The second episode of the seventh season of the Doctor Who revival (entitled Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, written by Chris Chibnall and directed by Saul Metzstein) does its job as the follow-up of Asylum of the Daleks epic start to the new season. After the mayhem and the revelations, we settle down a bit for some popcorn fun. Give us some decent special effects, good acting, good directing, and some funny lines, and Doctor Who does its job as a fun and decent way to spend an hour of television.
In general, this episode achieved what it set out to do. It wasn’t overly ambitious, but it wasn’t boring, either. There were some good character touches and there were… dinosaurs! On a spaceship!
But the episode was flawed in one key moment. It shattered my suspension of disbelief, as well as Erin’s, and it was a major off-key note for the most beloved characters of the show. It’s possible that this moment may be part of a larger story arc and, if there are consequences to be dealt with, I will be happy, but in the moment I felt that writer Chris Chibnall fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the Doctor, and gave us a moment which simply did not ring true.
A full, spoilery review can be found after the break…
Leaving Amy and Rory behind (again), the Doctor goes galavanting, and mixes it up with Queen Nefertiti of Egypt. Despite his desire to fly under the radar, he appears to have been rather publicly awesome back in Egypt, and Queen Nefertiti (played well by Riann Steele) engages in some serious flirting, as well as demands that he take her from her boring life as Queen of Egypt to see the wonders of the universe. The Doctor can’t seem to refuse.
The first place the Doctor takes Nefertiti is Earth in 2367 AD. There, on the 500th anniversary of Confederation, a ship the size of Canada (coincidence?) approaches Earth airspace. The stand-ins for UNIT (in all but name) inform the Doctor that if the ship gets too close, they’re firing the missiles. However, the Doctor has six and a half hours to get on board the ship and alter its course. Fine, the Doctor says. But I’ll need some back-up.
Flash forward to the African Plains of 1902 AD where the Doctor meets up with a chauvinistic but otherwise decent British explorer named Riddell (well played by Rupert Graves, best known currently as Inspector Lestrade in the BBC series Sherlock). The Doctor recruits him to see something new and unusual.
The Doctor’s final stop in gathering his “gang” is to Amy and Rory’s house — unfortunately while Rory’s Dad happens to have popped by to fix the light fixture. Swooping in, materializing the TARDIS around the three humans, he takes them all aboard the approaching spaceship before realizing that his gang has one extra — and somewhat elderly — member.
These moments, along with the exploration of the largely abandoned ship, are well told and enjoyable to watch. There’s some comedy here which is good, if not laugh-out-loud funny. The mystery chugs along, and the special effects which put the dinosaurs on the spaceship certainly make up for the 38-year-old shame that was Invasion of the Dinosaurs. We learn that the ship is an ark, put together by Homo Reptilia (the Silurians) and sent out who-knows-when. The dinosaurs are doing fine, but where are the Silurians?
Instead, the Doctor discovers Solomon (played by David Bradley, who looks as though he somehow forgot to take off his makeup from the Harry Potter movies). He’s the pirate that took over the ship, and ejected the Silurian crew. Injured, he is quite happy to discover that there’s a doctor on the ship.
The tip of the hat to the story arc about the Doctor trying to keep under the radar of the universe is well done. There’s a nice bit of misdirection when Solomon hears the Doctor’s name and gets excited. Matt Smith is quite disturbed to learn that his reputation precedes him still, until he discovers that Solomon only wants a small-d doctor to take care of his raptor-munched legs. Moreover, Solomon’s ship which scans people and things and immediately calculates their value on the open market doesn’t know a thing about the Doctor.
The story follows along pretty simply thereafter. Solomon is a nasty pirate (but without the eyepatch and the ‘Arr!’) who values the ship’s cargo of dinosaurs so much he’ll commit genocide on the Homo Reptilia that have been asleep on board the ship (given that, in the minds of many, they are about as extinct as the dinosaurs are, shouldn’t they have some value on the open market as well?). Spectacularly failing to take control of the ship once all the Silurian crewmembers are away, he now faces losing the cargo to the missiles Earth is about to launch. Being the sort to make lemonade out of lemons, he’s noticed that Queen Nefertiti is on board the ship, and she can make his journey here monetarily worthwhile. Oh, and he has two Vogon-like robots backing him up, and a transporter, so he can haul Nefertiti away, even though his robots appear to have the accuracy of Imperial stormtroopers.
