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Doctor Who: Dinosaurs on a Spaceship (Review)

You know when Amy and I first got married and we went travelling…

To Thailand?

More the entirety of space and time… in that Police Box.

– Rory and Brian Williams share some truths

There is a strange listlessness to the seventh season, despite its position on the cusp of the big anniversary year. In many ways, the seventh season feels awkwardly positioned between the “timey wimey” ambitiousness of the sixth season and the “new beginning” aesthetic of the eighth season. The fact that the seventh season is split in half doesn’t help matters; it feels like an epilogue to the story of Amy and Rory, and a prologue to the story of Clara. It feels very much like a “light” year, which is a strange way to head into a big anniversary celebration.

There is a curious sense of idleness to all this. There is, for example, no clear story that links both halves of the season – Jenna-Louise Coleman’s role in Asylum of the Daleks notwithstanding. The seventh season has no real purpose beyond clearing out the ensemble and building towards the anniversary. As a result, it can feel more than a little rudderless and indulgent. Steven Moffat has described the “blockbuster” aesthetic of the year, and long stretches of the season feel like the show is just doing stuff because it can.

Gone to the birds?

Give Amy and Rory a five-episode coda? Sure, why not! Actually shoot a western in a country that could pass for the United States? Go for it! It’s been a while since we’ve seen the Ice Warriors, hasn’t it? Throw them in there! Neil Gaiman wants to write a Cyberman episode? Ah, go on! Develop those quirky supporting characters from A Good Man Goes to War into a part of the show’s ensemble in Victorian London? It just makes sense! Richard E. Grant as a villain from two Second Doctor stories? We’d be crazy not to!

There is a sense that the seventh season is a victory lap for the show and many involved in the production. Deservedly so. What is the point of an anniversary year if you can’t go a little wild? That is the kind of thinking that leads to Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, a simple “because we can!” story. After all, one of the stock cringe-inducing Doctor Who images is the dinosaur special effects from Invasion of the Dinosaurs. What’s the point in turning the show into a hit if you can’t take an episode to prove how far your dinosaur effects have come in four decades?

Locking horns…

After forty years, those dinosaurs look a bit more impressive, even if we’re not yet at Jurassic Park levels. However, in basing an entire issue around the premise Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, the episode hits on an entirely foreseeable problem that writer Chris Chibnell readily concedes:

There were two sides to it, one of which was, you know going in that it’s not a Michael Bay budget. It’s a Doctor Who budget. A BBC budget, although a very good one. But you know you can’t do dinosaurs endlessly for 45 minutes, so there has to be a big ‘other’ story going on. That was my job really, to go, ‘Okay, this is the story I want to tell around the dinosaurs, why they’re there and who’s with the Doctor’ and all that kind of stuff.

Nevertheless, accepting these limitations, the Moffat era seems weirdly fixated on dinosaur special effects. Deep Breath would throw a dinosaur into its teaser as a way to open the eighth season with the maximum production value.

A scar-y bad guy?

However, Chibnell hits on the biggest issue with Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, which is that it is quite impossible for Doctor Who to do “dinosaurs on a spaceship” for forty-five minutes straight. Instead, the script becomes “dinosaurs on a spaceship… and a bunch of other stuff while we’re at it.” That is a much less catchy title, and a much less compelling episode. Dinosaurs on a Spaceship winds up feeling a little awkward and overstuffed, as if the show is trying to distract from the reality that there’s a bit of a way to go when it comes to doing dinosaurs on Doctor Who.

The result is a mess of an episode that tries to hold itself together through sheer momentum, but seems to trip over itself in its eagerness. Dinosaurs on a Spaceship is very much an old-fashioned “romp”, but it comes with more than its fair share of problems. For every under-cooked interesting idea, there a bad idea that is perfectly willing to undermine the rest of the episode. Sure, the episode has a pretty fantastic guest cast, but it also has the misfortune of casting the wonderful David Bradley as a greedy (crippled) old miser named Solomon.

Join us, and journey forward to a time when dinosaurs roamed a spaceship…!

To be fair, Asylum of the Daleks hinted at the weaknesses of the season’s ambitious “a blockbuster every week” approach to the new season. However, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship showcases those weaknesses pretty spectacularly. It is an episode that feels so light as to be non-existent; one gets the sense that Dinosaurs on a Spaceship has done everything that it needs to do once Matt Smith triumphantly delivers the title line at the end of the teaser. The remaining forty minutes are just sort of there.

