‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’, written by Chris Chibnall, is a light, frothy story with little substance and ultimately unsatisfying. The tone varies wildly being either too childish or too dark, never reaching the satisfying middle ground of family entertainment.
Spoilers from here on!
You can tell that the mandate for this story was to have fun. The premise itself a homage to movies such as ‘Snakes on a Plane’ that tell you everything you need to know just from the title. The plot moves at break neck speed, aside for brief exposition scenes, with plenty of ideas and set pieces thrown into the mix.
I can certainly see the appeal for those seeking light entertainment. There is nothing here that requires a great deal of thought or gives us any insight into the characters. It is an undemanding hour of television that seeks only to entertain.
From a technical stand point there is a lot to recommend. The highlight is, of course, the dinosaurs. Doctor Who has come along way since ‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs’ or the puppet T-Rex from ‘The Mark of the Rani’.
In particular the triceratops that the Doctor and his companions adopt interacts with them in a convincing manner. This only bolsters the emotional resonance when it suffers a nasty fate later.
The robots are some of the best the series has seen. Voiced by comedy duo Mitchell and Webb they have amusing personalities, at odds with their hulking figures. They appear functional and their lights helped them stand out in the dark sets.
The scene of Brian Williams, Rory’s father, eating his packed lunch while happily gazing at the Earth far below was beautiful. Rory and Amy gazing at him appreciating something which had become normal for them helped to capture much of the magic of the series.
Where this episode failed, for me, was the writing. There was too much here, with not enough room for those plot elements to breathe. Combined with the confused tonal shifts my general feeling was that this was a good story in need of editing.
The premise itself seems to be at odds with the current status quo. Here the Doctor seems happy to ride in to the rescue, when we were left with the impression he is trying to keep a low profile.
Admittedly we haven’t seen too much evidence that he is managing this but compare his attitude here to the beginning of ‘Asylum of the Daleks’ where he seemed annoyed that people are asking for his help.
‘The Wedding of River Song’ indicated that he needed to make the universe believe he is dead because there is an organisation, The Silence, that will go to extreme lengths to eliminate him. Given that the Silence has a sizeable presence on Earth the Doctor seems unconcerned at answering a distress call from the Indian Space Agency (ISA).
Which raises another problem with the premise of the episode. We are told that a giant spaceship is heading towards the Earth and the ISA will have to fire a missile at it before it enters the planet’s atmosphere. The Doctor now has a set time limit in which to board the ship and discover its nature.
What isn’t explained is why the ISA doesn’t send a boarding party of their own. There are many reasons why they might not be able to. It could be that they don’t have spaceships of their but the 24th century is a period of interplanetary colonisation so that would seem unlikely. It could be that it is moving too quickly but then they have already sent a drone craft close enough to get readings.
The real reason is that the plot needs the Doctor and his companions to go up without the ISA. Which is a shame since a boarding party of ISA agents would have worked just as well, allowing us to see the Doctor working alongside members of the organisation. Presumably they’d have the required talents to explore a possibly hostile alien craft and gain control of it.
The next problem is that the Doctor decides that he needs to get a gang of companions together. The only justification given is that this is a new concept for the Doctor. Except it isn’t because he did exactly that in ‘A Good Man Goes to War’.
In that case the Doctor was going up against a very powerful organisation to rescue Amy. Each person was specifically chosen for their skills for the task ahead. Here all the Doctor knows is that there is an unknown spaceship, which doesn’t seem that unusual for a Doctor Who story.
This seems to be a tenuous reason to bring the Ponds back into the story. It undoes much of ‘The God Complex’, where the Doctor feared he had led them to their death and decided to let them go because the alternative was standing over their dead bodies. All that is forgotten here, whisking them away to face an unknown threat.
For no reason at all the Doctor chooses to materialises the TARDIS around the Ponds. Once again the plot requires he does so in order for him to accidently get Rory’s father involved in the mix.
