Admittedly, the Sci-Fi Sea Cruise videos generally get worse as they go on, but I’m happy to report that the first instalment is both written and filmed with such a level of competence that it can be enjoyed with very little irony. This is likely due to the influence of legendary Doctor Who writer-producers Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks, who were present on the cruise and took part in a writers’ workshop, earning them “creative consultant” credits. While it’s… hardly their best work, they seem to have basically had fun working with the Americans and offering story suggestions.
A rather nice rainbow-tinted time vortex is marred slightly by an awkwardly superimposed holiday photo of Nicholas Courtney and Wendy Padbury. This absolutely sets the scene for what follows. Death Takes a Holiday kicks off with a rather unnecessary framing device where the Brigadier, on his 73rd birthday, is writing a journal entry about his “other” 73rd birthday. Get your flowcharts ready: apparently, when the Brigadier was 43, an accident occurred in the TARDIS causing himself, the Doctor, Zoe Heriot, and Jamie McCrimmon to be prematurely aged so that they all looked 30 years older.
While the rest of Death Takes a Holiday is scripted, the scene with the Doctor and Jamie was clearly filmed with only a vague idea of what they should actually say to each other – it feels improvisational and naturalistic, which really doesn’t play to the strengths of either actor. Time travel is never implied in the dialogue, but it seems that the Doctor has just tried to take everyone to 2003 Mexico and only managed 2003: Death Takes a Holiday is blatantly set in the 21st century, just as the Pertwee seasons are clearly set in the 70s. (It’s strange that the confusing element of the Brigadier’s birthday(s) is included at all, as it never appears in the dialogue or story outside the framing narration. Presumably it was just Courtney’s birthday around the time of filming and they decided to work it into the story. At least it confirms that the Brigadier is experiencing this adventure on his 43rd birthday – since he already seems at ease with TARDIS travel and regeneration, this must be happening in the year or so following the events of The Three Doctors.) One moment it’s Nicholas Courtney’s eternally charismatic voice narrating the Brigadier’s memoir, and the next we’ve got Colin Baker and Frazer Hines stammering and talking over each other to provide exposition on how the Doctor has just sent the Brigadier and Zoe to get a special black onyx crystal in Mexico. (Baker and Frazer Hines weren’t taking the cruise, so the insert was shot beforehand at the Chicago TARDIS convention; on the plus side, this meant they actually had a decent TARDIS prop to use.) The bit where they wave to an off-screen Brigadier and Zoe, and Baker says “Sorry we can’t be with you, we’re going back in there”, is particularly painful/glorious – the Doctor knows this doesn’t make sense, and he wants out. (More Brigadier narration attempts to paper over this by saying they’re beginning TARDIS repairs.) They’re both dressed in civilian clothes – particularly odd in this case, as Jamie’s a Highlander and Baker’s costume is the stuff of legend. Perhaps the TARDIS had a literal wardrobe malfunction?
The real question, of course, is why the Sixth Doctor had a 43-year-old Brigadier and two of the Second Doctor’s companions in his TARDIS. One explanation is that the problem with the TARDIS caused the Second Doctor to be switched with the Sixth, Dimensions in Time-style, but no reference is made to the Doctor having changed his appearance aside from ageing. No, from the Doctor’s perspective, Death Takes a Holiday must occur at some point between The Trial of a Time Lord and Time and the Rani. He’s finally gotten round to freeing Jamie and Zoe from the memory wipe the Time Lords imposed on them in The War Games, and after a few adventures together (it’s not like Big Finish haven’t already jammed several new companions and distinct “eras” into that gap, so why not?), they’ve crossed paths with 70s-era UNI. (The Five Doctors would be just as indecipherable if they’d only had enough time and money to shoot the last seventeen minutes of it.)
