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New Who 7.2 Dinosaurs on a Spaceship

As I said earlier in the week, I’ve been busy (though happy!) lately, and so am horribly behind with Doctor Who reviews. I’m writing this up while on a train to London, where I will deliver a workshop on Space and Ancient History for school-teachers (which might as well be called Space, Time and Ancient History, since you can’t really talk about space without talking about time). An appropriate context for writing about a Doctor Who story with an Egyptian queen in it, I think. Obviously, I‘m writing this with the benefit not only of having read many other people's reviews of Dinosaurs, but also of seeing it with the hindsight of A Town Called Mercy. I've tried to acknowledge the effects of both of those where relevant. I also haven't yet seen The Power of Three, let along The Angels Take Manhattan, so I don't know where they will take us. As for my last review, I've grouped my thoughts under thematic headings.

Overall writing / plotting

Like most people, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of this episode, give that it's a Chibnall job. It helped a lot that the whole set-up of the episode had signalled that it was meant to be silly, so that it didn't matter anything like as much as it did in Asylum of a Daleks if some things didn't make much sense or were pointless plot-loops - like suddenly needing two members of the same gene chain to operate some equipment, just when they happened to be directly to hand.

Time and history

Much like The Wedding of River Song, this story offers us a temporal mish-mash. Time isn't actually folding in on itself in this story, but we get dinosaurs, an ancient Egyptian queen, an Edwardian adventurer and a 24th-century space agency. The numerical dates which they all come from are displayed prominently on the screen - a standard technique for orienting your audience, of course, but I think done here also partly to emphasise the range of periods which are interacting. We're never told exactly when the Silurian ark left Earth, but clearly it is several tens of millions of years BC, while the other guest characters give us 1334 BC, AD 1902 and AD 2367 - and that's not to mention Amy, Rory and Brian from some point in what is obviously still meant to be the early 21st century (though it's far from clear exactly when). It's not a 'historical' in the standard sense of the term, since it is set in Earth's future, not its history. But it is clearly a story which deals profoundly with the relationship between different chronological periods.

And this time, Egypt makes a very different contribution. In my talk on Doctor Who, the Romans and Us at Leeds City Museum last October, I pointed out that while the whole problem which the Doctor has to solve in The Wedding of River Song is that every culture throughout time is simultaneously alive, Egypt nevertheless appears in that episode only in the capacity of a dead civilisation. We see pyramids and sarcophagi, but no living Egyptian people - even though we are seeing pterodactyls, Romans, etc. My suggestion at the time was that this reflects the main ways in which we tend to encounter Egyptian culture in the present – via pyramids, mummies and funerary treasures. The result is that our most powerful impressions of Egyptian culture are to do with death, and hence even in a story which is about all historical cultures being alive simultaneously, they are still represented only by the trappings of death.

But I’m going to have to adjust that theory now! Maybe I wasn’t the only one to point out the oddity of the absent Egyptians in Wedding, and this episode is the answer to that oversight? Even now, though, it’s still fair to say that the Egyptians have appeared quite late in the day in new Who. Indeed, it’s only their second ever direct appearance in the programme’s whole 50-year history (after episode 9 of The Daleks’ Master Plan), though of course Pyramids of Mars draws very heavily on Egyptiana to create a plausible alien culture. Compared to the Romans, who have been very prominent in new Who, Egypt still isn’t getting much of a look-in – though this story probably does mean that the Egyptians have pulled ahead of the famously-unfilmable Greeks.

The particular figure we have here, Nefertiti, is an interesting choice, suggesting a bit more thought than just going straight for Cleopatra. She does seem to be channelling Cleopatra in her very first scene, though, appearing as the sexually-voracious exotic eastern queen familiar from the Augustan poets. And on the whole she felt to me rather like a character from Horrible Histories - a complex individual crystallised down to the one thing they are most famous for, and never really doing or saying anything which doesn't relate to that. Here, she’s the woman who ran a kingdom in a male-dominated world – and actually, any historical woman who’d done the same thing could have served exactly the same role in this plot (Boudicca or Queen Elizabeth I, for example).

