It’s December 25th, 2007. Leon Jackson is at number one with “When You Believe.” Leona Lewis, Take That, Girls Aloud, Timbaland, and, inevitably, the Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl also chart. Since The Sarah Jane Adventures wrapped its first season, the Channel Tunnel Rail Link opened, and Nick Clegg won the leadership of the Liberal Democrats.
On television, it’s Voyage of the Damned. Here is the most important thing to realize about Voyage of the Damned: It has Kylie Minogue in it.
There’s a level on which there’s not much more to say. By design. If ever there’s been an episode of Doctor Who built around its guest star, it’s this one. Which is interesting on several levels; for one thing, the episode’s concept predates casting Minogue by some margin. Davies was planning on a big disaster movie for the Christmas special, got word that Kylie Minogue was interested, pitched her the episode, and ended up having her on board, at which point he actually started writing the script.
It’s impossible to overstate how big a get Minogue was. Voyage of the Damned was part of her post-cancer comeback – her proper comeback album, X, dropped a month before, and its lead single, “2 Hearts,” charted the same week that The Lost Boy wrapped. On top of that, you know, she’s Kylie Minogue. She’s one of the biggest stars in the UK. This is not, to be clear, a measurement of popularity – indeed, X has sold, in total, roughly 4% as many copies as people who watched Voyage of the Damned, and even “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” only sold a bit north of a million copies. But trying to understand Kylie Minogue entirely as a commercial force is fundamentally misunderstanding her. Kylie Minogue is famous, which is a different and entirely more interesting moment. Kylie Minogue isn’t a singer, or an actress; rather, she’s someone who lives in the tabloids. She’s not famous for being famous, but nevertheless, her fame is at this point her defining characteristic.
Nevertheless, she’s almost inevitable. Will Baker, her visual stylist, was a known fan who snuck Cybermen imagery into one of her tours, and staged an entertainingly cheeky photo of her asleep with a copy of Lloyd Rose’s Camera Obscura sitting beside her. These links, tenuous as they may be, combined with the fact that the gay fandom of the wilderness years was now running the show meant that Minogue was always the extremely famous person most likely to do a big Doctor Who appearance. Plus she, apparently, was a casual fan from her childhood in Australia (that would probably make her a Letts/Hinchcliffe era gal), and was, in any case, game.
She is not, of course, the first famous person to be cast in the new series. That honor goes to Billie Piper, who similarly came to Doctor Who from the tabloids. Indeed, it’s difficult to look at Billie Piper’s music career as anything other than serving some time as a lesser version of Kylie Minogue. And so Minogue becomes a doppelgänger for Rose. Tellingly, their characters are even comparable – both are working class women who find, in the Doctor, a way out of a humdrum existence and into a more magical one.
The difference is that Astrid is doomed from the start. So doomed that she never really exists. The character is not really designed to be seen at all. Kylie Minogue cannot disappear into a character, nor would you really want her to, as it would rather defeat the purpose of having Kylie Minogue in Doctor Who, which is self-evidently to stare at Kylie Minogue for an hour and change going, “blimey, Kylie Minogue’s in Doctor Who.” But, of course, Kylie Minogue cannot be in Doctor Who for more than the Christmas special. Even if we don’t know Catherine Tate’s going to be in the next season – and we do – there’s just no way that Kylie Minogue is anything more than a one-episode cameo. So once she gets tagged in the narrative as the next companion, she’s toast.
In this regard, she’s the perfect companion for the story Davies already had in mind, since a disaster movie involves casually butchering the lion’s share of the cast. More than that, a proper disaster movie involves casually butchering a cast of terribly famous guest stars. This happens to also be a structure Doctor Who is good at; the ensemble cast that gets steadily picked off is a staple of the series, particularly in the Hinchcliffe years with things like The Pyramids of Mars and, of course, the definitive example, The Horror of Fang Rock, the rare Doctor Who story that manages to properly slaughter every single guest star, and in fact wheels on an extra lot of them in the second episode so it doesn’t run out of people to kill.
And yet it’s here that things start to go a bit wrong for Voyage of the Damned. It’s not that mass slaughter doesn’t work on Christmas – in fact, the over the top spectacle of disaster movies is perfectly in keeping with Christmas frivolity. And on British television, at least, overwrought tragedy is as much an expected part of Christmas as turkey. Indeed, a nice bit of gothic horror cast slaughtering is an obvious choice for Christmas specials yet to come.
No, the problem is that the way you do this is to steadily whittle down the guest cast. But disaster movies require big visual set pieces to kill people off, and with only 70 minutes and a limited budget, Doctor Who can only really have one of those. And so instead of a story where the guest cast gets picked off we have a story where they enter a terribly unpleasant room, shed half the cast, and then get on with it. This is not quite the right structure, and more to the point means that none of the deaths have the impact they should. Morvin’s death is almost completely swallowed by its abruptness, Bannakaffalatta’s only works because of the sheer mania of “Bannakaffalatta CYBORG!”, and by the time of Foon’s death it’s just become impossible to have any meaningful feelings about the bloodbath.
Still, the relative safe space of a Christmas special allows for this sort of experimentation. Following the series’ open teasing about killing Rose off, Doctor Who lost the ability to kill companions. This is largely for the best, as killing off departing cast members is both lazy and a bit pessimistic for Doctor Who. (Frankly, killing companions has been a mistake every time they’ve done it.) Yes this, combined with the largely steerable TARDIS, the fact that traveling with the Doctor is officially and canonically the Bestest Thing Ever, and a televisual logic that says that any departed character can eventually return has left Doctor Who with a rather irksome problem of having to come up with increasingly elaborate ways to ensure that the Doctor can never ever visit a departed companion again. But it’s still vastly preferable to killing the companion off.
