It’s been a long while since I’ve reviewed Doctor Who, and those who follow me on Twitter probably know why, but suffice it to say that I don’t really enjoy writing strongly negative reviews, I enjoy even less doing so for a show to which I am strongly attached, and I really don’t enjoy writing the sort of review that might attract vitriol in response a) because it’s very negative about something a lot of people like, and b) because it’s about sexism.
I’m reviewing Dinosaurs on a Spaceship because it’s the first episode in a long time that did not make me very angry at some level. In point of fact, I really enjoyed it.
To be clear: this is not an episode that’s gonna go down as one of the great classics. The comedy was a little forced and the general tone was very silly, but it was great fun, and largely not offensive. It’s such a relief to be able to say that about an episode of Doctor Who again.
And let’s make no bones about it: ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’ is a fantastic concept for Doctor Who. One might have written a much more nuanced and intellectual script on the concept, but you didn’t have to. It’s a concept that will make kids and old hardcore geeks alike clap their hands with joy and start bouncing off the walls of the Internet. If you’re onto something that will please both kids and fans of the classic series alike you don’t really need to do a lot else but make sure that your script is relatively inoffensive. If we hadn’t endured the second half of the last season that might be damning with faint praise, but in contrast it’s just… it’s just really, really nice.
And it wasn’t just about dinosaurs in space. I was always a fan of the crowded TARDIS – Davison’s era is a favourite of mine from that point of view, although I know it bothers some people. When the Doctor has just one companion it does funny things to him, and funny things to the script. I was relieved when Rory became a regular feature of the TARDIS, but this episode went multi-companion in a delightfully spectacular way. It threw itself into the idea with great abandon and with largely good results. We had: Amy (Karen Gillan), Rory (Arthur Darvill), Rory’s dad (Mark Williams), Nefertiti (Riann Steele), and a big game hunter named Ridell (Rupert Graves). And the Doctor has apparently specifically pulled them all together because he fancies having a ‘gang’ along for the ride, and because he thinks they will each appreciate the wonder of dinosaurs on a spaceship (that, and Nefertiti was unwilling to be left behind).
I’m going to try and keep the spoilers small, so I won’t tell you why there were dinosaurs on a spaceship, but the reasons were fun and interesting, tying back to events and peoples the Doctor has met before in both New and Old Who; again, lending the episode broad appeal. But I will say that he’s in a race against time to save the dinosaurs before the spaceship they are on is blown up by missiles launched by an Indian space agency in defence of the Earth.
Rory and his dad are delightful, and Mark Williams is a perfect match. Whilst the gags based on a bumbling-but-always-prepared picture of dad-hood are rather obvious, they are performed to perfection. He’s also not the only familiar face. David Bradley is delightfully grizzled as the opportunist, Solomon, who wants to steal the dinosaurs to sell. David Mitchell and Robert Webb also cameo as a pair of daft and somewhat whiney robots.
It’s always a delight to be entertained by Mitchell and Webb, and they were certainly suitably cast, but whilst it sounded like they were having great fun (well, you would, wouldn’t you?) the whiney-robot jokes were rather predictable and fell a little flat. It all felt oddly Douglas-Adams-esque, which I’m sure was intentional (what with the complaining robots and wacky shenanigans in space) but didn’t quite hit the spot there, either. All the same, it was harmless, gentle humour that I’m sure would have delighted children, who are not as cynically familiar with such material as me. I enjoyed the nod to Adams even if it didn’t 100% pay off.
There was some reasonably well-executed gender debate, the range of characters allowing different attitudes to be expressed, although, to be honest, Amy and Nefertiti might have been interchangeable on that front. A point Moffat has been criticised on before, although this episode was penned by Chris Chibnall and not Moffat himself. That said, Amy fell less flat for me than she has for a bit, being allowed to take control of herself and others in ways that have nothing to do with her reproductive system. Both Nefertiti and Amy bounce off the sexist Ridell, and although for Nefertiti the sexism descends uncomfortably into flirting, Amy offers a nice counter-balance by looking askance at this. Moreover, between Rory, his dad, Ridell, the Doctor, and Solomon there are a wide variety of expressions of masculinity on display, and it’s very clear that Ridell marks an exception (and even he seems willing to change his mind).