The structure of the seventh season is decidedly odd, and not just because it is very clearly two half-seasons joined together. Asylum of the Daleks is not a typical season premiere, in either form or function. That much can be seen in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, which fulfils a lot of the same functions typically reserved for the premiere. After the divorce scare between Amy and Rory in Asylum of the Daleks, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship introduces us to their set-up for the rest of the season; domestic bliss in the Pond household.

Temporal team-up time!

Temporal team-up time!

It also introduces the character of Brian Williams, who provides somebody to miss Amy and Rory when they vanish at the end of The Angels Take Manhattan. Unfortunately, the coda between Brian and Rory was ultimately cut and never filmed; as a result, Brian becomes something of an oddity in this stretch of the season. It is also worth noting that the strange structure of the season means that Brian Williams is introduced four episodes before he becomes completely redundant. It does underscore the haphazard structuring of this run of episodes.

Still, there is some fun to be had. If Asylum of the Daleks was a bit grim for a season premiere, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship works to remedy that… mostly. It moves incredibly quickly. The teaser sets up all the requisite information in a short amount of time, with the Doctor popping around to assemble his “gang” (“not really had a gang before”) for his very special assignment. It is a very interesting glimpse at the new TARDIS dynamic teased by The God Complex, as the Doctor lives on his own in the TARDIS without constant companions.

A cutting retort...

A cutting retort…

Of course, Chibnell is borrowing shamelessly from the template that Moffat set up in A Good Man Goes to War, but it is a good enough idea that it stands up to multiple uses. The idea of the Doctor recruiting his own version of The League of the Extraordinary Gentlemen is fascinating; even if he has to settle for a cut-price Allan Quatermain. It is a shame that Ridell and Nefertiti are never developed quite as well as they might be, and so are never as compelling as they should be.

Of course, Ridell is a somewhat problematic character. It seems rather odd for the Doctor to become dear friends with a big game hunter. To be fair, it is not the strangest relationship that the Doctor has ever had; the Doctor always seems to get along with the Brigadier, Captain Jack and River Song. Despite his objections to violence, the Doctor seems to have quite a rebellious streak. However, the relationship with Ridell is never developed to the extent that it works.

According to plan...

According to plan…

In fact, both the Doctor and Ridell seem to spend their time irritating one another. “I could take one of them,” Ridell suggests as some dinosaurs wander by. “Short blow up into the throat.” The Doctor cuts in, “Or not. We’ve just found dinosaurs in space. We need to preserve them.” Later, Ridell is giddy when he discovers tranquiliser guns. “Enough to make a dinosaur take a nap. Even the Doctor couldn’t object to that.” It really seems like an odd relationship, one that nobody has really thought through.

There is also something a little unpleasant about the relationship between Ridell and Nefertiti. Ridell is essentially a misogynistic cad who seduces an otherwise independent woman and drags her into his world rather than acknowledging her independence. The sexual politics at play here are fascinating; particularly considering that Ridell is a European man who makes his living hunting wild life on the “African Plains” at the very height of colonialism. It is understandable if Dinosaurs on a Spaceship doesn’t want to get into that, but it is still there.

Lightening up a bit?

After all, there is a lightness to Dinosaurs on a Spaceship. Or there is meant to be. There is a lot of running around and shouting and bantering. Characters dance around large sets and interact with iconic dinosaurs. However, the larger seventh season themes of death and decay run through the episode. Dinosaurs on a Spaceship might be the least “heavy” episode of the season, but it still features a sequence where Solomon murders a defenceless (and adorable) dinosaur in cold blood and makes a none-too-subtle rape threat to a major female character.

Solomon is a genuinely unpleasant character; he is the most unrepentantly evil villain that the Eleventh Doctor has faced in quite some time. David Bradley does fantastic work in the role. Like Richard E. Grant later in the season, it is great to see an actor with tangential associations to the franchise recruited for the big anniversary season. Bradley turns Solomon into one of the most memorable and unsettling antagonists of the era. It almost feels like he is wasted on this story.