The idea of Rory sharing an adventure with his father does have promise. At the start of the story we can see how Brian doesn’t appreciate his son’s abilities criticising his ladder holding skills and lack of trowel. By the end he has seen how well he deals with extraordinary perils he faces and how useful his nursing skills are.
This never achieves its full potential due to a lack of focus. For long stretches Brian has little to do. A few more scenes between Rory and Brian might have given their changing relationship more impact.
Mark Williams puts in a good performance as Brian. A familiar face on British television and film he is believable as Rory’s father. It does raise the question of why he doesn’t recognise the Doctor or the TARDIS from Rory and Amy’s wedding. Did he miss his own son’s marriage?
The temporary companions, Queen Nefertiti and big game hunter Riddell, also could have been good if not for a lack of attention. Seeing the Doctor with new companions is always fun, changing the group dynamic.
Pairing him with a powerful female ruler and sexist hunter is certainly different. We briefly see how the clashes between the two could have led to interesting scenes. The problem is that they contributed little.
Nefertiti’s was there to be captured and Riddell was there to have a shoot out with raptors. Until those scenes they were superfluous in the presence of the Ponds. Even the idea that they were replacing the Ponds was underplayed.
They also didn’t seem like the people the Doctor would associate with. Certainly Nefertiti seems to have bullied her way into the TARDIS, so it wasn’ t exactly the Doctor’s choice to take her, but she makes comments about ordering the execution of people. This could be bluster but it doesn’t seem like the type of person the Doctor should be whisking through time.
Riddell, who kills animals for sport, seems to be the exact opposite of who the Doctor would choose as a companion. The 11th Doctor calls monsters beautiful and mourns their passing, demonstrated in ‘Vincent and the Doctor’. Given this stance bringing Riddell is another thing that seems out of character for the Doctor.
The group of companions is where the plot seems most cluttered. The story would remain much the same with only the Ponds or only the new companions. Having both is too distracting and neither elements really fulfil their potential.
This weakness extends to the central plot of dinosaurs on a spaceship. On the face of it the idea alone seems original and wacky. In truth it isn’t that strange for Doctor Who, not compared to dinosaurs in London from ‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs’ or Pre-revolutionary France on a spaceship from ‘The Girl In the Fireplace.’ As a result the episode is dull.
The involvement of the Silurians only brought back memories of the equally lacklustre ‘The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood’ two parter, also written by Chibnall. While I usually enjoy the appearance of any classic Dr Who species this did little to add to the story.
The sea powered engines were an intriguing idea, the location filming helping to breakup the claustrophobic feel of the spaceship. It is a shame we didn’t see more of these vast sections of the ship, to better sell the idea that dinosaurs had been living there for thousands of years, with an ecosystem that would support them.
Solomon was an adequate villain, although he suffers from being depicted as both a pantomime villain and implied rapist. He can’t help but come off as foolish, believing he can scavenge a ship full of dinosaurs and sell off an Egyptian queen.
I would also question his computer database that can provide a financial estimate for historical figures. Unless time travel is much more common than we’ve be led to believe in the 24th century would there be much occasion to encounter long dead people?
I don’t have a problem with how the Doctor dealt with Solomon. We’ve seen his ruthless side before, so having him engineer the death of someone who committed genocide isn’t that surprising. What was jarring was the amusement the Doctor seemed to derive from his taunting.
Last year I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of season 6. I could happily watch every episode again. Even the weakest episode had more good parts than bad. Sadly I already can’t say that about this season. ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’ isn’t one I can see myself watching again.
Removing elements, concentrating on theme or polishing the ideas all could have made this a good episode. As it is the resulting story is oddly out of touch with the current series, both in its format and characterisation of the Doctor.
I dare say that if this was a classic multi-part story, giving room to explore the ideas and develop the characters, it could have been great. What we are left with is a story that tries to do too much in too brief a time.