It’s been a long while since I’ve reviewed Doctor Who, and those who follow me on Twitter probably know why, but suffice it to say that I don’t really enjoy writing strongly negative reviews, I enjoy even less doing so for a show to which I am strongly attached, and I really don’t enjoy writing the sort of review that might attract vitriol in response a) because it’s very negative about something a lot of people like, and b) because it’s about sexism.
I’m reviewing Dinosaurs on a Spaceship because it’s the first episode in a long time that did not make me very angry at some level. In point of fact, I really enjoyed it.
To be clear: this is not an episode that’s gonna go down as one of the great classics. The comedy was a little forced and the general tone was very silly, but it was great fun, and largely not offensive. It’s such a relief to be able to say that about an episode of Doctor Who again.
And let’s make no bones about it: ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’ is a fantastic concept for Doctor Who. One might have written a much more nuanced and intellectual script on the concept, but you didn’t have to. It’s a concept that will make kids and old hardcore geeks alike clap their hands with joy and start bouncing off the walls of the Internet. If you’re onto something that will please both kids and fans of the classic series alike you don’t really need to do a lot else but make sure that your script is relatively inoffensive. If we hadn’t endured the second half of the last season that might be damning with faint praise, but in contrast it’s just… it’s just really, really nice.
And it wasn’t just about dinosaurs in space. I was always a fan of the crowded TARDIS – Davison’s era is a favourite of mine from that point of view, although I know it bothers some people. When the Doctor has just one companion it does funny things to him, and funny things to the script. I was relieved when Rory became a regular feature of the TARDIS, but this episode went multi-companion in a delightfully spectacular way. It threw itself into the idea with great abandon and with largely good results. We had: Amy (Karen Gillan), Rory (Arthur Darvill), Rory’s dad (Mark Williams), Nefertiti (Riann Steele), and a big game hunter named Ridell (Rupert Graves). And the Doctor has apparently specifically pulled them all together because he fancies having a ‘gang’ along for the ride, and because he thinks they will each appreciate the wonder of dinosaurs on a spaceship (that, and Nefertiti was unwilling to be left behind).
I’m going to try and keep the spoilers small, so I won’t tell you why there were dinosaurs on a spaceship, but the reasons were fun and interesting, tying back to events and peoples the Doctor has met before in both New and Old Who; again, lending the episode broad appeal. But I will say that he’s in a race against time to save the dinosaurs before the spaceship they are on is blown up by missiles launched by an Indian space agency in defence of the Earth.
Rory and his dad are delightful, and Mark Williams is a perfect match. Whilst the gags based on a bumbling-but-always-prepared picture of dad-hood are rather obvious, they are performed to perfection. He’s also not the only familiar face. David Bradley is delightfully grizzled as the opportunist, Solomon, who wants to steal the dinosaurs to sell. David Mitchell and Robert Webb also cameo as a pair of daft and somewhat whiney robots.
It’s always a delight to be entertained by Mitchell and Webb, and they were certainly suitably cast, but whilst it sounded like they were having great fun (well, you would, wouldn’t you?) the whiney-robot jokes were rather predictable and fell a little flat. It all felt oddly Douglas-Adams-esque, which I’m sure was intentional (what with the complaining robots and wacky shenanigans in space) but didn’t quite hit the spot there, either. All the same, it was harmless, gentle humour that I’m sure would have delighted children, who are not as cynically familiar with such material as me. I enjoyed the nod to Adams even if it didn’t 100% pay off.
There was some reasonably well-executed gender debate, the range of characters allowing different attitudes to be expressed, although, to be honest, Amy and Nefertiti might have been interchangeable on that front. A point Moffat has been criticised on before, although this episode was penned by Chris Chibnall and not Moffat himself. That said, Amy fell less flat for me than she has for a bit, being allowed to take control of herself and others in ways that have nothing to do with her reproductive system. Both Nefertiti and Amy bounce off the sexist Ridell, and although for Nefertiti the sexism descends uncomfortably into flirting, Amy offers a nice counter-balance by looking askance at this. Moreover, between Rory, his dad, Ridell, the Doctor, and Solomon there are a wide variety of expressions of masculinity on display, and it’s very clear that Ridell marks an exception (and even he seems willing to change his mind).
The one moment that struck a raw note for me was one in which the covetous Solomon refers to Nefertiti as an object to be possessed, owned, and sold. Yes, it was clear that it was only her uniqueness and historical fame, not her gender, that made him respond so, but with the recent history of the series I really didn’t need to see a plot about a woman being treated literally as an object and in danger of being sold as the property of a male, in need of rescue from the Doctor. Such a plot has the potential for use in a context of sensitive and careful writing, but I mentioned that this was not an episode marked for that style of writing, right? It’s balanced, to some extent, by the resolution of that plot, but it still made me… uncomfortable.
Overall, Soloman’s plot is one markedly concerned with the Evils of Capitalism. It’s a little heavy-handed, but I remember what it was like to be a kid opened up to such big ideas and challenges to societal norms. It’s an interesting and important thing that science fiction does particularly well, and I’m OK with it’s use. I’m OK with Doctor Who taking on the big debates of the day and introducing them to children, the way I was introduced to the ideas of environmentalism by Silent Running. And if, as an adult, it started to feel a bit too much, well, there were always the dinosaurs.
Overall, the episode was fun and inoffensive, with some big fun concepts that are totally correct for Doctor Who. Definitely worth a watch, especially if you’d been as disheartened with the show as I had last year.