“DINOSAURS ON A SPACESHIP” – Series 7, Episode 2, Story 226 – Written by Chris Chibnall; Directed by Saul Metzstein – Um, did you see the title of this episode? What more do you need to know? Because The Title Isn’t Lying – There’s Dinosaurs … On A Spaceship!
DINOSAURS ON A SPACESHIP is the most flat-out enjoyable episode of DOCTOR WHO since THE LODGER, and maybe even of the entire Matt Smith era to this point.
It is, simply put, as singularly perfect an episode of DOCTOR WHO as you are going to find: ridiculous, absurd, brilliant, moving, hilarious, thrilling, philosophical … DINOSAURS ON A SPACESHIP is the kind of story you can only get from DOCTOR WHO, and writer Chris Chibnall, director Saul Metzstein, and the entire cast and crew deliver a DOCTOR WHO episode for the ages. If you can’t tell, I rather love this episode, and what we have here is one of the finest examples in the program’s long history that you can give to someone who’s never watched DOCTOR WHO before to allow them to fall in love with it.
“Are they the new us? Is that why we haven’t seen you?”
“No, they’re just people, they’re not Ponds. I thought we might need a gang. Not really had a gang before. It’s new.”
I’ve been a little less-than-thrilled with the idea of the Ponds as live-at-home Companions, because it seems to make the story set-ups a bit predictable: the Ponds live their life, the Doctor interrupts them, they have an adventure, they get dropped off back at home, as if they stepped out with the Doctor for a play date. My biggest concern over this strategy was laid out in the Series 7 season opener, ASYLUM OF THE DALEKS, when we started the episode learning that Amy and Rory were getting a divorce (a story point that came out of nowhere) and by the end of the episode, everything was fine between them again.
The Pond split/reconciliation seemed introduced just to create some artificial drama into an episode that didn’t need it, and it made me think this concept of the temporary Companion was going to be something I would come to hate.
One episode in, and some of my fears have been allayed. There is no artificial drama this time around, though it has been ten months (in Pond time) since the Doctor’s last visit. The episode doesn’t say it’s been ten months since ASYLUM, so we can’t be sure that our last adventure was their last adventure, but that’s not really that important. What is important is that Chibnall is not only acknowledging this new status quo, but doing something with it. Last season, one of my complaints was that it didn’t really seem like Moffat and his writers were on the same page when it came to the Ponds, and the result was a very disjointed feeling to the season.
(I even wrote a massively long post entitled, “Is it Time for Gwen Cooper to Replace the Ponds?” near the end of last season that detailed my issues with how the couple was being used.)
It doesn’t take a lot to make me happy on matters like this – I simply want to see alleged subplots addressed, and used to help make episodes better, and that’s what Chibnall has done in DINOSAURS. There’s the simple conversation between Amy and the Doctor where Amy expresses her concern (as they’re running away from two stampeding ankylosaurus dinosaurs) that Nefertiti and Riddell are “the new us,” to which the Doctor replies that they’re just people, not Ponds, but that he thought he needed a gang for this adventure.
I love this brief exchange because it’s fun, it builds on the ongoing subplot of Amy and Rory as part-time Companions, and because it helps to completely re-frame the use of Companions. We’ve seen this idea that the Eleventh Doctor has part-time Companions before, of course (most notably in A GOOD MAN GOES TO WAR), but it really comes into focus here, as the Doctor gives voice to this idea that the Ponds are something special to him, and other Companions during this time are just “people” he adventures with when the Ponds aren’t there. While a bit dismissive to people like Riddell and Nefertiti, it does show that the Doctor isn’t waiting around for the Ponds. More than any Doctor in history, Moffat has built in a larger set of adventures for Eleven to have while we’re not around. I think it fits in beautifully with Eleven’s personality. Can you imagine Nine or Ten, for instance, adventuring without their respective Companions simply for the sake of adventuring?
I don’t mean this as a criticism of Nine or Ten, either, because I think Russell T. Davies crafted fitting personalities for both of them: Nine was suffering from a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after his actions in the Time War, and Ten was constantly trying to figure out what kinds of emotional attachments he would allow himself. It’s fitting that after all that Ten went through at the end that we’d get a Doctor less dour and a Doctor that took Ten’s final days, when he was adventuring through time and space one Companion at a time and then took a Victory Lap to see everyone one last time, that Eleven would embrace the positive idea of transitory Companions. It’s also fitting that after Nine and Ten’s relatively short lives, that Eleven would want to stuff his life with as much adventuring as possible and experience as many people as possible.
