“The creatures aboard this ship are not objects to be sold or traded.”
Doctor Who does dinosaurs? Oh dear, I thought, remembering previous excursions into this territory in which the prehistoric beasties were represented by barely mobile bendy toys badly superimposed onto live action footage, surrounded by that distinctive shimmery yellow line produced by CSO. Invasion of the Dinosaurs (1974) is a good story hamstrung by its appalling effects, which only works because author Malcolm Hulke keeps the dinosaurs mostly to the background of the piece.
And now we get to see them again, in a piece by Chris Chibnall. It’s fair to say that Chibnall is far from my favourite Who writer. I found his early Torchwood scripts to be witless, po-faced and gratuitously laced with the sort of humourless sexual excess that passes for ‘adult content’ if you’re a fifteen-year-old boy, while his Who debut 42 was a disjointed, badly characterised mess so lacking in internal logic as to have a control to retrieve an escape pod located on the outside of the spaceship concerned.
Still, I always try to go into his work with an open mind, and sometimes he surprises me by producing work I really enjoy. His scripts for Life on Mars were well-characterised and enthralling, and his opener for season 2 of Torchwood actually redefined the show by giving it a sense of humour and playfulness that was noticeably lacking from its first season. And his Silurian two-parter in Matt Smith’s first year of Who, while no classic like Malcolm Hulke’s original, was a serviceable enough rework of the original 1970 concept.
With Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, it seems Chibnall is being groomed as Hulke’s New Who equivalent. Having done Silurians a couple of years ago, he now gets to include actual dinosaurs. And you know what? It was actually a lot of fun. Not only does Chibnall bring a sense of humour to the concept, but this time he actually plays the whole story very much in a humorous vein (despite its underlying seriousness). I rather like classic Who’s occasional veers into outright comedy, and this felt like the closest the new series has got to that since its return.
It helped that the dinosaurs were rather more convincing than their 70s equivalents. A mix of CG and real props, they were reminiscent of far bigger-budgeted work like the BBC’s Walking With Dinosaurs or even Jurassic Park. Of course, both of those were made some years ago, and even their pioneering CG now looks occasionally dated and unconvincing, but generally it still holds up. And the same was true here. There were one or two shots of the dinos that looked quite ropey, either as CG or props, but the success rate was far better than any bendy toy from the 70s.
Given that ridiculously hokey, Snakes on a Plane-recalling title, Chibnall seems to have turned to Jurassic Park for a lot of his inspiration. Hence, here we get a Triceratops (also one of the friendlier saurians in the Spielberg movie) playing fetch with a golf ball and licking our heroes, a T-Rex nest like the one in JP sequel The Lost World, a pterodactyl enclosure as in JP3 and an attack by several velociraptors working in threes.
Nothing wrong with that – Who’s roots have often been obvious, and nobody’s going to slag off Brain of Morbius just because it’s obviously Frankenstein. Of course, riffing on Jurassic Park does mean you fall victim to its scientific inaccuracies; it’s now generally accepted that velociraptors were probably feathered, and the species itself is actually less than half the size of the Spielberg movie beasties. But again, Who is hardly full of scientific accuracy at the best of times.
Having established a plausible level of spectacle though, the story’s true strength was in its characters, something Chibnall seems to get better at with each successive script. Matt Smith’s Doctor was at his most exuberant and childlike here with his unalloyed wonder at the prehistoric creatures, and for reasons that seemed initially unclear, had chosen to surround himself with a “gang” rather than the usual Amy/Rory combo.
This gang included characters that ranged from the broadbrush to the complex. Riann Steele gave a spirited performance as Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, the latest River Song substitute in a show that increasingly seems incomplete without at least one dominating female character with a snarky sense of humour. To be fair, her near-arrogance as a major historical figure and prominent monarch made her more distinct from River than Oswin last week though. The real Nefertiti actually did mysteriously vanish from Egyptian history in the 14th year of her husband Akhenaten’s reign, so the idea that she was whisked away to 1902 to spend her life with a Boy’s Own style big game hunter is as plausible a theory as any other (well, a bit of a stretch maybe).
