Last week robots. This week dinosaurs. Next week cowboys. Did Doctor Who hire a 6-year-old boy named Scooter for the writers’ room?
Before we begin, because I know y’all are sticklers: Yes, I realize the Daleks are in fact armored aliens. But they look like robots, and they move like robots, and they sound like robots, so there you go. Also, I know it’s bad-feminist of me to be all “only boys like dinosaurs” – hey, I staged WWIII with my brother’s G.I. Joes while he inhaled my Sweet Valley Twins series – but it bears repeating: Robots. Dinosaurs. Cowboys. Certainly Doctor Who has begun playing ever so slightly to its growing American audience... but are they imagining that audience in a coonskin cap and carrying a Red Ryder BB Gun?
“Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” was a zippy spot of fun written by Chris Chibnall, who previously penned the Silurian two-parter “The Hungry Earth”/”Cold Blood.” (He also wrote the cute if unilluminating web series Pond Life, which you can watch here.) The Silurians, a race of lizardlike humanoids, figure in here, too, though they appear only briefly.
The Doctor appears to be intentionally phasing out Rory and Amy as his primary companions; he gathers a whole gang for this particular space adventure. At show’s opening, the Doctor’s in Egypt, 1334 B.C., fending off the amorous advances of Riann Steele’s Queen Nefertiti. (His hair’s awfully mussed; one wonders if she got a few licks in.) From there, they zip to an Indian starship in 2367 A.D. where the commander is contemplating launching a missile attack on an unidentified ship that’s on a dangerous trajectory toward Earth. The Doctor has six hours and 19 minutes to avert disaster – and goodness the show does a bang-up job with ticking clocks – so he fills out the gang with a big-game hunter named John Riddell (played by Rupert Graves) and the Ponds... plus one – the Doctor accidentally scoops up Rory’s dad, Brian (Mark Williams), for the ride, too.
The gang arrives on the spaceship, seemingly unmanned and abandoned, save for those top-billed dinosaurs, who roam freely and narrowly avoid smashing the TARDIS to bits with a careless swipe of a tail. The group splinters when the Doctor accidentally commands the central computer to beam him to the engine room, sending him, Rory, and Rory père to a beach. (In a neat trick, the ship is powered by waves.) Unleash the pterodactyls!
Meanwhile Amy, Nefertiti, and the amusingly unenlightened Riddell do some sleuthing of their own, stumbling onto a video transmission from a Silurian that explains the ship’s true purpose as an ark: The Silurians were trying to find a safe planet to resettle the dinosaurs. But there isn’t a Silurian in sight, just a cargo ship (the size of Canada, we’re told) teeming with prehistoric beasts.
The Doctor and his companions have better luck (or worse, I suppose) finding signs of life: They become the prisoners of two squabbling, rusted-over robots, who hand them over to their master, a grizzled pirate named Solomon (played by David Bradley – formerly known as Harry Potter’s Argus Filch and the second HP vet in this ep, after Mark Williams aka Arthur Weasley).
Solomon stormed the ship years ago for its profitable cargo and emptied it of Silurians (exiled to a deep-space death), but then didn’t know how to pilot the thing. The Doctor – unkeen on palling around with a guy who can list piracy and genocide on his CV – engineers an escape on the back of a Triceratops. “Giddyup” doesn’t work – “How do you start a Triceratops?” he wonders – but playing fetch with a golf ball does. Again, something Doctor Who does exceptionally well: Establishing an audience bond with a character – in this case, a drooling hulk of dino with doglike qualities – and making us truly feel the hurt when that character is lost, as our friend the ceratopsid (thanks, Wikipedia!) is fatally wounded by Solomon’s robot henchmen.
Having scanned the ship for moneymaking booty, Solomon demands the Doctor hand over Nefertiti. He balks, but the queen surrenders herself anyway to save the others. Solomon, smacking his dirty-bird gums, admires her spirit, which he intends to break. (“I will break you in with great pleasure” was a little rapey for a show pitched at kids, no?)
And the countdown clock winds down: The Indian Air Force launches their weaponry and the gang has 30 minutes to retrieve Nefertiti, take down Solomon, steer the ship away from Earth and the missiles in hot pursuit. Just another day at the office for the doc: He gets Nefertiti out – though she’s got some sweet moves of her own – and redirects the missiles to Solomon’s ship while Amy and Riddell stun-gun carnivorous dinosaurs and Rory and his dad pilot the ship away from Earth. The episode ends with Nefertiti and Riddell canoodling in the African plain at the turn of the 20th century and Rory and Amy back home, marveling at the latest postcard from Rory’s dad, who’s having the time of his life skipping through time and space with the Doctor – including a trip to a planet called Siluria, where the dinosaurs have been deposited.
This season the Doctor’s revealing quite a musical past: Upon hearing Schubert’s “Fantasia in F Minor for Four Hands,” the doctor claims he supplied the extra digits for “Franz the Hands.”
Looks like the Doctor’s faked death worked: When Solomon’s super-scanner tries to ascertain the Doctor’s market value, it draws a blank. Solomon shrugs: “You don’t exist.”
This episode laid more groundwork for the Ponds’ upcoming exit in episode 5. Amy’s maybe losing her taste for adventure, although she’s certainly conflicted: “Are they the new us?” is her response to meeting Riddell and Nefertiti.
Later in the ep, Amy notes that the Doctor’s visits are growing infrequent:
Amy: “Are you weaning us off of you?”
The Doctor: “You’ll be there till the end of me.”
Amy: “Or vice versa.”
Cue a long, loaded look from the Doctor, one of those wounded numbers Matt Smith does so well. Although Karen Gillan has publicly stated that she hopes Amy’s exit has some finality to it (meaning no wiggle room for future cameos), I’m really hoping this dialogue swatch is just a feint. I will weep if we lose the Ponds.
Up next: “A Town Called Mercy,” wherein the Doctor attempts to prove that in addition to fez hats, Stetsons are cool, too.
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