Tuesday, September 18, 2012

"Dinosaurs on a Spaceship"

Chris Chibnall is one of those divisive Who writers; I suppose most of them are, but he seems to be moreso than usual. His first writing gig for New Who was the very forgettable "42" and his second the rather hit-and-miss Third Doctor era tribute "The Hungry Earth" and "Cold Blood" so there isn't that much to go by but so far it hasn't exactly been the top stuff in any series, that's for sure. He also wrote some of what I feel are the particularly dreadful episodes of the generally abominable Torchwood, which don't really count but do at least give something of an impression. With that in mind it doesn't really need to be said that I went into this episode with a healthy amount of trepidation, and this defensive pessimism is probably what resulted in me being somewhat pleasantly surprised. That's not to say that "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship" is a good episode of New Who by any stretch of the imagination, but if I am to describe it as mediocre or bad it falls into one of two categories. There are those kinds of bad episodes that are offensively bad because they take way too much (including the audience) for granted; "Asylum of the Daleks" was one such episode. The other kind are the sort that are bad but are at worst nothings about which you simply don't care, or at best are enjoyable for what they are without really being much at all. "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship" falls into this latter category.
The Doctor views a small segment of the Cast List.
We begin in ancient Egypt in a scenario which is sure to get my hackles up as Queen Nefertiti is trying rather forcefully to seduce the Doctor: it's these rather heavy-handed moments that occasionally conflict rather bizarrely with the otherwise extremely family-friendly tone of this episode's core concept which I find most disagreeable about the episode. The Doctor gets a message from the "temporal News Feed" on his psychic paper, but I had to go back and carefully check this scene: it's hard to tell how he gets the message considering how rushed the moment is so it's easy to think that he just inexplicably gets some honking noise in his pocket and then runs off. The Doctor reappears in the year 2367; it's nice to be in the future for a change. Did the white lettering really have to be in a beam of light though? It's kind of hard to read. The Indian Space Agency is worried about an unknown ship heading for Earth; this setting is an interesting if not fully developed piece of set-dressing which is palatable for its freshness if nothing else. The CGI's not great in this episode though and it's not helped by Murray Gold's usual musical assaults on our eardrums; shots of blobby-looking spaceships zooming along to brass band music is something which has become so wearisomely repetitive in New Who as to border on the offensive. The Doctor decides he needs to pick up some more buddies so off we go to oversaturate our support cast.
"I need your help; the whole of history has become
inundated with giant floating letters and numbers."
First we pick up John Riddell, a big game hunter camping out in Africa at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. Why does a big game hunter not strike me as the kind of person the Doctor would have as a friend? Amy even points out later that he's a man who harms defenceless animals for a living. It's a relatively throwaway role for Rupert Graves as well, but we'll get to that. He picks up the Ponds as well of course in yet another very forced reintroduction of our other two main stars and inadvertently brings Rory's dad Brian along, another essentially unjustified plot element only accomodated for by the casting of the reliable Mark Williams. This of course means that the Doctor gets to act like a complete idiot not knowing who Rory's dad is (was he not at the wedding?) but through some adequate dialogue and direction Matt Smith gets to portray this "zany" side of the Eleventh Doctor with a little more decorum and genuine humour than he has in past episodes like the previous Christmas Special. He remarks that he's "got a gang" so there's basically zero justification for this diverse cast of kooky characters beyond perhaps the sale of an action figure combo pack, and then goes on to say that he's "never had a gang before." Really, though, it's not too far from the even more over-the-top assemblage in last series' "A Good Man Goes to War" among other episodes, so it strikes me as a somewhat disingenuous remark as far as that's concerned.
Denver the Last Dinosaur? He's my friend and
a whole lot more?
Not long after this we reach our title drop because, as the Doctor and his "gang" explore the ship, the dinosaurs are unleashed. Personally I don't think the dinosaur effects are too bad in this episode; I found them to be reasonably realistic considering their level of interaction with the actors and the complexities of their movement. I guess they look a bit fake but really it's the scenario which is terribly contrived; it's painfully obvious that they've started with the idea of dinosaurs on a spaceship and written backwards from there. After the reptile-skin title sequence we get a more full look of this spaceship's interior. Frankly this set is the most disappointing of them all; it's very boring and just looks like a grey warehouse. Given that the ship's meant to be a sort of flying menagerie it's a little uninspired and falls back far too heavily on New Who's typical and inexplicable fixation on depicting the insides of spaceships as just bland industrial settings with pipes or pillars everywhere. In searching for the engine room, the Doctor, Rory and Brian get teleported to a beach and thus separated from the others for the majority of the rest of the episode, and it really shows that Chibnall doesn't really know what to do with so many characters; they've been included for their incongruity rather than out of any major interest in making dramatic sense.
Location filming in the bustling heart of Cardiff.
