In which the TARDIS collides with a ship, which appears to be the Titanic. The Doctor operates some controls which repair the damage and he goes outside to find himself in a storage closet on board the ship. This proves not to be the famous vessel which sank on its maiden voyage in 1912 after striking an iceberg, but a replica spaceship in orbit above the Earth. Down on the planet, it is Christmas Eve 2008 in the UK. The Doctor changes into his tuxedo and mingles with the guests, who are waited upon by golden robots dressed as angels. They are known as the Heavenly Host. He learns that this ship is part of the cruise line operated by Max Capricorn. In the main lounge he befriends a waitress named Astrid Peth, who explains that she comes from the planet Sto, as do all of those present. She got this job as she wanted to travel the universe and visit alien worlds. The Doctor also makes the acquaintance of a couple - Morvin and Foon Van Hoff, who have been ridiculed by other guests. They are wearing cowboy outfits, as someone convinced them it was a fancy dress event. The ship's historian, Mr Copper, who professes to be an expert on Earth, organises a trip down to the planet.
The Doctor uses his psychic paper to get himself and Astrid onto the landing party. One of their number is a diminutive alien with red skin, named Bannakaffalatta, and the Doctor warns that he will be noticed on Earth, but when they teleport down they find the streets deserted. The Doctor speaks with a newspaper vendor named Wilf, who explains that owing to the alien incursions of the last two Christmases, everyone has abandoned the city - save for the Queen. The party is recalled back up to the spaceship. On the vessel, a number of the Host robots have been malfunctioning. One of them kills the robotics technician. On the bridge, Captain Hardaker dismisses his officers, but an eager young Midshipman named Frame insists on staying on, following the rules. He spots a trio of meteoroids close by, but the Captain insists they pose no risk. Hardaker turns off the ship's defences. The Doctor also notes the meteoroids and checks the ship's computer to see that the shields are inactive. He tries to warn everyone but is ignored. The Captain shoots Frame then steers the ship into the path of the meteoroids, which strike the hull. Most of the crew and passengers are sucked out into space. The Captain has been killed, leaving the injured Midshipman alone on the bridge. He discovers that the Host robots are going through the ship, killing the survivors.
He manages to make contact with the Doctor, and explains that the engines are failing. The vessel will fall onto the Earth, causing massive devastation. The Doctor takes charge of a group of survivors, comprising Astrid, Mr Copper, Bannakaffalatta, the Van Hoffs and a businessman named Rickston Slade. They must make their way through the damaged vessel, always at risk from attack by the Host. Their journey takes them to a vast chasm, reaching down into the engines. The only way to cross is via a narrow girder. Morvin falls to his death when a railing gives way. As the others cross the chasm, the Host launch an attack, hovering in the air and throwing their halos which have razor sharp edges. Foon sacrifices herself to lasso one of them and drag it down with her. Bannakaffalatta reveals that he is a cyborg, and he has an electro-magnetic pulse device built into his torso. This is used to destroy the Host. However, the effort drains the device, and the little alien dies. Mr Copper takes the EMP device as it can be recharged and used again. From Midshipman Frame, the Doctor learns of a sealed compartment on the ship, which has power being directed into it. He suspects that the person behind this disaster may be hiding there. Claiming to be a stowaway and not on the passenger list, and therefore not a survivor, the Doctor tricks the Host into taking him to the compartment.
There he finds Max Capricorn. He is also a cyborg - something he has kept hidden from the public as cyborgs are discriminated against on Sto. He lives in a mobile life-support unit. It is revealed that his company has been failing and he was about to be kicked off the board. He therefore engineered this crash so that his successors would be held liable and be sent to jail - especially if the ship crashed onto a populated planet. Hardaker was dying, and agreed to sabotage the ship if his family were paid a lot of money. Capricorn has hidden funds off-world and plans to live a luxurious retirement. The compartment he has been hiding in is designed to survive the impact, and a rescue ship was to have come and taken him away to safety. He is angry that the vessel is still in orbit, and orders the Host to deactivate the engines. Astrid has followed the Doctor and overheard his plans. She uses a forklift truck to push Capricorn down into another chasm, but falls in after him. The Doctor takes command of the Host and has them transport him up to the bridge. Here he manages to steer the stricken vessel back up into orbit, reigniting the engines, after first calling Buckingham Palace to warn the Queen that they might crash on top of her.
The Doctor attempts to resurrect Astrid as she was wearing a teleport bracelet when she died, but this fails, and Mr Copper asks him to let her go. She survives only as a ghost of her consciousness, but is now free to travel the stars.
A rescue ship from Sto is on its way, but Mr Copper had earlier revealed that he had got his job by deception and will face a prison sentence back home. The Doctor takes him down to Earth by teleport, landing by the TARDIS which had drifted off the ship. Mr Copper has a credit card on him that makes him a rich man. He sets off to make a new life for himself, whilst the Doctor travels on alone.
Voyage of the Damned was written by Russell T Davies, and was first broadcast on 25th December 2007. It was Davies' third and most successful Christmas Special, its popularity boosted by the inclusion of pop diva Kylie Minogue as its principal guest star. At the time of writing, it remains the Special with the highest audience figures - over 13 million.
