Dinosaurs on a Spaceship (Review)

In the spirit of writing posts that have little or nothing to do with the theme of this blog we submit for your disapproval a review of a pleasingly throwaway episode of Doctor Who which despite its self-conscious tone of inconsequential fun-a take-it-or-leave-it proposition made abundantly clear by the Ronseal title ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’-has been lambasted by fans as infantile. Labelled an unfunny, tonally confused mess, the second episode of the new season of Doctor Who is in fact a refreshingly straightforward piece of storytelling with a number of fine performances from a top-notch cast and some spot-on characterisation.

It does exactly what it says on the tin!

For the record, when it comes to family entertainment I’m far fonder of efforts that package heavyweight ideas and adult themes with fun and simplicity than those which adopt a portentous and ambiguous style and tone which ignores the majority of its audience base. This is why family movies The Wizard of Oz and Babe are such enduring classics. They have profound things to say about adolescence and animal rights (respectively, although you shouldn’t glue wings to a monkey) but deliver them with a lightness of touch. It’s also why their self-consciously darkened sequels Return to Oz and Babe: Pig in the City are artistic failures. Disturbing and inappropriate for children, these movies address the serious issues of adult life head-on without regard for how young viewers react to or understand them. As an institutional mongrel straddling the BBC’s drama, children’s and light entertainment departments, Doctor Who has often struggled to know where to draw the line on adult content.

Looks fun, doesn’t it?

Doctor Who has always been the scourge of conservative parents and campaigners who claim that it broadcasts material unsuitable for children. Generally, though, the programme has been pretty responsible on this count, erring on the thrilling and exciting side of horror without any of the lingering mental scars. What’s more, when it blundered in the 1970s and 1980s with unacceptable levels of physical violence, producers had the good sense to revert to stories that played up the light-hearted and comedic side of the programme for a while. That said, the first time I’ve ever thought that the show had gone too far was last year’s ‘The Almost People’ in a scene showing Amy giving birth while imprisoned in a coffin-like capsule. The sheer visceral horror could only alarm young women about what would happen to their bodies in adulthood. It irresponsibility pursued shock value without giving children guidance on how to interpret what was happening.

Adult body horror in a children’s TV show

It’s no surprise then that an episode which makes good on Doctor Who’s commitment to its younger viewers has been added to this year’s run, or that it works so well. Chris Chibnall’s ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’ opens with a time-shifting montage familiar from Steven Moffat’s episodes but while the latter writer uses this technique to convolute the storyline, the former’s intentions are to suggest whirlwind adventure. It also glosses over what is a satisfyingly linear narrative structure, an episode purposefully striding to its conclusion that makes the best of its simple story by gradually unfolding mysteries like a detective novel and maintaining the breakneck pace of the fixed timeframe. Manichean character contrasts abound: macho chauvinist/female supremacist, righteous hero/amoral villain, emotionally reserved father/compassionate son. This superficiality allow the characters to be quickly absorbed into the action-packed storyline and does a good job of orienting younger viewers in what to feel about the characters. But in working through these stark oppositions, a thoughtful message emerges that extreme viewpoints should be eschewed in favour of tolerance and compromise.

The gang

The gang

The comedy of his episode succeeds more than in previous attempts as humour derives effortlessly from character rather than being pasted in as anomalous gags and set-pieces. It lies in Brian (Mark) Williams’ passive-aggressive chastising of his son’s lack of DIY masculinity and relatable rendition of fathers’ eccentric habits. It is in the oblivious taboo-breaking misogyny of Rupert Graves’ big game hunter and our unnerving attraction to the politically incorrect male heroes of old. Even the incompetent robot double act (voiced by David Mitchell and Robert Webb) which smacks of extraneous vaudeville makes shtick out of their incongruous personalities not just their funny voices. Making characters’ actions easier to understand conversely makes them more authentic rather than one-dimensional. Rather than inject forced notes of pacifism and make him apologise for causing suffering, The Doctor here is allowed to destroy an evil enemy at the cost of life (an animal’s at that!) without the usual dismay and remorse that writers think makes him seem more complex but in fact insults viewers’ intelligence. And villain Solomon (David Bradley) oddly seems more genuinely menacing the more of a caricature of unrestrained capitalism he becomes.

Better than the Empire State Building

But there’s no doubt that what truly makes this episode excel is the performances. Mark Williams‘ deadpan yet emotionally resonant portrayal of Rory’s father is hilarious, observant and poignant, simultaneously so in the penultimate image of Brian enjoying a flask coffee and lunchbox sandwich from Earth’s orbit. David Bradley’s classically styled posturing and vocal intonations held all the gravitas of a great theatrical villain but with the nuance and naturalism to make it credible for the small screen. Solomon’s material and sexual avarice, which struck a discordant note with many viewers, gave a welcome clarity to what should constitute pure evil in the world of Doctor Who. And crucially it did so without spoiling a rollicking good time.



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