Saturday, September 08, 2012

Dinosaurs On A Spaceship: Old Gods, Almost Dead

Yer actual Chris Chibnall his very self has written three previous Doctor Who episodes, the decent-enough-in-its-own-way real-time saga 42 and the 'it took a while to get there in the end, but the last quarter of an hour justified its existence' two-parter The Hungry Earth and Cold Blood. His scriptwriting work elsewhere - on Torchwood, Life on Mars, Law & Order: UK, the superb football drama United and Born and Bred - suggests that Chibnall is, above all else, a writer of big ideas, often huge engines of destruction, and some quality but one who can, on occasions, struggle with other people's characters. (His first Life on Mars episode for instance is, by some distance, the worst characterised of that show's extraordinary first series.) Chibnall's stock dramatic set-up often involves characters confronted by a race against time (that's certainly been the underlying theme of both his previous Doctor Who stories and it runs through much of his other work too. Yes, even some of the Law & Order episodes). It's also a useful thematic starting point for Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, his - hysterically over-the-top titled - first contribution to Matt Smith's third series as The Doctor. Sound and fury amidst some gorgeously eye-catching visuals. And running. Lots and lots of running. With very little standing still.

'Time flies. I never understood that phrase.' Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, however, is Chibnall's best Doctor Who script - again, by a distance - because it features something that both of his previous stories for the series flirted with but never quite got a balance of. Humanity. And, Dinosaurity, I guess. A series of scatter-gun time-hopping sequences beginning in 1334BC (where The Doctor has just saved the nation from a 'weapons-bearing giant alien Locust', apparently) and ending it in the far future where, it would seem, the Indians are in charge of space (at least there'll be plenty of good food up there) kick-off an episode in which The Doctor has six hours to stop some missiles doing a fair bit of damage. And, he subsequently discovers, save some dinosaurs from said missiles. Dinosaurs, therefore, on a spaceship. So, it's an episode which - rather like last week's - can't really  be done under the trade descriptions act. Oh, and The Doctor's also got a gang. 'I've never really had a gang before. It's new!' The gang being, frankly, rock hard. An Egyptians queen, a big game hunter and Amy and Rory. And Rory's dad. 'We just found dinosaurs in space, we need to preserve them.' 'Who's going to preserve us?'
Dialogue has always been one of Chibnall's best features and, again, this episode features loads of memorable lines: 'What sort of man doesn't have a trowel? Put it on your Christmas list,' Brian Williams tells his son. 'Dad, I'm thirty one, I don't have a Christmas list,' replies Rory. To which The Doctor cheerily replies from the other side of a 'humming' beach that isn't a beach, 'I do!' Other highlights include Amy's: 'I've spent enough time with The Doctor to know when you enter anywhere new, push a button!' Then, there's The Doctor's: 'Humans! You are so linear!' And: 'Spelling it out is hereditary. How wonderful!' And, possibly my favourite line of the episode: 'Try not to bump into the moon or the races who live there will be livid!' Viewers will have known that Chibnall has always had the ability to, if you will, bring the funny, from his Torchwood episodes (notably Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang) but seldom before have the jokes been as sustained, as well-executed and, most importantly, served the plot so well. 'It's better than golf!'

The episode also had a warmth and a compassion that the author's work has previously shown only flashes of. It featured not only dinosaurs on a spaceship (or, a space ark, technically), but also camp bickering and incompetent robots, Silurians, a pirate and mass murderer, clever exposition, a BDSM reference, a naughty sequence involving golf balls and, some superb characterisation. Of particular note is the way in which Chibnall managed, in very little time, to establish a beautifully nuanced relationship between Brian and Rory (and, by logical extension, Amy). Mark Williams - a terrific comedy actor with a cult following from his numerous creations in The Fast Show - pulls off a tricky tightrope walk between an innocent abroad ('I'm not entirely sure what's going on!', 'I have literally no idea what he's talking about!') and a series of sharp, pithy one-liners. Of the episode's other two major guest stars, Rupert Graves gets less to work with in terms of depth of characterisation with his Allan Quatermain-style Mighty White Hunter, Riddell. But, what the character lacked in terms of logicality, the charm and spirit of the Sherlock actor's performance more than made up for. 'You know what I want more than anything?' he asks, gun in hand as he is about to stun some raptors. 'Lessons in gender politics?' suggests Amy. Yet, Queen Nefertiti (a nicely rounded turn from Riann Steele), clearly takes a shine to him. After all, what girl can resist a man with a gun and penchant for spanking?

And then there's the great David Bradley playing a really nasty villain - his best since Stemroach in Ideal - with his customary nostril-flaring horribleness. Solomon is one of the slimiest characters The Doctor has crossed paths with in a long time - 'Argos for the universe', he notes - and the veteran actor obviously has a lot of fun throwing in one-liners of casual menace with over-the-top glee. Like, for instance: 'Injure the older one!' As Solomon's nasty plans become apparent we see another example of the way in which Matt Smith is The Doctor (possibly apart from Tom Baker) best able to portray white hot anger almost out on nowhere. Slowly building, held in check for long after any normal person would have exploded in a volcano of spluttering incandescent fury and then, suddenly, a flash of the real thing. 'I'm a very emotive man.' Solomon's robots are voiced by Robert Webb (the big, lumbering, not particularly funny one) and David Mitchell (the little, whiny, repressed one who says: 'We've very cross with you!' like somebody trying, and failing, to do an impression of Kenneth Williams on Hancock's Half Hour). But, hang on dear blog reader, didn't Mitchell use one of his regular, vastly up their own arse, podcasts in the Gruniad Morning Star a couple of years ago to pour scorn on the virry idea of 'grown-ups' continuing to watch Doctor Who? That didn't stop him, we're presuming he considers himself a grown-up, taking the production team's money, it would seem.

So, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship works on most levels. As one of Doctor Who's more unusual and amusing conceits ('now, what do we do about the things that aren't kestrels?'), as an introduction to new characters and new avenues to be explores ('Brian Pond, you're delicious'), as a not-overly-obvious metaphor for conservation and, much more. It worked. It told a story with pace and wit. In lesser hands it could have been mawkish and trite but it was never that. Of course, a few of The Special People - those who've had all the joy and passion sucked out of their worthless, hollow existence - will probably find a reason to hate it. Their loss, frankly. As a stand-alone piece, the episode had easily enough in its forty five minutes to satisfy even the most rabid of fanboys. But, in a couple of stray little scenes, we get, potentially, glimpses into the series' future. 'You'll be there to the end of me,' The Doctor tells Amy. 'Or visa-versa' she replies. That might just be the most important line of the series so far and the look on The Doctor's face when he realises the full implications of what she's - unconsciously - saying, speaks volumes. So, a happy ending, then, for most of the characters and all of the dinosaurs. Well, except the one Solomon's robots killed. But for how much longer will it remain happy for a couple of Ponds?
For today's Keith Telly Topping's 45 of the Day, here are some more dinosaurs. Get yer hair cut whilst you're fiddling with that Moog synthesizer, young man. Several, almost extinct, creatures died to bring you those coats.