Dinosaurs on a Spaceship

I was gearing up to compare this episode to “Invasion of the Dinosaurs,” the 1974 Doctor Who story where a cultlike organization scooped dinosaurs from the distant past to present-day London in order to incite an evacuation. I had expected that the older story’s combination of a provocative plot with some of the saddest rubber-monster special effects the show had ever seen would be inverted here, and I wasn’t far off.

Except that this story isn’t really trying for provocative, and a better comparison might be with 1979’s “Nightmare of Eden.” In that story, the monsters are actually cargo, more cute than scary (though not for lack of trying); the plot turns on one ship that’s gotten stuck inside another; and while the story has some serious themes at its heart (then: drug addiction and smuggling; now: piracy, mass murder, living things exploited as chattel), it’s largely played for comedy.

Comedy isn’t normally what we get from Chris Chibnall, but as the “Pond Life” minisodes demonstrated, he’s not bad at it. For every good joke he’s got at least one lame gag (verging on Scooby-Doo territory) though as we now know, Matt Smith can make absolutely any line work. The supporting cast is nearly as capable, featuring two Harry Potter alumni, a Sherlock inspector, and two actual real-life comedians voicing robots. And of course there are Amy and Rory, who’ve spent the better part of an Earth-year working out their marriage problems and are back to domestic bliss, hopping seamlessly from changing light bulbs (it takes two Ponds and a Williams, in case you’re working on a joke) to working alien machinery they’ve never seen before.

In case I went too far with spoilers last week, I’ll keep silent about which aliens built the spaceship and put dinosaurs on it, but once we find out who, the why becomes fairly obvious, and the situation doesn’t seem at all contrived. The presence of Queen Nefertiti does, a bit, and contributes one of two sour notes to the episode (the other being the oddly bloody-minded Indian defense force). She’s yet another historical figure who can’t keep her hands off the Doctor (along with Franz Schubert, apparently), and not only is that joke wearing thin, it feels especially disrespectful somehow in this case. Worse, “Neffy” spends most of the episode either flirting with the big game hunter the Doctor’s brought along or being objectified by the owner of the second spaceship, which probably won’t help the reputation the Moffat era’s getting for a somewhat retrograde approach to female characters. Speaking of that big game hunter: why did the Doctor bring him along? Even if he’d known what he’d find on the ship, it’s not as though he’d ever condone dinosaur hunting, except in self-defense and with stun rifles. It’s almost as though his glimpse into Nefertiti’s future mainly involves setting up a blind date.

By far the best member of the Doctor’s “gang” this time out is Rory’s dad, the very quintessence of dadness with his pockets full of emergency trowels and grass-stained golf balls. He and Rory get some nice, unforced moments together, including one where we see Rory apply his medical knowledge. We also see Amy looking more down-to-earth, having given up modelling and excessive makeup and hair, just being (okay, just a tad unrealistically) smart and capable.

There are a couple of serious moments. The Doctor seethes coldly at the villain of the piece over the latter’s avaricious and repticidal tendencies in a way that seems appropriate though not especially interesting. And he has another third-act heart-to-heart with Amy, this time about her inability to keep a job (because she expects at any moment to be whisked away in the TARDIS for an adventure), that ends with an exchange that’s not surprising but is surprisingly chilling. Assuring Amy that there won’t come a time when she’ll wait for him and he’ll never come back, the Doctor grins, “you’ll be there till the end of me.” “Or vice versa,” Amy replies with a smile. Then they both realize what she’s said, and the smiles falter.

But mostly it’s funny and cute, one for the kids, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s a relief that this is just entertaining and not a train wreck of self-indulgence. But I’m hoping Moffat has some depth saved up for later in the season—another “Doctor’s Wife” or “Girl Who Waited,” perhaps, something thought-provoking for the ever-increasing percentage of Doctor Who fans who are adults. Don’t get me wrong, I love dinosaurs, they look fantastic in this, and I would have been happy with twice as many dinosaur scenes. But to invert a Doctor quote from the classic series: there’s no point in being childish if you can’t be grown-up sometimes.