The last time the word “dinosaurs” appeared in the title of a Doctor Who story things went awry, but special effects have moved on to an extent that dinosaurs can now be the selling point of an episode without embarrassment. The similarity of the title of this one to Snakes on a Plane should give you a clue about what kind of episode this is: the fun romp. Having said that, the episode is far from being devoid of emotion or deeper meanings and themes, which we will look at. The writer is of course Chris Chibnall, in his penultimate Matt Smith story. This is also his penultimate script working for another showrunner before taking over himself, so perhaps we can glean some clues about his own vision of Doctor Who from this.
The first thing to notice I suppose is that this is his fourth of five Doctor Who episodes to date, and three of them are sequels to Doctor Who and the Silurians. The Silurians are not actually present in this one, but this does what the original story only touched on: explores the Doctor’s reaction to the genocide of an intelligent race. Solomon has done the same thing as the Brigadier, but for very different reasons, and the Doctor’s reaction is to kill him. What he does is necessary to his plan to defeat Solomon and save everyone else, but leaving Solomon behind is a deliberate act, complete with a James Bond one-liner as he leaves him to die.
DOCTOR: Did the Silurians beg you to stop? Look, Solomon. The missiles. See them shine? See how valuable they are. And they’re all yours.
SOLOMON: You wouldn’t leave me, Doctor.
DOCTOR: Enjoy your bounty.
It’s reasonably justified because Solomon is such an irredeemable character, but this is something we so rarely see the Doctor do that it would have been useful to have some acknowledgement of it, even a tinge of doubt or a challenge from one of the other characters. In some ways Solomon reminds me of people who go around car boot sales looking up the price of things on eBay. His device is basically an advancement of the same technology. I doubt we are very far away from an app that does the same thing as Solomon’s device, checking the market value of everything, although it would hopefully not include people! Solomon looks at the price of everything but can’t see true value, particularly in other human beings. Presumably this is why his name was chosen, as an ironic subversion of the “wisdom of Solomon”. It’s just somewhat unfortunate that nobody noticed the unsavoury implications of a character motivated only by greed, with a specifically Jewish name. In fact, our future showrunner either (a) not noticing that, or (b) noticing and not caring, or (c) worst of all, doing something deliberate here, are all worrying options, particularly in conjunction with Solomon’s disability, which adds little to the plot other than continuing Doctor Who’s unsavoury history of making physical disfigurement or disability scary, or a mark of villainy. If he was motivated by revenge for what has happened to him that would go some way to justifying it, but he is a one-note villain and that note is greed.
Solomon is one of the metaphorical “dinosaurs” in space, along with the literal dinosaurs on a spaceship. You could probably argue that a murderous Doctor is one of those too, but the more obvious example is Riddell, who brings his Victorian values to the party. This is one of those stories where a sexist man encounters and strong, independent woman and then kind of tames her while she inexplicably falls for the idiot, so in that respect the episode seems a product of the 1970s even more than for its association with the Malcolm Hulke stories. Chibnall gets a stroke of luck because his one-dimensional male characters, Riddell and Solomon, are both played by great actors, who elevate both roles from what is on that page: little more than lazy demonization of men.
NEFERTITI: And the Doctor, does he have a Queen?
AMY: I thought you had a husband?
NEFERTITI: The male equivalent of a sleeping potion.
RIDDELL: You clearly need a man of action and excitement. One with a very large weapon.
AMY: So, human sleeping potion or walking innuendo. Take your pick.
