Doctor Who series 7 episode 2: Dinosaurs on a Spaceship - Spoiler-Free Review
It's got dinosaurs on a spaceship in it. Sorry if that spoils it.
Air date: UK: 8 September, 2012, BBC One
I've never written a spoiler-free review before, so bear with me if I make a hash of things and reveal too much of the plot. I'm relying on our illustrious editor to check my copy and make sure I haven't given away too much - such as that glorious joke about the Kandy Man and his perigosto stick five minutes in. Oops.
For me, Asylum of the Daleks didn't deliver. After the enormous, and frankly rather tiresome, BBC publicity machine going on and on about seeing every Dalek ever, in the end we hardly saw them. Thanks, cliched gloomy corridors. Thanks a lot.
But this second "min-epic" (what the hell does that mean anyway?) is thankfully far more satisfying, chiefly because it existed in the shadow of the headline-grabbing opener. Of course, the title made its own headlines, with its cheeky nod towards the straight-to-video zombie flick Snakes on a Train. So - we can be sure of two things. There are dinosaurs. And there is a spaceship.
What else do we know, from the trailer and non-spoilery previews? Well, there's an Egyptian queen (looking rather like Alex Kingston in certain shots), there's Rory's Dad (looking like that bloke out of Harry Potter in every shot) and there's that overlooked actor who played Lestrade in 21st century Moffatt/Gatiss reboot Sherlock. There's also David Bradley, also of Harry Potter fame. He does a great job here as a genuinely nasty alien trader and, occasionally, the spitting image of Patrick Troughton from The Two Doctors. We're rarely given proper villains in nu-Who - God knows why - but this is an old-school baddie who's pitched just the right side of Gorgonzola.
Chris Chibnall's script sparkles from the opening lines. This, beware, is a script that is filled with jokes and innuendo. Well, rather more than innuendo in one exchange that probably would have been vetoed from a Talbot Rothwell Carry On script for being too coarse. But with Mark Williams saying it, it does have a certain charm.
The story jumps across three time zones. The threat (the spaceship on collision course with Earth) happens in 2367. Before that, we briefly glimpse 1334 (when Nefertiti, played by the ravishing Rian Stelle, joins the Doctor) and 1909 (when the Doctor meets big-game hunter Riddell, played with panache by the aforesaid Rupert Graves). Like a lot of Moffat-era Who, the pre-credits sequence is edited like a fast-moving trailer, with the story itself settling down to a slightly less frenetic pace after the grungy new opening credits.
The spaceship setting is misleading. The way its designed and lit, it could be a cave, an underground bunker or a vast alien city. In that sense, having dinosaurs prowling through it does not seem too jarring. If it was a T Rex in an ultra-clinical white spacecraft like, say, Moonbase Alpha from Space:1999, that would have been more surreal and therefore more memorable. Fans of dark, dingy sets inhabited by torch-bearing actors (see most of the Moffat era) will be happy here.
Newcomer Saul Metzstein's direction is visually striking, without being tricksy. He never labours the humorous moments and Murray Gold's score, although offering us nothing new, does a great job of complementing the action. Whose spaceship is it? That would be telling, but when you find out, the inclusion of the dinosaurs makes perfect sense.
As to the title creatures, breathe a sigh of relief, fandom. Some of the CGI in recent years has been rather shoddy, but here the various species of dinosaur are all very well rendered. I'm guessing it's a mix of animatronics and computer stuff, and it all gels rather well. The Mill probably just used off-the-shelf software from any of the innumerable dinosaurs shows that pepper our schedules nowadays (Walking With Dinosaurs, Living With Dinosaurs, Eating With Dinosaurs, Newsnight), but it doesn't matter, because at least they look realistic. Even the sequence when they ride the Triceratops, which thankfully looks better than in the trailer.
What else to say? Unlike Asylum, there's no real angsty soul-searching between Rory and Amy. They're very much back to their wise-cracking antics of Season 6. Whether that's good is a matter of personal taste. Matt Smith - until now an actor I've been rather uncertain of - is finally nailing his version of the Doctor, and he's every bit as good in this as he is in Asylum. There's a naturalism, and an authority, to his performance that I've struggled to find in his first two seasons. As head of the ISA (which presumably stands for the Indian Space Agency, and not the Independent Safeguarding Authority, although actually that would still work), Sunetra Sarker, off of the ghastly Casualty (1986-the end of recorded history) is credible in a small, but important, role.
Listen out for references to a famous dead West Country science fiction author, a hilarious pair of ex-circus clowns, the Doctor's astrological sign (probably), a joke specially aimed for a certain alien race and the line, "What do we do about those things that aren't kestrels?" There's a nod to Terry Nation and a massively contrived plot point that will make you wince. How the spaceship - apparently made of bones - is powered may surprise you too.
Dinosaurs on a Spaceship is an easy-to-like exercise in how to write a great story for a wide audience. It reminded me, perhaps bizarrely, of Disney's remake of 101 Dalmatians, which I had to watch endlessly with my two children when they were younger. Both stories are exciting, funny and full of wit, and both move along at a fair old crack. Dalmatians on a Spaceship if you will.
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