Doctor Who: Dinosaurs on a Spaceship

Posted: September 8, 2012 in Critical Hit
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Warning: spoilers.

Much to my pleasant surprise, Dinosaurs actually turned out to be a pretty solid episode, not only by dint of comparison to the monumental arsetripe of Asylum, but in its own right, too. I did have a few points of irritation – Nefertiti hitting on the Doctor, the screamingly camp robots, the frenetic pacing early on and some jumbled bits of dialogue – but otherwise, it managed to take a fairly flashy idea and actually make it work. It makes perfect sense that the Silurians, convinced their world was ending, would send up a space-ark complete with local fauna, while the slow reveal of Solomon’s capitalistic villainy, coupled with his eventual demise gave a nice, dark catharsis to the piece.

The writer, Chris Chibnal, has some pretty great credentials: apart from having penned the brilliant S3 episode 42, he’s been a major force in Torchwood and was also a writer for Life on Mars. Which possibly goes some way towards explaining why, for the first time in memory, we’ve got a DW episode that knows how to handle a bigger cast: apart from the Doctor, Amy and Rory, we’ve also got Queen Nefertiti, Rory’s dad Brian, Riddell the game hunter and villain Solomon in play, all of whom actually get meaningful screentime, and all of whom feel like genuine, fleshed-out characters.  Not only that, but Amy and Rory actually get to do something other than be in a tempestuous relationship: Amy banters with Nefertiti (at last! an episode that passes the Bechdel test!), fights dinosaurs with Riddell, solves the mystery of the ship’s origins before the Doctor does, and still gets to have a touching conversation about being left behind that neatly foreshadows the season end; while Rory gets to talk with his dad (whose presence and character both go a long way towards explaining Rory), demonstrate his nursing skills, pilot a spaceship away from the Earth, ride a triceratops and threaten a couple of robots. And honestly? That’s more than they’ve had to do for quite a while.

And then there’s the secondary characters: Chibnal treats Nefertiti with respect, establishing her firmly as intelligent, powerful and and courageous without simultaneously making sexist or racist asides at her expense (as Moffat has a tendency to do with River Song). Nor does he flinch from giving Riddell the gender attitudes appropriate to his era without making him either hostile to or dismissive of the women around him – instead, he seems genuinely to enjoy being confounded by them. Brian, by contrast, is an utterly adorkable dad, and it’s a testament to Chibnal’s deftness that he manages to both introduce and evolve him within in the space of a single episode: the contrast between his initial travel-related distemper and the final, iconic image of eating him lunch from the TARDIS step is an utterly lovely gracenote, and one that balances neatly against his role in piloting the ship. And then there’s Solomon: a genuine grasping merchant, frightening and cold – who is, I think, the first actual sentient villain we’ve had in ages.

Though Dinosaurs has something of a manic start, it soon finds its feet and manages some truly fun moments: Brian’s trowel, a triceratops who wants to play fetch with golf balls, Amy’s cheerful assertion that yes, she is a queen, and the closing image of Rory having switched domestic roles with his dad. But what really sold me on Dinosaurs was the treatment of the ladies. Not only do Amy and Nerfertiti talk, they actually get along: they trust and respect each other, make jokes with each other, and back each other up. Both of them call out Riddell for sexism – Amy says he needs a lesson on gender politics – but most importantly of all, when Nefertiti decides to go with Solomon to protect the rest of the group; when she holds up her hand, defies the Doctor’s objections and says that, no, it’s her choice? The Doctor lets her go – he respects her agency in the moment, and though he later shows up to get her back, it’s Nefertiti who gets the drop on Solomon, cathartically pinning him with his crutch-arm just as he did to her.

Still, as I said, it’s not a perfect episode: while the image of Nefertiti going off with Riddell was fun in the moment, it was loaded with unfortunate colonial overtones that felt a bit squicky; there was no reason for Solomon to kill the triceratops except as a kick the dog moment; and while I liked the Mitchell and Webb cameo as the robots’ voices, I didn’t like the robots themselves – they were bit too cartoonishly on the nose for my taste. But overall, it was a strong offering from a good writer, complete with memorable characters, solid emotional development, a mystery that made sense while still being compelling, and a proper, well-paced structure. It was, in other words, the polar opposite of Asylum in every important respect, and has gone some way towards soothing my earlier rage. I might not like Steven Moffat, but Chibnall has succeeded in reminding me that I do like Doctor Who – and that sometimes, I get to have the latter without the former.