So we discover on the beach that Brian Williams is an anxious traveller; "Thank you, Arthur C. Clarke!" he tells the Doctor in one of the episode's funnier moments. The beach looks awfully similar to the one used in the Weeping Angels two-parter back in Series 5 of New Who and apparently it is indeed the same one which lessens its impact somewhat. We cut back to Amy's half of the team to reinforce that Nefertiti is one of New Who's typical incredibly super hammy historical characters who spouts "olde schoole" dialogue at the drop of a hat. There's an extremely corny moment where they have to step over a sleeping Tyrannosaurus which just reinforces how pointless this plot currently is, especially since we immediately return to the beach again. The Doctor and Williams Senior and Junior discover that this beach is indeed the engine room of the ship, which is "powered by waves". We're supposed to just assume this makes sense. I know wave power is a real thing but all I see are waves crashing on an artificial beach. How does this power a massive spaceship? Then they get attacked by pterodactyls, which are in fact pteranodons apparently. Would ptero-anythings really be that dangerous? They don't appear to have teeth or claws, and it's believed that they ate fish. Nonetheless the Doctor and the Williams father-and-son duo scarper to an extremely convenient nearby cave which happens to be right there.
"What are all those people doing with that camera?"
All these moments would seem completely frustrating in their absurdity had they occurred in some of the other worn-out stylistic templates of New Who but the absurdity is alleviated consistently by the very kid-friendly atmosphere of the whole episode; the plot moves along at a decent clip and the sense of threat from the dinosaurs isn't laboured. Basically the overall silliness compliments the concept, which is an improvement over something like "Asylum of the Daleks" where the plot holes were only enlarged by the episode's enormous confidence in its own profundity and gravitas. Such delusions of grandeur are simply not present here, to this episode's credit. This is compounded when the Doctor, Rory and Brian are captured by a pair of "funny robots" voiced by contemporary British comedy duo David Mitchell and Robert Webb. Essentially we've gone so far full circle that we've come back to the days of 1989's "Survival", Classic Doctor Who's final serial, in which a pair of shopkeepers were played by 80s comedy duo Hale and Pace. It's rather curious considering David Mitchell's earlier critiques of Doctor Who but I guess maybe it's been a slow year with only a new series of Peep Show on the cards or something.
I'll let this one speak for itself.
So we return to Team Arbitrary Plot Exposition as Amy is now super competent with alien technology. Well actually, it's Silurian technology; the appearance of a New Who Silurian, played as ever by Richard Hope, is revealed with a series of ominous chords. This I don't really understand; at least some of the Nu-Silurians have been twice now depicted as friends and allies of the Doctor. Regardless, this is a good explanation for why dinosaurs are present; Silurians brought them along during a migration from prehistoric Earth. This was something which I think could have used a little more development; we know that traditionally the Silurians went underground to hide from cataclysmic events. Why was this group in space? It could have been tied, through a little plot re-working, to the idea from the end of "Cold Blood" that the Silurians would emerge from hibernation some time in the thirty-first century but sadly this opportunity was missed, and I guess it wouldn't necessarily explain the dinosaurs. Speaking of dinosaurs, returning to Team Wandering Around, Brian Williams is approached by a triceratops which starts sniffing his trousers. What could it possibly have to inspect there? "Only my balls," Brian Williams comments stoically. Really, Chibnall? We get a lot of innuendos like this about "powerful weapons" and so on which really are an odd contrast to the otherwise child-friendly tone. I guess it's just a traditional "something for the parents to chortle about" element; presumably it'd be over most kids' heads. Having distracted Mr Triceratops the "funny robots" bring the Doctor to a piratical spaceship which Amy has discovered to be lurking at the heart of the Silurian vessel. This is really where the CGI in this episode unfortunately hits rock bottom because the pirate spaceship looks very fake, like something from an early 2000s video game cutscene. Could have been done more realistically with a model!
David Bradley plays every 70s rock musician still living.
The Doctor is introducted to slimy villain du jour Solomon, an injured and very obviously evil space trader in the traditional "mercenary attitude" vein played with his usual menace by a well-cast, if somewhat typecast, David Bradley. The Doctor also gets to make a somewhat homoerotic suggestion about Franz Schubert. Solomon gets the pointless robots to injure Brian so that the Doctor will repair his own injuries, and thus we get to have our subplot of Rory earning the respect of his dad as he becomes all protective and shows off his nursing chops. These scenes are nicely subtle and come across as reasonably sincere. It's a shame the "funny robots" simply aren't funny, although I suppose it reinforces how disturbing the robots are. I like the like when the Doctor says that "I never talk about myself with a gun pointed at me," when of course the real guns are pointed at his friends. This is a good indication of the Doctor's great compassion and, fortunately, isn't explained for the benefit of the thickies. It's also nice to see the Doctor doing some genuine medical work even if it isn't given much attention. I know he's a Doctor of Everything, not specifically a medical Doctor, but it's still satisfying to see his expertise taken for granted like this. Solomon also scans the Doctor to learn that he doesn't exist apparently, which lends further suspicion to how this "Doctor who?" thing is going to play out. It turns out Solomon killed off the Silurians on the ship to get at the valuable dinosaurs, and the Doctor accuses him of committing "piracy and genocide." The thing is though, why did the Silurians send out the distress signal in the first place? I'm not sure it's ever explained. The Doctor complains that the dinosaurs "are not objects to be sold or traded." Why did he bring Big Game Hunter Riddell then? To teach him a lesson? It's never explained. He suggests that Solomon not "ever judge me by your standards," despite having committed a little genocide in his time but I suppose in the Doctor's case it generally wasn't for personal profit.
