DOCTOR WHO: Series 7 - Dinosaurs on a Spaceship / Review (SPOILERS)

Dinosaurs on a Spaceship
8th September 2012, 7.35pm 

The review contains plot spoilers.

The Doctor and the dinosaurs. It seems you can't have one without the other. If they're not jumping up and down, unconvincingly, in some Derbyshire caves during Doctor Who and the Silurians (1970), then they're popping up in London, even less convincingly realised, as part of some fiendish plot to roll back time in 1974's Invasion of the Dinosaurs. Eric Saward even dropped Adric and a spaceship on them. Dinosaurs under a spaceship, then, in Earthshock (1982). Back then, it was all very well and good for the series to tap into what has been, and continues to be, a popular and successful sub-genre - dinosaurs have been a source of cinematic fascination from the 1925 silent The Lost World (with Willis O'Brien pioneering the special effects techniques that would make King Kong and a whole raft of classic Ray Harryhausen films possible) through to the digital shenanigans of Jurassic Park (1993) and its sequels - but Doctor Who never could make men in rubber suits and rod puppets a match for sophisticated stop motion animation, animatronics, go-motion and the latest computer generated beasts. However, Letts and his fellow Doctor Who producers all had one thing in common: ambition.

Jurassic Park is often cited as the film that really crossed the special effects Rubicon, both it and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) transformed the industry, and Doctor Who fans have wistfully looked back on the likes of Invasion of the Dinosaurs and pondered about Barry Letts' thwarted ambition, often considering a 'what if' potential re-imagining. This was probably more keenly felt when dinosaurs rampaged through a plethora of ground-breaking documentary and popular drama series, from the natural history-based approach that spanned Walking with Dinosaurs (1999) to Planet Dinosaur (2011) to the various species casually turning up as 'monster of the week' in Primeval (2007 - ).

Primeval's approach, what Charlie Brooker called 'unashamedly Saturday night populist viewing for the masses', is perhaps where Dinosaurs on a Spaceship takes its cue. This and Moffat's determination to 'write it like a movie poster. Let's do big, huge mad ideas' for the current season made the inevitable - dinosaurs and Doctor Who - closer to successful realisation.

I've discussed the influence of Spielberg and spectacular cinema on Moffat's Doctor Who before. Back when I was reviewing The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang I'd noted the use of the epic in Series 5, the way that genres were being spliced together in the first episode of that two-part story, was akin to a Bakhtian 'carnivalesque ambivalence for logic, an irreverent desire to break the rules and to cross boundaries'. Replace that with 'bonkers' or 'mad' or 'fun' or any other over used production office one word summation that's usually bandied about with Doctor Who these days. This influence affects pace, the relationship between the viewer and the image, the use of logic and chance in driving the narrative, and introduces what could be termed as 'the movie as ride' that 'can offer new and incredible visual treats in lieu of narrative innovation'. (1)

Dinosaurs on a Spaceship describes exactly what the episode, in terms of ambitious spectacle, is about. And that is one of its problems, as it too could be labelled 'Spielbergian' - implying an all encompassing accusation that action and adventure texts are both popular and debased, spectacular and manipulative. Doubtless there is nothing wrong with being popular and Doctor Who as a format surely represents Bakhtin's notion that texts are elastic, malleable and hybrid in nature. Hence, we get the mash-up of Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, a bit of Douglas Adams and Doctor Who that walks the thin line between narrative and spectacle in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship. The episode's pitch is more than adequately represented in the final moments of the pre-titles sequence when, to a triumphant burst of John Williams-esque brass, dinosaurs do indeed appear on a spaceship. About which there can be no doubt when the Doctor verbally reminds us of it, just in case we'd forgotten.