It sounds silly and it is. Solomon could not be more despicable if he tried, and for the most part, that’s the weakest part of this story. He’s so bad and character-less that one is reminded of the line from Roger Rabbit: “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.” Chris Chibnall just piles the irredeemability of Solomon on that one ends up feeling that it isn’t the character that’s bad, it’s a bunch of authorial fiat.
This is balanced by the portrayal of Rory’s dad, Brian Williams (played by Mark Williams). The actor has a good rapport with both Matt Smith and Arthur Darvill, and he has a good arc as well. For him, his son and daughter-in-law’s excessively long trip to “Thailand” might as well have been “all of time and space”. He’s a classic fish out of water, who doesn’t like it when the loveable Triceratops licks him like a puppy. But he finds inside himself the will to rise to the occasion, he contributes to the group, and decides in the end that travelling and seeing the world is not such a scary thing after all. It’s one of the many small nice moments that raise this episode out of the ordinary.
But I cannot overlook “the moment”. If you’ve seen the episode, I strongly suspect you’ll know what moment I mean. Once the Doctor shuts down the robots, figures out how to stop Earth’s missiles from locking onto the ship (mostly by identifying the specific item they’re locking on to), he beams down to Solomon’s ship, rescues Nefertiti, and confronts Solomon. And it doesn’t go well for Solomon. His ship is basically at the mercy of the Doctor, who intends to let it go once he plants the device that will lead all of Earth’s missiles away. And when Solomon asks the Doctor to show some mercy and let him get away safely, the Doctor asks if the Silurians also begged for mercy before Solomon shoved them out the airlock. Then the Doctor walks away, leaving Solomon to die as the missiles explode his ship.
Erin and I looked at each other at that point and just said, ‘no’. This is not our Doctor. It’s as though our Doctor and Captain Jack Harkness of Torchwood switched brains momentarily, and the Doctor didn’t get that part of Jack’s brain where he goes around and shags everybody. Instead, the Doctor gets off a good quip and callously turns away to leave the villain to die. I cannot recall the Doctor ever doing that, and I think I have a good memory.
Some have told me, “this is the Doctor that doesn’t give second chances” — well, not really, as that was Tennant, not Smith. And in any event, when the Doctor delivered that line, the villain had got up and was charging at the Doctor with a raised sword. This was entirely different. The Doctor may have also turned back Davros’s pleas for pity, but that was the entire Dalek race he was dealing with, there. The Doctor has never turned away from a begging individual and left them to die when there was no necessity for him to do so. And after the Doctor criticizes the head of Earth’s security for launching the missiles in the first place, his actions make him a big fat hypocrite.
This shocked us. This made us doubt the character of the Doctor, and it certainly made us doubt whether Chris Chibnall understands who the Doctor really is.
Although, there is an out, here. There have been signs that the Doctor has been walking down a dark path. If you’ll remember, he turned the human race into an unthinking, murderous army whenever the Silence were near. I said at the time that while this was not genocide, it was still far more coldhearted than the Doctor usually is. And, given how old the Doctor is and the horrors of what he’s seen, is it all that surprising that the Doctor might find himself going down a dark path? How long will it be before his companions (or, perhaps, River Song, or Oswin) stage an intervention?
Although it must be said that if this is the result of the Doctor travelling too far alone (as some have speculated), Chibnall rather undercut that argument by having the Doctor gather a “gang” for this episode.
I am willing to accept the Doctor’s decision here only if consequences come out of it. There is some suggestion that the following episode (A Town Called Mercy) might do just that. If so, I’ll drop my objections here and credit Chibnall for shocking us to plan. Otherwise, it’s a disturbing crack in the wall…