This scene is why we're only getting five episodes this year.
Anyway the Doctor, Rory and Brian with the smelly balls escape on a triceratops, which is a bit of a silly set piece, emphasised by what absolutely terrible shots the two robots are. "We definitely used to be faster," complains the David Mitchell robot, in probably the only genuinely funny and Mitchell-and-Webb-esque gag from the "funny robots" in the whole episode. Apparently riding this lumbering dinosaur is faster than running because our intrepid heroes pop around a corner and appear to have escaped by doing just that. Maybe they travelled further between shots? The Indians have launched their missiles, apparently being able to communicate directly with the Silurian ship so the Doctor can complain, but we know it's not a real threat. Similarly, Riddell busts out some "stun guns" which for some reason are cocked like pump shotguns and look like conventional human weaponry despite the fact that every other time we've seen Silurian weapons they've looked very unusual. Rory asks if there are weapons on the ship which prompts the Doctor to kiss him with joy; I found this bit surprisingly funny and am still surprised at how much it didn't irritate me. Anyway Solomon reappears because he wants to claim Nefertiti who has a "face stamped across history." This was not played up enough at all in my opinion, largely due to how frantic the character action is due to the excessively large cast and makes her seem like even more of an arbitrary plot device. This time he turns to killing off the dinosaurs, which offends the Doctor because he is a friend to all of god's creatures; this is contrasted to the complete inhumanity of the robots, which I suppose is a change. Nefertiti hands herself over so Solomon can make some very unpleasant salacious suggestions reminiscent of how practically every villain treated Peri back in the Sixth Doctor's day and the baddies scarper; they can't escape though, because the Doctor has "magnetized" Solomon's ship somehow. It's never explained how or when this happened.
"Hello there. How are you enjoying the programme so far?"
The Doctor and friends meanwhile escape to the Silurian control room which looks like absolute crap thrown together on a budget which had mostly been devoted to CGI dinosaurs. In one of the most ineptly convenient plot moments in the episode, two people of the "same gene chain" are required to fly the ship so of course this falls to Rory and smelly-balls Brian. The Doctor cracks a joke about monkeys which would have been a lot funnier had he not said "comedy gold" just after. We get some equally heavy-handed foreshadowing of later plot developments as Amy and the Doctor talk about his increasingly sparse visits and which of them will outlive the other. Meanwhile Riddell needs some assistance defending the control room from what are either Jurassic Park-esque "legitimately dangerous" velociraptors or baby tyrannosaurus'. He and Amy team up to fight while the Doctor pops over to Solomon's ship to rescue Nefertiti. We get another forced 2001: A Space Odyssey reference as the robots sing "Daisy Bell" upon deactivation. Then the Doctor sets the missiles to track Solomon's ship instead of the Silurian Ark and leaves Solomon to die. "Did the Silurians beg you to stop?" he asks Solomon, being quite harsh but not unusually so given what's happened in some Classic stories. The shot of Solomon's ship flying out from the Ark looks bloody cheap and awful in what is probably the worst CGI in the episode; it is of course destroyed with one of those big noisy space explosions.
Dyb dyb dyb dob dob dob.
Amy and Riddell take out the dinosaurs in a fit of what borders on coital fury to the extent that I'm surprised they didn't light up cigarettes at the end and the day is saved now that Brian and Rory have used the convenient video-game controls on the Ark to fly it away from Earth. Brian makes one request of the Doctor in what is probably the best moment in the episode and one of the most genuine in New Who; he takes the opportunity to observe Earth from space, while having a cup of tea no less. Given that viewing Earth from space is indeed meant to be quite a sight I thought this was an excellent choice and managed to be rather touching without being remotely cheesy or melodramatic. The whole thing of Rory earning his dad's respect is not overplayed to any extent; this is the way to do the 'parent in the TARDIS' thing (if it needs to be done at all).
We're watching you.
Now we just wrap up the plot with Nefertiti bizarrely ending up with Riddell back in 1902 and Rory and Amy receiving a bunch of extremely fake-looking postcards from Brian's travels. So he got over his fear of travelling, how nice. And the Doctor found a home for the dinosaurs 'cause he's such a champ. All in all this is a damn silly episode but as I said at the beginning, it's inoffensively so; most of the dialogue is not especially cringe-inducing. The most objectionable material is the excessive amount of really laboured innuendoes. Once again, the sense of kid-friendliness helps this episode a great deal because it doesn't take itself very seriously except in regards to the issue of Solomon where it matters. We got a nice if rather underdeveloped futuristic setting and Matt Smith getting to do the funny stuff without too much excess. On the other hand there are way too many companions and the scenario really does feel very contrived. Riddell would have made an interesting contrast to Solomon, for instance, but he's never developed so it's a missed opportunity. Solomon and the dilemma he poses is fairly trite as well, but I think it was handled in a sufficiently interesting fashion to be adequate. All in all it's not memorable Doctor Who at all but it was better than I expected and these days that's almost all you can ask for.

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