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Doctor Who: "Voyage Of The Damned"

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Illustration for article titled Doctor Who: "Voyage Of The Damned"

Up until a couple of years ago, my exposure to Doctor Who was limited to a few perplexing minutes spent channel-surfing in high school and a college roommate who had seemingly every episode on videotape and who promised to someday introduce me to the series. That never happened and I went through the next decade or so thinking about Doctor Who not one bit.

That was pretty easy to do, too, especially in the U.S. where the series has always been, at best, a cult item. It was probably fairly easy to do in the U.K., too, since the franchise lay dormant for much of the '90s, apart from a brief revival in 1996. But I kept hearing great things about the 2005 relaunch starring Christopher Eccleston under the guidance of writer/producer Russell T. Davies (previously best know for creating Queer As Folk.) And when I got a DVD set of the Eccleston season I found out all those rumors were true. This was a big-hearted show filled with cool science fiction concepts, strong acting from the leads (Eccleston and the sweet Billie Piper as his smitten companion Rose), and clever writing. It also kept alive what I understood to be the traditions of the original show: Keeping it friendly to kids and adults (hence the not-so-subtle sexual tension between Eccleston and Piper) and making sure there was room for plenty of rubber-suited grotesques.

I stayed with the show through a change of Doctors as Eccleston gave way to wild-eyed Scottish actor David Tennant in season two. Tennant threw out Eccleston's subtlety in favor of manic energy but he quickly made the character his own and now when I think of The Doctor it's Tennant who first comes to mind. I stuck around through a change of companions after the fairly heartbreaking departure of Piper at the end of the second season. Though I liked Freema Agyeman as Tennant's once, and apparently future, companion Martha Jones the character's hopeless crush on The Doctor made her seem much weaker by the end of the season than at the beginning. After the nearly flawless first season, the second and third seasons had their ups and downs, generally beginning on high notes then delivering a string of mediocre to questionable episodes, then finishing with a run as powerful as science fiction television gets.

So those are my bona fides, such as they are, heading into this fourth season premiere. I've still never seen a full episode of any of the 20th century versions of Doctor Who (I know, "boo, hiss") but I'm fully on board with this century's.

So, on to season four. Actually, we're not quite there yet. Last night's Davies-penned season premiere on the Sci-Fi channel aired months ago in the UK and elsewhere as the now-traditional 90-minute Christmas special. (Hence all the references to Christmas.) As Christmas specials go I'd rank it below "The Christmas Invasion," which introduced Tennant in swashbuckling style, but above last year's "The Runaway Bride," which depended largely on the elusive comedic charms of Cahtherine Tate. Apparently she's a) slated to return as one of The Doctor's companions this seasons and b) quite popular in the U.K. British readers, please tell me what I'm missing.

We first find The Doctor alone after parting ways with poor, lovestruck Martha at the end of last season. But he doesn't have long to reflect on his solitude once the Tardis crashes into The Titanic. Only it's not the famous cruise ship, it's a Titanic-themed spaceship filled with tourists visiting Earth, as The Doctor quickly discovers. The robots made up as angels are something of a tip-off.

Everything proceeds in good fun as The Doctor aids some slobbish contest winners in getting the better of some snobbish full-fare tourists and strikes up a flirtation with a pretty waitress (Kylie Minogue). (The man has a thing for blondes.)

But all is not as it seems. Turns out that sinister forces have plan to crash the Titanic into the Earth in order to kill everyone on the ship and the planet for reasons that will be revealed later. After a catastrophic collision with some meteors, the episode essentially turns into a Doctor Who version of The Poseidon Adventure as The Doctor leads a bunch of squabbling survivors to the bridge of the ship. There's even a self-sacrificing fattie, ala Shelley Winters most memorable Poseidon moment.

It's not quite enough plot to fill 90 minutes and much of the episode switches between good padding (an excursion to London where all but The Queen have abandoned the city after the catastrophic events of the last two Christmases) and bad padding (one encounter after another with those killer robo-angels). But all in all this was a solid outing that makes me happy to have the show back and eager to move on to the season proper.

Grade: B

Stray Observations:

— While the robo-angels seem like a weak reprise of the Weeping Angels from last season's great "Blink" episode, I was sorry that Bannakaffalatta didn't make it out of this episode alive. He had tremendous dignity for a dwarfish cyborg and I think he and Kylie would have made a lovely couple.

— Always awesome: Tennant striking a heroic pose and laying down his Time Lord credentials. Unnecessary: That moment when the robo-angels lifted him up as if taking him to heaven. Save some of that special effects budget for the traditional mid-season slump, why don't you?

— Yes, it makes sense for the Tardis, when set adrift, to gravitate to the nearest large body and drift down to Earth. Does it make sense for it to land in London.

— Aliens: They think Europeans go to war with Turkey every year and eat the Turkish for Christmas dinner. Wah-wah.

— "Take me to your leader. [. . .] I've always wanted to say that."

— Yes, I know that image isn't from this episode but Sci-Fi hasn't updated the press site yet. Hey, get with it!

— The slightly more rocking theme song: Are we fans? Is this evidence of the "new attitude" promised in the Sci-Fi promos? Because it's basically the only evidence of an attitude change that I can find.

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