There was a lot of pressure on ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’ to buck the trend of series 6 and break the curse of the second story. Last year’s aptly named ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’ had proven an, at best, average and ultimately forgettable filler-in between installments pertaining to the overall story arc. Thankfully, and despite a completely comedy name, ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’ proved that a good story can shine free from such constraints.
From start to finish, this is a good old-fashioned adventure romp, launching us headlong into the action with the Doctor making an attempt to high-tail it from Ancient Egypt with a somewhat enamoured Queen Nefertiti in tow (played to haughty perfection by Rhiann Steele). He is called into the future to investigate a mysterious spaceship that is hurtling towards Earth and is given six hours to investigate it before the authorities destroy the ship. What does he need? A gang, that’s what. Hence, rapid pick up of an Edwardian explorer John Riddell (Rupert Graves), before finally materialising the TARDIS around Amy, Rory and, in a show-stealing appearance by Mark Williams, Rory’s somewhat bemused father, Brian. Landing on the spaceship and immediately investigating, they discover, yes you guessed it, dinosaurs – on a spaceship. What are they doing there? Where are the crew? Why is the ship hurtling towards Earth? The whole concept is thoroughly insane, but hugely entertaining.
Matt Smith’s Doctor, free from the angst of the sixth series, has tremendous fun here and the whole affair is incredibly camp, with the Doctor, Rory and Brian escaping from two bickering robots on the back of a willing triceratops at one point. The whole concept of ‘dinosaurs on a spaceship’ runs the risk of feeling incredibly gimmicky, (imagine being given that as a concept and told to run with it), but what could have lost its novelty value very quickly does not, mainly because the dinosaurs are only one part of a much larger plot, meaning that what could have become a boring ‘run and hide’ script has many more twists and turns. It soon becomes apparent that the dinosaurs are only the cargo of a race steeped in Doctor Who lore, and the ship has been hijacked by a black market trader called Solomon, portrayed to sinister perfection by David Bradley, who attempts to manipulate the Doctor for his own ends by brutally maiming his companions and mercilessly slaughtering his cargo when the Doctor refuses to cooperate.
The bizarre combination of characters and plot lines means that ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’ relies on much more than a simple plot-device. The chemistry between the members of the Doctor’s ‘gang’ is solid and fun to watch; the acting from the big guest stars (Graves, Bradley and Williams) is top notch and certainly a highlight; unlike ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’, the guest stars have a script and story worthy of their inclusion. If nothing else, the episode is worth watching simply for, as one Twitter user put it, Harry Potter’s Mr Weasley (Williams) sitting in the doorway of the TARDIS in Earth orbit munching a sandwich.
Another thing which ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’ demonstrates is the inventive energy and epic episodic nature that Stephen Moffat promised us. Yes, there are some predictable elements (such as the obligatory velociraptor encounter which no dinosaur escapade since Jurassic Park can be without), but other elements capture the fantastic originality on which Doctor Who thrives so well, such as the engine room built to resemble a cliff-ringed beach, complete with menacing pterodactyls hell-bent on tearing apart the Doctor and his companions, or the bizarre, almost organic, design of the spaceship. This is a virtual tour de force in terms of special effects and inventive science fiction at its best.
Nevertheless, ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’ will likely not have been to every Doctor Who fan’s taste, probably due to the Doctor’s uncharacteristically steely resolution of the situation, which may not sit comfortably with all. Indeed, this is not the only dark undertone to the story; tantalising references are also made to the upcoming departure of Amy and Rory, with Amy questioning the Doctor’s motives in not seeing them for ten months, and the definite hint that the Doctor is hiding some fore-knowledge of his companion’s permanent departure from his life. (Remember rule one; the Doctor lies). Nevertheless, the episode certainly deserves high praise for the way it takes on a bizarre concept and not only gives it an original twist, but maintains an energetic pace and momentum whilst also telling an intelligent story. Perfect Saturday night entertainment.