TV Review: DOCTOR WHO Series 7, Episode 2 'Dinosaurs on a Spaceship'

PrintE-mail Written by J. R. Southall

Review

As a child whose twin obsessions were dinosaurs and Doctor Who, it always rather rankled that the most disappointing elements of the otherwise excellent Invasion of the Dinosaurs were the eponymous monsters. And it’s something that I’d been praying would one day be addressed, ever since the series returned in 2005. Doctor Who meets dinosaurs; what more could a perennially 8-year-old reviewer wish for?

The lack of giant reptiles in The Hungry Earth did make me wonder if my prayers would ever be answered, however. The Silurian story seemed to be the perfect opportunity for a little “terrible lizard” action, but it proved not to be. Fortunately, thanks to that story’s author and his also-perennially-8-years-old executive producer, my wish has now come true.

And then some.

Any disappointment that might have greeted Stephen Thompson’s The Curse of the Black Spot last year was largely due to the shortage of rumbustious pirate action (an unrealistic expectation, I might add, and one that didn’t dent my own enjoyment of the episode), but the first surprise that will greet viewers of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship will be the sheer amount of dino-action included. I was fully prepared for the greater number of dinosaur scenes to be comprised of mostly harmless cutaways, reaction shots of the cast gaping in awe at the dinosaurs we couldn’t quite see at home. Instead, it was my own jaw that was gaping open as sequence after sequence paid off on the promise of the title. For a series that is apparently tightening its belt, it’s fair to say that they’ve managed to put every penny up on the screen – and more besides. Dinosaurs on a Spaceship would not be embarrassed to be a Hollywood movie.

This is no running-and-hiding Doctor Who episode either. With dinosaurs on the loose (on a spaceship!), Chris Chibnall could have been forgiven for writing a tight, cool story involving the Doctor and chums getting themselves into a bit of a scrape and then quietly and stealthily having to extricate themselves from it. No such fear. Moffat wanted big, Moffat wanted Chibnall to make good on the preposterous premise that the title promised, and Chibnall delivers. The Doctor and chums very boldly go where only reptile men have gone before, blustering into the mysterious (and beautifully realised) spaceship and trusting in their own abilities to find out what’s going on and how to stop it. It’s bold, it’s brash, and it’s pretty darned brilliant.

If there is one fault you could pick with the episode, it’s that the 45-minute running time means that a number of character points are unavoidably glossed over – Brian Williams’ surprise at his first trip in the TARDIS, for example, or the reason the Doctor thought it necessary to bring Queen Nefertiti along in the first place (although the character’s fate can be explained by Nefertiti’s disappearance from historical records sometime around 1330 BC). However, such qualms would only involve nit-picking and would be to miss the point of the exercise completely – it’s the Scooby Gang versus the dinosaurs, and the team the Doctor assembles is nicely balanced and expertly written and performed, with plenty for each of the actors to get their teeth into, and an awful lot of comedy mined from their disparities.

Riaan Steele makes for a steely Nefertiti (if you’ll pardon the pun) when called upon to do so, but also plays the earlier, flirtier version of the character with just as much enthusiasm. And Rupert Graves is a delight as John Riddell, the big game hunter the Doctor picks up seemingly on a whim. It’s a gift of a role, one that Graves underplays with precision, selflessly allowing the comedy to come out of the situations rather than trying to hog the screen with what could have been a caricature of a performance. I’m hoping the Doctor stops by again, and gives these two a second outing – I could happily sit and watch their further adventures for an entire series.

Oh, and as for the two robots... Well, casting David Mitchell and Robert Webb was a stroke of total genius. It probably won’t be a decision that the more hardcore fans will appreciate, but the bickering ‘bots certainly brought a smile to my face, and will entertain the vast majority of the episode’s audience no end. An absolutely fantastic choice.

Beyond fantastic though are David Bradley as the space bounty hunter Solomon, and Mark Williams as Rory’s dad, Brian “Pond”. We all know Bradley is capable of real menace, but the sudden turn the episode takes into pathos once the full extent of Solomon’s scheme becomes apparent is fully sold in the conviction and authenticity Bradley and Matt Smith bring to the scene. Smith is never better as the Doctor than when the tomfoolery stops and his quiet, angry side comes out, and as entertaining as the first half-hour of this story undoubtedly was, the switch towards the sombre is wonderfully handled and expertly sold. The fate of the Silurians (whose appearance was an unexpected and yet entirely logical – and very welcome – development) is genuinely upsetting, and the ensuing death of the triceratops is adroitly handled by the silent Smith, whose subsequent slow-hand-clapping of Solomon leads to what might have been, in another story, a surprising and horrifying decision to condemn a character to a rather cold-blooded fate. Here, it just feels right. Perfectly judged, and the only way that the episode can end.

But the real star turn comes from Mark Williams. Chris Chibnall writes the more mature, and slightly more cynical (but also more capable) Amy and Rory almost as expertly as their creator Steven Moffat does (making him the perfect choice to write the Pond Life sketches that preceeded this series’ transmission), but it’s the addition of Rory’s father to the team that allows for much of the humour, and helps to sell the episode’s more serious moments by grounding them in authenticity. Williams is brilliant, truly convincing as Rory’s dad (onscreen families are so often so obviously not, yet here you’ll begin to wonder if the two actors really are related), hilarious when called upon to be so, reluctantly heroic and heroically daft, and never anything less than completely genuine – and his final scene in the TARDIS is extraordinary, life affirming and beautiful. He’s the new Bernard Cribbins, and it makes it a real pity that the Ponds’ TARDIS travelling is about to come to an end, as we could have done with seeing so much more of this character. Fortunately Chris Chibnall has one more episode to spoil us with before they go.

Oh, and if sales of trowels don’t increase significantly in the week that follows this episode, then I’ll eat my hat.

Dinosaurs on a Spaceship could easily have been extended to twice its length and exhibited at the cinema, and popcorn-munching movie audiences would have lapped it up. To find it a disappointment would be to miss its point; it’s intelligent dumb fun, a joyous and thrilling ride on the Doctor Who rollercoaster, but one that punctures its pleasures with moments of pure pathos, a balancing act almost impossible to achieve but effortlessly accomplished here. I don’t think I’ve ever reached the end of an episode with as big a grin on my face. My inner-8-year-old could not be happier.


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