One imagines it would have been much, much simpler to have the story follow versions of the characters who are actually older, and indeed, the subsequent cruise videos make no attempt to explain everyone’s advancing ages. However, the idea of using TARDIS mumbo-jumbo to handwave the age of returning cast members is curiously prescient – in 2007, Steven Moffat used a similar explanation in the mini-episode “Time Crash”, where the Tenth Doctor told the Fifth Doctor that meeting him had “shorted out the time differential”, making him look strangely old until he returns to his own time. In Death Takes a Holiday, ageing is the focus of the story – fine for a one-off, but Moffat’s explanation is far more satisfying, as it provides just enough detail to neatly explain pretty much all age discrepancies in Doctor Who while absolving each individual story from having to waste time and energy dealing with them. Additionally, in the sense that it has Courtney playing the Brigadier at two distinct points in his life, there’s also an echo of Mawdryn Undead, another story which anticipates the complex bootstrap parodoxes common in the Moffat era.
The makers attempt to compensate for their lack of budget, equipment, costumes, and Doctors by scoring the video almost from start to finish with a continuous stream of Dudley Simpson music lifted from early Tom Baker serials. And in all fairness, it really does make this nonsense feel substantially more like Doctor Who.
After an odd dissolve to a close-up of the moon we now know to be an egg, we learn that the Brigadier and Zoe have flown (by aeroplane!) from the TARDIS to Miami so that they can board a cruise to Mexico, where the alien Zybanium crystal (as the writers have apparently renamed the “black onyx” in the intervening week) is hidden. (One wonders why they’re giving us such specific details about the journey when each one makes the Doctor’s choice of landing place more questionable.) The Brigadier just about gets away with civilian clothes, but it’s downright strange to see Zoe wearing them, especially when you remember that she comes from the Wheel in Space circa 2000 – Death Takes a Holiday, assuming it’s set in 2003, places her in her own relative future. An American woman attempts to flirt with the Brigadier, who mentions that this is his third cruise (oh dear, they ensnared him earlier than we thought!). He pointedly tells Zoe that the woman is “no-one of importance”, a line which would be a glaringly obvious Chekhov’s gun in a professionally made episode, but actually flies under the radar here because we’re too distracted by the bizarre nature of what we’re watching. In classic Doctor Who fashion, we see a mysterious villain seated behind a row of monitors, though in this case it’s actually just a laptop screen with lots of wingdings and a couple of jpegs of a Zybanium crystal. The villain instructs a lanky henchman to interrogate Zoe, resulting in a spectacularly unconvincing action sequence where Zoe incapacitates him with a gentle shove, runs down lots of corridors (!), and manages to throw him overboard by grabbing his ankles at an opportune moment. The choreography is hilarious verging on non-existent, and makes Zoe’s fight with the Karkus in The Mind Robber look like something out of The Matrix, but at least they put some effort into editing it together coherently. (Since land is nowhere in sight, Zoe has probably just killed a man for asking her where a crystal was and running after her for a few seconds. This is not addressed.)
A second, metalhead henchman plants a bug in Zoe’s bedroom while she showers. Seeing him leave, the Brigadier knocks on Zoe’s door to investigate, and she answers – grumpily, and wearing only a towel – to ask for another five minutes. (Wendy Padbury is a delight here, and alone among the cast completely sells the idea that she’s still a mentally young version of her character.) In a very silly character beat, he backs away, flustered – a standard fanfiction scenario rendered in gloriously undeserved live action. (It’s marred slightly in that the Brigadier’s quick knock is nowhere near as insistent as the scene needs it to be for an exasperated Zoe to come to the door, but the stupidity of this just adds to the charm.)
