There are great Doctor Who episodes and awful ones, others that fall somewhere in between, and some that are a combination and average out as mediocre. Chris Chibnall’s scripts tend to be in the latter category (although his later Torchwood episodes are pretty good). “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” follows that trend, though in a way that is perhaps more infuriating than usual, making it very hard to classify. On the one hand, it is full of absolutely brilliant concepts, some stunning visuals, and even a wonderful new character. Yet on the other hand, it’s all held together rather flimsily, with a cartoonish villain, two dull and superfluous characters, and a couple of very clumsy attempts to be deadly serious in the midst of an otherwise slapstick adventure.
Good? Bad? I suppose I’m stuck with averaging it out at mediocre, but I’m not sure even that’s a satisfactory decision.
The very concept of dinosaurs being on a spaceship is the kind of thing that makes one’s inner child dance with glee. I’m sure a lot of actual children watching this episode were in total awe of the very realistic monsters thumping across their screens (the show has come a long, long way since 1974’s “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” presented us with really bad, even for the time, stop-motion dinosaurs). However, “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” doesn’t stop with just dinosaurs. We have a Silurian space ark powered by waves, a pair of bumbling robots (wonderfully voiced by comedy duo Mitchell and Webb), Queen Nefertiti, a big game hunter, Rory’s dad, and so on. It’s an awesome mix of diverse and totally unrelated things that Doctor Who can, and often does, do well. Indeed, here there is an even greater breadth of ideas than typical for even Doctor Who. I’ve seen a few comparisons made online to Douglas Adams in its sheer craziness of vision. Alas, while there is some validity to these comparisons, Douglas Adams does it so much better.
But let’s start with the good. The best part of this episode is definitely Rory’s dad, Brian, wonderfully played by Mark Williams. Within an instant of his first appearance, I could totally accept him as Rory’s father. He is everything I have ever expected of Rory’s father and more, totally believable, and delightful to watch. I can completely believe that he carries a trowel and golf balls in his pocket (although admittedly, the joke with the golf balls was rather lame). More so, the interaction between Rory and Brian provide a bit of much-needed insight into Rory’s life, a little of who Rory actually is, beyond just Amy’s husband. I’ve been very critical of the development of Rory and Amy (particularly Amy), and this little touch is exactly the kind of thing I wish the show would provide us more of.
Similarly, we also get to see a little bit of development for Amy. Indeed, this episode actually manages to make Amy kind of likeable, something the show hasn’t really managed since “The Girl Who Waited”. Free of a storyline centred on her relationship to the men in her life and whether or not she’s having a baby, she gets to spend time actually figuring things out and using her intelligence. We even get some insight into her life during her brief discussion with the Doctor about her job and how difficult it is to get on with life when she never knows if the Doctor might show up at any moment. Again, this is something the series could use more of.
But for all the good in the episode, “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” also offers a lot of bad. While giving us the wonderful character of Brian Williams and humanizing Rory and Amy a little, it also provides us with two completely pointless, dull characters: Queen Nefertiti and Riddell. I really don’t see what either of these two characters add to the story, other than to provide a bunch of unneeded sexual innuendo. There seems a definite attempt to evoke last year’s “A Good Man Goes to War” by providing the Doctor with a “gang”, a group of people the Doctor brings together to help him against terrible odds. It worked there and was popular with viewers, and so why shouldn’t it work again? Except it doesn’t. In “A Good Man Goes to War” there was actually a reason for the Doctor to gather all these disparate people together, and while I would have preferred that story to have developed its large cast of characters a little more, each character had a specific role to play without seeming superfluous (except maybe Dorian). In “Dinosaurs”, there is no reason. The Doctor really doesn’t need the help of either of them. From a pure plot perspective, Nefertiti is there to be kidnapped by Solomon, but really, the story could have managed with someone else being kidnapped.
To make matters worse, neither Nefertiti nor Riddell has any real personality. We never learn anything at all about Riddell other than he’s a sexist pig, and we learn even less about Nefertiti. Yes, we can easily look Nefertiti up in a history book or on Wikipedia, but as with all dramatizations of historical persons, this is a chance to make the historical person come alive, which this episode simply does not do. She could easily have been replaced by anybody else from history or even a completely fictional character, and no one would ever notice the difference.
Then there’s Solomon. To be fair, David Bradley gives a very good performance in the role, managing to avoid turning it pantomime, which it so easily could have become. Alas, the character as written is positively cartoonish in his villainy. He’s just a nasty guy doing nasty things with no exploration of motive or background. Just who is Solomon? He’s a villain and he likes money. We never really find out anything else. And without finding out anything else, it’s impossible to feel any sort of sympathy when the Doctor kills him in cold blood. For a moment that is meant to shock the viewers (how could the Doctor do such a thing?), it ends up just being another moment in a rapid succession of moments that then sort of end with everyone going home. There’s no emotional involvement at all with what’s happening.
Not surprisingly, the Doctor killing Solomon has resulted in a lot of discussion online. First off, this is not the first time the Doctor has ever killed someone. It’s not even the first time the Doctor’s killed in cold blood. For all his ascribing to non-violence and refusing to use guns and other weapons, the Doctor has always been a bit of a hypocrite. The show has drawn attention to this fact on more than one occasion. In “The Stolen Earth”/“Journey’s End”, Davros confronts the Doctor on this very thing, accusing him of turning his companions into weapons to do the dirty work for him. It’s been a common theme in recent years that the Doctor needs his companions to hold him back. When he travels alone, he starts to edge closer and closer to crossing the line. And the Doctor’s been travelling alone for a while now. As such, I don’t think the Doctor killing Solomon is out of character, despite what some others may say. It’s perfectly in character. The problem comes from the fact that the scene is attempting to shock the audience in a story that is mostly light-hearted and comical, a story that has not spent any time building up any sort of emotional resonance.
This same problem affects all the “serious” scenes in the episode, from Solomon killing the triceratops, to Solomon’s heavily rape-implied threats to Nefertiti, to the Doctor crossing the line. They are moments of darkness in an episode that sets itself up primarily as comedy. As such, they come across as jarring rather than shocking (the poor dialogue doesn’t help either). Don’t get me wrong. Comedy can often enhance drama or horror. It provides moments of relief where the viewer can take a breath before the next horrible thing happens. Doctor Who uses this technique frequently, and usually to good effect. However, for it to work, there needs to be emotional grounding. The viewers need to care about the characters and about what happens to them. In “Dinosaurs”, the non-villain characters (even the fun ones like Brian) are just there to provide some snarky one-liners. There’s no emotional resonance whatsoever.
Overall, “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” would be a much better episode if it did one of two things: either create an emotional connection to its characters so that we care what happens to them, or completely drop its clumsy attempts to be deep and serious and allow itself to be a shallow, but otherwise fun, light-hearted romp. Because it does neither of these things, it ends up a bizarre mishmash that is at moments entertaining, and at others utterly frustrating. Doctor Who is capable of much better.