Thankfully, writer Chris Chibnall did not riff on Sam Jackson’s infamously profane line of Snakes on a Plane dialogue, which, going into this episode, was the most unsettlingly awkward prospect imaginable, especially if it had been in the form of a PG-rated tongue twister coming from Matt Smith. Since that didn’t happen, though, the only direction for estimation to go was up, and that’s mostly because, with a title like “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship,” expectations were low to begin with, since, well, we’re not 10-year-olds anymore.
The Doctor: “Well, there’s so much to discover. Think how much wiser we’ll be by the end of all this.”
In this digital age of creating dinosaurs with ease, it’s almost amazing that it’s taken Doctor Who seven seasons to get around to doing it, yet for much of the time the revival’s been on the air, one of its chief competitors, creatively speaking, has been the ITV series Primeval. With that show currently in a production limbo, it was probably seen as a good time to go find out what might be done with the Doctor meeting dinos. As it turns out, the prehistoric creatures were only slightly more pivotal to the goings-on than the Führer was to “Let’s Kill Hitler.”
For all the majesty, grace, and mystery that surround the extinct creatures that once ruled our planet, dinosaurs have had little more to do throughout the history of film and television than chase people around, and occasionally eat them. Every once in a while someone will stop and bask in their beauty, and in addition to all the running around, “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” offers up a little bit in that arena, but the dino action presented here is mostly forgettable adventure fluff, probably done better by Spielberg nearly 20 years ago. That said, the triceratops was a sweet flourish, even if it had nothing to do with reality. But then it’s never, ever a good idea to judge what happens on this show against reality, because reality will always come up short.
The Doctor: “Ship does all the engineering. The controls are straightforward. Even a monkey could use them. Oh look, they’re going to! (awkward pause) Guys, come on! Comedy gold. Where’s a Silurian audience when you need one?”
One of Steven Moffat’s grandest innovations is how he organizes the way the Ponds spend time with the Doctor, or more specifically, the way they spend time apart. This is quite the departure from the far more traditional, “You’re either in or you’re out [of the TARDIS],” that’s been going on since 1963. It’s as though the Doctor has always operated some sort of clingy, Stockholm Syndrome type of racket to ensure his friends won’t bail on him. The model Moffat has experimented with says that the couple can frequently go back to a semi-normal life while the Doctor’s gallivanting across the cosmos, doing his own thing, and he’ll drop in and pick them up when he needs (or wants) them.
Here, it’s been ten months for Amy and Rory since the events of “Asylum of the Daleks.” Their relationship with the Time Lord, as well as to one another, feels more grounded and real this season, and is therefore much easier to buy into. Even amidst the frequently hokey madness, this episode presents, the over-the-top antics of last year are starting to feel like a distant memory. Whatever’s going on with the Ponds and the Doctor, and wherever it’s headed over the next three hours, it’s already more emotionally right than most of the previous season.
Rory: “Did you just have that on you?”
Brian: “Of course! What sort of a man doesn’t carry a trowel?”
Major kudos need to be given to guest star Mark Williams (Arthur Weasley in the Harry Potter movies) as Rory’s dad, Brian. Rory’s early observation that his dad “hates traveling” led to a man transformed by his time/space journey into a world traveler, adding up to a real flesh-and-blood character. How lovely and blue-collar was the scene of him eating lunch in the TARDIS doorway, hovering in space, looking down at the earth? Brian felt like a smart page torn from the Davies era, and if there’s one thing Russell T. Davies excelled at, it was his characters. We’ve not seen the last of Brian, as he’ll be back in the fourth episode, “The Power of Three” (also written by Chibnall).
Two of the other three major guest stars did what they were called upon to do, but not much more. Riann Steele was queenly and strong as Neffie, but one note, and preposterously written. (Again, reality was shoved out the airlock.) David Bradley, also from Harry Potter, as well as Game of Thrones, did about what one might expect, given what we’ve seen him do before, and since Solomon was set up as a one-off Snidely Whiplash. Only Rupert Graves, as big game hunter John Riddell, seemed to go somewhere beyond what was likely on the printed page. He’s someone we’ll hopefully see more of in the future, and the kind of character the Doctor should have as a traveling companion, as it makes for potentially more engaging time traveling scenarios to have folks out of their element.
Solomon: “Very observant.”
The Doctor: “I’m a Sagittarius. Probably.”
Finally, there’s the plot, such as it is. This was the sort of paint-by-numbers storytelling the series has frequently engaged in since it came back in 2005, and it’s rather useless to complain too much about it at this stage, since clearly this is the sort of thing that’s considered brilliant. (A ship hurtling towards the Earth? Missiles flying through space?? That’s the best they got???) The entire affair feels like the kind of story a kid with a dozen unrelated action figures might tell through his toys. This was titled “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship,” and expecting much more than that would’ve been foolhardy, yet some fantastic characterizations did make it though, alongside some cracking dialogue. Indeed, what hit me at one point was that Doctor Who is the only TV show that could blend this insane concoction of disparate elements into something that mostly works.
Odd and Ends
- Doctor Who has a history with dinosaurs dating back to — get this — the second story of the seventh season of the classic series, entitled “Doctor Who and the Silurians” (1970), which briefly featured a T. Rex as a pet of the titular baddies. (Is it mere coincidence that “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” is the second story of the seventh season of the new series?) A few years later, in ’74, the third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) would again encounter prehistoric creatures in the deftly plotted “Invasion of the Dinosaurs,” which is remembered more for its terrible effects, than its tight, imaginative script. Two years later, the fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) came face to face with the Loch Ness Monster in “Terror of the Zygons.” “Earthshock” (1982) featured no dinosaurs onscreen, however, the story’s twist of a climax centered on their extinction. Finally, 1985’s “Mark of the Rani” sported some baby T. Rex’s playing pivotal roles in its final moments.
- “Fantasia in F Minor” by Franz Schubert is the featured piece of classical music this week. This is the second time in as many weeks the Doctor has claimed to have been literally instrumental in a famous musical composition.
- Seems the Doctor said something about “The races that live on the moon…” but I first misheard it as “The racists that live on the moon…,” which would have been the coolest line in the episode if it were true. Delightful is the notion that in the future all racists have been banished to the moon! I’ll never be able to hear that line again without hearing it the way I first heard it.
- Solomon’s robot slaves — voiced by comedy duo Mitchell and Webb — were a low point. This is precisely the sort of lame humor and weak stunt casting Doctor Who can do without.
- It’s time for the production team to find a new beach, as Southerndown has become too recognizable.
- Hell yeah to the Indian Space Agency!