If “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” are four words designed to strike glee in the heart of any (inner) eight year old then “written by Chris Chibnall” seem to strike discord and trepidation into the hearts of hardcore ‘Doctor Who’ fans. As with all deeply held beliefs, the reasons for this are lost in the mists of time. They seem to have more to do with the rather faltering and uncertain tone of the first series of ‘Torchwood‘ (on which he was showrunner) rather than his previous contributions to ‘Doctor Who’ itself which, while not in the pantheon of greats, struck me as solid, enjoyable and managing to combine a rather nice homage to the tone of the Seventies incarnation of the show while revelling in the boldness of the 21st century regeneration.
What made me more apprehensive about the episode was the fact that previous high concept ideas in Moffat-era ‘Doctor Who’ have fallen rather flat. Tags like “Churchill and the Daleks”, “Doctor Who on a Pirate Ship” and “Dr Who does Narnia” have not translated well into on-screen adventures.
So it’s with more than a little relief that we can shout hurrah tonight. Dinosaurs wasn’t a great piece of drama but it never tried to be. As a piece of hokum, family fun it was very good indeed. It’s a Bank Holiday Monday movie of an episode. It isn’t deep, it isn’t art, but it’s fun and it’s fast.
Wisely, Chibnall does not rely over heavily on the titular dinosaurs. We have a small herd of triceratops, a flock of pterodactyls and the post-Jurassic-Pak obligatory raptors make cameo appearance towards the end, but the chief menace comes from an intergalactic Steptoe played with understated aplomb by the ever-reliable David Bradley. Bravely, his heavies, two (rather nicely realised) robots are played for laughs with voices by Mitchell and Webb no less undercutting the savagery of their business.
Chibnall’s masterstroke is to give the Doctor a gang to accompany him on this adventure. Not just the Ponds, but Rory’s dad, Brian. Not just the Ponds but people – the [historically real] Queen Nefertiti and the [fictional] big game hunter Riddell. The gang is the real glory of the episode. Rupert Graves expertly seizes on the broad strokes of his Alan Quartermaine type character and affectionately takes it so over the top that he’s practically in orbit himself. For my money, Nefertiti was a bit of a missed opportunity. Belonging firmly in the flirty school of womanhood most recently occupied by Oswin Oswald and River Song she suffers by the comparisons. With Karen Gillan being given the chance to be a bit Doctory by leading her own subplot, Nefertiti struggles for oxygen.
But this doesn’t really matter because we (and Chibnall, clearly) have fallen in love so much with Brian Pond by the time we fail to be moved by Nefertiti’s attempted self-sacrifice that it doesn’ t really matter. Mark Williams seizes very ounce of bumbling but phlegmatic pathos from the character. It’s no wonder he won himself an instant sequel (stay tuned for episode 4). With pockets as capacious and full of useful stuff as the Doctor himself, the image of Brian sitting on the threshold of the TARDIS looking at Earth from space while eating a sandwich and sipping from his thermos will live long in the memory. Brian reminds us of the Russell T Davies tradition of companions’ families and while we needed a break from the Jackies and Wilfs, it would be a shame if this is a one-off throwback.
The other great discovery of the episode was the director, Saul Metztein. This is the first of four episodes he’s directing this year including the prestigious Christmas episode. Impressively marshalling the special effects and giving a strong cast their head, this was a strong debut. The cinematic flair of the clips we’ve seen from next week’s western episode (which he also directed) certainly whet the appetite for more.
You won’t get more out of Dinosaurs each time you rewatch it. But approach it with the same wide eyed wonder and lack of cynicism as Brian and you should find it as light and fresh as its first viewing.