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Doctor Who Review: “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” (SPOILERS)


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.

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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.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p0UN7ePOksk?rel=0&w=615&h=346]

-Kanderson also always carries a trowel. Follow him on TWITTER.

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25 comments

  • Fun episode, not strong or dark, but fun! And I get the same feeling that this episode may have occurred prior to Asylum of the Daleks. However, Oswin erased the Daleks’ memory of the Doctor, and now Solomon’s scanner has no data / record of the Doctor, either. Hmm… thoughts, anyone?

  • author

    I think it’s after Asylum from the Doctor’s perspective but before Asylum from Amy and Rory’s point of of view. “Humans; you’re far too linear.”

  • Loved the Mitchell & Webb bots.

    The story missed one huge opportunity, I thought. In fact, I kinda thought the episode was gonna go differently, because if I had been the Doctor at that moment, my first thought would have been (in less brilliant vernacular than the Doctor, of course):

    “OK… Silurian ship, full of dinosaurs… the engine is an entire ocean… rest of the ship’s full of greenery. First guess: this ship contains the building blocks of the planet Earth, and somehow, it’s gotta go back in time (to that moment witnessed after Donna Noble’s wedding), and serve as the origin of the Earth.”

    Then, he would have somehow rigged the ship to the Tardis, taken it back to that moment so as to avoid the missiles, and been responsible for the creation of the Earth. It fits with the whole thing of Oswin meaning “God’s friend,” and the direction they’re going. I dunno. Woulda been too big for episode 2 of the season, but still, woulda made more sense to me.

  • I’m still working out a nickname for the new episode of Doctor Who. I’m stuck somewhere between “Night at the Whoseum” and “Jurassic Ark in Space.”

    Thoughts?

  • There was something about this episode that started me thinking about the SNES RPG Chrono Trigger. Think about it?

    Let’s get beyond things like time traveling spaceships and crazy haired protagonists with female companions and a pet robot. The Silurian’s are basically Reptites which we now see flying around with their own Black Tyrano. Leela is the Doctor’s very own time traveling cavewoman (i.e., Ayla). The land of Zeal could easily fit within any mid-run adventure. The lvl 99 battle with Spekkio in End of Time is the hardest part of the game to get through and that two parter is one of the hardest stories to get through as well.

    I’m not saying one ripped off the other. I’m just thinking about how cool it would be if Moffat wrote a sequel to Radical Dreamers.

  • I like that most of the people dragged along by the Doctor don’t spend so much time marveling that they’re in space and bigger inside than outside and all that anymore. Rory’s dad, though supposed to be a homebody, just got on with the adventure, which was nice.

  • This is now one of my favorite episodes.
    I absolutely loved it all.
    The new characters had some depth that could be expanded on.
    Solomon was a good episode villain for being a space pirate.
    Sad, funny, and very entertaining.

  • io9 asked if we already knew the season theme from these two episodes: the Doctor’s new-found anonymity and the recurring question “Doctor Who?”. I think it’s been clear since the end of S6 that the question would be front and centre in the 50th anniversary year, examining and redefining the Doctor’s character through the choices he makes.

    More immediately, though, I think there’s a mini-theme developing in the first few episodes of the Doctor’s compassion and where it reaches its limits. Note how he refused to save Oswin last week (“You… are a Dalek,” he said, voice dripping hate); this week, he coldly passes judgement on Solomon.

    To that end, I’m expecting a strong link between the Doctor’s uncharacteristically merciless handling of Solomon here and next episode’s trailer clips of him talking about people dying because of his mercy. Likewise Amy’s retort about him travelling alone for too long, right after the reveal that he’s been leaving them behind for months without contact. I’m surprised I haven’t seen much mention of those links, to be honest.

    Also, of course: Amy’s quip about the Doctor being there “to the end of [her]“… DUN DUN DUN! (Karen has stated that she wants Amy’s story to end definitively and not come back for cameos, hasn’t she?)

  • So I just have one thing that really bugged me about this episode. The Doctor has the Tardis, he can move ship and planets with it. Move the ship with the Tardis, avoid missile and Earth, board later to see what inside. Basically biggest plot hole ever

  • I don’t have a problem with this being after “asylum”..Amy did say it had been 10 months. they could have patched up their marriage in 10 months. And she’s allowed to wear the same striped sweater more than once. Hee.

    Remember the doctor had to separate the do-hickey that the missiles were locked onto from the ark. He couldn’t just tow everything with out the missiles still following them.
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  • the more i think about this episode, the more I love it. it was just a lot of fun from beginning to end, and had some of the best lines of moffat’s era so far. “amy, you’re so linear,” “you know what I could really use right now?” “a lesson in gender politics?” etc.

    and rory’s dad totally stole every scene he was in. wish we’d gotten to see him in S5/6 as well, which might have helped avoid the continuity errors here. i hear, however, that he’ll be back once more…yay!

  • As far as your number two criticism of the show, the Silurians can asexually duplicate themselves, creating “offspring” that are perfect genetic copies. This is a unique trait for the Silurians, so it makes sense that their ship would have to be run by two people of the same gene pool to provide an extra level of protection for the Silurians. Wish this could have been explained more, but it made perfect sense.

  • a bit off topic, but did no one thought it was funny/cool that when the doctor shut off the two robots, that they started singing “daisy”, kind of what happen in the 2001: space odyssey when the guy was shutting off the computer and it started singing “daisy”too, anyone??

  • I think that the Doctor looks worried at the end of the episode because he is afraid that he will someday kill or attempt to kill Amy. Both he and Amy were exposed to the nanocloud in the asylum, but Amy seems to have been “cured” by her love for Rory. The Doctor’s cold-blooded killing of Solomon is more characteristic of a Dalek than the Doctor, so perhaps the Doctor was affected by the exposure, and realizes that he might be slowly turning into a Dalek himself.

  • Loved it! To prove it I finished this gem fairly recently. https://www.etsy.com/listing/103952672/doctor-who-applique-patchwork-quilt. I thought I’d share it with you being that it was Team Nerdist that got me back into Doctor Who. I thought I would make a history piece of the good doctor to celebrate his 50 years on the Telly. I do hope you enjoy it! Any feedback is wanted! Any suggestions for additions are also wanted! Thanks guys!

  • I hated this episode so much, I took to the internet to make SURE that other people hated it as much as I did. Like, I was frowning the entire time. What purpose does a big game hunter being there have, except to be a huge ass and totally predictable character to play alongside the very standardly bitching Amy and unrealistically cool and confident Nefertiti? I had the same exact complaints about lazy plot writing as the reviewer here – I’m glad I wasn’t the only one. Silurian gene chain shenannigans, if relevant for the Silurians, should have been explained. Way too convenient that Rory’s dad was there. The spaceship being powered by an ocean? That had literally NO connection to anything else in the show – why make such a big deal out of it? And don’t explain things to me like I’m an idiot with a paranoia complex some of the time (“Why can’t we teleport back, Doctor?” “The teleport broke!”) and then give me NO rational for why these dinosaurs are A) still alive, B) apparently tame and rideable?

    I love Doctor Who – I do. I can suspend all kinds of disbelief to enjoy my favorite show since I was a kid. Take me on a wild and crazy adventure, Doctor! But your sonic screwdriver shouldn’t work like a magic wand ALL THE TIME, and your plots shouldn’t be so hole-y that I fall through them and don’t even want to get back.

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