I enjoyed that a lot more than I thought I would. Having not seen this one in quite a long time, my sketchy memory of it was of a mindless action-packed romp, a formula I find very tedious, its main distinction being the presence of Kylie Minogue. To an extent, it was a mindless action-packed romp, but it was so well executed that I found myself hugely enjoying it in spite of myself. I’d certainly say that this is Russell T Davies’ best Christmas special yet. The adaptation of the disaster movie formula was done effectively, making for an exciting and gripping story. The scene in which the Doctor and his hangers-on were attempting to cross a metal bridge over a flaming chasm was particularly exciting, especially when the Host showed up to complicate matters. The homage to The Robots of Death in conceiving the Host introduced a scary element of sci-fi terror into the 1930s Titanic aesthetic.
One of the highlights of this Christmas special was the cast of quality supporting characters. First there was Astrid, played by Kylie Minogue. Astrid was an endearing character who made for a promising would-have-been companion. She was sweet, caring and brave, and her embodiment of the “young Aussie traveller” trope was appreciated by this Australian. That said, I didn’t really believe in the brief romantic dalliance between Astrid and the Doctor. It felt a bit forced, particularly given that the Doctor is (apparently) still grieving over Rose. Astrid’s death, however, was just tear-jerking, measuring up as one of the sadder deaths the show has done, even more so because of the frustrated life and potential Astrid’s death represented, and how affectionate the audience had become of Astrid over the course of the episode.
The other supporting characters of Mr Copper (Clive Swift), Alonso (Russell Tovey), and Morvin and Foon Van Hoff (Clive Rowe and Debbie Chazen), and even Rickston Slade (Gary O’Brien) were great additions to the production. I didn’t much care for Bannakaffalatta, though. I found him annoying and thought his character lame and not particularly well-conceived, although I suppose the show can get away with that in a Christmas special. Max Capricorn was delightfully villainous, a fun, camp villain whose appearance made the previous forty-five minutes or so worthwhile.
This special pulled the disconcerting trick of inverting the usual Hollywood formula for stories like this, by killing all the people the Doctor promised to save. All the “nice” people, the Van Hoffs, Astrid, Bannakaffalatta, were cruelly dispatched in agonising succession, while the slimy Slade lived. This turned our expectations on their head, and it’s very well that it did, too—if it hadn’t, the episode would have ended up being entirely predictable and totally forgettable. It’s good that the Doctor is shown to fail people and fail to fulfil his promises. He’s not the messiah (he’s a very naughty Time Lord), and, to be honest, if the Doctor always saved everyone we like, this show would not be half as interesting as it is.
I couldn’t find anywhere to put this, but I also thought the Doctor’s “I’m the Doctor” speech was a bit cringeworthy. This special, in general, though, was a fun and engaging story which defied the conventions of the genre it was so mischievously aping to produce a surprisingly effective and engaging tale.