5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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DINOSAURS ON A SPACESHIP
Jeez, this is a tough one. The first time we saw it we hated it, but on seeing it again we could see it wasn't as bad as we first thought. As well, there's stuff in here that doesn't appeal to us but we can see an audience for it. On the other hand, it's still got some steep downsides. Conclusion? We're not sure we can draw one.
What's wrong with it, anyway? Isn't it a fun romp? And it has dinosaurs in it! Who could hate a dinosaur?
Not us. Although personally we find the idea of dinosaurs on a spaceship a bit yawnsome, there's nothing actually wrong with it, and we know lots of people enjoyed them. Which is excellent, and we only wish we were them.
So sure, nothing wrong with the dinosaurs. And as well, there's a really really good thing in here: the performances by the guest stars. David Bradley must be the hardest-working actor in the UK: he's in bloody everything, and deservedly so. He doesn't disappoint here, either. In fact, we'd go as far to say that his performance is so superlative that it sells the character of Solomon as one of Doctor Who's great villains. On the page, the character couldn't have been drawn more broadly: he's evil down to his toenails. However, Bradley miraculously manages to introduce enough nuance to make him more than a pantomime villain. And the evil? Is utterly, chillingly believable.
Mark Williams as Rory's Dad also turns in a creditable performance. If Williams is completely within his comfort zone in this part, that's OK. Brian doesn't have the pathos that made Wilf such a great character or anything, but that's not Williams's fault, and he makes Brian a credible Pond.
Rupert Graves is an actor we have a lot of time for, but he has a higher hill to climb here than the others because his character is a sexist oik and an animal-slaughterer to boot. However, Graves could charm a snake, which God only knows is necessary with this character, and he throws himself headlong at this, extracting as much success from it as humanly possible.
In short, the actors aren't a problem. And the dinosaurs aren't either. So what drags this episode down? It is, one hundred percent, the script.
We haven't exactly been charter members of Chris Chibnall's fan club when it's come to his writing for Doctor Who and Torchwood. Has Dinosaurs On A Spaceship changed our minds? Um...
Much of it's workmanlike, granted. Gets the job done: not brilliant, but not egregiously terrible either. We like the spaceship powered by waves, for example, and they also get points for the transmat reference. What's really clunky, however, is the massive unevenness of tone. It's as if a psychopath, a five year old and a clown are taking turns with the pen. It's not to say you can't have light and shade: in fact, Matt Smith demonstrates again that he's a master at turning on a coin between wit and something very dark indeed and making both totally believable. But it's how you do it, and Chibnall does it very badly.
Take the robots, a.k.a Mitchell and Webb in a can, for instance. Douglas Adams made a whiny robot too, but did he then make that whiny robot turn round and take a piece out of Zaphod Beeblebrox? Did he heck as like, because that would have been too jarring. Ahem.
Or the triceratops. We're not going to quibble with the scene where they ride it very slowly away from the equally slowly plodding robots, because Doctor Who is a family show and there's nothing wrong with the odd scene here and there being just for the kids. However, if you've set up an adorable dinosaur and got all the kids in the audience to want it for a pet, your next move should never, ever, for the love of God be to kill it. We were crying ourselves, so God knows how the six year olds took it. That's not edgy, dark storytelling: it's just blundering and cruel.
Also sitting very uncomfortably amongst the dinosaur rides and funny robots is the inclusion of "adult" material (we're using scarequotes there because we happen to think violence is likely to do a lot more damage to impressionable young minds than sex ever will). Cosy family scene with adorable dinosaur! Grassy balls! Imminent death! Large weapon! Seriously weird tonal shifts.
Of course, when we say sex isn't going to do any harm, we're not including sexual violence. And before we get onto that specifically, we have to say we're very disappointed with the character of Nefertiti.
OK, good on them for casting a woman of colour. Given that the famous statue of her shows quite clearly that that's what she is, you'd think they could hardly do anything else, but since there's a long and unhappy tradition (not just on Doctor Who specifically) of white actors playing black parts that's hardly a given. And they go out of their way to show that she's feisty, spunky, liberated etc. That's more of a mixed blessing.