The inspiration for the story came from the disaster movies which were often a feature of Bank Holiday TV - especially The Poseidon Adventure (1972). This features a luxury liner which is hit by a freak tidal wave during New Year celebrations, and ends up upside down in the sea. One of the survivors is played by Shelley Winters, and this character provided the inspiration for the Van Hoffs.
Davies plays with expectations. Rickston Slade (Gray O'Brien) is an obnoxious individual, and you expect him to come to a sticky end, but he proves to be one of the few survivors. The more likable Van Hoffs, and Bannakaffalatta are killed. The biggest surprise is the killing off of the guest star, though her spirit lives on. Other disaster movies such as The Towering Inferno and Earthquake (both 1974) killed off likable characters, sometimes just as they were about to be saved, though the more villainous characters always got their comeuppance.
Minogue's involvement stems from her creative consultant Will Baker, who was a huge Doctor Who fan and who had designed costumes for her stage shows inspired by characters from the programme (such as Raston Warrior Robot and Cyberman backing dancers). Baker approached the production team to see if Kylie could appear. Davies at first thought this would never come off, but dates in her busy schedule were found during the summer. News leaked, the BBC denied everything, and then Minogue was spotted with a diary entry reading "Talk to BBC about Doctor Who". Sadly, David Tennant's mother passed away during filming. He was given time off to be with her when she died, and stayed on in Scotland for the funeral. Scenes not featuring the Doctor went ahead during this time.
Many of the cast had previous form on Doctor Who. Mr Copper was played by Clive Swift, best known for the sitcom Keeping up Appearances. He had played Mr Jobel in Revelation of the Daleks. Captain Hardaker was played by Geoffrey Palmer. His son Charles continues to be a Doctor Who director. In keeping with all of his previous appearances in the show (The Silurians and The Mutants) Palmer doesn't make it to the end. As Bannakaffalatta we have Jimmy Vee, who had played diminutive aliens since the very first day of shooting on the revived series (being chased by Christopher Eccleston dressed as the Space Pig in Aliens of London). Foon is portrayed by Debbie Chazen, whose dad appears in The Moonbase. He's the guy who collapses after drinking the coffee in the existant Episode Two. The newspaper vendor, who was only named Wilf later, is a cameo by Bernard Cribbins, who had featured in the second Peter Cushing Dalek movie. The Queen is voiced by Jessica Martin, who had played Mags in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy.
Other performances of note are George Costigan as Max Capricorn, and Russell Tovey (Being Human's werewolf George) as Midshipman Frame, whom RTD considered a potential future Doctor. Morvin is played by Clive Rowe, whilst the Host were voiced by Colin McFarlane, who would feature in Torchwood: Children of Earth, and later appear as Moran in Under The Lake / Before the Flood.
As it was first broadcast a month or so after her death, the episode was dedicated to the memory of the series' first producer, Verity Lambert.
Overall, it is a good story with a weak conclusion. Max Capricorn makes for a fairly underwhelming villain, with a mundane motive. The Host are clearly inspired by the Sandminer Robots from Robots of Death. The impressive cast and production values have meant that it is well remembered - it's the one with Kylie.
Things you might like to know:
- For the third year running, composer Murray Gold writes a special song for the Christmas Special. This time it is "The Stowaway". Gold and his arranger Ben Foster cameo as members of the ship's band.
- One UK "newspaper" claimed that Kylie was going to play a Cyberwoman. The same paper also claimed that Woody Allen was going to appear as Albert Einstein.
- The name Astrid being an anagram of TARDIS caused much fan speculation. Rumours abounded that she would appear again in Series 4.
- Frame's first name is Alonso, which delights the Doctor as he had always wanted to say "Allons-y-Alonso".
- Wilf was originally going to be called Stan, but when Cribbins was called upon to become Donna Noble's grandfather for Series 4 this was changed to make him Wilf Mott.
- The working title for the story was "Starship Titanic", although this had already been used by Douglas Adams for a computer game and a novel.
- Changes which were made included Astrid originally surviving, and Buckingham Palace being destroyed, with the Queen cursing the Doctor rather than thanking him..
- The last survivor of the real Titanic disaster, Millvena Dean, was reported to have been unhappy with the story, feeling that it disrespected the 1912 event.
- The Catholic Church was also none too impressed - especially by the scene where the Doctor ascends arm in arm with the angelic Host. This is the second episode in a row in which the Doctor appears to have god-like powers.
- For the first time since the series returned, the Doctor states quite categorically how old he is and where he comes from.
- It had been hoped that Dennis Hopper would have played Mr Copper, or Max Capricorn.
- It was also hoped that Prince Charles would have cameo'd.
- Viewers in Canada had to wait until 2010 to see this episode. CBC just happened to stop co-funding the show at this time. They have never shown it, and it was Space who first broadcast it in Canada. A truncated version was shown in the US, cutting large sequences to fit a one hour slot including ad breaks. Scenes cut included the trip down to Earth, the Doctor trying to save Astrid from the teleport buffer, and the coda with Mr Copper. BBC America later showed the complete story.