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New Series Episode 44:
Voyage Of The Damned
The TARDIS encounters a luxury spaceship suspiciously called the Titanic, which is in orbit around the Earth as part of a sightseeing cruise to visit England at Christmastime. But no sooner has the Doctor arrived than things start to go very wrong, when the vessel's captain intentionally steers the Titanic into a meteor storm. As the crippled Titanic tumbles on a collision course towards the Earth, the Doctor -- aided only by a plucky waitress named Astrid and a motley group of survivors -- must get to the bottom of the sabotage.
For the 2007 Doctor Who Christmas special, executive producer Russell T Davies decided that the time was ripe for the programme to tackle a genre it had largely avoided in the past: the disaster movie. Davies was a fan of the 1972 blockbuster The Poseidon Adventure -- about an oceanlinear which flips over after being hit by a freak wave -- and thought that a similar event, set in space, would be a suitable hook for the now-annual yuletide event. He decided that the starship in question should be an alien replica of the Titanic, providing a suitably enigmatic tease at the end of Last Of The Time Lords, the final episode of Doctor Who's 2007 season. By the early part of that year, Davies was already developing ideas for what had become known as “Starship Titanic”. The planned director was James Strong, who had most recently helmed Daleks In Manhattan / Evolution Of The Daleks.
By this point, the enormous success of Doctor Who in Britain had attracted attention on an international scale. As a result, the production team was surprised to be fielding interest from not one but two major stars about appearing in “Starship Titanic”. The first of these was Dennis Hopper, star of movies such as Easy Rider and Blue Velvet, whose agent met Strong on a plane in early March.
Meanwhile, on the 21st of that month, the press launch for Doctor Who's 2007 season was held. During the evening, Davies officially confirmed that there was going to be a 2007 Doctor Who Christmas special. Present at the launch was Will Baker, a friend of Doctor Who writer/actor Mark Gatiss who was also the creative director for Australian singer/actress Kylie Minogue. Baker had included Doctor Who-inspired imagery in some of Minogue's past concert appearances, and now suggested that she might be interested in appearing in the programme.
Although principally known in recent years for pop hits such as Can't Get You Out Of My Head, Minogue had risen to fame as an actress in Australian soap opera Neighbours. Since bursting onto the music scene in 1987 with chart-toppers like I Should Be So Lucky and Locomotion, Minogue had continued to make occasional acting appearances, including the movies Street Fighter and Bio-Dome. More recently, she had enjoyed a cameo appearance in Moulin Rouge! and provided voicework for the animated film The Magic Roundabout (retitled Doogal in North America).
On March 26th, Minogue met with Davies and executive producer Julie Gardner in London. Davies was developing a one-off character to fill the role of the Doctor's companion in “Starship Titanic”, and this was now offered to Minogue. The character would be a waitress on board the Titanic, who assists the Doctor throughout the story but ultimately does something of which he severely disapproves, causing him to leave her behind at the adventure's conclusion. Minogue affirmed her interest in the part, although the flexibility of her schedule remained uncertain. Nonetheless, the press was already reporting on her casting (to various degrees of accuracy) as early as April 22nd.
Davies continued to develop “Starship Titanic” with Minogue in mind; a key influence was Halo Jones, a science-fiction heroine created by Alan Moore and Ian Gibson for the comic book 2000AD. By late April, the interim companion had become known as Peth, and by mid-May, Davies had decided that the best possible exit for the character would be to sacrifice her life to save the Doctor. Finally, on June 15th, Minogue's representatives confirmed that she would be available for three weeks to record “Starship Titanic”.
Davies' initial draft of the Christmas special was completed on June 5th. Some names were changed during the writing process: Foon was called Struzie, Frame's surname was originally Blane, and Peth became Astrid Peth. Max Capricorn was initially Mr Maxitane and then Max Callisto, and was originally seen to be a passenger on the Titanic in the ballroom during the episode's opening scenes; he was not confined to a life support machine at this point. The story itself was retitled Voyage Of The Damned in late May, when Davies learned that former Doctor Who script editor Douglas Adams had designed a computer game called Starship Titanic, which was released in 1998. Plans to include the Judoon (who had appeared in Smith And Jones) in the adventure's conclusion were abandoned at an early stage.
By mid-June, it was clear that Voyage Of The Damned was much too effects-intensive, and severe cuts would have to be made. The most significant change was to the scene involving Buckingham Palace: originally, Davies had planned for the Titanic to cleave the structure in two, leaving Queen Elizabeth furiously shaking her fist after the retreating vessel, rather than having the Doctor pull the ship up at the last moment. Also excised were much grander scenes of destruction and chaos when the Titanic is hit. At the same time, it was agreed that Astrid's sacrifice needed to be played up more. Script editor Brian Minchin suggested that Davies make use of the teleport bracelet to somehow rescue Astrid, which led to the scene of the Doctor's failed attempt to save his would-be companion.
Although a deal was now in place for Minogue to appear in Voyage Of The Damned, negotiations with Hopper's representatives continued until July. Consideration was given to casting him as either Mr Copper or Max Capricorn, since it was clear that Hopper would have limited availability. However, it soon became apparent that a deal could not be reached before the special went into production, and it was mutually agreed that the discussions should be terminated.
