Doctor Who: 702 “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” Full Review
Reviewed by Adam James Cuthbert.
Dinosaurs on a Spaceship was always going to divide opinion; as soon as you heard the title, in fact, at least from my experience. For me, the main concern was the writer, Chris Chibnall. At best, I found his previous contributions mediocre – nothing that prompted any immediate desire to re-watch them. I found they contained potentially interesting ideas but the overall result was middling. I was surprised to learn he had been entrusted with two separate episodes for Series 7: the aforementioned episode, and The Power of Three. Regardless of the doubts I’d expressed, I went into the episode with an open-mind. I was actually pleasantly surprised by the quality of the episode. I found it to be good fun, with darker elements, which, while jarring with the predominantly light-hearted and, at times, childish tone, nonetheless made for an entertaining experience.
The premise is simple: the Doctor, with his mismatched gang, consisting of the historical Queen Nefertiti of Egypt, John Riddell, big-game hunter, the Ponds, and Rory’s father Brian, must uncover the mystery of a spaceship, on course for the Earth, before it is destroyed within six hours by missiles. The story borrows its ‘time-limit’ format from Chibnall’s earlier story, 42, wherein the Doctor had to prevent a spaceship from colliding with a star, simultaneously discovering the cause behind the ship’s malfunction. The spaceship, unsurprisingly, is inhabited by the prehistoric beasts. The ship is revealed to be a Silurian ‘ark’: a sanctuary when the species sought to escape the predicted holocaust for the planet. The ark itself is a good addition to the Silurian mythology. It makes sense that the most advanced contemporary species would seek other means to escape the foreseen disaster other than underground hibernation. One of the aspects I appreciated about Chibnall’s Silurian two-parter was the idea of parallel evolution between the Silurians and humanity, along Darwinian terms of adapting to different climates and environments over the generations. This explained the discrepancies between the species across Classic and New Who. While this is a triviality of mine, I would’ve liked to have seen that trait developed further, with an alternative breed of Silurian making its cameo within the episode.
Sadly, the dinosaurs themselves were secondary to the ensemble cast of characters. Similar to the Classic Daleks in Asylum, the main selling point of the episode was either underused or used ineffectively, for the most part. The dinosaurs were aesthetically impressive creations: the attention to detail was stunning and they successfully contributed towards securing the ‘blockbuster’ appeal of the episode. However, I found the puppy-like triceratops quickly grating and resulted in some of the worst dialogue from the episode, resorting to obvious ‘kid-friendly’ humour. I think the dinosaurs could easily have evoked a sense of raw predatory menace (even to be seen killing someone, perhaps; the classic off-screen death cry?), thus presenting a genuine threat to the characters and therefore justifying their presence in the story. This would have enhanced the dramatic tension of the climax, as Amy and Riddell fend off a horde of raptors with stun-guns – a visually pleasing sequence, but superficially tense.
I interpreted the relationship between Nefertiti and Riddell as quickly dissolving into a clichéd ‘battle-of-the-sexes’ routine. It didn’t help that the characters were one-dimensional. Fortunately, Riddell was saved by Rupert Graves’ charming performance, with the chemistry between him and Karen Gillan ensuring their scenes together were at least subtler, therefore more fun and engaging to watch. Mark Williams was also somewhat redundant, his presence justified by the convenience of a two-way piloting system for the spacecraft. I didn’t feel he had a chance to display his comedic abilities at all: a waste of a good actor.
In a way, Dinosaurs was an episode that proved just how talented an actress Karen Gillan can be. She was by far at her best, not seen since The Girl Who Waited. Amy was shown to be intelligent, brave, funny, and blasé, with some of the best quips in the episode (“Are you also a queen?” “Yes. Yes, I am”). I liked how Amy and Rory were portrayed as the down-to-earth, ‘ordinary’ people unwittingly entangled in the Doctor’s madcap lifestyle, setting up potential tension for The Power of Three. While I found Amy quitting her job sudden (was modelling that bad a career?) I do appreciate the element of Amy waiting for the Doctor, unable to settle – exactly what I wanted to see from Chibnall’s Pond Life.
The highlight of the episode was the decisively dark twist from the Doctor. The Doctor discovers that the ark was invaded, and the Silurians massacred, by the battle-scared and lecherous pirate Solomon, portrayed with an appropriate gravitas and grisliness by David Bradley. Solomon is injured when the Doctor meets him. He forces the Doctor to mend his broken legs by appealing to his sympathies for the innocent, commanding his robots to hurt Brian, and kill him unless the Doctor aids him. There is an intricate touch to the episode when Solomon tries to gauge the Doctor’s material value. In keeping with the Doctor’s anonymity in the wake of his ‘death’, it turns up nothing. I’m intrigued if the Doctor’s anonymity will represent a profound change in his character, becoming less merciful. There have been hints at this Doctor’s more darkly alienating side since The Beast Below, another episode which stresses the necessity of a companion in the Doctor’s life, to prevent him from succumbing to his darker impulses. The Doctor typically embodies the moral high ground, after all, granting the character a beguiling godlike stance regarding mortal lives. It’s a remarkable performance from Matt Smith, effortlessly stamping his authority in the role, and demonstrates how far the Doctor has come, when he leaves Solomon to die for his act of genocide, being targeted by the diverted missiles. Will the character have to “find a new name, because [he] won’t be the Doctor anymore”?
In conclusion, Dinosaurs was a significant improvement from Chibnall’s earlier stories. Though the robots were annoying and the dinosaurs lacked menace, I found it nonetheless a decent contribution to the series so far.