Chibnall’s use of humour really needs to move on from that. But we must give him credit for Brian, the male guest character who is anything but one-dimensional. Again, Chibnall really hits the jackpot with the casting, but Brian is a brilliant character, intelligently extrapolated from the qualities that Rory possesses. He is another quiet hero. Bubbling under the surface, there is also a lovely story of the Doctor helping Brian to conquer anxiety. This episode is a companion story told on fast-forward, with an ordinary human learning how to be amazing, and then embarking on a life post-TARDIS that emulates the Doctor in some way, a life that would have terrified Brian before he met the Doctor. Sometimes a companion’s family can be more fun than a companion. Let’s hope that future showrunners notice that. RP
The view from across the pond:
Charm. Synonyms include: attraction, appeal, allure, charisma, and magic. Doctor Who is often magical but charm is something else. It can be quaint and still have charm, or it can be huge and magical and be charming. Sometimes, that charm can be as big as a dinosaur. On a spaceship, in fact. And that actually sums it up rather nicely: Dinosaurs on a Spaceship is charming. It’s a ridiculous concept that the Silurians created a Noah’s Ark (Icthar’s Ark?) and sent it into space to save some dinosaurs but who cares? Doctor Who doesn’t always make sense in the context of its own series because of how many different writers there are. So we’re going for a fun episode with one dark patch. Solomon, played by the magnificent David Bradley, sees the dinosaurs as a money maker, and kills all the Silurians by tossing them out of the airlock. The logic problem here is that the Silurian’s saw the moon as an omen of doom and went into hibernation but this story seems to imply they could have high-tailed it and left earth if they chose to. Ignoring that problem is a good idea for the enjoyment of the episode but the writers should be a bit more attentive to previous plots so they don’t stumble along with stories that make the audience shake their heads. What this has going for it is that the show basically created a new fanbase with the reboot and some of the earlier timeline goes by unnoticed. Ok, fair play. So what does this episode do?
First, we get the Scooby Doo format of a TARDIS gang complete with the beautiful Queen Nefertiti (Rianne Steele) and the great explorer, Inspector Lestrade. Oh, sorry, wrong franchise; I mean Riddell (Rupert Graves, of Sherlock fame). More importantly, we meet Brian, Rory’s dad (Mark Williams). This, in conjunction with the Doctor, Amy and Rory… well, we haven’t seen a 6 person TARDIS crew in a very long time indeed. Brian is the heart of the team adding plenty of humor from balls to spades. Was it necessary to have the crude humor? Probably not, but then he meant the word “balls” in their literal capacity, producing golf balls from his pocket, so who can I blame for finding it crude? Only myself, apparently! Smith is at his most charming for most of the episode too, gleefully shouting that he keeps a Christmas list. Then there’s the dinosaurs. Ankylosaurs are among my favorite and seeing them depicted on screen, ramming tails all the way, can’t help but make us smile. It’s not until we meet Tricey (the triceratops) that things really take a turn for pure fun as they ride around the spaceship on her back.
If there’s anything that brings the episode down its Tricey’s death, which was utterly heartbreaking. So much so, I felt badly for not feeling worse about Adric’s death. More than that, the guards from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, who don’t understand the idea of staying to guard the prince, seem to have been reincarnated and made into robots. While they are genuinely funny from time to time, it’s too over the top. Solomon is such an evil character that these two robots wouldn’t survive a day in his employment. And let’s be clear, Doctor Who has done comedy many times to great effect, like The Romans and City of Death, but most of that humor is more subtle. Dinosaurs on a Spaceship is often subtle, but not with these two robots. They bring the story down a little.
Now, with all of the comedy and family drama going on, we can’t ignore the “big bad” of the piece: Solomon. Solomon is truly evil. This gives the Doctor a chance to go up against him, offer him a chance to surrender and then defeat him. But we see something only the Moffat era would do so blatantly: the Doctor kills him. But here’s the worrisome thing: this wasn’t Moffat’s writing; it was new lead writer Chris Chibnall’s. Now, Chibnall may justify it that Solomon was evil and was given a choice and ultimately killed himself, but the Doctor lets it happen. As Eccleston once said, he made it happen. He orchestrates the entire thing. And I am not arguing whether or not he deserved the death: if you ask me, he did. But let’s not forget where that slippery slope can lead!
The episode gives us a great ending with Brian getting a chance to look at the earth from space. He made a great addition to the crew. What point was Nefertiti and Riddell? I can’t really say. Well, we needed someone to Jurassic Park it up a bit and that’s Riddell’s role, with his guns blazing but we’ve seen Rory in that role before, so was it needed? Still, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship is light-hearted fun with a lot of heart and humor but also a streak of darkness. Maybe that’s ok because the show is meant to be an action adventure and that often means there will be some bodies along the way. Just so long as they don’t kill any more Triceratops, I think we’ll be ok.
Final thought: do you think the Silurians saw Adric’s crashing ship when they rescued these dinosaurs? Maybe Adric saw them launching… imagine that the next time you watch Earthshock. Adric’s expression is watching another ship lifting off from earth. … Yet I still feel worse for Tricey! ML