First of all, how likely is it that an ancient Egyptian, queen or not, would behave in this way? We've said before that that's a big problem we have with the new series in general: supposedly historical characters are invariably totally anachronistic. It's as if they've thrown all of history into a meat grinder and all that comes out is the same artificially-flavoured paste.
And secondly, how tired are we of so many of the supposedly strong women on Doctor Who being depicted in a single mode? Feisty, dismissive of the men around them, flirty with whoever they happen across: it's like they're stamping them out with a cookie cutter. We're sure that in depicting them as sexually liberated they're convinced they're making a laudable feminist statement: nice enough in itself, but the trouble is that they're in danger of having this backfire, ending up simply objectifying them.
And Nefertiti is the worst example of this yet. Yes, we know they're trying to draw a contrast between the way Solomon refers to her as an object and a possession and her refusal to accept that. All very well and good. The problem is that the script is objectifying her just as much as Solomon is. We first see her overcome with lust for the Doctor. The next man on the scene is Riddell, and despite the way he treats her, she can't help but flirt with him too. (We think the lines about Riddell wanting to put her over his knee are Chibnall's idea of sexy banter. God help us all.) The only attitude he shows toward her is one of total objectification, yet she ends up in a relationship with him anyway. In this context Solomon's attitude is simply more of the same: at least he's straightforward about wanting to own her.
And also, to rape her. No word of a lie, Solomon's lines about the pleasure he was going to get from breaking her in made us want to throw up. Is there room for this kind of stuff on TV? Of course. Does David Bradley sell some pretty clichéd phraseology? Undoubtedly. Do we think this kind of dialogue belongs in the middle of a more than usually family-oriented adventure? Absolutely not.
The rape threat isn't the only darker material, of course. The Doctor not only leaves Solomon to die but actively engineers things so he does. Do we have a problem with this? Not really. It's hardly without precedent: after all, the Doctor has offed whole civilisations before now. And while we're not supporters of the death penalty, they do go out of their way to paint Solomon as entirely evil, and as a result we don't find ourselves too exercised about him being removed from the universe.
It's quite a nice story for Amy. It's good to see her taking the lead in working out what's happened to the Silurians. Rory doesn't have anything new to do, but Arthur Darvill makes what he does do a pleasure to watch as always. We could do without the ever so heavy hints that bad, bad things are coming down the pike for the Ponds, but we guess it's legitimate foreshadowing. As with much in this episode, it's not how we'd write it, but then they didn't ask us to.
Nope, we're no closer to a conclusion. We think the best we can do is that we didn't like it much, but if you did, we're not going to argue.
MORAL: If you're going to take a nap, lock the door.
Remember Snakes On A Plane? And how we all thought that was a funny and clever title? And how we all thought it was funny and clever when they used the exact same joke with Dinosaurs On A Spaceship? Oh, actually, not that last part.
INVASION OF THE DALEKS
Doctor Who's had a hilarious track record in the past of giving the game away in the title as to who the villain's going to be. It seems that this season they're going one better: Asylum Of The Daleks's Doctor Who title contains Dalek bumps and this one has Silurian skin.
A FISH OUT OF WATER
All that frantic running away from the pterodactyls is undercut by the fact that they were actually fish eaters. Still, we suppose Rory does look just a bit like a cod...
We know we don't like it when Amy slaps Rory, but the way the Doctor does it is sheer genius.
THAT'S NOT NICE
Love the Doctor's face after Solomon tells him he flushed all the Silurians out an airlock.
THEY COULD AT LEAST SHOOT THE ROBOTS
OK, so Solomon is about to take Nefertiti prisoner. In their desperate quest to point out she's not the object Solomon thinks she is, they have Neffy insist on going with him rather than having Merrill (or Amy, her gun's just as big as his) shoot him. Right, so she'd rather be taken into slavery than…let someone trank the slaver…no, still not getting it. In what universe does this make sense?
PUT IT ON AUTO, I'M GOING TO THE LOO
The ship needs to be piloted by two beings with the same gene chain? Why didn't they just shout "Blah blah blah horrific plot contrivance!" and sit down?
One minute Amy's all "Don't kill the dinosaurs!" and the next she's laying about her with glee with what looks nastily like a taser and saying they need to be re-extincted. Lovely.