Doctor Who: Dinosaurs on a Spaceship review

SPOILER ALERT! Patrick Mulkern gives his take on a cracking romp... with a secret

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Doctor Who: Dinosaurs on a Spaceship review
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Patrick Mulkern

“Dinosaurs! On a spaceship!” – the Doctor

As a long-termer who bitterly remembers from 1974 the cringe factor of crummy puppets featured in Invasion of the Dinosaurs (an otherwise well-scripted Jon Pertwee/Elisabeth Sladen serial), it’s a delight and relief to see Doctor Who achieving them so brilliantly on screen.

Of course, convincing dinosaurs are de rigueur now (after Jurassic Park, Walking with Dinosaurs, Primeval, endless docs on National Geographic…) and if this latest episode isn’t exactly wall-to-wall with prehistoric creatures, the ones we do see are flawlessly realised, via a mixture of CGI and practical effects. 

I needed a little help in identifying them all and have it on authority from Doctor Who producer Marcus Wilson that the pair at the start, bashing around with big tails, are ankylosaurus. The pterodactyls are immediately obvious – except, amusingly, to the Doctor: “What do we do about the things that aren’t kestrels?” Then there’s the sleeping baby T rex… 

Marcus Wilson reveals that this scene was nearly dropped because it was initially conceived to feature CGI raptors, which the budget couldn’t afford. But “then Millennium FX realised they’d still got a baby tyrannosaur from a sort of Walking with Dinosaurs exhibition they’d worked on, so how about if we used that?” I assumed the critters fended off by Amy and Riddell were also junior T rex, but Marcus and writer Chris Chibnall assure me that those ones are velociraptors.

Tricey the triceratops (Tracey on set) is a lovable creation, rescuing the Doctor’s party and nuzzling Brian’s nether regions – or at least his pockets like a hound scenting a biscuit. But then she’s zapped to extinction by robots. I thought that was below the belt; younger viewers will surely be blubbing. Marcus admits: “Mmm, we debated long and hard over that, yeah.” 

“This is an ark. It was built by the Silurians. They were looking for another planet” – Amy

We’ve seen space arks in Who before (The Ark 1966, The Ark in Space 1975 and The Beast Below 2010). In a fresh slant, it’s not humans escaping cataclysm on Earth, but the previous “owners” of the planet, the Silurians. Yes, Silurians, the one detail I was asked to withhold before transmission.

Chris Chibnall is steeped in Silurian lore, having reintroduced them in The Hungry Earth in 2010. And here they pop up again “as a little treat”. He says the idea came up in a discussion with Steven Moffat. “I think he said maybe it’s a Silurian spaceship. And it’s a nice reveal and shows you more about them, even in a story that isn’t really about them.”

They’ve always enjoyed advanced sciences: hibernation machines, a molecular disperser, rock-melting eyes, force fields... Last year, in A Good Man Goes to War, they added teleportation, and now a gigantic space vessel. Of course, we’ve always known they keep dinosaurs. Watching their 1970 debut, Doctor Who and the Silurians, I was petrified when Jon Pertwee’s Doctor stumbled across a T rex in a cave, actually quite a good monster for the time (a full body suit). But I’m still trying to forget the Myrka, an appalling panto-lizard from Warriors of the Deep (1984).

“Did you hear what he called him? Doctor! After all this time” – Solomon

A clever touch from Chibnall makes us think that Solomon is an old adversary – but no, he actually wants “a” doctor. And, unusually, the Doctor shows he’s learnt a few things about surgery. Long gone are the days when he would rebut inquiries with a testy, “I’m not a doctor of medicine!” Indeed, here he makes a lame old man walk again.

There’s been a dearth of decent villains in 21st-century Who, but Solomon is magnificent, nicely judged by David Bradley. Since playing Rogue Riderhood in Our Mutual Friend (BBC 1998), he’s become the go-to man for seedy miscreants. Bradley’s a class act with such striking features and is surely a strong contender to play William Hartnell in the forthcoming drama about the early days of Who. Let’s start the campaign here! 

“This is the gang. I’ve got a gang. Yes!” – the Doctor

Companion chronicles everywhere are being hastily rewritten. Not only are the Ponds building towards a dramatic exit – and heaven knows what fresh surprises River Song will spring in episode five – but last week we met Oswin, and now the Time Lord has gathered a whole gang of allies.

They instantly add colour to the deserted spacecraft and the line-up reminds me of the Doctor’s posse in A Good Man Goes to War (the Sontaran nurse, fat blue Dorium, the Silurian Victorian and her maid). Here, Queen Nefertiti thrusts herself breathily upon the Time Lord; he then seeks out Edwardian big-game hunter, John Riddell, and inadvertently materialises the Tardis around Rory’s dad, Brian and his stepladder.

Perhaps, we can dismiss Neffy and Riddell as one-offs, but what of Brian? He’s clearly just had many travels in the Tardis, off screen yes, but evidenced by Rory and Amy’s postcard collection. And he’s back in episode four. So Brian Williams, played so winningly by Mark Williams, must qualify as a companion, mustn’t he..? 

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