You may have gathered from previous Bacony goodness that we like Doctor Who around here. We like it a lot. If you are suspicious about a 45-year-old, inexpensively made, British sci-fi show, you’re not alone–we wondered about things like metal dogs and talking skin trampolines, too. Now Doctor Who is one of the shows we most look forward to. Tonight’s Sci Fi Channel premiere of the BBC’s 2007 Christmas special (kicking off Season 4) is broad and tender and funny and colorful and exciting and sad and big-hearted–in other words, it’s all of the things we like best about Doctor Who. If someone gives you a hard time about watching a show where talking pepperpots are the scariest villains, tell them that’s just code for “I don’t enjoy having fun,” because watching “Voyage of the Damned” is the most fun you’ll have with your TV this week.
Things to know before boarding:
It’s Bigger on the Inside: the premise of the show is an alien traveling through time and space, having big adventures and solving problems along the way. Hence the name of the Doctor’s time machine/spaceship, the TARDIS (short for Time and Relative Dimensions in Space), a vessel that looks from the outside like an old-fashioned police box and seems to know better than the Doctor himself where he might be needed. The joke about the TARDIS is that, since its creators so thoroughly understand and manipulate time and space, it looks like a little box from the outside but is massive on the inside, a physical impossibility that every new person to board thinks she is the first to notice as she exclaims, “It’s bigger on the inside!” The Titanic crunching through one wall to open “Voyage of the Damned” will give you some sense of the scale.
We love the TARDIS, but one of the best things about the show is the well-crafted characters–from the Doctor down to people appearing for a single episode, the characters you meet tend to be bigger on the inside, too. Tonight’s special is a good example of this: we probably won’t see these one-off characters again, but you’re unlikely to forget Morvin and Foon Van Hoff, working-class stiffs in purple cowboy regalia; Bannakaffalatta, a talking red conker with a secret; or Mr. Copper, a tour guide who got his degree in Earthonomics from a suspect institution.
A Companion by Any Other Name: The Doctor doesn’t like to travel alone, and who can blame him? Over the years, he’s traveled with a Scottish piper, a Trionian, a couple of teachers, and a tin dog. Most of the time, however, the Companion is a young (and beautiful) human female. Draw your own conclusions–the modern reboot of the series has launched a thousand ‘ships. The Companion not only propels the plot forward by violating the Doctor’s #1 rule (“No wandering off!”) and asking Excellent Questions (“Why are these aliens talking English?” The TARDIS is a universal translator. “What are you doing with that?” Complicated pseudo-scientific answer implying the Doctor is smarter than everyone in the room. “Why can’t we just save all these people from this historic tragedy?” Wait for Episode 4.2, my pet), she also serves as the entree for the audience to imagine how they might experience all of time and space. Recent companions include shopgirl Rose Tyler, involuntarily separated from the Doctor; medical student Martha Jones, who walked away with her head held high; and a former Time Agent and con artist, the omnisexual Captain Jack Harkness, who ended up with his own inferior spin-off. Filling the role of companion in “Voyage of the Damned” is, no lie, pop star Kylie Minogue. In a waitress outfit. With adorable boots. We’ll let you find out for yourselves which of those categories her character falls into.
One Is the Loneliest Number…Or Maybe Ten Is: You might wonder what kind of skin cream the BBC is handing out these days, if the show has been around in various iterations for 45 years and everyone involved looks so young. To get around the issue of longevity and a revolving door of actors, the writers made it a characteristic of the Doctor’s species, the Time Lords, that they can regenerate their bodies in the case of an injury or illness that gives them enough time to choose the resurrection. Conveniently, the regenerated bodies always look like a different actor. Thus, we’ve had the First, Second, Third, Fourth (scarf!), Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Doctors previously, leading us to our current incarnation. The Tenth Doctor is played by David Tennant, whose whiplash performance is one of the primary reasons to tune in. He’s perfectly suited to the part, not only because he’s a versatile actor who can handle both the Doctor’s wacky digressions and his nigh-immortal depths, and not only because he has a Bradley Whitfordian charisma that extends to everything on set including the lampposts, but because he’s a big nerdgasm geek fanboy over Who, so you know the character is in good hands. You will enjoy him. Go ahead–try not to. We’ll be waiting over here. Told you so.
Not everything is geeky goofiness, however. Russell T Davies, the genial and giant genius who rebooted the series after a lengthy hiatus (and whom we would like to spirit away in our backpacks to our secret island hideaway where he, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Aaron Sorkin, and Joss Whedon sit around telling us stories), has earned every penny he’ll ever make off this show by anchoring New Who with one critical idea. Some time before the reboot, the Time Lords engaged in a massive war through time and space. As the Doctor puts it in the brilliant Season 3 episode “Gridlock,””My people fought a race called the Daleks, for the sake of all creation. And they lost.” To save, well, the universe, the Doctor pulled the trigger on some as-yet-undescribed horror that defeated the Daleks…but at the price of destroying his home planet of Gallifrey and all of the other Time Lords. The Doctor is the last of his kind, with the potential to live nearly forever entirely alone. No wonder he wants a traveling companion. This decision creates the weight behind every other choice in the show–wanna see the Doctor wig out? Show him a Dalek. Want to trip his circuits entirely? Threaten to take more away from a man who has already lost everything he both loved and rebelled against before–at his own hand.
“Voyage of the Damned” puts us squarely in this mindset. Yes, it’s playing off 70s disaster movies like The Poseidon Adventure (who will be Shelley Winters?). Yes, the terrifying killer robots are hospitality droids dressed like angels and called the heavenly host (side note: bwah!). Yes, that really is Kylie Minogue. But coming off a Season 3 that saw the Doctor lose more than ever, how far do you think he’s going to go to make sure Kylie doesn’t go down with the Titanic? Pretty far. When people complain about the fact that Doctor Who is made for the whole family to sit down and watch together after tea, thus meaning it’s not serious enough, all we can think is, “Trump card: The Lonely God.”
As usual, then, the Doctor looks like he could use a pal on his journeys–here’s your invitation to hop on board. Since you’ll be watching from the comforts of your own couch, the worst danger you’ll be in is risking getting hit upside the head occasionally with a big hunk of cheese–but it’s the tastiest cheese in three galaxies. The Christmas special runs long, so note the earlier start time tonight (8:30pm EDT).