Doctor Who complete reviews: Dinosaurs on a Spaceship
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
A reductionist title hides a Who outing that's not without merit....
Years ago, in ancient Rome, a clever method was devised to find wealth beyond people's wildest imaginings – the Romans headed to streams and mountainsides to pan for gold. You'd separate the grit from the gold and bingo! One or two nuggets of worth to be had – of course, the only problem is making your way through the dirt and grit to find anything of value.
Which brings me onto Doctor Who's latest escapade – if you'd already seen the many trailers on BBC1, you'll know that it's called DINOSAURS!!! ON. A. SPACESHIP!!! Yes, Doctor, thanks for stating the obvious. As far as titles go, it's not exactly the best. What next? Killer Robots On A Sandminer? Spaghetti Monsters In A Nuclear Reactor? Crappy Giant Chicken In A Dutch Crypt?
There are good things to be said about Dinosaurs On A Spaceship – it's the first of two this season from Chris Chibnall, and considering that I'd not been too enchanted with 42 and The Hungry Earth two-parter, his latest offering is an improvement. For one thing, it carries on the tradition set so far this season of implanting a big, bold concept in the minds of Who youngsters up and down the country. In my review on The Eleventh Hour, I grumbled about the previous lack of big ideas, but thankfully, this season is at least starting to go for broke in its wacky imagery, or what they call Unique Selling Points. So we've had a gazillion Daleks in the season opener, next week we've got a crazed Cyborg thing in a Western, and this week, we've had several dinosaurs lumbering about on a dirty old spaceship.
And we're not talking about refugees from Clifford Culley's effects cupboard either, we're talking about swanky new dinosaurs, all achieved immaculately with the latest state-of-the-art technology and visual effects. Those who are used to the successful Jurassic Park franchise will be delighted to know that the dinosaurs on display here are superbly realised and leagues ahead of their counterparts in 1974's Invasion Of The Dinosaurs. Your bottom lip may even wobble at one point if you're a big old softy like me, who hates seeing animals get killed on TV and in films. Crazy huh? Animals dying in films means mass waterworks. I'm telling you, I can't ever sit through Marley And Me without blubbing like a Big Jessie by the time the credits have rolled.
Naturally, dinosaur presence equals concerned Time Lord. And The Doctor is on a speedy mission to stop a giant spaceship from crashing into the Earth in six hours, and equally as grave is the fact that the Indian Space Agency are planning to blow up the ship into small, tiny pieces. With a shoot first and ask questions later manifesto up against him, it's up to The Doctor to save both the Earth and the dinosaurs from horrible, flamey death. Interestingly, this time around, he chooses to bring along a motley gang of five along for the joyride. Gangs are evidently important to The Doctor – presumably, he's been whiling away the hours by reading some Famous Five books, so now he wants to be the leader of his very own group. Included in this collection are Queen Nefertiti, a pompous ass of a big game hunter called Riddell, and of course, the Ponds, complete with Rory's bemused dad included in the party.
"Riddell – well, presumably he's graduated from Captain Jack's School For Relentless Innuendo"
It's a notably simple plan then – some might say too simple, but after the complex labyrinth of last week's Asylum Of The Daleks, Dinosaurs On A Spaceship at least offers a nice change of pace. The problem however, is that for me, there's lots of worthy elements rattling around the pan in this story, but at the same time, there's equal amounts of tosh to be discarded.
Take the characterisation for example. While it's nice to see more incidental characters on display after last week, it's still something of a wasted opportunity. Asylum Of The Daleks' characters had some potentially interesting back-story, but not enough screen time. Most of this week's characters are either too samey or too annoying, and in a couple of cases, an unholy mixture of both. Queen Nefertiti and Riddell are two notable offenders in that both characters have about as much depth as a filled-up bath with a whopping great hole in the bottom. There's little that's innovative or even particularly likeable. Nefertiti's your archetypal feisty female, but somehow comes across as bland and forgettable. Riddell – well, presumably he's graduated from Captain Jack's School For Relentless Innuendo. He's your bog-standard, hee-hawwing pompous imbecile, but again, he doesn't really figure on the radar so much, probably because he's just too cartoony and stereotyped to make any lasting impression.
Any self-respecting Doctor Who aficionado will also get a feeling of deja vu from the principal baddie, Solomon. Solomon stands for the worst kind of greedy capitalist robber imaginable. He's a black market trader who's not above wiping out innocent lifeforms for the sake of profit – presumably he's saving up enough money to get a decent haircut, given that he's saddled with a scraggy old Michael Bolton mullet which has evidently seen better days. The problem is, Doctor Who's long history is blighted by countless greedy capitalists from Captain Dent through to Lord Palmerdale through to The Collector (who I bet is the one being jealous of Solomon's mullet). Even the recent Christmas Carol yielded one such capitalist monster in the form of Kazran Sardick. But while Solomon remains true to his greedy, unscrupulous principles (and rejecting the redemption path that Sardick took), there's still the feeling that I've seen Solomon's type many a time before.
"...there's a kind of weary predictability that everyone on the side of good will escape scott-free without so much as a scratch. It's a common complaint of mine I know, but I do wish that the Who production team would at least try and make the show an experience to sample from behind the sofa again."
