Many critics have already praised the Doctor Who Christmas special, praise that can be justified by its position as number two in the Christmas TV ratings. In Voyage of the Damned Russell T. Davies has written and produced a Doctor Who story with outstanding visual and ludic qualities that entertained for over an hour on Christmas Day. I particularly enjoyed the anthropological misinterpretations of Mr Copper played by Clive Swift.
The episode’s most significant achievement in my opinion, from a science fiction point of view, is that of being one of the best works of skiffy I have ever seen. What do I mean by skiffy? I mean a mainstream story that has been given the location and trappings of science fiction without any of the ideas that make science fiction, SCIENCE fiction. I’ve remarked on this tendency of RTD’s before in my blog on Boom Town.
RTD has taken some classic disaster stories, The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Towering Inferno (1974), Voyage of The Damned (1976) and Titanicâ€ (1997), mixed them together, projected them out into space, then added some aliens and a mob of renegade, people killing robots.
Perhaps I can illustrate my point by referring to two previous (Classic) Doctor Who stories. This is not the first time the series has featured Terran ocean going vessels travelling through space. In the fifth Doctor story Enlightenment we see a whole flotilla of sailing ships, stolen from different eras of human history, taking part in a race through the solar system for the prize of “Enlightenment”. It was a contest contrived by a species of super powerful aliens, known as the Eternals (responsible for banishing the Carrionites in The Shakespeare Code). Presumably they took part in this race in order to alleviate the tedium of living their immortal lives. These Eternals had very little regard for the human crews of the ships they had taken and considered them with the same level of concern that we might give to a colony of ants, yet seemed dependant on them to experience the emotions that they could no longer experience on their own.
The fourth Doctor story, The Robots of Death, is another where servitor robots also began to turn on their human masters. The culture, in which this story was set, had built so many safeguards against such an occurrence (these were Asimov robots) that the humans involved could not even consider the possibility. It was some time before the humans accepted that some of their robots have become killers. When they finally did some began to descend into paranoia and madness.
Both these ‘classic’ stories ask interesting question about how technology interacts with culture. Enlightenment questions whether we could even endure immortality were we to achieve it and if an ethnocentric method of judging other species is actually the best one? The Robots of Death asks if any level of safeguards is enough for a potentially dangerous technology, something that applies to as much to nuclear power stations as it does to robots and androids?
In Russell T. Davies’ story the villain is a nutter capitalist with a personal score to settle, whose henchmen are a bunch of robots in the guise of angels. Perhaps RTD doesn’t like capitalists or trust religions, but making the villain a cyborg doesn’t make the story science fiction. It is ideas about the relationship between technology and culture that do that and I didn’t see many of those in this story.
Frankly I’m getting a little bored with Christmas decoration robots that try and kill everyone, especially when, in this Christmas special, not one character seems in the slightest surprised that the Robots have turned on them!
Oh dear, some evil genius has made the robots homicidal again
This story was a great entertainment hit, but it was only pretending to be science fiction. I’m left wondering if, amongst the various specialists the series makers might have at their disposal, they have ever thought include scientists or established science fiction writers because, with the production values that they put into Doctor Who, they could produce some great science fiction stories if they did.