(Plus and also: Arthur Weasley and Argus Filch in a single episode – squee!)

  1. JJ says:

    I too, really enjoyed this episode! It’s so nice to LIKE Doctor Who again, and to genuinely like it for its own sake instead of trying desperately to find crumbs that I might enjoy. Nefertiti and Amy supporting and liking each other! Rory actually being able to do what he does well, which is being a nurse! That closing shot of Rory’s dad having a cuppa while looking at the earth!

    However, I had issues with the Doctor essentially killing Solomon in retribution at the end, which jars so horribly with the anti-violence stance of his previous regenerations. Yes, I realise he has committed genocide before, but the narrative was always careful to point out that this is not a good thing. If there is another way, he would try and find it, or at least, that’s what I’d expect Four, Five, Nine, and Ten to do (perhaps not Three or Seven, but even Seven, who was a slithery, slippery manipulative bastard, never ACTUALLY soiled his hands). Eleven, as far as I can recall, has never been characterized as a vengeful, righteous man (unlike Ten, whose rage eventually culminated in his regeneration) and I actually thought that he would save Solomon somehow. Nope. I felt betrayed, in a weird way, because I can’t remember the Doctor actually killing someone. I don’t care if he didn’t launch the missiles; he essentially pulled the trigger on Filch.

    Still. I am somewhat hopeful about Series 7 now. And here I thought I had finally reached the point where I needed to quit Doctor Who for the sake of my blood pressure…

  2. Liz says:

    I loved your review on Asylum and thought you might be able to answer a few questions Dinosaurs raised. I really liked this new episode, but…

    1) What happened to Rory’s mum? (Don’t want to make an issue out of it just generally wondering if she’s dead or his parents are divorced)

    2) Amy grew up without her parents and then grew up with them (there’s a headache), why didn’t this seem to affect her character growth? I only realized how much this should have affected her after seeing Rory with his Dad and mostly because aside from Amy mentioning them once they don’t seem to exist.

    3) Finally, I was wondering if you also felt that Doctor Who always seems to take a darker view on the Mother/Daughter relationship than Father/Son? Even in RTD’s era they were never brilliant (poor Donna!), but in Moffat’s the Mother never seems to get her child back. I know Rory lost his child too, but if you look back at LKH, Mels was more Amy’s friend than Rory’s, so he never really got to raise River as a child and the whole Father/Daughter relationship never really developed.

    I understand if you don’t have time to answer all three, but I’d really like to know your view on any of them.


  3. Great review, I completely agree. This was a really enjoyable episode, despite the cartoonishness. I *loved* Amy’s activeness, I loved Nefertiti’s personality, I loved that she and Amy were able to get along without any hissing or arching of backs, over the Doctor or otherwise. I loved the fun dialogue and Rory’s dad 😀 It was a solid ep.

    Amy was allowed to do SO MUCH in this episode. As much as I’ve enjoyed (most of) Who, it’s almost always the Doctor show – he’s clever and smart and his companions trail after him and ooh and ahh and get into trouble so the Doctor can cleverly rescue them. It’s been a very, very long while since I can remember seeing a companion discover as much about the episode’s mystery as Amy did here. Better yet, she didn’t do it accidentally or stumble upon it, she just started *doing* things, using the experience she’s gained in her travels with the Doctor to actually *help*. And it moved the plot along!

    I loved her line towards the end “I’m easily worth two men, but you can come along,” or some such. Not-Lestrade is just like “Cool. :D”, and Amy handles herself without having to be saved or coddled. Excellent.

    Honestly, Amy was so active here it was almost out of character. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the Amy we saw here was an awesome character, but she didn’t act like the Amy I remember from the past two seasons, and well, I’m really glad. I feel like Chibnall managed to do her justice here. I’ve filed away his name because of Amy and Nef and not-Lestrade, and I’ll definitely be looking out for any more of his episodes.

    Also, Indian mission control. Fantastic.

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