Dinosaurs on a Spaceship: A Misunderstood Classic

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Guest contributor James Wynne on the Series 7 episode.

“Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” is an episode that, during the approach to series seven, I dismissed as lacking the potential to impress as much as others. I assumed that the dinosaurs would take on the form of mere novelties to emphasise the grander sense of scale, befitting of the format this series was declared as taking: the blockbuster formula; all flash, but, in all probability, less substance and more utilisable as a promotional tool than increasing the likelihood of deeper and more innovative storytelling.

Upon seeing the episode for the first time, I was still not impressed. It seemed as though Chris Chibnall had two extremely opposing ideas (one of which I found infinitely more favourable than the other) for where he wanted to take the episode; two polar opposite directions that contrasted an uncomfortable amount as the episode bounced from scene-to-scene – it’s tone as varied and distinct between each one as it was possible to be on occasions. It was being pulled here and there throughout and didn’t seem like he had been able to settle on a definitive motif. This sensation of the episode conflicting with itself at all times – undermining the objectives of its darker and more interesting narrative elements with jaunts and jokes that often came across as infantile – detracted from what was otherwise some of the most worthwhile storytelling.

However, was I wrong to see things like this? Well, having watched “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” several times since its original broadcast, I think so.

It was insinuated that this episode would serve as nothing more than an exciting romp – acting as a buffer of sorts between the drama-heavy instalments that would make up the rest of the Ponds’ final chapter. It was not an episode to be dismissed as something so trivial, though, as a lot of the themes explored were of a somewhat disturbing nature (this often being reflected through the callous actions, and suggestive dialogue, of the episode’s antagonist, Solomon.), and its impact upon certain thematic/character developments was quite substantial. In retrospect, “Dinosaurs” furthered the Doctor’s [abandoned] ongoing moral decline far more than the episode that followed – the one that was tipped to focus on this facet of his then current state of mind as the linchpin of its narrative (“A Town Called Mercy”).

The Central Conflict: “You wouldn’t leave me, Doctor!”

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“Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” provided an immersive interpretation of the hero turned anti-hero, versus a definitive and unquestionable evil. It utilises the age-old adage of ‘the ends always justify the means’ and places it at the centre of a character who is so known to the audience, and whose adoption of such immoral techniques at the episode’s conclusion can be rationalised within the boundaries of his usual morality, but can also be reasoned to have fallen outside of this area. Regardless of how one might feel toward his vengeful act, what’s most important is that it feels natural for him to do what he does during the pair’s climactic confrontation. As the situation with Solomon evolves throughout the episode, visible signs of an inner struggle are evident within the Doctor’s behaviours; he is fighting with himself over what he feels is the just course of action: the temptation to succumb to his vengeful desires, fighting against the painful restraint of true heroism (an ideal to which the Doctor has always tried to devote himself). This element of desire ruling his judgement is further emphasised in his joyous torment of Solomon as he leaves him to his shining bounty.

Solomon was an apt contrast for our Time Lord; inversely reflective of the Doctor’s most fundamental beliefs and nobilities. While the Doctor, at all times, refrains from acting on behalf of what benefits he might accrue for himself, Solomon is the opposite: everything he does is in the interest of profiteering. He is not a pantomime antagonist, though – he is never elevated to a god-like standing (unlike our Doctor at times – once again; contrast) – rather, he is a seedy product of the ‘everyone and everything has a price’ mantra.

The Plot: “Dinosaurs…on a spaceship!”

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As is often the case with future-set episodes in Doctor Who, “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” makes full use of developments within the world’s current climate and expands on them with a vision of where things could be headed in the not too distant future (a drastic one…perhaps). The militarised forces of India leading the charge in securing the earth’s safety is a good shout out to the influence that certain continents outside of Europe and the Americas (in this case, Asia) are attaining in these modern times – something which might have seemed impossible to imagine mere decades ago. While this isn’t something of massive importance to the episode, with the ISA serving only to provide an additional element of danger to our TARDIS crew in the episode’s second half, it was nonetheless an interesting and notable detail.

As I touched on (or lingered on for far too long) in the first part of this review, “Dinosaurs” is an intricate, and some might argue; imperfect, combination of simplistic storytelling ideas and the emotive exploration of our hero’s moral complexities. It’s obvious the plot elements that surround the ship’s collision-course with earth are secondary here. Even I, as someone who adores this episode, would not attempt to dress this part of the narrative up as anything more than entertaining. It is the mere icing on the cake of what is an intimate character study.

While some would argue that Brian’s inclusion was contrived to allow the plot a means to resolve itself in the end (with him being required as one of two people with the same genetics to halt the ship’s collision with earth), it can be argued as not being so within the realms of Doctor Who’s established continuity. In “The Doctor’s Wife”, Idris (otherwise known as the Doctor’s erstwhile TARDIS, and aptly dubbed ‘sexy’) suggests that she always takes the Doctor where he needs to go. Given her unrestricted and simultaneous awareness of all events across space and time, it’s possible that Chris utilised this and had the TARDIS retrieve Brian, because of the machine’s likely foreknowledge that he would be needed on this voyage.