On July 3rd, the BBC finally quelled the rumours and confirmed that Minogue would indeed be starring in Voyage Of The Damned. Another small but notable piece of casting came in the form of Bernard Cribbins, who would play the newspaper vendor -- who at this point was named Stan. A performer since his teenage years, Cribbins had become a noted character actor, with credits including three Carry On films and the James Bond spoof Casino Royale, as well as television series such as The Avengers, The Wombles, Jackanory, Coronation Street and Fawlty Towers. Cribbins had also appeared in the 1966 movie Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 AD (based on the 1964 Doctor Who serial The Dalek Invasion Of Earth), and in the 2007 Doctor Who radio play Horror Of Glam Rock.
Production on Voyage Of The Damned kicked off the revived Doctor Who's fourth recording calendar. It was decided that the Christmas special should be made on its own, and so this was referred to as Block One. The first scenes filmed were those on the bridge over the chasm (referred to as the “strut” in the script, to differentiate it from the command bridge), which was constructed at Upper Boat Studios. Recording on this set spanned July 9th to 11th. Unfortunately, during the second day, David Tennant learned that his mother's health was failing; Helen McDonald had been fighting cancer for the past five years. Tennant departed the production to be with her during her final moments, necessitating a last-minute rearrangement of the shooting schedule to allow for his absence. On July 12th, special effects work was conducted at Upper Boat, while on the 13th, material in the Titanic reception was recorded at the disused Exchange Building in Swansea. The production was then suspended until Tennant could return -- a stressful situation given Minogue's short window of availability.
As it transpired, however, the hiatus was brief: sadly, Helen McDonald passed away on July 15th. Tennant threw himself back into his work the next day, the first of three days spent at the Coal Exchange in Cardiff Bay, where the sequences in the entertainment lounge were filmed. On set were Murray Gold and Ben Foster -- Doctor Who's composer and arranger -- who played the guitarist and the pianist in the ship's band. The next venue for recording was the Johnsey Estates in the Mamhilad Park Industrial Estate at Pontypool; material in Host storage and the various Titanic corridors and stairwells was filmed there from July 19th to 27th (except for the 22nd). Tennant was again released on the 21st to attend his mother's funeral.
Cast and crew returned to the Exchange Building on July 28th and 30th for additional scenes in the reception; the arrival of the TARDIS was also filmed on the latter day. More special effects work was completed at Upper Boat on the 31st. Later that day, the sequence in which the tour group visits London was performed around St John Street in Cardiff; one of the false road signs erected was for “Donovan Street”, a reference to Minogue's Neighbours costar, Jason Donovan. Colin Baker, who had played the Sixth Doctor, visited the shoot for several hours on this night, which also saw all of Cribbins' material performed.
The end of July also marked the end of Minogue's work on the episode, and she now departed for Ibiza and a return to her singing career. Voyage Of The Damned, however, was not yet complete. Further effects work was conducted at Upper Boat on August 1st, while the concluding scene with the Doctor and Mr Copper was filmed at the WDA Compound on the Cardiff Docks. Scenes on the Titanic bridge were recorded at Upper Boat on the 2nd, followed by those in the ship's kitchens at Johnsey Estates on the 3rd. This was also the venue on August 6th, when the remaining material in Host storage was filmed. More sequences on the bridge were then completed at Upper Boat on the 7th and 8th.
With the majority of the episode complete, only a handful of additional shooting was now required. Most of this was conducted on August 21st, and began with the newsreader footage, taped at BBC Broadcasting House in Llandaff. Material set inside the TARDIS was captured at Upper Boat. Buckingham Palace was actually Cardiff City Hall. The production team had approached Prince Charles about making a cameo appearance in Voyage Of The Damned, but he declined the request; Angharad Baxter instead played Queen Elizabeth, with Jessica Martin subsequently dubbing the monarch's dialogue. Finally, on October 20th, the effects sequence of Morvin's fall down the chasm was rerecorded at Upper Boat.
Despite extensive editing, Strong found himself unable to cut Voyage Of The Damned down to its one-hour timeslot without excising crucial material. Fortunately, Gardner was able to secure a seventy-minute slot for the special instead. Meanwhile, Gold created a new arrangement of the Doctor Who theme music which would debut with Voyage Of The Damned; this incorporated elements of the arrangement composed by Peter Howell in 1980. In October, the death of Howard Attfield -- who was intended to play Geoff Noble throughout the 2008 season -- led to Cribbins being brought back to reprise his role from Voyage Of The Damned. Davies now decided to rename the character Wilfrid Mott, and the end credits for the Christmas special were suitably amended. Also added to the credits was a dedication to Doctor Who's first producer, Verity Lambert, who passed away on November 22nd.
For the third year in a row, Doctor Who was a centrepiece of the BBC's Christmas Day programming. Propelled by the added spark of Minogue's star power, Voyage Of The Damned was watched by 13.3 million viewers. This figure was more than three million larger than either of the previous Christmas specials, and represented Doctor Who's best ratings since an audience of 16.1 million watched episode four of City Of Death in 1979 (at a time when a strike had shut down ITV, then BBC One's only measurable competition). Even more impressively, Voyage Of The Damned placed second amongst all programmes for the week, marking the first time that Doctor Who had ever placed so highly. Indeed, the series' previous best was a fifth-place finish for 1975's The Ark In Space part two. Was it just a matter of time before Doctor Who could finally claim the mantle of the week's most-watched show...?
|Updated 14th August 2011|
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