|Title accomplished. |
It’s September 8th, 2012. Little Mix is at number one with “Wings,” with Florence and the Machine, Sam and the Womp, and Taylor and the Swift also charting, the latter with “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” which is the second best title we’re going to discuss in this post. In news, since it’s been a while since we’ve checked in, there’s been most of the US Presidential campaign, and at this point it’s settled to a nice, drab Mitt Romney vs Barack Obama contest. 620 million people lost power in India. The Mars Rover Curiosity landed. Oh, and there was Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee, which was celebrated by forcing unpaid workers to sleep under a bridge.
While on television, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, which is about what you’d expect. It’s not entirely unfair to accuse this story of aiming for mediocrity and hitting it squarely. Its title announces a somewhat spectacular lack of ambition – a Snakes on a Plane riff. That said, Doctor Who can fairly be expected to occasionally do frothy adventure stories, or, as we call them in fandom, romps. This one may come off as being particularly unambitious, but equally, there’s a brazen cheek to it that appeals.
Still, let’s look at what’s in this simple little romp. First, of course, is the premise – a Silurian ark that got hijacked by a man who can discern the value of anything in space and time, but who can’t actually fly it. The ship is given enough little details to be memorable – the tidal power is a clever image, although the physics of it seem strained at best. The “two people of the same genetic line” piloting is a contrivance, but again, at least a memorable one. We’re back in the territory of Doctor Who being about unraveling the nature of a world, which is always a nice sort of return.
There’s also the villain, Solomon, who’s one of the nastiest pieces of work the show has had in a while. David Bradley is one of several bits of top notch casting in this story, but in many ways what really jumps out is the fact that Solomon is so different from Bradley’s other recent famous nasty piece of work in a sci-fi/fantasy show. There’s a casual sadism to Solomon that crackles, especially in the blasé way that he describes killing off the Silurians. He’s sufficiently nasty that what would normally be the slightly shocking resolution of the Doctor actively killing him (which we all know he’s not supposed to do unless the villain isn’t human) seems oddly satisfying.
Also significant in terms of the premise is the Indian Space Agency, which is notable as the closest thing Doctor Who has ever done to actually setting a story in India or in any substantive way engaging with Indian culture. It’s a small touch, but one that carries real weight, even if the ISA ultimately just does the same stuff that every earth-based governmental organization always does when aliens are involved in Doctor Who, namely delay a bit and then try to blow them up to provide a climax to the story.
And there’s the comedy robots voiced by Mitchell and Webb, another triumph in the new series’ grand tradition of punching above its weight in terms of the actors it gets through the simple trick of not actually requiring more than a couple of hours’ work. As one would expect, they are suitably funny, providing yet another way to keep things moving, and the contrast between their comedy and, for instance, the pathos generated by casually killing a triceratops is tremendously clever.
On top of the multi-faceted premise is the guest cast. Rupert Graves makes his inevitable jump from Sherlock to be a big Edwardian hunter. This is a solid combination – Riddell is written as an over the top Robert Holmes character, but Graves is adept at a wry understatement that elevates the role, making an impact pleasantly out of proportion to his screen time.
Nefertiti is not quite as well acted, but is such a delightfully bonkers character to put in a story called Dinosaurs on a Spaceship that she works as well, especially given the savvy decision to put her in the same plot as Amy for the first chunk of the story, and then to give her two major and decisive moments of glory in the climax, first in turning herself over to Solomon, and then in upending him during the Doctor’s rescue.
And then, of course, there’s Brian, who is basically the best thing ever. Slyly extrapolated from Rory’s own ambivalence about traveling on the TARDIS, he is, like Nefertiti, a character who is spectacularly ill-suited to the story he’s in, which in turn allows him to be clever in a number of ways. Almost all of the story’s best bits revolve around Brian, and, fittingly, they’re mostly small ones: his casual production of a trowel, for instance, but also the sense of horror and wrongness when Solomon orders him tortured to force the Doctor to comply. He’s sufficiently brilliant that it’s in some ways actively painful that he wasn’t introduced more than four episodes prior to Amy and Rory’s departure, but at least he’s here now.
But wait a moment. In the course of this supposedly simple story, we’ve now done seven straight paragraphs on major aspects of it. This story may not be aiming for much, but it’s as jam packed as Asylum of the Daleks was. There, I made something of a joke in suggesting that it was a return to the days of Bob Baker and David Martin, but to be honest, they seem like explicit models for this story, which never explores a concept it’s already introduced when it can introduce a new one instead.
As an approach, it makes sense, especially when one recalls that this was filmed first in Season Seven. Season Seven is repeatedly interested in the question of “just how fast can we move the plot,” at times to its detriment. But in terms of executing these experiments, starting with an “everything and the kitchen sink” approach on a straightforward romp is a sensible way to proceed. And in many ways, it works. Like Baker and Martin, Chibnall has a solid sense of when it’s time to dramatically alter the status quo of an episode. He keeps things moving at a nice pace.
This excess of concepts also serves a practical function. Doctor Who can finally deliver the giant lizards that Malcolm Hulke always dreamt of, but what it can’t do is deliver them for a sustained forty-five minutes. You can have dinosaurs on a spaceship, and you can even have impressive dinosaurs on a spaceship in several clever set-pieces, but you can’t actually fill an episode with dinosaurs. Given the need to keep the effects shots down, there has to be more to the concept. So this proves a solid and sensible place to start playing with the question of how much you can pack into the script.
The problem is that it’s a Chris Chibnall script, and is perhaps too faithful to the Baker and Martin inspiration. Ideas are piled on with little regard for how they’re going to fit together. This may be a story about understanding the rules of the spaceship, but those rules really just amount to Chibnall introducing a new concept whenever he needs one. Nothing in the spaceship fits together in a particularly coherent way – it’s just a series of narrative patches.
Similarly, the secondary characters, apart from Brian, are thin despite how interesting they are. Plenty of people have pointed out that possibly choosing a Hebrew name for the insatiably greedy character was not the greatest decision ever, and they are very much correct. The love affair between Riddell and Nefertiti is a late contender for Tat Wood’s About Time list of the oddest romances in Doctor Who. (I’d personally put it right between Stevens/BOSS and Brigadier/Doris) Though that’s being charitable, as another perfectly fair assessment is that Chibnall writes the love story that everyone wrongly accuses Moffat of writing, in which the misogynistic jerk charms the independent woman out of her independence. And while the Doctor killing Solomon is perfectly in keeping with his character, and a nice relief from the slight xenophobia implicit in Doctor Who’s usual ethics about who can and can’t be casually murdered (See also the Androgums), there’s a lingering sense that someone should probably have reacted to it or commented on it, not least because the next story makes so much out of a not entirely dissimilar plot point.
And yet at the end of the day the title largely saves this story from its own worst instincts. It’s perhaps cynical to decide to demand less of a story just because it’s called Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, but what else can you do? The story is openly inviting us to revel in superficial fun, and it gives us lots of it. Among a TARDIS crew who can do this in their sleep (and, one occasionally suspects, might actually be), Rupert Graves, David Bradley, and Mark Williams, there’s a cast that can make a bit of madcap silliness work. One might fairly wish they’d been used on more substantial stuff, but in many ways it’s with the sillier episodes that having a rock solid cast in place matters. And it’s the debut of Saul Metzstein, who ends up being the defining director of Season Seven, helming a slightly absurd five episodes. He’s far from the most accomplished of visual stylists, but he’s solid and capable and gets the job done.
In the end, the worst you can say about this episode is that it’s called Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, and that this is a pretty solid and reasonable title for what the story is. This is also the best you can say about it. Actually, it might just be all there is to say about it.