Monday, 15 October 2012

Jurassic Ark

Doctor Who
Dinosaurs On A Spaceship
Series Seven, Episode Two

How else can we let them know it is both jurassic and shark?

Where to begin describing something called Dinosaurs On A Spaceship.  Such a title is so utterly idiotic, it’s almost bulletproof.  Oh, so you didn’t find any subtle nuance or intricate plot detail in there?  Of course not, it’s called Dinosaurs On A Spaceship.  Moffat’s promised Movie-Of-The-Week theme could not be any more apparent than here, an episode that signals practically by semaphore that its intentions are fun, and dumb.

Despite sounding like a B-Movie with approximately one idea in its head, there’s actually a lot crammed in here: a lot of characters, a lot of ideas, and a few too many changes in tone.  It feels like a well-intentioned eight-year-old put it together, excitement finally giving way to an ice cream headache.

From Queen Nefertiti in 1334 to a spaceship in 2367, meeting John Riddell in 1902 and finally collecting the Ponds (plus Rory’s dad, Brian), the pre-credits sequence leaps about like one of Steven Moffat’s more ambitious finales.  It seems like a lot of work to get us to some dinosaurs on a spaceship, and I’m not sure it’s worth it.  Do we really need Queen Nefertiti and a chauvinist game-hunter, as well as the Doctor’s usual chums, now with comedy dad?

Not that I mind the dad: Mark Williams is an absolute delight as Rory Senior.  But he’s sharing the guest spot with two randoms, not to mention Amy and Rory, 50% of whom usually end up twiddling their thumbs in the action department.  It might have worked better if the Doctor had missed Amy, grabbed father and son by mistake and left Mr and Mrs Horrible Histories out of it.  These characters only seem to be here so they can give themselves something to do, and they’re embarrassingly one-note, she with the ancient Girl Power, he with his “very large weapon”.  What does the Doctor see in them?

For the most part, this is not an episode for deep thought.  (What with those Dinosaurs, on that Spaceship.  Damn you, title!)  Although on that score, there’s a nice moment referencing Amy’s gradual distancing from the Doctor (“You’ll be here till the end of me.” “Or vice versa”), and it’s nice to see someone writing their characters in some kind of direction.  It's handled really well, although with no mention of the divorce or a possible second marriage, but we’re probably meant to forget about that one.  Only too happy to oblige!

Unquestionably, straightforward fun is the episode’s aim, and unusually for Chris Chibnall, it is occasionally very funny.  Not all of that’s down to Matt Smith, although he can make an “Eugh” noise or a simple question like “Is it?” sound funny like nobody else.  Some of it’s actually funny on the page: “Six hours is a lifetime.  Not literally a lifetime, that’s what we’re trying to avoid!”  /  “Isn’t it obvious?” “Um, it’s sort of the opposite of obvious.”  /  “Is that a kestrel?” “I do hope so!” “The beach is humming.” “Is it?”  Coming from a guy who still sees mileage in lines like “He’s picking us off, one by one!”, this can only be promising.

Fun fact: Torchwood was a sitcom until BBC execs
panicked and removed the laugh track.
But it’s far from consistent.  Some of the innuendoes ought to be sent back to the ’70s where they belong, and pointing out that they’re terrible innuendoes is no excuse.  Amy’s tiresomely wacky this week, particularly when acting like the Doctor (because there are so many characters in this that the companions have companions), and her attempt to get a high-five from Nefertiti is sheer cringe-fuel.  Oh, and I might love Brian, but that single-entendre about his balls, well, needs no further discussion.  Ugh.

The worst bit, though, has to be the robots.  I like Mitchell & Webb and I’m all for putting comedians in Doctor Who, so long as they’re bringing something to it.  David Walliams was brilliant last year as the spineless Gibbis, and Peter Kay was superb as the sinister Victor Kennedy (less so as the fat-suited Abzorbaloff).  But these two Comedy Robots (it must be capitalised) are firstly unnecessary, because who looked at an episode involving spaceships and dinosaurs and decided it needed more whimsy, and secondly in need of a new joke book.  “Oh I’m so scared!  Actually I might be, a little bit of oil just came out!”  Ye-eah, no.  All their low grade Peep Show-esque bickering grates like hell, and when they were deactivated, and started singing “Daisy, Daisy”, I had my head in my hands.  It hurts to imagine two professional comedians giving this stuff the once over.  A 2001 ref, really?  Just say no, guys.

The worst thing about the robots, though?  They’re not just comic relief.  I mean, they plainly are here for the hyuck-hyucks, but the plot also requires them to gun down a sympathetic Triceratops, maim Brian and murder a ship full of Silurians.  Which brings us to the major problem with Dinosaurs On A Spaceship: the tone.  It’s all zany hijinks one minute, sinister murderousness the next… and then back to the zany.  Take the scene shortly after the Triceratops dies – itself a low blow – when Amy and Riddell start zapping dinos to unconsciousness.  Never mind that they’ve set phasers to stun: the gleeful way they go about gunning them down, coupled with Amy’s stunningly witless “The sooner this lot go back to being extinct, the better!”, beggars belief.  Guys, remember that Triceratops that just died?  Hey, Script Editor!

Junior me finds this inappropriate.
Also, ook, ook.
Fair enough if your episode has about as much depth as a comic drawn for this year’s Doctor Who Annual, but you can’t just expect that to work in amongst murder, semi-genocide and a bad guy expressing pleasure at “breaking” someone in.  David Bradley, incidentally, is marvellous as Solomon.  A black-and-white bastard with no redeeming features only ought to come along once in a while, and Bradley’s clearly the man for the job, oozing real menace when casually ordering the (nyurgh) Comedy Robots to injure Brian.  But that stuff with Nefertiti?  Too far.  And given that this episode is aimed squarely at, well, me when I was seven years old, it’s inappropriate as hell.

Bradley gives Matt Smith an excuse to do some seriously dark Doctoring, and I like it to an extent.  Obviously it’s a pleasure to watch him work, but having the Doctor then engineer Solomon’s death-by-missiles (because there are missiles heading for the spaceship, oh yeah, right, that plot thing) seems a big step too far.  Yeah, we’re dealing with a seriously bad man here, but so?  Fair enough if they’re going to make something of the Doctor overstepping his bounds, but no one even mentions it.  We’re left with another stupidly callous plot point in amongst a load of dinosaur-themed tinsel.

It's a mess.  It’s a fast, sometimes-funny episode, no doubt.  Some of it actually matters: that moment between the Doctor and Amy is long overdue, and well put.  The dinosaurs look really good, which should not to be taken for granted.  And certain visuals, like the beach/engine room, and the absolute knockout shot of Brian sitting on the TARDIS step with a cuppa admiring the Earth from space, will stick in my mind.  But amazingly, for something with a dumb-as-a-plank title, Dinosaurs On A Spaceship just doesn’t know what to make of itself.  Perhaps Chibnall took a little too much inspiration from Snakes On A Plane, which was edited at the last minute to suit an older audience, and automatically lost the age group who would actually have appreciated it.  And perhaps a series going for a Movie-Of-The-Week feel could aim a little higher than Snakes On A Plane.

1 comment:

  1. For some reason I have seen this episode even though I stopped watching the series (again) for being poop (again).

    Those robots were cringingly awful. Utterly embarrassing they got this far. How did no one notice the awful dialogue?

    Anyway 'It might have worked better if the Doctor had missed Amy, grabbed father and son by mistake and left Mr and Mrs Horrible Histories out of it.' TOTALLY AGREE. If only.