"Doctor Who" — "Dinosaurs On A Spaceship”; Mr. Hammond, The TARDIS Is Working
Written by Chris Chibnall ("42," "The Hungry Earth," "Cold Blood," and this season's "Pond Life" prequels), "Dinosaurs On A Spaceship" picks up ten months after the events of "Asylum of the Daleks" for the Ponds. The Doctor whisks them away with a couple new cohorts: Queen Nefertiti (yes, that one) and an early twentieth century big-game hunter named John Riddell. I Googled him, but I don't know if this Riddell character is based on a real person or not. Either way, I did have trouble intuiting why The Doctor would deem this fellow that wants to stab first and ask questions later worthy of multiple TARDIS travels. (I apologize to Leela for any inferred slight and acknowledge that there is precedent.) Tagging along accidentally for the adventure and bringing charm to the proceedings is Rory's father, Brian, played by Mark Williams of Harry Potter movie fame.
The Doctor wants his new gang to help him explore an immense runaway spacecraft headed for a collision course with 24th century Earth. It is a race against time, as Earth officials have promised to destroy the craft with missiles before impact. As they quickly discover and per the episode's titular tip, the ship has an unusual cargo - dinosaurs! The group of six is separated during their exploration. The Doctor, Rory, and Brian end up in an unconventional beachfront engine room fleeing from pterodactyls, while Amy, Riddell, and Nefertiti probe the ship's memory banks for the ship's origin story and dodge velociraptors and a sleeping baby t-rex.
As it turns out, the ship was a "Noah's ark" of sorts launched and originally piloted by the Silurians, those evolved humanoid reptiles of several past Doctor Who adventures that dwell in Earth's underground. The ship's hijacker Solomon killed the Silurian passengers. Solomon has a couple large imposing robots to do his dirty work, but unfortunately the ship overrode his attempts at control and rerouted back to Earth.
To call Solomon a nasty fellow is understatement, and it's from that extreme and uncomfortable nastiness that my chief criticism of this episode springs. Here we have a villain that murdered Silurians in cold blood, attempts to deal life forms like commodities (including Nefertiti herself), threatens to kill Rory's sweet Dad, and slays a lovable triceratops. In the end we are jarred to find The Doctor letting Solomon meet his death as the missiles' target, which - while not completely outside The Doctor's capabilities given just how evil this guy is - feels too hard-edged for the usual Doctor Who spirit.
Juxtapose all this with the Doctor's goofy joy over finding dinosaurs on a spaceship, a triceratops ride spurred by way of having it chase a golf ball, killer robots that banter like a vaudeville comedy duo, and somewhat awkward flirty banter between Riddell and Nefertiti that earns a gender politics chastening from Amy, and as a result I found the whole affair to be a tonally weird episode. Certainly sometimes life deals us such juxtapositions, but in the Doctor Who universe the result is uneven.
That said, per my allusion above, I did find the addition of Rory's father to be the best aspect of the episode. His desire to take his lunch break sitting on the TARDIS's threshold while gazing at the Earth below and the coda in which we see the postcards from his own subsequent adventures with the Doctor both scored on the warm-and-fuzzy meter.
As far as the dinosaurs themselves went, we are now two for two this season seeing the benefits of increased publicity and appreciation for Doctor Who and the production value that follows. These creatures and all the other tech visual effects did not reach the Jurassic Park level of special effects, but they were convincing enough. (To read more about how far Doctor Who has truly come over the years in this department, see below.)
From the ongoing serial standpoint, the episode offered a couple important details. Amy fears that The Doctor is gradually weaning the Ponds off of him with the increasing times between his visits. The dialogue foreshadows a mortal end that we know is just a few episodes away. The other key detail was The Doctor's relief at Solomon's failure to find record of him in his supposedly comprehensive files. For now at least, The Doctor's post--fake-death low profile is secure, even if the very idea of erasing records in a non-linear timeline hurts my brain.
On the more trivial serialized front, this is the second consecutive episode in a row in which The Doctor informs us of his performance on a classical music recording.
"I'm riffing. People usually stop me when I'm riffing. Or carry on without me. That's always an option."
"Well, frankly, that's outrageous. You think you can just bring your Dad along without asking? I'm not a taxi service, you know."
"Spelling it out is hereditary. Wonderful."
"Even a monkey could use them. Oh, look, they're going to. Guys, c'mon. Comedy gold. Where's a Silurian audience when you need one?" (I wondered if this joke would be viewed as a little racist within the Doctor Who universe, but perhaps the scientific tilt and unreal evolutionary aspect from outside the show makes it o.k.)
Classic Doctor Who Bonus:
This week I checked out the 1974 Doctor Who adventure "Invasion of the Dinosaurs." Yes, thirty-eight years ago Jon Pertwee's Doctor, Sarah Jane Smith, and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart had their own struggles involving dinosaurs, transported across time to wreak havoc upon central London.
If you want to see some cheesy dinosaurs that typify the rubber creature constructions of the Doctor Who old days, then this is the show for you. The tyrannosaurus rex, who doesn't look much like a tyrannosaurus rex, offers frequent threatening growls that account for three of the five episodic cliffhangers. He barely lumbers along save for one moment when he bursts through a brick wall like Kool-Aid Man and another silly-looking moment when he struggles to stand up after sedation. The oddly proportioned pterodactyls squawk and peck at The Doctor from just off screen. The brontosaurus has an entertaining gnawing fight with the aforementioned t-rex. Meanwhile, the stegosaurus stands still.
The plot strains plausibility. A group of extreme environmentalists that hold positions of authority within the British government and the military have used the dinosaurs to empty London, and their ultimate goal is to return the Earth to a golden era devoid of mankind's polluting and warring ruinations. Enabling their scheme is a brilliant Earth scientist that has cracked the secrets of time travel and can localize its effects to turn back time in particular areas of Earth while leaving other spots unaffected. Ultimately, this cabal wants to erase the vast majority of the Earth's population from existence and leave a group of eco-friendly folks in charge that have falsely believed they are on a spaceship traveling to a new Earthlike planet.
Despite those cheesy dinosaurs that can induce chuckling and the general situation that is wacky even for Doctor Who, I did enjoy this adventure. There's a charm to those effects and the earnestness of the whole shebang. Airing just a few years after Earth Day began, it even has a still timely message related to treatment of our environment. Dated or not, "Invasion of the Dinosaurs" contains several effective character moments, including one amusing exchange in which The Doctor keeps being interrupted while trying to finish construction of his dinosaur stun gun. If you are reading this and have never seen Jon Pertwee's Doctor in action, then you should give him a chance. Pertwee gave the role his own brand of dignity and wry humor.
Last week I commented on the increased physicality of Tom Baker's Doctor relative to what we see these days. Pertwee's Doctor, who employs a sort of Vulcan neck pinch to subdue opponents, ups that factor even more. Plus, in this episode he drives around his seldom seen "Whomobile," which is like a sleeker version of Luke Skywalker's landspeeder. I would like to drive one of those around town.
C. Robert Dimitri strives to avoid sexism in survival situations and says that Ian Malcolm wasn't kidding: life finds a way!
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