There is no denying that Dinosaurs on a Spaceship is a visual triumph. Even at the fringes of its central narrative it is often substituting images for exposition, employing a visual shorthand if you like. When the episode opens, Nefertiti's Egypt is summarised with a beautifully lit shot of the TARDIS parked in an Egyptian temple that immediately swipes upwards (the visual movement in the frame suggestive of a launch into space) to show the titular spaceship of the episode tumbling toward Earth. That image then becomes the diagnostic on a viewscreen in the command centre of the ISA in 2367. From there the Doctor and Nefertiti rush towards camera, the shot dissolving to the Doctor meeting Riddell on a moonlit African plain. It is kinetic, visual exposition to set up the larger narrative.
'how many Ponds does it take to change a light bulb'
This accumulation of the gang of adventurers in an episode prequel who will then participate in the story - the 'bonkers gang' that writer Chris Chibnall pitched to Moffat and is allegedly a 'new' thing according to the Doctor - reflects Moffat's well-worn device of using narrative shortcuts to bring characters together. Gangs are formed or characters pass messages between each other in the opening of The Pandorica Opens, are a rallying of forces in A Good Man Goes to War and the re-use of historical figures in the time-confused London of The Wedding of River Song. So, it's not 'new'. 

Nefertiti (Riann Steele) is shown as yet another of those historical names, particularly female figures, who find the Doctor an object of desire. He's 'loved' them all and left them - Elizabeth I, Madame de Pompadour and Marilyn Monroe to name a few - and one wonders when his 'babe magnet' status will finally exhaust itself. It really has become such a tired, simplistic and unnecessary aspect of the Doctor's character. If you want logic-defying characters then this is a Nefertiti that takes time machines, the year 2367, spaceships, teleports and dinosaurs - both the Jurassic and misogynistic male variations - in her stride.

She's paired with Liddell (Rupert Graves playing a not so easily disguised riff of Lord John Roxton in Conan Doyle's The Lost World and the ubiquitous Indiana Jones) so that the episode can maintain its fair share of unresolved sexual tension and innuendo. You might as well call this sample of sophistication Carry On Nefertiti as it gets to a point where, in the middle of a discussion between her and Amy about who is married to whom and with Nefertiti explaining that her current husband leaves her cold, Riddell pipes up and claims she needs an adventurous man and 'one with a very large weapon' as he brandishes a rifle. A cock joke to go with the balls joke that appears later.

It's at this juncture that the Ponds are brought into the story. Apparently, the Doctor drops in on them unannounced some ten months after their last encounter with the Daleks. I'm over the Ponds, particularly Amy. She's needfully hanging on to the Doctor long after the most interesting aspects of her character arc have been explored and analysed and, frankly, I can't wait to see the back of her.

These last five episodes to feature them are slowly evolving into an extended series of hellos and goodbyes, even though a perfectly good exit for the characters occurred in Toby Whithouse's The God Complex. Appropriately enough, in its breaking of Amy's faith in him, it was a fitting coda to her abandonment issues influenced relationship with the Doctor. No doubt this is all leading up to the most traumatic and final goodbye of all but I wish they'd get on with it and be done with the delaying tactics.

One of the problems here is that Amy is stuck in the middle of the episode's Disneyfication of characters. Her encounter with Nefertiti and Riddell is all based on how 'cool', 'awesome' and 'famous' they are as individuals, and attempting to high-five the Egyptian Queen and ignoring Riddell because he's a drunken misogynist she'd didn't learn about in school. Amy is not a nine year-old, she's an adult woman and it beggars belief she's given dialogue so trite.

The worst aspect of this writing down to the audience is the presence of the two fussy robots, who seem to have escaped from Disney's production of The Black Hole. I've no problem with Mitchell and Webb doing the voices but some of the material they've been landed with would make any nine year old demand a re-write: 'Who are you calling rusty? 'You try being on this ship for two millennia and see how your paintwork does ' are just the first lines in a series of exchanges that made my toes curl. Narrative innovation, it clearly isn't.