Chibnall brings up this idea later of the Ponds being the Doctor’s … let’s call them emotionally-attached Companions, too, when he and Amy have a more serious conversation about their time together. Once again, the Doctor chooses a highly intense moment to have a deeply personal conversation with Amy. He’s busy tinkering with the spaceship’s computer to get some missiles to not hit them when he asks Amy about her job. She tells him she quit and he’s on her for always quitting on her jobs. “It’s hard,” she says. “I’m always waiting for that stupid TARDIS sound.” The subtle reminders throughout the episode that it’s been ten months since the Doctor last popped by the Ponds’ abode (what do Brits call where the Ponds live? House? Flat?) and Amy’s insistence that she’s always waiting for the TARDIS (which she and Rory actually complained about at the start of this episode when it arrived) reinforces, too, the idea that she is “The Girl Who Waited.”
The conversation does turn a bit somber when Amy admits that she worries one of these adventures will be their last and that they’ll never see the Doctor again. Attempting to cheer her up, the Doctor tells her she’ll be around until he dies (not exactly a cheery thought, in and of itself), and she replies that maybe it’s the other way around, and the Doctor will only be around until her death. The Doctor shoots here a worrisome look, which is then repeated at the end of the episode when she, Rory, and Rory’s dad are in the TARDIS’ doorway while in orbit, looking down at the rotating Earth below them.
I put all of this Pond/Companion/Worrisome Look bit up front because I want to make sure we don’t lose sight of the fact that as fun and rompy as DINOSAURS ON A SPACESHIP plays, there’s also a decent amount of serious stuff going on in between all the running and shouting. DINOSAURS is exactly the kind of fun episode that was missing last year. (And I know I keep bagging on Series 6, so let me make remind you that I didn’t find Series 6 as bad, as much as I found it disappointing.)
As for the story itself, DINOSAURS sees the Doctor alerted to an approaching space station that a spaceship is approaching and if it gets too close, the Indian Space Agency is going to blow it up. The Doctor is intrigued, of course (and I love his line to the ISA agent that he was really liking her until she mentions the missiles she’s going to launch), and with Nefertiti in tow decides to put a crack squad of former Companions together to help him solve the mystery. Just the way Eleven mentions that the Ponds would be nice to have this time suggests that as much as he has a special place in his hearts for them, he’s not simply looking to bring them around on every adventure.
And yes, it begs the question that given he’s got a time machine, why is he waiting ten of their months between visits to go back for them? The answer, I think, is that he realizes they need some time and space away from him to live their own lives, and that perhaps he needs some time and space away from them, too. Perhaps his concern is that they neither need nor want him around, anymore, which is why he doesn’t park the TARDIS and ask them to come along, but rather simply envelops the TARDIS around them and hauls them off.
Of course, the other reason he does this is so he can accidentally bring Rory’s dad, Brian, along for the adventure, too. Played by Mark Williams (who most people will recognize as Mr. Weasley from the Harry Potter films), Brian is a fantastic addition to the cast. It’s a treat simply watching him and Rory interact with one another; after Brian pulls out a trowel to dig in the sand in one scene, Rory pulls out a medical kit in another, wryly commenting, “It’s all about the pockets in our family.” In fact, the three-way interaction between the Doctor, Rory, and Brian is better than the three-way interaction between the Doctor, Rory, and Amy interaction has been in a long time.
Rory is the center of this threesome, playing the questioning child with the Doctor and the expert father to his dad. Arthur Darvill has been a joy to watch during his time to watch on the program, and DINOSAURS is some of his finest work. While not requiring the emotional fireworks of some of his other appearances, Chibnall allows Darvill to play to his strengths and show some real character growth for Rory.
The Doctor, Rory, and Brian are standing near a computer panel at the start of the episode when the Doctor informs the computer he wants to go to the engine room. The three of them are teleported down to a beach and-
Holy heckfire is that Bad Wolf Bay?!?!?!?! Are we going to see an appearance of Rose Tyler?!?!?!?
Yes. And no.
For not the first time, we’re back at what we know as Dunraven Bay, but there’s no Rose Tyler hanging around, waiting for the Doctor to show back up in the TARDIS and whisk her away from her look-alike copy. I found the decision to touch down at this filming location uniquely odd, since just this week I was snarkily remarking over on Facebook that I hope when the Ponds time in the TARDIS comes to a close that the Doctor drops them off at Bad Wolf Bay just so Rose has someone new to talk to.
