Sunday, June 16, 2013


Best make it clear from the outset, I’ve built this review almost entirely around a silly joke title. Hopefully Chris Chibnall and those involved in the making of Doctor Who’s Dinosaurs On A Spaceship won’t mind.

And if it doesn’t quite all hang together at the end, well, that’ll be because it was built almost entirely around a silly joke title.

They must have had such larks in the script meetings: yes, it’ll be like Snakes On A Plane but, you know, BIGGER! Take the daftest Hollywood action movie you can think of and really Who it up.

It’s a bold aim and I admire ambition in Doctor Who, but is it real ambition to ape the lowest common denominator of Hollywood output? Especially as Snakes On A Plane was obviously intended as a joke in the first place and a spoof of a spoof runs the risk of producing a Scary Movie to take a 'humorous' poke at Scream. And rather like my thoughts on those lampooning horror in the Scary Movie series, I fear it would have taken a sharper wit than Chibnall to pull it off. By setting it on a Silurian vessel, the writer reminds us what a hash he made of the golden opportunity he was handed previously – namely, to bring back the Silurians in a huge two-parter. Suffice to say, the results were more pedestrian than Silurian.

Here, he’s at least trying to be clever and this should be encouraged because with practice he might get there. Maybe that’s why Moffat keeps commissioning him. (Another one to look forward to this season.) Chibnall pays homage to his employer by preceding the action with one of those very Moffatesque prologues where the Doctor recruits a colourful Scooby gang to aid him in his quest. Except these extraordinary ladies and gentlemen are not in the same league.

We get a one-dimensional Nefertiti and a hunter I’d be tempted to call Alan Eighthmain except he’s not half the man H Rider Haggard’s hero was in his day. Thankfully, we also get Brian – Rory’s dad – and he is a real treat, brilliantly brought to life by Mark Williams. And there’s Rory and Amy, of course, who are great here although we don’t get so much of their shared chemistry with so many others in the mix. Brian, though, is so well established as part of their family you’d think we’d seen him dozens of times before in the series.

Unfortunately, in a 45-minute episode there’s not really the scope for this small army of companions plus a rich and full story. So what we get instead is a pretty simple scenario: spaceship hurtling towards Earth, dinosaurs on board, villain, Doctor has to avert disaster before the military take out the ship with missiles.

So far, so Hollywood.

Various conveniences, contrivances and contradictions have to be bolted on along the way in order to make it work. Which is also, as far as I can gather, how many a Hollywood movie is constructed. After post-production and all that, it’s blasted onto our screens like a fire-and-forget missile.

The structure and mechanics of this particular rollercoaster are all exposed and advertised, along with every loose nut and bolt. There are big and even novel ideas attached to the framework – like the wave-powered engine room that happens to be a beach, an Indian Space Agency guarding Earth and a database that appraises everything in the universe and assigns it a value (“a sort of Argos of the galaxy”). Nice. Everything and everyone is there for a purpose: Nefertiti to provide an alternative prize for the bad guy to take; Brian’s golf balls to get the Triceratops moving; Riddell (Rupert Graves), er, because Chibnall saw Bob Peck in JurassicPark; and Brian so that he and Rory could operate the ridiculous gene-dependent piloting system on the ship – or quite possibly flip that one around: i.e. the ridiculous gene-dependent piloting system is there to give Brian and Rory something to do at the end.

It creaks and groans like a rusty Meccano set and you can almost hear the writer insisting “It will all fit, it will all fit” as he assembles his masterpiece.

Hate to break it to him, but it doesn’t.

In a galaxy where there’s a price tag on everything – including sentient beings – the ultra-mercenary and vile, utterly unscrupulous Solomon elects to revive the Silurians (a race believed extinct) a handful at a time and execute them because the lizards wouldn’t let him have their dinosaurs. They refused to negotiate. Erm, so why not keep them frozen and sell them too?

There’s no record of the Doctor in the Argos anywhere-in-time-and-space catalogue, but he’s clearly known to the ISA in this time zone. Missiles need an alien doohickey to lock onto their (enormous) target but not so vital a part of the ship that it can’t be removed and planted on an alternative target. Internal teleport can transport you anywhere on the ship until you land trapped on a beach beset by pterodactyls when it will emerge that the local teleport has burned out. Comedy double-act robots can’t hit a dinosaur on the run. Yeah, fair enough, bad guys can’t shoot for toffee in movies – but a dinosaur. And why is the Doctor on the run anyway when he later disables the same robots with a single zap?

All of that and more. Plus that small act of pre-meditated murder that ties everything up so neatly for the finale.

Context is everything and I rewatched this about a week after Game Of Thrones Series 3 Episode 9. So I was less bothered, second time round, about the Doctor killing David Bradley in such a callous offhand manner. He gets what he deserves!

Fair to say, the Doctor has acted ruthlessly before so there is a precedent for this – and the episode goes to great lengths to spell out what a total bastard Solomon really is – and Bradley is excellent at playing total bastards. (He has tremendous presence here which goes some way to make up for the way he’s thoroughly underused. But we get to see him as William Hartnell later this year, folks!) So it’s, like, totally justified, right? But... it seems completely at odds with the Eleventh Doctor’s goal of lowering his profile and stepping back from the terrifying figure he has become to his enemies.

It’s also an uncomfortably nasty note that jars with the often juvenile humour – most notably manifested in the Mitchell-and-Webb-bots, but also in the sexist and sexual quips (you can’t call them innuendo) from the likes of Alan Eighthmain.

There are flashes of better humour and Amy’s especially good at shooting down the chauvinism. The comedy intention is clear, but while Graves does well with the material handed, the character (for want of a better word) has none of the warmth or charm of, say, a Brigadier. Similarly, pause for a moment and compare Nefertiti with Liz 10. Barring a few elements, it’s all sub-par whether you stand it alongside old Who or new.

More than a Hollywood actioner, this feels like a return to the Graham Williams era of Who (Invisible Enemy or The Horns Of Nimon – not City Of Death), with only a fraction of the wit and none of the subtlety. Instead of Douglas Adams on script duties we appear to have, I don’t know, Jimmy Carr perhaps. The kind of comic who tells a gag then looks smugly around to draw attention to just how funny and clever he’s been. Not very, Jimmy.

Ultimately, it is only intended as a romp. But it’s not Hollywood enough to pull that off.

Its absolute crowning glory is right at the end, where Brian sits in the TARDIS doorway and sees the world. Just before finally travelling off to see the world. Thank heavens it has that at least. And it was worth the risk of taking a second ride on the dodgy rollercoaster for that.
That aside, I think I’d rather have overambitious rubber dinosaurs in a richer, more susbtantial story than the CGI creations in this shambles.

Next Time...

A Town Called Mercy.


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