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Doctor Who: Dinosaurs on a Spaceship

September 10, 2012

Yeah, all right, it’s an attention-grabbing title, and no worse (in the sense that it’s mildly descriptive yet opaque) than ‘Planet of Evil’ or ‘The Deadly Assassin’, but it’s just kind of… pushy, isn’t it? Roll up, roll up: dinosaurs on a spaceship. On the other hand, if this’d been on TV when I was nine (instead of Season 24 — oh, there’s another stupid title: ‘Time and the Rani’) my eyes would have been out my head on stalks to see that title flash up. Likewise, the scene on the beach where pterodactyls are divebombing the Doctor and co — hell, I was thrilled by that at the age of 33. Some things you never grow out of.

Some things, though… Writer Chris Chibnall seems not to have grown out of adolescent sex jokes, for instance: there’s a testicles joke, a line about a man with “a big weapon”, and Queen Nefertiti offers someone a spanking. Meanwhile there’s a scene in which the particularly nasty villain of this story, space pirate Solomon, talks about “breaking in” Nefertiti, which seems to me to be a line being crossed: the balls Brian’s referring to are golf balls, and game hunter Riddell actually does have “a big weapon”, a stun-rifle, so these constitute a crude but forgivable innuendo; Solomon’s threat is really only readable as one of sexual violence, however, and that’s an uncomfortable fit for any Who, let alone one that is otherwise a big, fun, hyper-colourful, fast-paced — you know I’m adding adjectives to delay this inevitable four-letter word — romp. Doctor Who, aimed at what used to be called ‘the intelligent 14-year old’, is being written, in one way, exactly right here. You wouldn’t want it to be like this every week, but the fun runaround (the type of story Russell T Davies used to employ as the ‘hook’ to draw unsuspecting casual viewers into a new season) is at least as Whoish as something more serious or sinister.

And the story isn’t all chirpiness: the Doctor, our moral centre, responds to the situation in a fairly brutal way: Solomon is not just left to his fate but deliberately sent to his doom by our hero. The Doctor as executioner is something we haven’t seen in a while — but David Bradley’s Solomon, though not a scene-chewing villain, is one of the nastier pieces of work we’ve seen in a while: an unashamedly malevolent mass-murderer and blackmailer. Both the villain and his means of despatch come from a somewhat different story than this one.

Guest-wise, Rupert Graves brings a great deal of conviction to a rather one-note character, the gung-ho game hunter (and shouldn’t the Doctor rather disapprove of that?) John Riddell, but Rian Steele doesn’t manage to invest Nefertiti — the Queen of Egypt, after all! — with much life. The flirting between these two doesn’t quite work, for that reason. Filling a spaceship with dinosaurs and failing to include a proper tyrannosaurus is something like a contravention of the trade descriptions act — one sleeping junior and a couple of shadows on a wall is a great big cheat. And it’s ever so convenient that Rory’s dad happens to come along for a story set on a ship which needs two genetically related people to fly it — a problem solved almost before it’s posed. Once again, convenient plotting means that Amy, Rory and Brian can without much hassle operate unfamiliar computer systems and fly a vastly complicated alien spaceship (and that Brian carries a seemingly endless supply of golf balls with him).

On the other hand, this is a capable script, even despite these loopholes. The dinosaurs are used to just the right degree, and ably realised with CGI (though the way their feet hit the floor didn’t quite convince me they were ‘there’) and, astoundingly, an actual full-sized model triceratops; christening this beast ‘Tricey’, though, brings us dangerously close to ‘The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe’s horrific ‘humany-wumany’ line. There are two wonderfully designed and amusingly argumentative robots, very recognisably voiced by comedians Mitchell and Webb: and why not? I even liked Amy this week: after one intensely obnoxious line near the start (offering to high five Queen Nefertiti), she reverts to that early universal-wonder of ‘The Beast Below’, with a little bit of Doctor-like command of the situation too. She enjoys having companions — even gets annoyed, very Doctorishly, when they flirt — and see how nice it is when she smiles genuinely as she gets the spaceship’s systems working? And I smiled just as genuinely when Nefe asks, ‘Are you a queen?’ and Amy responds that yes… yes, she is. I did start to wonder about generic companion dialogue, though: that line that made me wince — “Oh my god —  Queen Nefertiti?! I learned all about you at school, you’re awesome, big fan — high five?” — is there any hope that the next companion won’t talk in exactly this wisecracking way? Probably not: when Amy says, in response to a line of Riddell’s, that she’s the equal of two men herself, it’s a line almost any female companion of the last 40 years might have been given (exceptions: Nyssa wouldn’t be so pushy; Romana wouldn’t lower herself to respond in the first place). And it’s not Gillan at fault: that little curtsey she does on the “big fan” is sublime.

As well as two surrogate companions in Nefe and Ridell, we get two Rorys this week, with Mark (Fast Show) Williams as Brian, his dad, and the best parts of the episode deal with these two and their very realistic, well-observed relationship, trying to fix things around the house — or around a giant spaceship — rather than actually speak to one another about anything meaningful. Chibnall’s script is well-paced to allow little ‘moments’ between these two amid the dinosaurian chaos, and because they’re not at loggerheads, there’s nothing so heavy-handed as a big scene in which father and son two realise how much they mean to one another or anything.

Overall, this is a satisfying bit of fast-paced modern Who, with a bunch of very funny, quotable lines, some great performances, neat concepts just thrown away (I particularly liked the Silurian ark, a spaceship so vast it can contain seas, powering itself by hydroelectricity — a neat bit of the writer thinking like a Silurian), a satisfying denouement, and just the right balance of peril and fun. Chris Chibnall is a hate figure for lots of Who fans — and I agree that his script for ‘Cold Blood’ in 2010 is one of the new series’ worst clunkers — but I think this is largely due to the fact there is video footage available of a very young, very bumptious Chibnall ‘calling out’ the then production team in the mid-80s for making Who too silly and embarrassing. Yet here he is — this whippersnapper — writing actual Doctor Who!

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