But the existence of a Christmas special with a one-off companion changes things and lets us have a story in which the Doctor fails substantially. (The structure is, of course, cleverly inverted by The Snowmen, which purports to introduce the new regular companion… and then kills her like a Christmas one-off) It allows for a different look at the Doctor. The problem is that this sort of brutal darkness contrasts sharply with the froth of a Christmas special. And that’s at the heart of where Voyage of the Damned goes a bit wonky. It wants to simultaneously be a big frothy spectacle for Christmas and to be a kind of bleak story in which the Doctor can’t save everybody and his promises that he will turn out to be empty bluster.
The one thing that manages to suture all of this back together is, of course, Kylie Minogue. Because she’s famous. And fame is at once a source of frivolity and homicidal tension. Voyage of the Damned is the one time in the new series where Doctor Who has just blatantly grabbed onto something more famous than it is. And this sets up an interesting tension, because at the end of the day, the usual response to the famous is to wish for its destruction. There are countless obvious examples of this – once something succeeds, everyone is gunning for it. This, more than any actual downturn in quality or popularity, is why the standard media narrative of Doctor Who is its decline. Because once a show is as consistently popular as it is, the only thing it can do is tumble. But you’re spoiled for choice with other examples. This is what celebrity and tabloid culture is for: the desire for properly Aristotelean tragedies in which great and successful people are undone by their own weaknesses.
For the most part Doctor Who in the late Davies era is playing towards that. This is what the hubris of Tennant’s Doctor is for. The Doctor becomes arrogant because his show has become popular enough that people are gunning for it. And so by making hubris a part of the narrative it can respond to that. But Voyage of the Damned marks a particularly weird moment, because for once there’s something more famous than Doctor Who. And so for seventy minutes everyone’s bloodlust is redirected to Kylie Minogue.
What this means is that the shift towards a Doctor capable of failure is allowed to happen invisibly. We know Kylie’s doomed. More to the point, the audience is expected to take tacit pleasure in her inevitable demise. And lots of them did – Voyage of the Damned pulled ridiculously high ratings, and more to the point, held the line on AIs, meaning that the huge influx of people who just wanted to see Kylie mostly enjoyed it. But with the episode’s ending already set up by something bigger than Doctor Who, the Doctor can quietly ghost into a role where his confidence is a hollow charade.
Notably, the story stops carefully short of criticizing the Doctor. This is no Family of Blood sort of situation in which things would have been fine if only the Doctor hadn’t arrived. The Doctor showing up is the only thing that saves anybody on board or on Earth. He’s unequivocally the good guy. It’s just that he’s not as good at being the good guy as we might expect; he doesn’t save everyone. Or even most people. Indeed, he can only rescue one of the properly sympathetic characters in the group of survivors. He can’t even rescue the Rose surrogate. (And, tellingly, he couldn’t rescue Rose either; Pete had to.)
But by doing this the Doctor acquires his upper bound. It becomes clear that his hubris is unjustified. Conceptually, this creates the space where Midnight and The Waters of Mars can happen. Until you’ve seen Tennant’s Doctor meaningfully fail, those stories wouldn’t quite work. It’s not that we’ve never seen the Doctor meaningfully fail – that’s the entire point of Parting of the Ways. But Eccleston’s Doctor was established early on as having failed in the past; he comes in battered and broken from his failure in the Time War. This makes Parting of the Ways easy to buy. But that’s not the way Tennant’s Doctor works. Tennant’s Doctor storms out of the gate so imperiously that it’s difficult to imagine him failing.
And that’s the odd shift that Voyage of the Damned allows. By putting the Doctor’s hubris up against something even bigger than Doctor Who, Davies sneaks in the fact that this Doctor might fall short. And suddenly all the overblown arrogance of Last of the Time Lords is able to dissipate. The fact that the Doctor is fabulous isn’t a complete get out of jail free card anymore. And this is the only story in the Tennant era that could do that. It’s telling that only once the Doctor fails is he able to pull his odd stunt linking arms with the Host and flying off. His angelic ascension – shades of the resolution of Last of the Time Lords – is somehow enabled by his humbling. And yet this too is perfectly consistent with how the remainder of his tenure will play out.
And yet we know, emphatically, that this wasn’t the plan. Davies had committed to what he was still calling Starship Titanic ages before he got Kylie Minogue. Which provides an interesting sort of insight into how Davies’s writing works. He starts from big images, and then finds ways of wrapping the narrative around them. But these processes are wholly independent. Voyage of the Damned wasn’t designed as a story that reflects on the fallible nature of the Doctor. It was designed as lush 1920s iconography and loads of explosions on a space boat. Then it was designed as “we got Kylie Minogue.”
Which is mainly to suggest just how good Davies is at this sort of thing. It’s clearly not that he leaves character arcs and thematic development until the end because he doesn’t care about them. It’s that they’re things he can pull together at the last second, out of instinct. Which also goes some way towards explaining why the spin-off shows, which he devotes far less time to, often don’t quite get this balance right in the same way that his Doctor Who material does.
Which brings us back outside the government for a few weeks.