Pond-ering the universe…

At best, everything involving Solomon feels out of step with the rest of the episode. After all, he is a very real and mundane threat for such a light-hearted romp. At the climax of the episode, the Doctor effectively murders Solomon. It is an act that would not seem that unusual for the Ninth or Tenth Doctors, but one that feels a little strange for the Eleventh Doctor. After all, the Eleventh Doctor is no longer “the Oncoming Storm” or “the Predator.” To murder Solomon in cold blood feels a little out of character for this iteration of the character.

On the other hand, it does suggest some interesting possibilities. Is there a double-standard at play when it comes to the Doctor killing? Does his cold-blooded murder of Solomon seem out-of-place because Solomon looks human rather than alien? More than that, does it suggest some darker demeanour on the part of the Eleventh Doctor? Certainly, the Eleventh Doctor seems just as temperamental in A Town Called Mercy, much more temperamental than he had been in earlier seasons? Is this foreshadowing the pragmatic Twelfth Doctor, or something more?

Solomon doesn’t have a leg to stand on…

However, Solomon also comes with fairly significant baggage. In short, the character seems to be in desperately poor taste. Solomon is very much an anti-semetic stereotype. He has a Jewish name; he measures the “worth” of lives in the profit that they bring to him; he is portrayed as creepy and miserly, a man who has a great deal of material wealth, but still lives in squalor. Even if one looks past the characterisation of Solomon as an anti-semetic stereotype, he is also very much the stock evil cripple character – complete with walking sticks and facial scars.

While nowhere near as insensitive as The Celestial Toymaker or The Talons of Weng-Chiang, the character does feel horribly misjudged. It is something that probably should have been caught at some stage of production, and it is embarrassing that the show missed it. These aspects of Solomon taint an otherwise solid villain; it is a shame that the roughest and most unpleasant baddie to face the Doctor in quite some time is ultimately a collection of offensive and outdated stereotypes.

He’s got game…

That said, it is interesting that the spaceship is populated with throwbacks. Ridell is a chauvinist pig; Solomon plans to sell Nefertiti into slavery. It appears that the dinosaurs are not the only dinosaurs on the spaceship. It is fascinating that the Doctor deals with the Indian Space Agency to manage the threat; with its focus on African and Asia history and geography, it seems like Dinosaurs on a Spaceship is trying to broaden the show’s perspective. Ridell’s role exploiting the African continent in colonial times is contrasted with India’s future role as a major space power.

Still, this doesn’t quite help to offset the very serious issues with Dinosaurs on a Spaceship. There is a clear sense that the script could have used a bit more work. As it stands, it feels very much like an early draft that was pushed in front of the camera in order to get something filmed. After all, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship was part of the first production block for the seventh season, along with A Town Called Mercy. With everything else happening this season, it is easy to see why the episode did not get the attention that it needed; but the problems remain.

Does the Doctor need to screen his companions better?

It is interesting to try to contextualise the chronology of the seventh season. It has been suggested that the season unfolds out of order, based on a line from Rory in A Town Called Mercy and the emotional weight of the Doctor’s monologue in The Power of Three. Here, the Doctor and Amy discuss his less frequent visits in a decidedly ambiguous conversation. In fact, the conversation opens directly after the Doctor stresses things do not have to happen in order. “Humans, you are so linear.”

“They’re getting longer, you know,” Amy tells the Doctor, “the gaps between your visits. I think you’re weaning us off you.” The Doctor is quick to deny that, to stress that he is not. “I’m not, I promise. Really promise.” Perhaps it is the opposite, perhaps the Doctor is trying to wean himself off the Ponds; after all, he only has so much time remaining with them. He has the standard conversation, joking about how they’ll outlive him. When Amy suggests the alternative, he freezes. “Don’t.”

They are droids and he’s a ‘noid…

Of course, this may just be heavy-handed foreshadowing of The Angels Take Manhattan, setting up the inevitable departure of Amy and Rory. However, it is interesting to consider the possibilities. Is the Eleventh Doctor’s more temperamental attitude in this stretch of episodes prompted by the recent loss of his dear friends? Is the anger on display in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship and A Town Called Mercy as a result of his own internal pain? Certainly, the Doctor seems as enigmatic towards Amy and Rory as ever.

Still, that is perhaps overthinking things. Dinosaurs on a Spaceship is a mess of an episode. And something of a waste.

You might be interested in our other reviews of Matt Smith’s third season of Doctor Who:

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