Now, I can understand how this still might irk some (as it did me, for a time), but I’ll take a slight convenience over gaping plot holes any day.

The dinosaurs themselves are there to augment the naturalistic environment aboard Solomon’s [stolen] vessel that might otherwise seem a redundant and ineffectual setting. While the threat they provide is seldom utilised to its fullest, with the Silurians wiped out for narrative purposes, the dinosaurs are required to accentuate the immersion in this architected world. It’s not a criticism unique to this episode that its title (or, at least, what it suggests) doesn’t quite correspond to the actual content, but it is a drawback. That said; Riddell’s fumbling run-in with the dosing T-Rex was a fine moment in an episode that otherwise didn’t devote much time to the nastier, ferocious side of these creatures.

Alas, “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” did at least treat us to a rather unusual Triceratops.

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Yes, that Triceratops (the adorable Tricey) – the one that was playing fetch with Brian’s [golf] balls and, in general, behaving like a faithful canine companion to the TARDIS crew. I still feel that things went a bit overboard with its domesticated behaviours, but its characterisation as an animal that most of the audience would understand and/or relate to, meant its death hit home harder than it might have done otherwise. It was crucial that Solomon’s callous disregard for the lives of others, regardless of what form those lives might take, was conveyed as a visual to the audience, and not just left as a recollection of past events. So, in that choice moment, it was done with the death of an innocent and harmless creature that identified with most of the viewers. I feel this somewhat excuses the unrealistic ‘cutsie’ behaviours. It’s not just that Solomon killed it, either, but that he did so in such a blasé manner – as though it was a passing fancy; a trifling indulgence. He didn’t revel in it – it meant nothing to him beyond what it permitted him to acquire (Nefertiti).

This also draws attention to something I mentioned at the start of this feature: the vivid storytelling contrasts that were pursued in tandem, and the possible reasons behind such strange tactics. I assumed that the light-hearted elements of the plot were being aimed solely at the children, in an effort to combat the more adult themes which, in all likelihood, might not interest or connect with a lot of the younger viewers. It’s possible, though, that another reason for it was to throw sharper focus on Solomon and the developments surrounding him. His exploits seem to be something altogether more sinister; his evil more severe, when contrasted with the somewhat fantastical imaginings of funny (umm, sort of?), talking robots and dinosaurs behaving like household dogs. It’s odd that such thematic oppositions contained within a single episode should compliment each other through their conflicting nature, but having the narrative’s solemnities combined with this sort of wonderment intensifies the overall drama of this wondrous world so adversely affected by Solomon’s heinous crimes.

The Gang: “It’s new!”

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Brian ‘I’m not a Pond’ Williams (or as I like to call him: The Loveable Brummie) proves to be the finest of the new recruits. He fits the role of father to Rory as a hand fits a glove. He possess many of the same quirks and mannerisms as his son; the same honest to god moral centre and, of course, a trowel. He is the character to which most of the plots lighter elements mesh best with.

Meanwhile, Riddell and Nefertiti felt a bit superfluous to the plot (barring the latter’s abduction), and more like caricatures of a single, defining trait.

In Riddell, we got someone who spouted semi-bigoted quips throughout most of the proceedings (some of which are a chore to endure). While Rupert Graves still managed to inject some much-needed charm to his character, it was still an unsatisfying use of his talents.

Nefertiti, though, was even worse. The Queen’s characterisation was as blunt as it comes: the superior, modern-day female. If I didn’t know better, I would suggest Steven Moffat had a hand in how she was portrayed (see: River Song and Oswin Oswald). Now, I can embrace Doctor Who playing with the facts a little, but when it has featured such faithful recreations of other famous figures in history, layering them with a sense of sophistication that befits their standing, it is so, so disappointing to see one of the most interesting of them all interpreted as something so bland and uninspiring. It doesn’t help that Rianne Steele turns in a rather awkward performance. I don’t know what was worse: her unconvincing attempt at the Egyptian accent, or when it frequently slipped back in to a British one.

Verdict: Well, I’ve said all I can about this episode; I’ve looked at what I believe to be its flaws and its abundant merits. All I will add is this: it’s brilliant, sometimes misunderstood and somewhat imperfect in certain areas – but brilliant, all the same.

So, that brings to an end this analysis of “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”. I hope it proved a valuable and worthwhile insight and not an endless stream of inane, devoted ramblings (though, there is a bit of that, I admit). Has this feature altered your perspective on the episode at all? Has it perhaps done enough to convince you that it might be worth watching it again? Has it bored you right from the start? Tell me in the comments!

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