Arriving in Mexico, Zoe shows the Brigadier a pocket watch the Doctor has set to direct them to the crystal. (It’s actually a very neat prop, complete with a Seal of Rassilon case.) They follow it to a Mayan pyramid (specifically El Castillo at Chichen Itza) and begin to climb, stalked by the second henchman, who apparently didn’t need to bother bugging them after all. Things got tricky for the production here, as filming wasn’t allowed at the location – they had to be very surreptitious, switch the tape with a blank one before it got confiscated, then keep recording with a slightly lower-quality camera. The older actors didn’t have the energy for the climb, so careful framing was used to imply that they were at the top, with a lower wall standing in for an upper one. It works, though the view isn’t as impressive as it should be. (For more behind-the-scenes information, see the cameraman’s side of the story.) Atop the pyramid, Zoe gets help from an American archaeologist couple (and the watch, which has a link to the TARDIS data banks – this story is distractingly well-thought-out in places) to decode an inscription: “The door to the stone of blackness can only be opened by spilling the blood of a warrior.” (Blood sacrifice and strange South American pyramids with alien technology – so far, so Alien Bodies. I wonder if they’ve ever invited Lawrence Miles to the cruise?)
In what must be a nod to the Fourth Doctor’s bizarre act of violence in The Seeds of Doom, the henchman arrives and snaps the neck of a tourist for attempting to protect the Brigadier (who responds by casually kicking a rock in such a way as to trip the henchman and kill him instantly). Courtney almost manages to make “Poor chap, I don’t think he had a very good trip” work as a line. We’re told that a “door” has opened in response to the spilt blood, but all we see is Zoe picking a small black rock off the wall. When the male tourist sees a drop of blood, he passes out, and his partner calls him a “wuss”; this is the beginning of an ill-advised running joke.
As the Brigadier and Zoe celebrate their success on the cruise home, they’re accosted by the real villain of this piece: the random American woman who flirted with the Brigadier earlier. The Boss (as the credits call her) reveals that she wants a Zybanium crystal to make herself immortal, and that she’s been manipulating them all along so that they’ll bring it to her. She then proceeds to… use the Zybanium crystal to send a pulse back in time, fracturing the Doctor’s crystal so that he’d send the Brigadier and Zoe off to find a new one in the first place. The problem here is obvious, but it’s also the resolution to the “Pandorica Opens” cliffhanger, and the crystal’s power over both ageing and immortality sort of makes sense, so we’ll let it slide. The Boss prepares to age the Brigadier and Zoe to death (à la Sara Kingdom in The Daleks’ Master Plan), but somehow Zoe uses the Doctor’s watch to ask the TARDIS to send another temporal pulse back to the Boss’s crystal. (Why this doesn’t fracture it, and how the TARDIS can even do this with a fractured one itself, is… unclear.) Overpowered by an aura of green light (a genuinely impressive 70s-style rotoscope effect), the Boss rapidly ages to death (like Sara Kingdom in The Daleks’ Master Plan, basically).
As they head back to the Doctor and their youth, Zoe asks, “By the way, what was that?” “No idea”, replies the Brigadier. In any case, the Boss dismissively refers to the Doctor’s TARDIS as “an old Type-40”, so she evidently has substantial knowledge of Time Lord technology, but no access to it. She says that “the barriers of space and time” kept the Zybanium hidden from her, but it’s not clear if she’s being overly poetic or referring to an actual cosmic force which opposed her. Later cruise videos have more straightforward villains, but in the end we’re left wondering if the Boss was just another pawn or something far stranger. (The name Death Takes a Holiday comes from a 1934 supernatural drama film in which Death takes on human form in an attempt to understand why we fear him. The video’s Holiday element is clear, yes, but where’s the eponymous Death? Does the title simply refer to the Boss’s quest to defer it, or does she hide some deeper secret? We may never know.)
Thirty years later, the future Brigadier concludes: “Despite the thrill of a free sea cruise, I can’t help but hope that my second 73rd birthday will be a little quieter, and possibly with fewer tourists.” It’s nice that they took the trouble to round this peculiar little story off with a light touch and a straightforward joke. The cruise videos might not always display this level of consideration or attention to detail… but unlike BBC episodes, they’re always fascinating.