Shiny Shelf

Doctor Who: Voyage of the Damned/The Shadow in the North

By Mark Clapham on 05 January 2008

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

Was it me, or was this a fairly quiet Christmas for the BBC? Sure, they rolled over ITV like a tank going over a blancmange, but this year it was a cardboard tank. A wet cardboard tank. Clearly beating ITV to a pulp doesn’t actually require that much effort – a couple of ‘EastEnders’, a revival of an old sitcom, a big ‘Doctor Who’ special, and a Philip Pullman adaptation that’s been sitting on a shelf for a year.

Maybe I was spoiled by last year, where we had not only ‘Who’ but doses of both spin-offs, the predecessor to this year’s Pullman, new adaptations of ‘The Wind in the Willows’ and ‘Dracula’ and charming oddities like a new ‘Ghost Story for Christmas’ on BBC4. Compared to that, this year’s line-up seemed weak in quantity – BBC4 in particular need a slap for not doing another ‘Ghost Story’, leaving Radio to step into the breach.

Anyway, definite centre-pieces were the ‘Who’, and the Pullman piece starring a ‘Who’ alum.

‘Who’ first. As pointed out in the accompanying ‘Confidential’, this is only the third ‘Doctor Who’ Christmas special and they’re already treated as a beloved institution that the season couldn’t do without. ‘Voyage of the Damned’ is the longest and most OTT special so far, and another step in the transition from these being longer-than-normal episodes of the series and becoming ‘movies’ (of sorts). In this case, the longer length and slower pacing is a consequence of the story being told – ‘Voyage’ is a disaster movie, and even though its lead character is from an ongoing series the disaster movie form requires a certain space to breathe, to set-up a diverse cast of characters, to throw in the peril, and then to gradually dispatch those characters in interesting ways before the final survivors make their escape.

The end-result is an effective ‘Who’/disaster movie hybrid; loud, brash, spectacular in its effect sequences and broad in its jokes. Kylie provides star power and re-captures the amiable, girl-next-door quality of her ‘Neighbours’ character, while a host of British TV stalwarts (Geoffrey Palmer, Bernard Cribbins, Clive Swift) provide some weight and depth of character to proceedings. It isn’t subtle, but then early evening on Christmas day is hardly the time for subtlety, especially with an audience who may not watch the series at all for the rest of the year. On the basis of ‘Voyage of the Damned’ it’ll be very interesting to see exactly how cinematic 2009’s interim ‘Who’ specials turn out, and how they’ll try and combine their ’special’ status while retaining the virtues of the regular episodes and keeping the series ticking over.

While ‘Doctor Who’ continues to relentlessly dominate the schedules, former companion Billie Piper still hasn’t entirely settled into the role of Philip Pullmans juvenile heroine, Sally Lockhart. The second BBC1 adaptation of a Lockhart book, ‘The Shadow in the North’, was made in conjunction with last Christmas’ ‘The Ruby in the Smoke’, but has sat on the shelf for a year, presumably to coincide with the release of ‘The Golden Compass’. It’s understandable that the BBC wouldn’t be in any hurry – while it had it’s moments ‘Ruby’ was drier and slower than it needed to be – the Lockhart books are resolutely adventure stories full of action and grotesquery, but the adaptations seem to treat them as classic literature that require a stately and elegant approach. ‘Shadow’ is a bit pacier than its predecessor, but nonetheless drags for what it is, at a ponderous 100 minutes compared to the ‘Who’ special’s clipped 71 minutes. Scripting and direction certainly lacked the snap and drive of the recent BBC1 ‘Oliver Twist’, with writer Adrian Hodges spending an age explaining certain plot points then ineptly fudging others.

It’s a shame – they’re fun little books, and most of the cast are good. Jared Harris provided a memorable villain, while the BBC never really goes wrong on Victorian costumes and sets. What is sadly missing is any adrenaline, not only in the storytelling but in the central portrayal of Sally. Piper’s Lockhart lacks any of the verve or flare Sally demonstrates in the books, and comes across as somewhat stiff and unapproachable. For all of the faults of ‘The Golden Compass’, Dakota Blue Richards was spot-on as Lyra, providing the sense of rebellious mischief and mistrust of authority that lies at the heart of Pullman’s writing. While the supporting cast of ‘Shadow’ provided a bit more life than the lead, ultimately Piper’s Lockhart fails to be the charismatic presence she needs to be. It’s a shame, and a bit baffling, that the charm Piper demonstrated as Rose Tyler fails to come across here, and it’s hard to tell whether she’s just unsuited to period roles, or just left at sea by poor scripting and lacklustre direction. Either way, these adaptations are just too cold and static to really work. If the BBC are going to do any more, a serious rethink is needed if the source material is to get its due.

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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

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