Realism has nothing to do with the success and brilliance of Doctor Who. From the show’s debut in 1963, the adventures of the Doctor have relied on hyperbole to power the TARDIS through all of time and space. And, on December 25, 2007, Doctor Who pushed the limits of its own hyperbolic format, nearly to the breaking point.
Fifteen years later, the Christmas special “Voyage of the Damned” is the best and worst of times for Who and the perfect showcase for why we still love David Tennant.
In the recent history of Who, the context in which “Voyage of the Damned” aired is worth mentioning. The fact that the Doctor would crash into some version of the Titanic had been teased in the Season 3 finale “The Last of the Time Lords,” on June 30, 2007. David Tennant was riding high on the end of his second full season as the Doctor, while then-showrunner Russell T. Davies had successfully expanded the TV Whoniverse into not one but two spinoff series, Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures. While American TV science fiction was mostly dominated by Battlestar Galactica, the years 2007 to 2008 proved that the biggest sci-fi show in the world was shaping up to be British stalwart, Doctor Who.
The Tennant and Davies vision for Who wasn’t just huge in the U.K. In 2007, Doctor Who, as a franchise, had firmly arrived as a global phenomenon. Need proof? “Voyage of the Damned” was watched by at least 13.31 million people on the night it aired on the BBC, which was the biggest viewership the show had ever had since 1979. Notably, this number doesn’t include all the American fans, many of who almost certainly, watched the special through *ahem* other channels.
The point is, this is a moment when Who took to the global stage. And to celebrate, the Doctor (Tennant) teamed up with Kylie Minogue on a doomed starship version of the Titanic in a kitschy adventure that, in many ways, is the quintessential David Tennant performance.
The gist of “Voyage of the Damned” is this: The Doctor is alone, bumps into a weird situation, befriends and inspires people on said crashing starship, gives one series-defining speech, loses some good friends along the way, and in the end, is literally carried by robot angels because on Christmas, the universe will deliver us our Time Lord and savior, the Doctor.
The set-up of “Voyage of the Damned” clearly references older ship disaster movies, specifically the 1972 film The Poseidon Adventure. But, from a sci-fi world-building point-of-view, the flavor and warped logic of the basic status quo, feels ripped straight from pages of Douglas Adams. The outer space version of the Titanic that the Doctor finds himself in isn’t from the future, but rather, from the present. The fact that most of the people onboard look human, and behave like contemporary people from the U.K. is simply never explained. Again, this kind of thing exists in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and in older episodes of Who which were written by Douglas Adams. Of all the contemporary Doctors, Tennant is perhaps the most influenced by the writings of Adams; he even name-checked Arthur Dent in his first episode ever, “The Christmas Invasion.”
Today, we might say this was all a weird flex for Doctor Who, but the truth is, in terms of the campy history of the series in the 20th century, “Voyage of the Damned” fits in perfectly with the sensibilities of the older Doctors, while perfectly showcasing why David Tennant is so beloved as the character. His boundless optimism and charisma are on full display, and to this day, his monologue about who he is, defines the character like no other speech in the entire series:
“I'm the Doctor. I'm a Time Lord. I'm from the planet Gallifrey in the Constellation of Kasterborous. I'm 903 years old and I'm the man who is gonna save your lives and all 6 billion people on the planet below. You got a problem with that?”
This unblinking, heroic moment is probably the best thing about the episode, but it also reveals a clever quirk of this era of Doctor Who. The Doctor promises to save all the lives of the people gathered, but in the end ... he doesn’t. Bannakaffalatta (Jimmy Vee) sacrifices himself to save the Doctor. The innocent Morvin (Clive Rowe) dies, too, as does Astrid Peth (Kylie Minogue), which is the first time in the new Who revival (post-2005) that the Doctor’s “companion” died on screen.
For all of its corniness, “Voyage of the Damned,” lives up to its name. Most of the characters are cursed. The Doctor’s presence does save the ship and does save the Earth, but every individual he befriends early in the episode is, basically, marked for death. This is the slightly macabre theme that runs through the entirety of Tennant’s first Doctor Who run: The Doctor gets “ordinary” people to do amazing things for him, which nearly half the time, results in their death. Is it his fault? Foon (Debbie Chazen), certainly thinks so, and clearly blames the Doctor for the death of her husband, Morvin.
This kind of pattern would repeat itself in the 2009 special “The Waters of Mars,” in which the Doctor again encourages a group of seemingly doomed people to rally behind him, only to partially be the cause of their woes. After that, in the 2009-2010 two-parter, “The End of Time,” David Tennant’s Doctor regenerates, amid swirling angst, guilt, and bittersweet triumph.
“Voyage of the Damned,” paradoxically ranks among some of Tennant’s best performances in the role, while the episode itself is clearly one of the worst of the series. The science-fiction aspects of this episode are riddled with tired tropes, the action has a start-and-stop quality to it, and the overall feeling one gets is that Doctor Who is just kind of killing time until the next great season begins. In fact, early in the episode, the Doctor encounters Donna Noble’s (Catherine Tate) grandfather, Wilf (Bernard Cribbins), foreshadowing the next step the show would take in Season 4.
After “Voyage of the Damned,” Tennant returned in “Partners in Crime,” on April 5, 2008. This re-teamed the Doctor with Donna and resulted in perhaps one of the best run of Who episodes ever. The confidence and inner conflict that defined Tennant’s Doctor was firmly cemented by “Voyage of the Damned,” but everything that happened before, and everything that happened later, were his best adventures. Today, “Voyage of the Damned,” is the perfect episode to make a newcomer fall in love with David Tennant himself. But, if a newbie fan is worried that the rest of the series is like this, luckily, it’s not.
Doctor Who, “Voyage of the Damned,” is streaming on HBO Max. David Tennant returns as the Doctor in late 2033 on Disney+.