Personally, I'd dump the whole bally lot of them now and just keep Brian Williams as the companion. If you are looking for one of the few reasons to enjoy this episode beyond the slick visual effects, then look no further than the lovely little relationship between Rory and his dad. Never mind your Nefertiti and your Riddell, the dinosaurs and the very irritating and surplus to requirement robots, Brian is the most rounded and affecting of the characters to leave an impression on the viewer. And the relationship between father and son is visually, narratively and symbolically bookended by the simple domestic activity of replacing a light bulb. The 'how many Ponds does it take to change a light bulb' gags should be inserted here. Yeah, Brian, I think it's the fitting that's wrong here too. And writer Chris Chibnall's wobbling the ladder.

Brian's ladder incident is also a neat little barometer of the Pond marriage - 'I don't know what he said to you to make you marry him, but he's a lucky man' he informs Amy as she impresses him with her ladder securing skills. Cue the Doctor's arrival ('did you leave the back door open? asks Brian as the TARDIS back draft fills the living room) and Brian is whisked off into space and time. It's a lovely sequence and his reaction to the TARDIS and Rory's attempt to explain what exactly has happened is beautifully played by Williams and Darvill. Later, Rory also gets some great moments with Brian, particularly when Solomon shoots his dad and his nursing skills come in useful. Their interaction is the most satisfying aspect of the episode and a proper bit of character development that Chibnall manages to achieve beyond the rather obvious humour he derives from the slighter stereotypes of Nefertiti and Riddell.
'even a monkey could use them'
I particularly enjoyed Brian's remonstration with the Doctor on the beach. 'Thank you Arthur C.Clarke... we're on a spaceship with dinosaurs, why wouldn't there be a teleport. In fact, why not teleport now!' is his frustrated response when his baptism by fire as a member of the Doctor's gang starts to get to him. As Rory observes, he hates travelling and 'only goes to the paper shop and golf'. His frustration is echoed in Rory's own reactions to the Doctor too and the Doctor acknowledges both son and dad's penchant for stating the bleedin' obvious as they hear the approach of Solomon's robots.

Brian's observation of the circling Pterosaurs - 'is that a kestrel?' - is quite priceless and his practicality as a trowel-carrying, golf-ball owning dad ('it's all about the pockets in our family' as Rory observes) is second to none. This culminates with the Doctor's enquiry of 'you don't have any vegetable matter in your trousers, do you Brian?' in the encounter with the Triceratops that precipitates what is probably Doctor Who's first on screen gag about testicles.

There are dinosaurs aplenty and the Mill deserve some applause for their hard work because spectacle is not without its pleasures and there's lovely detail in some of the sequences. When the two Ankylosaurus (yes, I looked it up) rumble past the Doctor and his gang, even the TARDIS gets a bit of a knock, its rooftop lamp flickering on and off. The episode achieves its cherished goal of cinematic spectacle in various sequences; where the Doctor and his gang defy the flying hordes of Pterosaurs on a windswept beach; escape the sorry excuse for robots by riding a Triceratops and stun a gang of marauding raptors. These are exciting and technically ambitious but also function as the window dressing to the grinding gears of the episode's narrative, its locating of the plot and the moral dilemma proper that space pirate Solomon poses. 

I wish there was also a different way of getting exposition across in Doctor Who than having various characters seen reading off computer screens, especially when the point of view is from behind the graphics that the character is seeing. It's fast become a visual cliche and the equivalent of the 'look at this, Doctor' or 'what's that Doctor' of the companion's function in the Classic series. It's everywhere in this episode and readouts are plastered over Amy, Nefertiti, Riddell, the Doctor, Rory and Brian. Granted, there has to be exposition that reveals the ship, about to plunge into the Earth in 2367, is of Silurian origin and an ark sent out with a cargo of dinosaurs, but it is heavily reliant here on people peering into cameras and 'talking' to computers.

