To follow our commentary on last night’s Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, James is back with his review. Were the dinosaurs up to scratch and was David Bradley’s character a depart from tradition for a Doctor Who villian? Beware spoilers!
Dinosaurs on a Spaceship is pretty much hardwired to be something I enjoy. It’s got Dinosaurs, comedy and enough sci-fi in-jokes to choke a T-Rex. And unlike last weeks episode it actually has a plot, with a clear start, middle and end.
So on one level, this is the best episode of the series, a welcome return to form after the Daleks did their best to kill off Doctor Who as a programme (if not The Doctor himself). On the other hand, it has some of the worst CGI of new Who, some horrifically written jokes and adds very little beyond its key concept of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.
“Dinosaurs, comedy and enough sci-fi in-jokes to choke a T-Rex”
Chris Chibnall said before this episode that he intended it to be a ‘romp’, a big, fun, silly episode. That’s certainly playing to some of his strengths as delivering silliness is one of the few things he can do well (Cyberwoman as an episode is much better if you cut out the ‘serious’ stuff and just see it as an exercise in getting a woman dressed in chicken wire to fight a pterodactyl). Whenever he has tried to invest his stories with any sense of depth or gravity he’s failed awfully. The Silurian two-parter was awful precisely because that sense of fun was removed – as Peter and Sarah commented at the time, they could have done with the addition of a Dinosaur or two to liven things up.
He’s a good fit then for this seasons remit of stand alone episodes that are just there to entertain. No need for story arcs, character development or a plot that needs to do any heavy lifting, just stick the cast in a situation where they can mug to camera, introduce a few new action figures and collect the pay cheque.
By and large Chibnall delivers on that remit. There’s a brisk intro which demonstrates that, where other writers have gone Chris Chibnall is not afraid to follow by introducing Queen Nefertiti as a romantic foil for a less interested Doctor. Within the first few minutes we’re introduced to everyone we need to know (Queen Nefertiti, big game hunter Riddell and Brian Pond, all of whom are excellent with the little that they’re offered).
To say that these characters are ciphers is hardly surprising, with a ‘gang’ of companions to focus on as well as a plot to resolve there’s very little time for them to be fleshed out. That they work as well as they do is down to the broad strokes they are painted in as much as the excellent acting of all three.
Each has a distinct voice. Mark Williams is set up as the anti-Rory, in a role so undercooked that the ingredients haven’t even left the fridge. Where Rory is empathetic and adapts almost immediately to the Doctor’s existence, (think about Rory’s reaction to the TARDIS interior compared to Brian’s befuddlement) his father doesn’t understand what Amy sees in Rory, doesn’t like to step out of his comfort zone and is more stereotypically masculine (he carries a trowel! He knows real DIY!). By the time Rory is demonstrating to his Dad that a nurse carrying a first aid kit is useful everyone has learnt a lesson about one another, and The Doctor has fixed it for them again, patching up Brian’s view of Rory.
Riann Steele as Nefertiti meanwhile is a painful reminder of how poorly handled Liz 10 in The Beast Below was, showing just how great a strong female leader can be – an Egyptian visit is surely a must for the future. Her sparring with Amy and Riddell brings some of the episodes best lines. It’s Rupert Graves who is given the least to expand on, and yet he manages to invest enough personality in his role to show how out of his depth Riddell is around The Doctor and two hyper competent women.
Unlike Sarah, I had no problem with Riddell’s gender politics. His entire character (African frontiersman, big game hunter introduces him as a pulp character – Allan Quatermain meets Indiana Jones) and the performance of Amy and Nefertiti is enough to wash away any worries that Chibnall is making him the hero. Likewise, Brian’s manlier-than-tho attitude towards Rory changes, allowing father and son to cooperate in piloting a space ship – a far cry from Rory not holding the ladder correctly.
Far more disturbing is Solomon’s reference to breaking in Nefertiti, a line so horribly misjudged its astonishing that it made it in. Implying an undercurrent of rape to the kidnapping and enslavement of one of your characters certainly sells your bad guy, but it doesn’t sit well in a context of comedy innuendo and flirtatious banter.
Solomon is seemingly the villain out of a different episode. Cruel and totally vile, his casual sadism is a departure from the neutered baddies of usual Who episodes. When was the last time the bad guy ordered his lackeys to kill the comic support or wound a newly introduced family member to force The Doctor’s hand. In the midst of the comic beats, constant banter and chirpy guest stars, he’s a snarling malevolence that doesn’t quite do enough to justify The Doctors final act execution by missile.
If all of this suggests a little bit too much packed into the episode the guest star count certainly backs that up. The Doctor, Ponds, three guest companions, Solomon and his ‘comedy’ double act robots, plus Silurians, Earth Defence and multiple dinosaurs all add up to a lot going on. Again, room to expand on these characters (or removing some of them altogether) would have helped. Whilst all are given a role to play a quick edit could have removed all of them – there seems little reason why Riddell in particular came along considering the Doctor specifically went to pick him up.
“The raptors mark the low point of some generally appalling CGI”
The final fight against the Raptors, seemingly the only scene which showcases why Riddell came along at all (and one in which he conspicuously fails to achieve his own personal aim of getting a dinosaur tooth) is blighted by the problem of battling green screen. The raptors mark the low point of some generally appalling CGI which at times resembled a SyFy production and constantly made you long for the far superior special effects of Jurassic Park, a film which achieved more with tangible puppet work than TV can manage nearly two decades later.
Overall though, these are minor gripes. The episode itself was rather run of the mill but managed to avoid the complications and confusion of last week. With Chibnall’s weaknesses downplayed, and the sheer enjoyment on display for the subject matter helping to carry the plot through the weak bits (the robots, the CGI, the Doctor re-targeting the missiles).