Doctor Who abandoned Daleks and instead delivered “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” in this week’s episode, bringing guest stars Mark Williams, David Bradley and Rupert Graves along for a rip-roaring adventure – but did it match up to the high standards of the series 7 premiere? This article contains episode spoilers.
With series 7, the producers aimed to make every episode of Doctor Who a cinematic installment in the series’ canon, with showrunner Steven Moffat being quoted as saying “write it like a movie poster.” On the evidence so far, they’ve certainly gone a long way to maintain that mantra. However, the world of movies is big and diverse with a range of different genres – and within those genres there’s a lot of variation in quality. If “Asylum of the Daleks” was The Empire Strikes Back, then “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” was more like Transformers: incredible special effects, lots of action and amusing one-liners, but no real impact. The sort of entertainment that’s great with a bag of popcorn and a significant other, but not all that wonderful if you were looking for something with a lasting impression.
That’s not to say Doctor Who series 7’s sophomore effort was bad (it did exactly what it said on the tin), just that “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” adds little to the show’s legacy other than some excellent CGI and prosthetic work. Writer Chris Chibnall (“42,” “The Hungry Earth”/”Cold Blood”) litters the script with amusing gags throughout, keeping the tone light but also reducing most of the threat. More could have been made of the Silurian spacecraft’s impending destruction, which was largely glossed over – resulting in a sudden denouement that seemed rushed and out of place. That said, the imaginative strands of the narrative do (sort of) tie together.
Director Saul Metzstein leaps straight from Pond Life into his show debut, balancing the stylish visuals with limited computer effect time confidently. He directs the all-star cast with aplomb, focusing as much on the character moments as he does the episode’s surprisingly few set pieces. Major props must also go to the actors themselves, particularly to Harry Potter alumni David Bradley (Solomon) and Mark Williams (Brian), who steal nearly every scene they’re in. We can’t forget Matt Smith, Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill who continue to excel as The Doctor, Amy, and Rory in spite of less meaty roles than recent escapades have brought. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Sherlock star Rupert Graves’ Riddell and Riann Steele’s Queen Nefertiti. Despite excellent performances from both, the writing fails to develop the characters leaving us with one-dimensional cutouts. That’s always the danger of ensemble pieces, though – some balls will always be dropped in the juggling act.
“Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” doesn’t really add up to the sum of its parts, a surprise for an ensemble adventure with a mash-up of narrative devices and ideas. Assured directing, imaginative writing, excellent acting and impressive effects deliver an exciting romp with popcorn appeal but no weight or lasting legacy. While it doesn’t quite reach the heights of its predecessor, the episode remains an entertaining adventure with plenty of laughs and a rip-roaring pace.
As stated above, the latest installment doesn’t contribute too much to the canon of Doctor Who, but we’re still left with a few tidbits to analyze. First of all we met Brian Williams, the first parent of a companion to travel in the TARDIS since Matt Smith took the keys to the blue box. Actor Mark (also Williams) had great chemistry with Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill, building a genuine father figure with far less high-emotion and screaming fits than the parents of Rose Tyler and Donna Noble. He warms to the concept of time travel fairly quickly, and before long he’s making plans The Doctor couldn’t fathom and pulling an assortment of bits, bobs and balls (cue an awkward yet hilarious testicle joke) from his pockets to spectacularly save the day. Enlightened by his adventure aboard the crashing cargo ship, Brian ventures out to see the world and universe beyond. While we’re not quite sure if his travels in the TARDIS make him a fully-fledged companion we’ll say this – it’s a shame the character has been introduced this late into the Ponds’ tenure, and we can’t wait to see him in “The Power of Three.”
“Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” picks up ten months after episode 1, and as the Doctor has continued exploring obliviously, the Ponds have continued growing older. Rory reveals he is now 31, meaning ten years have passed since Amy first stepped into the TARDIS the night before her wedding. Young Amy and Rory aren’t quite so young anymore, and a few exchanges between Mrs. Pond and the Doctor seem to foreshadow their eventual departure – River’s “The Angels Take Manhattan” quote about the Time Lord not liking endings will definitely seem all the more significant as we see the couple grow older. With Amy and Rory now living in 2020, who knows how many years will have elapsed when their swansong eventually arrives?
A brief though significant cameo from Silurian Malohkeh expands the species history, though largely leaves them in the same retired state that they started the episode in. The spectacular return (and survival) of dinosaurs shows them relocate the former planet of homo reptilia. This certainly leaves the door open for a return in the near future, with the pre-historic population potentially growing and becoming a major threat.
Finally, the Doctor’s increasing ambiguity to the universe’s inhabitants is once again referenced in a tense – albeit short – scene. That thread has frequently been expanded upon since “the question” was revealed in “The Wedding of River Song” – we know it’s leading somewhere, but exactly WHERE we’re going and WHEN the show’s title will become significant still remain a mind-boggling mystery.
What did you think of “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”? Will it make a memorable impression on your Doctor Who experiences or do you agree that it’s nothing but rip-roaring popcorn fluff?