Solomon is the other reason this is worth bothering with. Or should that be David Bradley's performance, all dirt under the fingernails, seedy misanthropy and bloody minded cruelty. However, it is a full twenty minutes before we actually get to see him meet the Doctor and witness a performance from Bradley that is a masterclass in creating menace and threat from a bundle of well-worn Doctor Who tropes. He's one of the few, decently fleshed out villains, properly evil and capable of 'piracy and genocide', that the Moffat era has presented on screen. The era has often veered away from such characters, deciding instead to present evil as an abstract effect of the misunderstandings and mistakes made by morally grey individuals. Here, Solomon shoots first and asks questions later and is quite prepared to kill anyone and anything to get his way.

The encounter is somewhat marred by the Doctor's name-dropping again. This time he apparently helped Schubert out with the Fantasia in F minor. I am heartily sick of these regular claims to fame as it now seems iconic works of art and recognisable historical figures can never get by without the Doctor claiming to have stuck his oar in. What was often a source of subtle humour in the series has become a laboured character trait. We get it. He travels in time and meets lots of historical and famous figures. Don't rub our noses in it. However, that's a minor quibble in one of the better scenes in the episode when we discover that Solomon is injured and needs a doctor rather than the Doctor.

We also get further confirmation, as part of what is an on-going meme, that out there in the galaxy even the 'Argos of the universe' claims the Doctor is temporarily out of stock and doesn't exist. It's a great scene and one where Bradley manages to raise the acting stakes, consequently providing us with an equally intense Matt Smith. When Smith gets a two-hander like this then we get an acknowledgement that he doesn't necessarily need all the physical ticks and 'don't pause for breath' dialogue that are the broad brush strokes so often used to represent the current Doctor.

I like the fact that in the end, despite all the show stopping special effects and guest characters, Brian and Rory are the heroes of the story, their father and son genetic compatibility enabling them to fly the ship out of danger, despite the Doctor's rather cruel joke about the flight controls, suggesting 'even a monkey could use them - oh, look, they're going to.' If I'm being generous, then it reminds us that the Ninth Doctor and his view of humans as 'stupid apes' is still part of the Time Lord's experience of the universe.
'boisterous but rather empty stuff'
The scene is finally a brief opportunity for the Doctor to check in with Amy, with her admitting her inability to settle is because she's always listening out for 'that stupid TARDIS sound' even though she actually claims that she has given up waiting for him. Pointedly, there's a moment of foreshadowing here as she tells him that she worries something will happen to him and he'll never turn up again. 'You'll be there till the end of me,' he assures her but she jokily responds, 'or vice versa'. That joke, as inappropriate as the one about Rory and Brian, is given space to sink in, both characters looking at each other, almost registering they know the end is getting near. A lovely, quiet, introspective moment in the noise of the episode.

That noise is of course the pleasure of the visual effects on display and the build towards the episode's climax. Director Saul Metzstein's swiping motions across the frame between scenes, seen in the pre-titles, is most effectively employed in the gunfight with the raptors that segues into Rory and Brian's attempt to pilot the ship away from Earth. It's a pacy style that's appropriate to an episode trading on the epic action film's immersive qualities and one which rides the tension between our astonishment at visual effects and then our realisation that they are in fact effects created as a product of technology, best expressed as 'the oscillation between emotion and reason' we experience as a viewer. (2)  It also translates as a gaming experience for the characters, sharing their task as if in a MMORPG, whereupon the skills employed to drive the ship also allow Brian to understand that 'it's better than golf.' 

What's equally interesting is that the Doctor actually adds to the death count and specifically sets up Solomon's ship as the target. He warns Solomon, 'I don't respond well to violence' and is as good as his word on this occasion even though he attacks Solomon for judging him by his own standards of trying to turn a quick profit from the misfortune of others. A thoroughly nasty piece of work is blown up by the missiles launched from Earth, deliberately so by the Doctor. It's very rare that the Doctor acts out of anger but it has not been uncharacteristic or uncommon in the past for him to get his hands dirty. It will no doubt reignite the debate about the Doctor's morality and use of violence.

