“They’re just people, they’re not Ponds. I thought we might need a gang. Never really had a gang before. It’s new.”
One could easily argue that because of its premise, Doctor Who is the ultimate realization of the television format. It is a show where anything and everything is possible, for the main character can literally go anywhere in the entirety of space and time. He and his friends – who can be drawn from any point in the history of the universe – can have every sort of adventure imaginable, be it outlandish or grounded, and the show can therefore conform to different genres, styles, or tones each and every week, if not within the same episode. Doctor Who has such limitless possibilities, in fact, that even after fifty years of production episodes are only sometimes as boundlessly imaginative as the premise allows them to be.
I am overjoyed to report, then, that Chris Chibnall’s Dinosaurs on a Spaceship is that rarest of episodes, the kind of endlessly creative thrill ride that could only exist in the infinitely astonishing world of Doctor Who. Show-runner Steven Moffat has given his writers free reign this season to go as grand, sweeping, and cinematic as they wish, to explore the outer limits of Doctor Who to their fullest, and Chibnall, it seems, is absolutely up to the challenge. He has written an endlessly inventive, ridiculously fun hour of television, one that easily stands among the best Who episodes of the modern era.
The sheer number of big, crazy ideas Chibnall incorporates in his script is staggering. Just looking at characters, we have four new major players: Queen Nefertiti of Egypt, early 20th century chauvinist hunter John Riddell, Solomon the sleazy space pirate, and, of course, Rory’s father Brian. All those alongside our established central trio, thrown together on a really cool spaceship that is a little unlike any other vessel seen on Who. A ship that is home to two very rude, very British robots, along with, as the title suggests, a whole lot of dinosaurs.
Each element of the story comes from a very different genre or fictional background – history, adventure novels, blockbuster epics, etc. – and the pre-credits sequence introduces them all in five utterly manic, madly compelling minutes of content. Chibnall is clearly aware here of how many divergent ideas he’s tossing at the audience, and the nonstop energy is what makes the intro so fun. We’re being thrown through various historical periods, sets, and character introductions without any time to catch our breath or question the downright oddity of the situation. It’s exactly how the Doctor himself operates. Thus, once all the characters are together and the dinosaur-based situation is introduced, an invigoratingly surreal tone has been established, one Chibnall can run with for the rest of the hour.
Run with it he does. Dinosaurs on a Spaceship is an adventure episode, a lighthearted affair meant to entertain to the fullest, and the key to the episode’s success is the way Chibnall allows all the various personalities, tones, and genre sensibilities to clash with one another for comedic or dramatic effect. Consider how Brian Williams’ presence subtly changes things, adding a proper, parental shadow over the zany proceedings. Or the contentious way Nefertiti – a proud Egyptian feminist – and Riddell – an equally proud sexist pig – play off one another while a bemused Amy tries investigating ship records between them. Or how the extremely silly, stereotypically rude robots – an idea that could have been pulled from a Douglas Adams book – are cast as the most formidably violent opponents. The contrasts are endlessly clever, and they could only exist in the world of Doctor Who, where it’s possible to put an Egyptian Queen, an old-fashioned hunter, a stuffy British handyman, and a loopy Time Lord together.
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