TV Right then, here we go, episode two. Second episode. Dinosaurs on a Spaceship? Dinosaurs on a Spaceship! One of the problems with writing these reviews on the morning after the night before is that I’ve had enough of a chance to think about what I’ve seen and also don’t want to be spending my entire Sunday morning writing about it, but also knowing the longer I leave this, the harder it's going to be. That’s compounded by the fact that I didn’t really have anything to fill the opening paragraph despite having the rest of the structure of what I’m about the say sorted out in my head. Luckily for me, Eva Wiseman’s provided the perfect out in her Observer column which is about how now everything is supposed to be "amazing". But as she says “when everything's amazing, the problem is that very little actually thrills” and that’s sort of how I feel about Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.
In Doctor Who Magazine’s preview, there’s a pull quote from the writer, Chris Chibnall. He says, “’Dinosaurs on a spaceship’ is not going to sustain 45 minutes on its own. You’ve then got to think, ‘Right, who are the characters?” Which probably sums up what is wrong with ’Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’, because there’s plenty to sustain 45 minutes in that title but in striving to be amazing, he’s also included Egyptian royalty, a refugee from Jumanji, Captain Jack’s even more ambiguous grumpy Uncle, Rory’s Dad and missiles on top of what actually could have been the more interesting low-key story of how the Silurians, like Humans centuries later, sent ark ships into the stars carrying themselves and contemporary wildlife. Chibnall's perhaps been remember his youthful appearance on Open Air ("It was very cliched, running up and down corridors and silly monsters") and aggressively tried not to do that. To a fault.
Which isn’t to say there isn’t loads to like. The relationship between Rory and his father is one of the highlights and Mark Williams’s reaction to the Doctor, Matt at his most aggressively Troughtonian, perfectly judged, the scene in the engine room a highlight. Chibnall was a staff writer on period patriarchal series Born and Bred and his adeptness in understanding how sons become their fathers despite their best of intentions shines through. The dinosaurs too are a marvel. The Mill also create the creature effects for Primevil and although for copyright reasons they had to begin from scratch, they've miraculously conjured these extinct marvels. Twenty years on from Jurassic Park and we’re finally in a position to create convincing versions of them for television. If only they’d provided them for the Werner Herzog narrated Discovery documentary Dinotasia, an effort hobbled by reptiles which never quite fit the landscape.
But my primary objecionts are summed up in a tweet I sent to a friend last night “Murder? Old fashioned gender politics? Rubbish comedy robots?” which is in order of significance but let’s swap them around for the purposes of this slating. When it was announced/leaked that Mitchell and Webb would be providing the voices for the episode I was surprised and pleased, but pretty much from the point their characters lumbered into view it became apparent they were probably a step too far. Their bulky design is fine, but their dialogue generally amounts to place holders without clearly thought through personalities beyond “camp” as though Chibnall is channelling the Karey Kirkpatrick end of the writing credits for The Hitchhiker’s Guide film, not helped by their pre/post recorded dialogue never quite fitting within the timing of their scenes.
Admittedly my objections to the gender politics in the episode is shakier. On the one hand, it’s a pleasant change to see Amy working independently from either the Doctor or Rory, specifically filling the former’s shoes in a slight return to the curious version of the girl who waited in The Beast Below who ignored the keep out signs, Karen very specifically imitating Matt’s hand gestures and the script having fun with her dealing with flirtatious companions. Yet the non-dimensional nymphomanical Queen Nefertiti seems like a waste of a historical celebrity, only really existing to indulge in that flirting and to become symbol of trade and although she’s allowed to get one over on Solomon by kicking out his crutch, there’s something a bit antithetical about her giving up her position as Queen of Egypt to become a big game hunter’s tent buddy, albeit brandishing a large gun.
And then, oh and then, the final derail. Long term readers will remember when I lost my temper over Paul Leonard’s Eighth Doctor novel Revolution Man in which the Doctor brandishes a gun in anger and shoots a guy in the head. As I said then “this just weakens the character and more than that is lazy writing -- the reason we/I love Doctor Who and the character of the Doctor is that he uses his mind to get out of these things, he’s not Jack Bauer, he doesn’t shoot and ask questions later, because let’s face it, what’s the point in that”. In Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, the gun is the missiles from Earth but my reaction last night was much the same. Right up until the moments they hit, I expected the Doctor to jump back in and save Solomon but then, boom, and I was left with a strange sense of disappointment, in the character, in the writer and in the series as a whole, like a scornful parent.
All of which is pretty irrational. I can see you poised at your keyboard to tell me I'm wrong. Solomon, from his rapey threats against Nefi to chucking the Silurians out of an airlock proves himself to be a very nasty man and it’s not the first time the Doctor’s gruesomely dispensed with an enemy, and since everyone in the Whoniverse is technically an alien to the Doctor, it stands to reason he wouldn’t and shouldn’t regard humans as any more or less important than, for example, the Saturnynian mates in Vampire of Venice. Yet he still had compassion for Rosanna as she plunged to her death and was in a position to save Solomon here and chose not too and more than that seemed to take pleasure in his death. This is not the vengeful Doctor we know even if he’s the kind of figure who’d design horrific prisons for the family of blood. It’s not the Doctor who in A Christmas Carol changed history in order to give a man some compassion.
But that’s the point, the point of comparison must be in play here. Something’s happened to the Doctor between seasons, between visits with the Ponds, which has made him like this, more Gallifreyan, more alien, more darkly capable of cruelty. As Donna has said, he needs someone to stop him, and as Amy’s about to say in the next episode judging by the trailers, he’s been travelling alone too long. As well as ways of seeing the world, his companions are also there to hold his hand so that he doesn’t hover it over a Bunsen burner. Perhaps as is often the case, I’ll be re-evaluating the ending in the context of the rest of the series, but in the context of last night it was a kick in the teeth and more than that soured what on second viewing is indeed a remarkably beautiful ending, Rory’s father on the edge of the void munching a packed lunch as he takes in the immensity of the Earth and all the places he’ll later visit.