Doctor Who Review: “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” (SPOILERS)
By Kyle Anderson on September 9, 2012
I have to confess; when I heard the title of episode two of Series 7 of Doctor Who was to be “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship,” I was a bit cautious. Seemed a very silly title, the likes of which we haven’t seen in the show, save, of course, “Let’s Kill Hitler.” After the first teaser and even the full trailer for the episode aired, I was still a bit wary. It just seemed ridiculous and Doctor Who isn’t, traditionally, known for pulling off broad comedy. It needed to have something besides people just running around a spaceship after dinosaurs. Having now seen the episode, I find that there is a much firmer grounding in storytelling than I had been expecting, but it was basically just running around a spaceship. Yet, you know what? That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The Doctor Who fan community doesn’t have much of a high opinion of Chris Chibnall, the writer of “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.” I suspect most of this is to do with his being the head writer on the first two series of Torchwood, which I know some people love, but I thought were pretty much pants, with a few exceptions. Still, Chibnall’s work on Who has been fine if nothing special. Having written “42” in Series 3 (the one where the ship is crashing into the sun with the “Burn with me” stuff) and the Silurian two-parter, “The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood,” in Series 5, I’d say his work is passable if uneven. His strong suits are definitely premise and atmosphere, but the actual stories tend to get muddied by the end. He also wrote all five parts of the recently-aired “Pond Life,” which in total couldn’t have been more than three pages long. Based on all of this, I think “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” is actually his best work on Doctor Who to date, which I know sounds like damning with faint praise.
He definitely threw the kitchen sink into this story, populating it not only with dinosaurs but with prissy robots, historical guests, companion family members, pirates, missiles, and his old buddies the Silurians for good measure. And let’s not forget the whole “You have six hours to do something or this whole craft will be blown out of the sky.” I was quite surprised at how much plot and story were actually involved. What I think saves this from being an over-complicated jumble of ideas is that he was actually, somehow, able to give each character their moment or two to shine and give them each a purpose. If Chibnall does anything well, it’s creating situations where the characters have to split up into different groups, create their own dynamics, and solve their own problems before it’s all brought back together. Does it 100% work? No; there is just a hair too many threads (see what I did there?) and it does a bit just become a silly romp, but sometimes the show can be a silly romp. It doesn’t have to be dark every time.
A huge help and a genius move was to get a really fantastic guest cast to play all these new supporting characters. It was important that they each have their own personality and charm so we enjoyed having them onscreen. Riann Steele playing Nefertiti was the only actor of whom I was completely unfamiliar, but I think she did quite a good job playing the very strong Egyptian queen. Rupert Graves (Lestrade in Sherlock) did a really fine job as the Edwardian man’s man Riddell. He didn’t get the most to do until the end of the episode, but, despite this, his character is very well-rounded, and pitting him opposite Nefertiti and Amy was really delightful. Mark Williams was a terrific choice to play Rory’s dad, Brian. It was a lot of fun seeing him play off of Arthur Darvill. My only complaint about how he was written is that his main quirk, being a homebody who doesn’t like to travel, was mentioned but not really explored as well as I’d have liked. I’d bet there was more of him at home with the Ponds before the Doctor shows up, but those are usually the first things cut when episodes run long. Still, Williams, Darvill, and Matt Smith had really great chemistry in their scenes.
I was most struck by the story’s villains, Solomon, played by David Bradley, and his two easily-offended robot bodyguards, voiced by comedians David Mitchell and Robert Webb. It’s been a really long while since the show’s had an honest-to-goodness villain who had no other preoccupation than his own greed and being nasty. Sure, the Daleks and Cybermen are evil, but they have an ethos they’re perpetuating. Even Madame Kovarian had the master plan of the Silence driving her actions. Solomon has no master plan or any belief structure to explain his actions; he’s just a mean, greedy SOB who literally has no problem killing anyone or anything that stops him from getting what he wants. He kills a poor dinosaur, for Pete’s sake! He was refreshing in a way; not a “The world is mine! Muahahahahah!” type of antagonist who I feel like we’ve seen way too much lately. The robots were very funny, surely channeling the bickering three-headed knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but also proved to be quite deadly, and will do anything Solomon tells them to do.
I thought this story had some of the strongest characterizations of Amy and Rory we’ve seen yet. Amy basically being the de facto Doctor in her group, even referring to Riddell and Nefertiti as her companions, was bold. It’s nice to see that she’s actually grown and learned through her time spent with the Doctor. She’s come an incredibly long way since Series 5 in terms of maturity and ability to handle these situations. Rory, likewise, has left his trepidations behind, taking things in stride and handling himself accordingly. It’s especially nice to see how well Rory and the Doctor work together, like a real team and not just as two people fighting over Amy’s attention. The scene where Rory tends to his father’s wounds is quite nice and it makes me wish Brian had been a character earlier so we’d have been able to see their relationship before. As a whole, though, it’s really lovely to see the Doctor, Amy, and Rory working together, like a well-oiled machine even after the ten-month hiatus.
Note: I can’t really confirm this, but I feel like this story takes place earlier in Amy and Rory’s timeline than Asylum of the Daleks. The fact that Amy’s wearing the same outfit she did in most of “Pond Life” and the way it seems there never had been any problems between them, or even mention of their last adventure, made me pause and think maybe this came before. Just a feeling I get; it might never come up again, but it’s just a theory I have. We’ll see.
Now, for the story itself; there were things I quite liked, and things I didn’t. I thought the idea of the Silurians building an ark was very interesting, and totally in keeping with what we know of the very cautious Homo reptilia. They were all about preserving themselves and surely, if they thought Earth would be uninhabitable, they’d have tried to go elsewhere. More importantly, it provided the story with a decent reason for their being M-Effing dinosaurs on an M-Effing spaceship. I would bet it’s controversial, but I also quite enjoyed the fact that the Doctor allowed it so Solomon’s ship would get blown up. This is a truly evil man who, if left unchecked, would probably cause untold more damage and might even wipe out another whole species. The only downside of this is that we won’t get Solomon as a recurring villain.
Stuff that didn’t sit well with me were the somewhat lazy things Chibnall does. First, why wouldn’t Brian know who the Doctor is? Presumably Brian had been at Amy and Rory’s wedding, and the Doctor did make a pretty memorable entrance to said party, so even if they hadn’t met, Brian would at least remember the weird guy in the blue box. This is never addressed, though, save Rory just saying, “Remember how we left after our wedding?” It just seems like a misstep on someone’s part. Second, it was a bit too convenient that the Silurian ark could only be piloted by beings from the same “gene chain.” There wasn’t a logical reason for them to construct their vessel that way aside from getting Rory and Brian to work together, which they could have done anyway even without the necessity of family bonds. Third was the way that the ship’s teleporter worked some of the time and not other times, but only when it was helpful in the script for it to do so. Chibnall’s much better at creating things that happen than he is at reasons for them to happen.
Overall, I was actually fairly impressed by the episode. It was certainly better than I’d expected it to be and all the characters seemed to gel mostly well. It still was silly (they rode a damn Triceratops) but not offensively so and was much more enjoyable than it really had any right to be. Probably Chibnall’s best. Not a great episode, but one I won’t mind watching again when the DVDs come out.
Next week is Toby Whithouse’s “A Town Called Mercy” which, as I’ve said countless times, I’m quite looking forward to. Here to whet your whistle is the next-time trailer.
-Kanderson also always carries a trowel. Follow him on TWITTER.