Amy’s reaction to Nefertiti is fascinating, though: “Oh my god, queen Nefertiti! I learnt all about you at school - you're awesome!” This felt very Classic Who to me – almost right back to the days of Barbara knowing all about the historical cultures she encountered because she was a history teacher. We’ve already seen that Amy was interested in history as a child, keeping a book about Roman Britain by her bedside, so it looks almost as though she has picked up Barbara’s old role here – and perhaps a character like that really is needed in a period when the programme is making a lot of use of history, as Moffat is. Back in the mid-60s, the historical stories of course related directly to the conscious educational remit of the programme, and there’s a marked element of that here too. Just before Amy’s comment, Nefertiti has in fact introduced herself with a brief biography, for the benefit of anyone who hadn’t followed the same syllabus. But with Ancient Egypt now included at Key Stage 2 of the primary curriculum and as a very popular option on new Ancient History GCSE syllabus, not to mention the impact of Horrible Histories, perhaps part of the reason Egyptian characters can reappear now for the first time since Barbara’s day is because younger viewers can be assumed to have some familiarity with them once again?

Guest characters

So this episode had a lot of them – as the Doctor says, he has a gang (though it’s not really new – Ten had one by the end too!). But the word was worth dropping into the script here, because it evokes the jolly adventure gangs of Just William and the Famous Five, which is very much what this story is up to. And as I’ve said above, between Nefertiti and Riddell, you’ve got the Horrible Histories vibe, too – like an end-of-episode song-and-dance number.

Obviously I’ve already talked a bit about Nefertiti above. Her initial appearance clothed in the character of Roman racist and misogynistic stereotypes about Cleopatra was a bit disappointing, but I felt she got a lot better pretty quickly. She was strong-willed, independent, resourceful, brave and selfless, especially in her interactions with Riddell and Solomon. And it was great to see her getting the better of both - Riddell verbally and Solomon physically.

John Riddell himself reminded me very much of Flashman, and was as much a story-book cliché (as opposed to plausible individual human being) as Nefertiti. But that’s the level on which this episode was operating – it needed simple, vivid characters to have an adventure together, and it wasn’t pretending to be a deep character-driven drama. A gung-ho hunter is just the ticket in that context. Riddell is a product of his misogynistic time, of course, but the dialogue allows plenty of room to show him up as such. And I liked the fact that it was Nefertiti in particular who challenged him, because that undercuts the (rather harmful) idea that we are somehow inevitably progressing steadily from an unenlightened past to a golden future – not true at all, and having a 14th century BC woman call out an Edwardian man for his sexism helps to get that across.

Some people have complained that it is demeaning and unrealistic for Nefertiti to go off with him at the end, given his attitudes, but it didn’t seem that way to me. She has made it perfectly clear that she’s not going to take any nonsense from him, and he seems to have accepted that by the end. I think within the context of their own relationship, they will be fine. He also shows over the course of the episode that he has plenty of very good qualities which might well attract her – he is brave, resourceful and good-humoured. And his willingness to accept Nefertiti as an equal actually makes in itself an important point about how sexism works. There are plenty of men who are capable of treating the women they know personally perfectly decently, but still maintain negative stereotypes about women generically. Maybe Nefertiti will help him work on those.

Brian obviously was awesome, adapting to his strange circumstances very quickly, and I particularly loved the way the story ended with him being inspired to travel the world after having seen it from space. Indira from the Indian Space Agency didn’t get much screen-time, but she seemed pretty cool, and while we shouldn’t still need to hand the BBC cookies for portraying Indian women as strong, competent and professional, since we very obviously do I am happy to let them have one.

Solomon and his death

Solomon needs a separate entry, because his death in particular attracted such controversy when this episode was first aired – although of course it’s far too late for me to say anything original about it, and besides the issue has been somewhat eclipsed by the Doctor’s dealings with Kahler Jex in the next story. His treatment of Solomon clearly wasn't just a random aberration, but part of what this series is trying to do with the Doctor’s character.

Solomon is different from Jex, though, in that he is portrayed as an unambiguous baddy – and that’s kind of disappointing, because it is actually pretty unusual for Doctor Who to do this. One of the reasons the Doctor doesn’t usually kill people is because the programme has always put a lot of emphasis on presenting rounded characters who aren’t such pure villains that this can be justified. But this episode is full of simple two-dimensional characters, as I’ve said above, and this is where following the Famous Five template too closely becomes a problem. You end up with a cardboard cut-out Bad Guy. He’s tricked his way onto the Silurian ark, murdered its inhabitants, uses violence to get what he wants, and strongly suggests he intends to rape and generally subjugate Nefertiti. I found the line “I will break you in with immense pleasure” truly skin-crawling, and although I don’t usually see much in Doctor Who which I think is unsuitable for children (as opposed to a bit confusing for them), I really did wonder about that one. Even in the mouth of an out-and-out villain, it seemed pretty ill-advised to plant the idea that anyone might treat women like that in young minds.