The episode is crowned with perhaps its best moment. Brian sitting in the doorway of the TARDIS looking down on the Earth in wonderment, with his flask and sarnies. It is a poetic image that reminds us, Amy and Rory why we travel with the Doctor. And looking at the expressions on the Doctor's face as he looks at the couple in the TARDIS doorway tells us all we need to know about the impending conclusion to the Ponds travels in time and space. Dinosaurs on a Spaceship should end there or with the scene back in the Ponds house where Rory has become his dad, a figure now absent and inspired by the Doctor to travel the world, and he agrees that, after all, 'it is the fitting' that's important in his domestic relationship with Amy. We are left to wonder what tragedy might disturb this conformity.

Dinosaurs on a Spaceship is a schizophrenic episode, burdened by its responsibility to the movie poster tagline, the duty of delivering said creatures in a realistic and exciting manner while attempting to develop characters. The dinosaurs are splendid but they have arrived in an era when other documentaries and dramas can deliver them by the dozen and, good as the set pieces are, they end up as the side dish to a lukewarm main course where character development and the emotional power of drama should have president. The script is populated by guest characters often given situations and dialogue that children's drama would find risible. Riddell, Nefertiti and the robots are weak contrivances. The narrative is only made bearable by the central relationship between Rory and his father and the performances from Mark Williams and Arthur Darvill are natural, warm and funny. David Bradley also makes for a terrific villain and works wonders with the material he's given. Bar a couple of excellent and dramatic scenes, this is boisterous but rather empty stuff.

(1) Martin Flanagan, 'The Chronotope in Action', Action and Adventure Cinema
(2) Stephen Prince, Digital Effects in Cinema: The Seduction of Reality

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5 Responses to “DOCTOR WHO: Series 7 - Dinosaurs on a Spaceship / Review (SPOILERS)”
  1. Disneyfication indeed... excellent review, Frank.

  2. Iain says:

    Tremendous review as always, Frank.

    Like you, I'll be glad to see the back of Amy. Not because I dislike the character - although I do think she's now outstayed her welcome - but because the constant flitting back and forth with the Williams-Ponds is undermining this idea of them being distanced by the Doctor. It's hard to take seriously the idea that Amy can't settle and that it's 10 months since the previous adventure when they're perpetually in the series.

    Arguably one of the reasons Mickey's alienation from the TARDIS crew worked was because we didn't see Noel Clarke every week, so it made the idea of lengthy gaps between meetings seem believable. Just being told 'oh, it's been 10 months' when we saw them last week doesn't seem to work.

    (That said, I'll be sad to lose Darvill from the show as much, if not more, than Gillan. Given how one-note he was written at the start, Rory as a character and Darvill as a performer have become the MVPs of the last season and a bit.)

  3. Darvill rocks. He's taken a mere sketch of a character from 'The Eleventh Hour' and fleshed him out through some very sensitive playing. I shall miss him.

    Agreed about the idea of distancing that supposed to be developing in these episodes. Doesn't really work when Amy shows up in each episode does it?

  4. remy says:

    Don't know how you find the time to write such erudite and eloquent reviews so promptly! Don't know where you get the time to think so deeply, but I am very glad you do share those thoughts, I barely get time to watch the telly, so it's great to have someone to do the thinking for me...

    I liked the dinos, not the robots so much, I thought the Rory and Dad plot device was a bit 'handy', though - did the Doctor know this was going to pan out like that and so intentionally whisked dad along too? The Doctor intentionally, and somewhat cold-bloodedly, dispatching the villain was a great touch - somehow it brought to mind Tom Baker's tirade against the captain in Douglas Adams' 'Pirate Planet' (1978?) - he doesn't like pirates, does he...

  5. Remy,

    Thanks for your comments.

    Indeed, it was convenient that Rory's dad came along wasn't it. Just happened to be there to fly the spaceship. That's the clunky gears of the plot becoming a little too evident there.

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