With the weightier turns of its recent seasons and its emphasis on complicated dramatic arcs, it’s sometimes easy to forget that Doctor Who began as a program for children and that in many ways still works best as just that. David Tennant and Matt Smith in particular have brought a childlike sense of wonder to their portrayals of The Doctor, a centuries-old being who’s never lost his sense of wonder or his ability to be astonished. And what’s more astonishing than dinosaurs on a spaceship? For one hour at least, nothing. The appropriately titled “Dinosaurs On A Spaceship” puts the Doctor, the Ponds, Rory’s father, and—because why not?—a great white hunter and Queen Nefertiti on an intergalactic ark hurtling toward a future Earth prepared to blow it out of the sky. The Doctor’s goal: Save the animals (and anyone else who happens to be on board). It’s a simple premise that Chris Chibnall (a veteran of the revived show since “42” in the third season) keeps it frothy and kid-friendly, however loaded with sexual innuendo. And then, in the home stretch, “Dinosaurs On A Spaceship” takes a darker turn. Just because the show is—on some level at least—for kids doesn’t mean it doesn’t remind them that the grown-up world can be tough and unforgiving, even fatal. And that even The Doctor sometimes has to conclude that some people are just bad.
But first: fun. The episode opens in 1334 BC where The Doctor is, yet again, fending off the sexual advances of an attractive woman, in this case Nefertiti (Riann Steele). Then it’s off to 2367 AD, where the Earth’s protectors have to make the hard choice about destroying an out-of-control spaceship. The Doctor needs help so why not bring in an explorer (Rupert Graves), and the usual companions (with Rory’s dad, played by Harry Potter’s Mark Williams, in tow)? True, it’s been 10 months since The Doctor last saw the Ponds and The Doctor doesn’t really know what’s in store, but when has that stopped him?
“Dinosaurs On A Spaceship” doesn’t wait to bring out the dinosaurs, but that’s not all the Doctor and friends find on board. There’s also a self-contained beach powering the ship. And some short-tempered robots. And somebody more dangerous than either of those two passengers in the form of Solomon (David Bradley, also of the Harry Potter film series), a ruthless pirate who’s taken over the ship from its Silurian crew.
Despite its novel premise, “Dinosaurs On A Spaceship” isn’t averse to formula, falling back on the default device of splitting up the characters and letting them wander around darkened corridors, encountering perils at each turn. But, done right, the formula doesn’t fail, and it’s a treat to watch Rory bond with his less-than-adventurous dad while Amy winds up in the middle of an odd flirtation between the hunter and the African queen, whose attraction seems to be rooted at least partially in their shared vanity. Though their characters could pretty easily be extracted from the story, Steele and Graves liven up every scene in which they appear. It would be a shame if The Doctor didn’t pay them another visit down the line.
It’s one of the lightest Doctor Who episodes in some time—complete with dinosaurs chasing golf balls—until it’s not. Solomon, it turns out, is one nasty piece of work. In some ways he’s a mirror image of The Doctor, using his ability to explore space purely for self-serving reasons. Maybe that’s why, in what has to be the most chilling moment in the revived show, The Doctor simply lets him burn. Or maybe it’s because he killed the dinosaur in cold blood. Because anyone who could do that probably deserves to burn.
There’s a bit of a bait and switch with this episode: Come for the dinosaurs, stay to see The Doctor make a hard decision. Stay, too, for intimations that things are about to take a turn for the worse. Disappointed that The Doctor hasn’t been around in a while, Amy suggests he’s weaning the Ponds off of him. No, he reassures her, it’s not that. But something’s not right. The “You’ll be there to the end of me”/“Or vice versa” exchange is uncomfortable. So, too, the look in The Doctor’s eye when the Ponds announce they’re going home. That the Ponds aren’t long for the show is no secret. But could they be headed toward something other than a happy ending?
All that’s ahead, however. And where this week’s episode played in parts like an homage to Jurassic Park, next week’s looks extremely Westworld-y. Someone must have been brushing up on their Michael Crichton.
- Best exchange of the night: “Are you also a queen?” / “Yes…. Yes I am.” Whatever Karen Gillan does next, here’s hoping it makes good use of her gift for wry line-readings.
- Moon racists?