The Doctor’s quip as he sends him to his death, “Enjoy your bounty,” has been rightly compared to Six's acid bath scene, although the general set-up also reminded me of the Fourth Doctor at the end of The Ribos Operation, quite deliberately planting a bomb on the Graff Vynda-K and letting him go off into the catacombs to be blown up. I also thought that the Doctor's earlier line, “Did the Silurians beg you to stop?” sounded very vengeful and self-righteous, and back into Lonely God territory. He’s certainly passing judgement here. Of all the theories I’ve seen about what is supposed to be going on, I like Millennium Dome’s idea that this is all part of the after-effects of the Doctor being exposed to Dalek nanogenes in Asylum best of all. It would certainly make sense of one of the seeming plot-holes from that story. In any case, together with his treatment of Kahler Jex the following week it is clearly meant to be part of a longer plot-arc.

Awesome bits

The Doctor showing his appreciation for a suggestion from Rory with a huge great smacking kiss right on the lips. Rory looked a bit non-plussed after this, but only in the way children do when their aunts kiss them. There were no stupid jokes about it (for once).

Rory and Brian flying the ark together - I know the gene-chain thing was silly, but the set with the two chairs, screens, head-phones and hand-sets, and the dialogue between them was all very clearly designed to evoke a family living-room games-console session, and I thought that was funny and a really nice touch.

Past continuity

As I said at the start of this review, although this episode is set in the 24th century it deals profoundly with Earth's past. And I’ve also said before that Doctor Who stories which deal with real history also tend to be more-than-usually interested in the programme's own history - and this is very true here. So we get:
  • Egypt – inevitably recalls previous appearances in The Daleks' Master Plan, Pyramids of Mars, sort of The Wedding of River Song.
  • “Spiders. You don't normally get spiders in space.” But when you do they can be very dangerous, as the Third Doctor found to his cost.
  • “I'm not a taxi service” – a complaint also voiced by the Fifth Doctor to Adric in Earthshock.
  • The concept of a space-ark – recalls the The Ark, The Ark in Space.
  • Dinosaurs recall Invasion of the Dinosaurs, Carnival of Monsters (the Drashigs), Warriors of the Deep (the Myrka).

And perhaps less deliberate was the fact that the beach in the engine rooms of the Silurian ark was too obviously the same one where the TARDIS lands outside the Byzantium crash-site in The Time of Angels / Flesh and Stone.

Future implications

I wasn’t the first to spot this, of course, but lightbulbs are an obvious theme this season. One was fritzing just before Amy got 'acquired' by the Daleks in Asylum, Brian is fixing Amy and Rory's lights when he and Rory are collected by the Doctor – and of course they are going to be important in Town, too. The signposts are prominent already in this story – we get a portentous close-up of the bulb which Brian had been holding smashing on the TARDIS floor, and at the end of the story Rory comments that he thinks something is wrong with the fitting. We’re being told that there is a profound problem with lights in this season, not just an ordinary burnt-out bulb. And for all I know, The Power of Three has already shown us what it is.

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( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 30th, 2012 12:54 am (UTC)
'Meant to be silly'... my first instinct is to react against this, but this would be to emotionally reject the substance of the remark rather than to engage with it. Someone elsewhere considered how far Dinosaurs on a Spaceship raised the issue of how many narrators Doctor Who has. To employ a metaphor, this 'tale of the Doctor' was related around the great camp fire by someone with a different relationship to storytelling than, say, the narrator of 42 (to distance the question from the 'real-life' scripting).

As for the lightbulbs, I think that story has some distance to travel, or I hope it does.

You've described the Solomon problem very, very thoroughly here; while he provided some of my favourite scenes, his pawing (literal and otherwise) of Nefertiti was gratuitous and didn't quite work in the way I think the production wished.
Sep. 30th, 2012 09:51 am (UTC)
Ooh, yes, I like your point about narrators. That's come up quite a lot this season, as with Amy voicing the narrative introduction for The Power of Three (which I have now also seen - but not Angels yet). It isn't new, of course - e.g. Rose famously narrated to us how she has 'died' in season 2, and of course it is a staple of many Big Finish audios. But it seems to be increasingly of interest to the producers of the main TV programme, and I bet an interesting paper could be written about its effects on how we understand the stories we are seeing.
Sep. 30th, 2012 08:38 pm (UTC)
Angels takes the narration issue a stage further, with its use of a book and different voices to relate the story told in that book.
Oct. 1st, 2012 02:07 pm (UTC)
You know I think there is a really interesting series after the 50th anniversary when it’s safe to go a bit strange where the Doctor narrates the whole series but we see the action as it really it, or rather we see it from the point of view of his companions. A bit or unreliable narrator, or perhaps unreliable experiencer with elements of how the Doctor views himself compared to how he is viewed by other people.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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