It's also possible that Solomon's saving up for some better robots, since the ones that he has in his possession are rubbish to say the least. He has two lumbering great robots who get to do his dirty work, but this pair of oafs are easily the worst aspect of Dinosaurs On A Spaceship, two camp old boots who were presumably made in Liberace's garden shed. Actually, come to think of it, they're a bit like those mad old robotic pantomime dames, the Megara from The Stones Of Blood. They have the same sort of whiny, campy voices. They're both superfluous to requirements. And they're both annoying in the extreme. It's conceivable that the Megara decided to ditch the Futuristic Tinkerbell schtick and opt for a look that's a bit more tangible instead.
Story-wise, there's not really enough meat here. Much of Dinosaurs On A Spaceship seems to comprise characters running around a lot while making quickfire wisecracks. But perhaps the bigger problem for me is that there's no tension in this story at all. OK, so there's dark undercurrents running through this story – most notably in Solomon's callous attitude, the destruction of the Silurians on board the ark, and most strikingly of all, The Doctor's own brand of justice meted out to a quaking Solomon (more on this later). But there's still not enough scares for the kids – the dinosaurs are more cutesy than imposing, the robots are ridiculous and pose no threat whatsoever, and overall, despite the multi-pronged threats from all corners, there's a kind of weary predictability that everyone on the side of good will escape scott-free without so much as a scratch. It's a common complaint of mine I know, but I do wish that the Who production team would at least try and make the show an experience to sample from behind the sofa again.
But if you persevere with the story, there are one or two gold nuggets to be had – I mentioned The Doctor's attitude to Solomon at the end when he leaves him to enjoy a new-found bounty of oncoming missiles. It's a move that's both surprising and bold at the same time, although some of the fans have been a bit wary of this move – especially given that The Doctor has, for the most part, attempted to save the day in a peaceful solution. But then it's not anything that's particularly new, given the demises of Solon, Magnus Greel or even the clone Borad. I guess that The Doctor really couldn't see any way out with such a rat as Solomon, a man who would presumably continue to kill innocent lives for the sake of acquiring anything of value. He's capable of killing Silurians and a poor old dinosaur without a qualm, and because he evidently hasn't learned his lesson by the story's conclusion, it's the “No Second Chances” mantra again, writ large. A brave move to take then, and apart from this well-played, darker side to his Doctor, Matt Smith bounds about the place with a confident swagger and immaculate comic timing. Mind you, what's with all these uncredited musical appearances? Following his cameo in Carmen, he was also the second pair of hands in Fantasia In F Minor. What next? Guitar solo on Reelin' In The Years by Steely Dan? Electric keyboard noodling on Marrakesh Express by Crosby, Stills And Nash? Background Falsetto on Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen, perhaps?
If you were starved of Pond life last week, well, you get a triple helping this week, and they're on good form. The most notable of these is newcomer Brian, Rory's exasperated father, a man whose idea of great adventure is to toddle off to the local golf course. What's nice about Brian's character development is that he starts off as a reluctant traveller and ends up on the edge of the TARDIS, munching on sandwiches and then travelling with The Doctor to return the dinosaurs to the planet Siluria. The casting of Mark Williams is inspired – his take on Brian is convincing enough to make you believe that this really is the father of Rory, in his awkward, fussy persona and mannerisms. It's a good echo of how Rory started off as the awkward traveller and then ended up as a rock-solid companion of The Doctor's, along with his beau, Amy.
"After Asylum concentrated more on Oswin last time, it's nice to have Amy and Rory centre stage again this week"
Ah, Amy. We're being bombarded with none-too-subtle hints about her forthcoming exit. The Doctor's visits are becoming less frequent to the point where she wonders if he wants to know any more. There's also the line in which The Doctor will be in Amy's life until the very end. Spooky! Could this foreshadow an untimely demise for the feisty Scot? Or could it be another red herring along Rose's heavily forewarned “death”? Whatever the outcome, Karen Gillan gets plenty to do this week, and Chibnall has a far better grasp of her character than in the Silurian two-parter from 2010. She gets a good share of great lines: “So, human sleeping potion or walking innuendo: take your pick” or “Please don't start flirting – I will not have flirting companions” are two greats that spring to mind. After Asylum concentrated more on Oswin last time, it's nice to have Amy and Rory centre stage again this week.
Harry Potter fans can also revel in the fact that along with Mark Williams, David Bradley turns up in this adventure. And if Solomon's a typical, seen-it-all before greedy scumbag, he's still played to perfection by Bradley – what's great about Bradley's performance is his underplayed menace. There's no twirling of the moustache, no bwa-ha-ha-ing, but a cold, calculated, brittle threat that hangs in the air like a stale cloud. A real boo-hiss villain, but one that benefits from a raw, uncompromising persona rather than silly pantomime histrionics. Perhaps Solomon had a handy escape pod somewhere that he bought off a disgruntled Davros.
Even with its flaws, there's still plenty of little rewards to be had in Dinosaurs On A Spaceship. The effects are superb (especially for the dinosaurs), it's directed with flair by Saul Metzstein, and there's more imagination and creativity in this story than Chibnall's previous offerings – a beach on an ark, for example: typical Doctor Who. Shoot on a freezing cold British beach and still make it seem as if it takes place on a futuristic ship in the heart of space. So scrape away the unwelcome specks of so-so characterisation, lack of scares, and rubbish robots, and you might find a plentiful haul of Who gold.
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