The one moment that struck a raw note for me was one in which the covetous Solomon refers to Nefertiti as an object to be possessed, owned, and sold. Yes, it was clear that it was only her uniqueness and historical fame, not her gender, that made him respond so, but with the recent history of the series I really didn’t need to see a plot about a woman being treated literally as an object and in danger of being sold as the property of a male, in need of rescue from the Doctor. Such a plot has the potential for use in a context of sensitive and careful writing, but I mentioned that this was not an episode marked for that style of writing, right? It’s balanced, to some extent, by the resolution of that plot, but it still made me… uncomfortable.
Overall, Soloman’s plot is one markedly concerned with the Evils of Capitalism. It’s a little heavy-handed, but I remember what it was like to be a kid opened up to such big ideas and challenges to societal norms. It’s an interesting and important thing that science fiction does particularly well, and I’m OK with it’s use. I’m OK with Doctor Who taking on the big debates of the day and introducing them to children, the way I was introduced to the ideas of environmentalism by Silent Running. And if, as an adult, it started to feel a bit too much, well, there were always the dinosaurs.
Overall, the episode was fun and inoffensive, with some big fun concepts that are totally correct for Doctor Who. Definitely worth a watch, especially if you’d been as disheartened with the show as I had last year.
Excellent review, I agree with you on almost all points! What really made me uncomfortable about the Solomon/Nefertiti story line was the specific exchange about how Solomon would “enjoy breaking [her].” It’s a line I would never in a million years expect from a Doctor Who episode as it implies an act that would, prior to Moffat’s run, NEVER even be referenced in the Who universe. Sure, they’ve had some tragically sad things happen on this show and in the original Who series, but never anything as monstrous as the act Solomon was implying in “breaking” Nefertiti. As you say, it’s sickening having these female companions, temporary though they may be, serve only as damsels in distress. But to have them portrayed as the types of victims where their innate femaleness makes them vulnerable to such traumatic misogyny is unforgivable from a show of Who’s caliber.
I didn’t think it referenced rape, just breaking her spirit, which I think countless Doctor Who villains have promised to do to companions and the Doctor alike in the past. I never had any sense that Solomon sexually desired her – he was all about the profit. I was more uncomfortable about the symbolism of treating a woman as an object; I didn’t have any sense that she was being treated as a sexual object, however.
I would have to respectfully disagree. The line went something like “I will break you with immense pleasure” along with a lascivious little smile and an overhead shot of Nefertiti pinned against a pillar which, disgustingly, was straight down her lowcut dress. Yes, she was being seen as an object in that scene but it was obviously as a sexual object (at least in my opinion). Hey, maybe we should give Solomon the benefit of the doubt and believe that he had absolutely no sexual interest in Nefertiti (he did refer to her as an “it” and a “possession” after all). But there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that the SHOWRUNNERS and DIRECTOR where trying to sexualize Nefertiti in that moment, which is disgusting. In this day and age when most TV/movie villains are OF COURSE talking about rape when they utter the disgusting threat about “breaking” a woman, I think it was utterly irresponsible for the Powers That Be to use that particular combination of words whilst using such a sexualized shot of Nefertiti, even if we are to believe that SOLOMON was not thinking about rape. Especially as this show is starting to get a reputation for putting its female characters through physically traumatic events centered around their woman-ness just for the sake of furthering the plot. They used to take care of their female characters much better than that.
Agreed; that statement was way too rapey for a show that claims to be aimed at children and is unpleasant to most adults(I hope) as well. It especially disappointing in a modern era show about the ‘whole of time and space’ showing a 1960’s sexploitation feel. So women will never be free of objectification, even thousands of years later? Great lesson for all those little buys and girls. I’ve loved the return of some more pure geeky sci-fi to the series, but the sexualization and ‘boys having fun’ feel is really turning me off to the series. Some of the stories may have been a little silly, but at least in the Tennant run, the doc’s romances were amongst equals. Most of the time, the genders of the characters could have been swapped without changing a line. Now, even if the girls are competent, they’re stereotyped. Amy can’t drive, pretty girls wear eye-candy outfits, and the Queen of the Nile is threatened with rape and with a spanking. And then she sleeps with the man who threatened to . . .
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