Dinosaurs on a Spaceship

Dinosaurs on a SpaceshipTARDISHere’s my anecdote for this one.

In writing the review, I contacted Chris Chibnall to see if the Doctor’s exclamation of “Blimey, Charlie!” was a deliberate reference to Mark Kermode, who often uses the phrase on Simon Mayo’s show. Chris replied that it wasn’t. 

This is from DWM #452.

DWM #452DWM #452

What’s that in Brian’s trousers? “Only my balls.”

This gloriously rude and very silly joke is the t-shirt slogan for Dinosaurs on a Spaceship. Chris Chibnall’s story is loud – it’s very loud – outrageous, and funny in a specific way Doctor Who hasn’t been of late. Because the laughs don’t come from finely honed repartee, they come from a screwball sense of the absurd. There are dinosaurs, you see. On a spaceship. To invoke the Doctor’s exclamation from the start of the episode: “Blimey, Charlie!”

There’s a fascinating bit in Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook’s book The Writer’s Tale where a sci fi mag journalist accosts Russell at the press screening for the 2007 Christmas special and, through a thin smile, damns Voyage of the Damned: “That was a fun episode, wasn’t it? Just fun!” Isn’t it odd how the mores of Doctor Who criticism are traditionally loaded against levity? Where ‘fun’ equates to ‘flimsy’. In the same vein, if I described this story as ‘a romp’, you’d take that as code for ‘not very good’. Thing is, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship is absolutely a romp, but it is also very good. It’s a very good romp. A very good romp indeed.

Like Asylum of the Daleks before it, the story eats up settings – ancient Egypt, the African plains, three spaceships – and still has the audacity to break out a small pack of Primeval-baiting reptiles. That’s alongside a scaly skin for the now constantly-tweaked series logo. Honestly, doesn’t Doctor Who have enough things to spend its money on? However, this sense of abandonment breezes through the adventure. It’s like this is almost another version of how the show could be. It’s loose, louche, lewd and just for the hell of it, the Doctor is travelling with a brand new and rather amazing gang of people. I like that. By diverging a little from the current template, it feels akin to the best TV Comic Doctor Who story that ever there was. And thus I declare the Mitchell and Web-voiced bickering robots are in fact a modern day reimagining of the Trods.

What’s not quite so fresh, however, is the Time Lord’s relationship with Queen Nefertiti. Well, at first, because, like every other famous woman in history, it seems she’s very forward and doggedly intent on discovering where the Doctor keeps his golfing nick nacks. But that stuff is soon dropped for something more interesting – a powerful, charismatic character who nonetheless has absolute respect and trust in the time traveller. Quiet affirmations like this do more to build his stature than hooded figures reading aloud portentous legends.

What about the other new-old friend, Riddell? Despite the fact the big game hunter’s occupation informs the story, can you really conceive ofthe Doctor hanging out with someone who slaughters animals for trophies? Perhaps it’s best not to worry as Rupert Graves does a sterling job chalking up a bounderish, old school hero. From that perspective alone, one can imagine the Doctor finds him a bit of hoot.

And then, of course, there’s Brian. It’s been to the show’s benefit that the Ponds have been almost entirely without familial ties, other than each other… and little Melody. Kind of. But in recent times, we’ve been there and done that with Rose Tyler and Donna Noble’s respective broods. Nonetheless, what a shame Rory’s old man has been kept out of the picture for so long. Played with a twinkle – but not too much of a twinkle – by Mark Williams, Brian is great.

He’s one of those characters who come along every so often in Doctor Who, someone who is able to perfectly and gently commentate on the show’s absurdity. At one point that person was Wilfred Mott. And then, until he went native, it was Rory. But his old man does it best. “Are you saying dinosaurs are flying a spaceship?” he asks early on in the story – a twist of logic too far that nonetheless underscores how silly all this is. I also loved his rejoinder to the Doctor (“Thank you, Arthur C Clarke!”), the “is that a kestrel?” business, and – as I’ve already indicated – his balls. The final sequence with Brian eating a packed lunch, his legs dangling over the side of the TARDIS while the whole wide world rotates slowly below, is poetry. The mundane meeting the marvellous – which is what so much of Doctor Who is about. Thanks for coming with us for a bit, Brian.

Against this cast, the dinosaurs seem to shrink. Although there’s been much talk about how the story has necessitated one of the biggest sets ever built for the show, that sense of scale hasn’t quite made it to the screen. The creatures are expertly realised – it would be hard to find fault – but not utilised quite to their best. One would have expected a flurry of tooth and claw smashing through our screens. You’ve got dinosaurs in the story, let’s go full-on dinosaur! Yes, the Doctor and pals riding a triceratops is a bravura moment, but that’s the only true example of interaction. Otherwise, the reptiles remain in the background. The snarling and the teeth gnashing, instead, coming from David Bradley’s Solomon.

Bradley’s the kind of actor who seems like he’s always been on an intersect course with Doctor Who. He represents the very best of that brand of British ‘jobbing’ thespian, a face who, when he pops up in a drama, connotes that what you’re watching is clearly a cut above. It’s to his credit he doesn’t appear to be having a whale of a time as the villainous, Long John Silver-esque trader. It’s a part that could have tempted a John Lumic-sized performance out of the unwary. Instead, Solomon is restrained, despite the emo hair and sci ficrutch. And that’s how it should be. The character is very, very dark with his talk of meticulously ejecting batches of Silurians (should have guessed they’d be involved, but I didn’t) until he’d killed everyone on board, and his sexually-loaded threat to ‘Nefi’: “I would break you in with immense pleasure”. All of this is defiantly underscored when – following that Disney-like scene of triceratops husbandry – he nonchalantly exterminates the creature.

In a spaceship stuffed full of reptiles, he’s the most cold-blooded specimen. But does that make his eventual fate excusable? I’m not sure. Certainly everything is stacked against the character to ensure we don’t like him, but I still didn’t buy the Doctor’s decision to send missiles into the trader’s ship. My Doctor would never be so brutal, no matter what the provocation. If I had one note for Chris Chibnall – and in reality I’d never be so bold – I’d say keep faith with the fun. Because, that moment aside, this was a fun episode, wasn’t it? Just fun!


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