This time around, Dunraven isn’t used to represent Bad Wolf Bay, but the actual engine of the spaceship they’re in, which relies on tidal technology to power its journey through the stars. Running off the beach to escape some approaching pterodactyls, the Doctor, Rory, and Brian are confronted by Michell and Webb robots in a cave.
I say that like I know who Mitchell and Webb are, but the truth is I have only the vaguest of ideas who they are, and only recognize that their inclusion here is anything noteworthy because I recognize their names. If I didn’t use to have BBC America and didn’t currently have Twitter, these two rusty robots would have been nothing more than a neat visual and some funny voices.
But because I did used to have BBC America and do have Twitter, I know that these two rusty robots are actually a neat visual and some funny voices from mildly famous comedians.
Who they are is much less important than how they perform in the episode, and they perform admirably. I love the idea of these two old, tall security robots taken orders from an old, decidedly unromantic pirate/black market operative. Solomon (played by the guy who played Filch in the Harry Potter movies, which clearly seems to be setting us up to have Daniel Radcliffe take over as the Doctor in 2027) boarded this Silurian ark ship, killed all the Silurians (thousands of them had been sleeping in cryo-stasis), and intends to sell off all the dinosaurs and plants to a client he can’t get to because the Silurians had set the ship to return to Earth if anything went wrong.
Yeah, Silurians. A serial always gets a bonus point from me if it includes a Silurian, and it’s fitting that Chibnall is the guy to toss them a reference, since he wrote the solid HUNGRY EARTH / COLD BLOOD two-parter from Matt Smith’s first season. It’s Amy who discovers that this is a Silurian ship. She ends up partnered with Nefertiti and Riddell after the Doctor’s group goes BAMF! and heads down to Not Bad Wolf Bay, and it’s incredibly awesome to see Amy acting as the confident leader of this group. There’s some clear parallels being drawn between her and the Doctor here, as she’s the one in charge of punching buttons and searching the ark’s computers.
Amy is also forced to bear witness to the growing flirtation between the Egyptian Queen and sexist big game hunter, and she gets a taste of how it feels to be the third wheel on a spaceship.
Chibnall does an excellent job balancing Amy and Rory in this episode. While it’s Rory who gets to spend more time with the Doctor, it’s Amy who has the larger emotional moments (even if it’s Rory who gets the kiss). Both Companions, however, are used effectively, and Karen Gillan and Arthur Darwill reminded me what I initially loved about both of them.
There’s a dark aspect to the episode, too, as the Doctor basically consigns Solomon to death. His plan to divert the missiles from blowing up the Silurian Ark is to have them lock on to Solomon’s escaping ship, a chase that lasts briefly and ends violently. I don’t have much of a problem with the Doctor as a killer, as this is a man who has been show to kill on multiple occasions. Solomon clearly crosses a line with his eradication of all Silurians on board the ark, as well as his ordering a triceratops killed that the Doctor had befriended. It’s a dark act from the Doctor, but one in keeping with his character.
There’s so much to love about this episode beyond the principles. The dinosaurs look terrific, and while it’s the easy move to say the episode is reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, the link between that movie and this episode goes beyond the inclusion of dinosaurs. We get a large dose of the Spielberg dinos, with the inclusion of a triceratops (also in pain, also comforted by one of our leads), raptors (also excellent hunters, also fighting a big game hunter), and even a brief look at a baby T-Rex, and what looks like a shadow of the adult (dino shadows being a frequent stylistic technique of Spielberg’s movie). Even beyond the dinosaurs, we’ve got a guy here in Solomon who’s looking to use the animals for his own financial gain. Solomon is decidedly darker than John Hammond, but like Hammond, he’s benefiting from the work of others.
Rupert Graves and Riann Steele are a treat as the romcom-film-reduced-to-TV-episode-subplot Riddell and Nefertiti, but I want to talk about them less for their use than another issue they seem to represent. I almost never read other reviews before writing my own, because I want my reviews to stand alone. Sometimes this isn’t possible, especially if it’s an older story that I’m reviewing, or even a recent film that I didn’t see right away and has generated a lot of talk (as happened with Ridley Scott’s Prometheus this past summer). I watched DINOSAURS ON A SPACESHIP opening night, however, and would not normally solicit other reviews, but something interesting has happened this weekend:
Steven Moffat has apparently left Twitter. I don’t know why Moffat has chosen to do this; I’ve been following him for a few months and his tweets have usually been very positive, but the other day he asked if anyone knew how he could limit his followers without resorting to the blocking option. As far as I know, the only way to do this is to turn your account private, and perhaps this is what he’s done. He didn’t post any announcement that I saw over leaving the social network, but when I checked Twitter this morning #ComeBackMoffat was trending. Wondering if reaction to DINOSAURS had anything to do with it (especially since I thought it was such a fantastic episode), I checked out the review section of Wikipedia’s DINOSAURS page.
