This week’s Doctor Who started in the same manner that the previous episode ended–with a question. A very old question. One of the oldest, in fact.
How many Ponds does it take to change a lightbulb?
The answer, of course, is three: two to hold the ladder and one to promptly find himself on a spaceship full of dinosaurs, adventurers, and an Egyptian queen and be the only person in the room who’s not sure what’s going on. Was there supposed to be a lightbulb in there somewhere? Never mind.
How many Ponds does it take to change a lightbulb?
The Pond in question isn’t actually a Pond (unless you ask the Doctor), but a Williams. Actually, he’s sort of a double-Williams: Mark the actor portraying Brian the Rory’s dad. And for someone who has just time-traveled while standing on a ladder, he’s taking it all very well. Sure, he gets rather frustrated whenever he’s on vacation, especially when it’s a surprise vacation full of pterodactyls, but he’s remarkably accepting of the truth of what’s around him, and goes from shouting at the Doctor to digging away at the beach in the engine room in a matter of seconds.
Mark Williams (also known as Ron Weasley’s dad) isn’t the only Harry Potter alum to provide entertainment in this episode–he must share the honor with villain-of-the-week David Bradley, the cranky Hogwarts caretaker–or as we know him better here, Solomon the would-be black market dino dealer. Bradley’s performance is arguably the best of the story (aside from the always hard-to-beat Matt Smith).
This is unfortunately counterbalanced by a not-so-stellar show from his two sarcastic and childish robot minions (voiced by David Mitchell and Robert Webb), who are only funny for their first couple of lines. That may be my only true complaint about the entire episode.
It’s about time we discussed the triceratops in the room. And the ankylosaur. And the tyrannosaurus rex. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t expecting a story about dinosaurs to be all that good. Call me boring, but I’ve never found the giant lizards of yesteryear to be very interesting; I thought Jurassic Park was something of a snooze-fest. Turns out that all one has to do to make terrible lizards exciting is launch them into space.
This isn’t the first time these prehistoric beasts have left their mark on Doctor Who. They notably appeared in London in the Jon Pertwee story Invasion of the Dinosaurs, and the Fifth Doctor adventure Earthshock revealed that the real cause of their demise was not an asteroid, but a space freighter hurtling toward the planet. Dinosaurs on a Spaceship also sees a vessel on a collision course with Earth, but this time, as the title would suggest, the reptiles themselves are on board.
And how magnificent the episode is as a result! It’s a real adventure, a proper romp, the likes of which Doctor Who has been sorely missing lately. It simultaneously fulfills Moffat’s promise of feeling like a great big blockbuster movie, and brings us back to the good old days of classic Doctor Who, full of poking around and investigating, companions being separated from the Doctor, people running down corridors, and frustratingly blatant CGI (the show’s modern technical issue in lieu of the mostly long-gone wobbly sets).
It would be wrong not to mention the elements that add to the grand spectacle of it all. Three blokes being chased by pterodactyls on a beach that looks suspiciously similar to Bad Wolf Bay (fun fact: it is). Amy and Riddell gunning down velociraptors. Trying to “start” a triceratops with a light karate chop. Rory losing his crown as the only new series long-term companion not to have shared a kiss with the Doctor (did you see the look on his face?!).
Ancient Egyptian Queen Nefertiti (Riann Steele) and big game hunter John Riddell (Sherlock‘s Rupert Graves) were nice introductions to the Doctor’s “gang” and added an extra dynamic to the story that made it bearable, nay, enjoyable to watch even when there were no dinosaurs to be seen. I for one would like to see them back on the show in the future (particularly Riddell). A possible return was hinted at near the end with the two characters pairing up in the African savannah for texting and scones. Or something.
The final act gives us an unexpected glimpse at the Doctor’s dark side, when he uncharacteristically sees to it that Solomon meets a rather bitter end while Amy and Rory aren’t watching. For at least the third time since Who’s 2005 return, it seems that the producers are exploring the concept of what happens to the Doctor when he’s allowed to roam around on his own for too long without someone to hold him back.
The plot is neither so simple that it’s insulting nor so complex that it’s confusing, and it certainly isn’t too weighty and dramatic to be entertaining. Effectively, it’s Cold Blood meets 42 with dinosaurs, which proves to be a recipe for awesome. I would even go so far as to say that this is the best story yet from writer Chris Chibnall (42, The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood). Leave it to Chibnall to work the Silurians into his dinosaur narrative, even if only for a brief appearance. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; Homo reptilia might just be one of the coolest “new” (read: reworked) Doctor Who species of the Matt Smith era.
All, in all, I’d call Dinosaurs on a Spaceship a win. That makes us two for two going into the third round of the season. Who’s ready for a cyborg spaghetti western?