Said big game hunter, the redoubtable Rupert Graves from Sherlock as John Riddell, was a bit of a caricature, part Lord John Roxton, part Allan Quatermain. But of course the visual effect of the costume, combined with his stand against the horde of velociraptors, called to mind Jurassic Park again, and Bob Peck’s cynical hunter from that movie. As the raptors approached, he almost got to mutter, “clever girl…”
And Rory’s dad got roped into the shenanigans too. Brian Williams was incarnated well by comedian-turned-national-treasure Mark Williams. Which was nice. And all-purpose rotter David Bradley (Mr Filch from Harry Potter and Walder Frey from Game of Thrones) made a believable baddie in Solomon, with his timely motivation of seeing everything only in terms of its consumerist value. With his special device that assessed the monetary value of whatever it scanned, I couldn’t help being reminded of the timeless quote about the Conservative Party – “they know the price of everything and the value of nothing”.
Which made the Doctor’s apparently callous treatment of him at the end of the story seem somewhat justified. Leaving him to the mercy of the Earth missiles might have felt a bit un-Doctorish, but the Doctor’s got form on this kind of thing. His treatment of the Family of Blood in that episode was arguably even more callous, and a fate worse than death – “we wanted to live forever. So the Doctor made sure that we would”. Remember, the Doctor can be pretty nasty sometimes. He never points the gun at the baddie and pulls the trigger, but he’s ensured the destruction of plenty of villains in the past by other means.
Besides, Solomon had admitted to actual genocide, shoving newly awakened Silurians off the ship in the manner of illegal slave traders about to be boarded in the 18th century. The involvement of the Silurians was a nice surprise, and made perfect sense of a situation (dinosaurs on a spaceship) that otherwise would take some justifying. I’m not sure about that postcard at the end though, with its attempt to retcon the historical inaccuracy of the name ‘Silurian’ by asserting that they come from somewhere called Siluria. Bit of a stretch, that one.
But perhaps the most interesting thing about the episode was its treatment of the Ponds, and its veiled hints about where their story is going. With the party separated and the Doctor eventually held captive by Solomon, we got to see Amy and Rory stepping up as actual Doctor-substitutes. It made sense of the Doctor’s apparently random gathering of the ‘gang’ – Nefertiti, Riddell, and even Brian were there as Amy and Rory’s companions. Is the Doctor grooming them as his replacements?
Also notable were the hints about the decreasing frequency of the Doctor’s visits to them. Amy complained that it had been ten months since they’d last seen him, and significantly Rory, commenting to his dad about Christmas lists, said, “I’m 31, I don’t have one”. I’m pretty sure that when we first met Rory, he was in his early 20s at most; now he’s 31. That’s a fair bit of time under the bridge – and might account for his new look, complete with greased hipster hairstyle. If the Ponds have been hanging around with the Doctor for, from their perspective, about ten years, how old will they be next time he ‘visits’? It’s a genuinely innovative thing to do with the companion characters, and allows for more actual character development than ever before.
It was one interesting idea in an episode full of them. I’m not sure what future time period this was set in, but it was nice to see the problem of near-Earth collisions being dealt with by the Indian Space Agency, with a woman in charge no less. Then there was the wave-powered Silurian ship – not sure how that would actually work, but again a nice idea (even if it was plainly shot at the same beach location used in Time of Angels). Like Let’s Kill Hitler, if this had a problem it was that there were so many interesting ideas thrown into the mix that few got properly explored. But it’s pretty churlish of me to complain about Chris Chibnall having an excess of imagination after my previous criticisms!
Bringing humour to the fore was a surprising tactic for Chibnall, but for me at least a very successful one. Yes, the gag about “Any vegetable matter in your trousers?” “Only my balls” (complete with ‘comedy’ music from Murray Gold) was difficult to forgive. As was the “you want a man with a big weapon” shot from Riddell, followed up with a face-saving remark from Amy about gender politics that was a bit cheeky from the author who gave us the immortal line “when was the last time you came so hard you forgot where you were?”
But generally, the comic tone was a refreshing change, and well-handled particularly by Matt Smith and Mark Williams. I liked the comedy robots with the completely undisguised voices of David Mitchell and Robert Webb – a little camp, perhaps, but so much more imaginative than a voice-synthesised Nick Briggs intoning that resistance is futile.
Dinosaurs on a Spaceship is unlikely to go down as a future Who classic, and it’s not free from flaws – at times Chibnall seemed to be struggling with the excess of characters and ideas, to the detriment of the script’s coherence and structure. But still, it felt like what it was – a fun, lightweight romp with just an occasional hint of darker things beneath. I gather from online reaction that opinions are very much divided, but I found it an enjoyable 45 minutes of uncomplicated fun, carried off with some gusto by all concerned.