The reviews seemed mostly positive, but here was a bit of bagging on Riddell and Nefertiti, some critics focusing on the “gang” either over-stuffing the episode or the characters being a bit thin. While it doesn’t seem like this has anything to do with a now Moffat-less Twitterverse, I do have to wonder if we’ve entered an age where some people are just never going to be happy about what’s on their TV screen.
I’m never here to tell you how to think, but simply to explain the way I think, yet I do wonder if some people have simply decided they don’t like the Moffat/Smith era, and won’t ever find any of this enjoyable. This is not necessarily a dig at the critics cited on the Wikipedia page because I don’t know who any of them are, and so have no interest in whether they’re guilty of what I’m talking about here. I’m simply using their comments to discuss a sentiment I notice in some fans. And if this is the case, well, that’s great. There’s plenty of shows that I dislike, but at some point I do what I think is a smart thing:
I stop watching them.
You’re free to continue to watch and complain about a program you don’t like, of course, but the people who seem to delight in making themselves miserable is a species of troll that I don’t really have any interest in knowing. Disliking something is everyone’s right, of course, but continuing to self-inflict misery upon yourself doesn’t mean that I have any interest in hearing it – it’s one thing if you get stuck watching a crappy movie or dumb episode of a TV show, but if you’re ten, fifteen, twenty episodes into a run of misery … isn’t there a better way for you to spend your time?
It’s one thing to be able to intelligently discuss why you dislike something (and I have no problem with people who can do this), but this automatic reaction by some to simply look for something to hate … it’s beyond me at this stage in my life. It’s the difference between being predisposed to disliking something and genuinely have a negative reaction to the show after you’ve watched it that drives me nuts. It’s that idea that Moffat and Smith are somehow purposely stupid or out to ruin your life by making bad television that grates on me.
I’ll use my own reviews to Star Trek: The Original Series as an example. I was never a big fan of the show as a kid and after watching and reviewing two of the three seasons, I’m still not much of a fan of the show, even though I have become a bigger fan of some of the characters. My review of “Bread and Circuses” encapsulates my frustration with the show rather nicely. I write:
“If you stumble upon this reaction to BREAD AND CIRCUSES at random, it’s just another webpage. If you’re a regular reader of the Anxiety, however, you’ll notice it’s been a couple week since I reviewed a TOS episode. And before that it was a couple weeks, too. I’ve written quite a few reviews in the meantime, and I finished watching Season 2 a month ago. So why no reviews? Because this last batch of episodes of Season 2 are mediocre nonsense. [...] Very little in this episode is very good or convincing or interesting. This whole alternate “Earth Era” concept is getting tired. Heck, this show is getting tired. STAR TREK can still deliver an occasionally good episode but these run of the mill episodes are sinking the series like a bunch of big, fat, heavy rocks. I’m tired of watching and writing about this show.”
I published that review on November 5, 2011.
I’ve written one Star Trek: TOS review in the interim.
I’ll get back to writing the TOS reviews in the near future because even though I can’t say I’m a fan of the show, there is the occasional great episode that makes it worthwhile, and I’ve greatly enjoyed my conversations with Star Trek fans about why they do like the show. If TOS was being broadcast now, I wouldn’t be tuning in every week, let alone watching it and writing about it, but it’s accumulated so much weight over the years, that it’s fascinating for me to put my own likes and dislikes about the show against all that weight.
I bring all of this up because I think DINOSAURS ON A SPACESHIP provides a good opportunity for self-evaluation. If you haven’t liked any part of the Moffat/Smith era, and watching DINOSAURS makes you cranky rather than happy, maybe it would be better if you went and found a show that didn’t make you miserable.
Or not. It’s your life. If you want to be miserable, I’m not going to stop you, but I have had my fill of people who look for bad things and then revel it telling everyone about it. I’m not saying you have to like the Moffat/Smith era, or that you have to like this episode, but if you haven’t liked anything for over two seasons, and the only reason you’re watching is to continue to make yourself miserable … is it that you don’t want to ever be happy, or that you’ve forgotten how?