Look, I know Matt Smith hasn’t exactly been on top form this season, but honestly…
Monthly Archives: September 2012
Picture the scene. It’s October 1993, and we’re in the middle of the first run of Red Dwarf VI. Already this is a show that’s past its prime; series IV and V have been wondrous, and VI is intermittently hysterical, but the cracks are already beginning to show. It’s still a few years before Chloe Annett springs forth from her parallel universe, bringing a wealth of “Does my bum look big in this?” angst with her, and in the meantime everyone is talking about an episode called ‘Gunmen of the Apocalypse’, in which the crew get chucked into a western.
For one reason or another, this is an episode that I don’t see: I am otherwise engaged and the video recorder is not working. It’s a pity, everyone tells me; it was hysterical, and the scene in the saloon was supposedly fantastic. ‘Gunmen’ goes on to win an Emmy, but it will be the summer of 1994 before I manage to catch a repeat. And when I do, I’m confused as to what all the fuss was about. It’s funny, in places, but it’s gimmick TV: sci-fi western with Cassandra’s dad from Only Fools and Horses, containing little in the way of decent gags, and a lot of general silliness as a substitute for an actual plot. It was as if Grant and Naylor thought Red Dwarf in the wild west would be enough, and while there are amusing moments the whole is infinitely less than the sum of its parts.
And so to ‘A Town Called Mercy’, Saturday night’s Who, and an episode that can best be described (as diplomatically as possible) as irredeemable shit. Not just substandard, or patchy, but dull, tedious shit. Toby Whithouse’s Who output has been of variable quality, ranging from the enjoyable dross of ‘School Reunion’ to the forgettable vagaries of ‘The Vampires of Venice’, but I’d thought – with ‘The God Complex’, which is in my top five post-revival stories – that he’d finally hit his stride. And then we get this: a collection of clichés by someone who admits that he’s never written a western before and thus felt it appropriate to drop in as much in the way of by-the-numbers scenes as possible. All the usual suspects are here – the sudden silence when the trio enters the saloon, the young man apparently destined towards a path of violence, the population sign with numbers crossed out, and the gleeful undertaker who’s never short of business. All that was missing was a whore with a heart of gold propping up the tavern bar, and a bunch of Mexicans firing their guns in the air.
Doctor Who has done westerns before, of course, even if Whithouse hasn’t. The First Doctor went there in 1966, but that was back in the cardboard set days. On this occasion he gets to go to Almeria, doubling for the town of Mercy. The Doctor eagerly strides into the local watering hole, and of course you could cut the atmosphere with a knife. The Doctor’s reaction is to adopt a third-rate Western drawl and order tea – “the strong stuff…and leave the bag in”.
This is not clever. Nor it is funny. When Rimmer walked into the bar in ‘Gunmen’ and asked for a dry white wine and Perrier, that was funny. This was gratuitously stupid. It more or less sums up Smith’s performance, which is wildly schizophrenic in a manner not seen since ‘The Twin Dilemma’: he’s either playing a dark and serious Doctor overwhelmed by moral choices and a sense of brooding anger (more on that in a moment) or a comedy Doctor who consistently fails to amuse. The script doesn’t help, but even when given lines that could have raised a chuckle Smith just isn’t trying very hard this week, assuming instead that the setting will be enough, when it frankly isn’t.
Smith may be second-rate, but he at least gets something to do, which is more than may be said for Gillan and Darvill – both abandoned, for the most part, to the sidelines. Rory’s job is to argue with his wife about ethical dilemmas and to run away a bit (essentially he’s Shaggy with brains). Meanwhile, Amy gets to be the voice of reason and conscience, and demonstrate that she really doesn’t know how to fire a gun.
It’s as if ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’ never happened. It is Amy who is left to acquaint herself with Kahler-Jex, a ‘doctor’ whose craft has ‘crash-landed’, allowing him to ingratiate himself within the community and develop something of a reputation as a scientist and miracle worker amongst a community anxious to protect him from the mysterious Gunslinger. Amy’s determination to help Jex is fuelled by what is possibly the worst dialogue exchange since ‘Doomsday’, just after she drops a blanket round his shoulders:
Jex: You’re a mother, aren’t you?
Amy: How did you know?
Jex: There’s kindness in your eyes. And sadness. And ferocity too.
Seriously, no one talks like this. Not in westerns. Not in prime time drama. Not even in Bonekickers. Amy asks Jex if he’s a father himself, to which the not-so-cryptic response is “In a way, I suppose I am”, which makes the rest of the episode – including its denouement – painfully obvious.
While all this is going on, the Doctor is out in the desert on a horse with two names – ‘Joshua’ turns out in fact to be called ‘Susan’, and we are told that “he wants you to respect his life choices”. This is the sort of clunkiness I thought we’d left behind when Davies finished his run – I’m all for jokes like this when they’re woven into the fabric with some sort of coherence, but this sticks out as an Obvious Statement like a sore thumb. We learn all this because the Doctor can speak horse. Well, of course he can. This is crying out for a tumblr page called Doctor Wholittle. (And if it gets made, I get dibs on the naming rights.)*
Oh, I was rolling around in my seat when he said “I wear a Stetson now”. It was even better than the Fourth Doctor telling K-9 to shut up. Unrivalled genius. Anyway, all this comedy is just a precursor to the moment where the Doctor gets to clamber on top of an enormous Kinder Surprise.
(Inside: a little plastic spaceship, in two parts, with a set of self-destruct stickers, and a website where you have to register your email address if you want to deactivate the mechanism.)
I’m skipping all over the place here. I haven’t yet mentioned Isaac, who is the gruff-but-decent Sheriff who you know won’t make it to the final reel, played with competence by Ben Browder, of Farscape and Stargate SG-1.
Also present: Biggs Darklighter, no less, playing Abraham the undertaker.
The Gunslinger himself is your standard cyborg fare, with a stiff walk, a big gun, a voice box Stephen Hawking would kill for and a passing resemblance to Peter Weller, which can’t have been a coincidence.
He also has Terminator Vision, albeit with a touch of Predator about it.
But all this is basically leading up to the Big Scene where Amy shouts at the Doctor. A future YouTube favourite, this epitomises what’s happening between Pond and Doctor in this series: Moffat’s having Amy and the Doctor explore as many facets of their relationship as possible just before the final separation (terminal or not) in a couple of weeks’ time. J.K. Rowling did basically the same thing in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince with Harry and Dumbledore – as the two moved from father / son closeness through a series of reprimands, co-conspiracy and then outright anger, finishing as more or less equals. Having them go through the emotional wringer more or less signposted the inevitable ending of the book, and in the case of Doctor Who it’s clear that in series seven, one of the dominant themes is What Amy Really Means To The Doctor.
The other theme, of course, is darkness – the Doctor’s mercy or lack thereof being the prime example. The fugitive Jex is a Nazi war criminal trying to atone for his ‘sins’, except, as the Doctor says, “You don’t get to choose”. His decision to prioritise the bloodlust of the victim over the rights of the criminal edge the episode into social commentary area, but ‘A Town Called Mercy’ is too short to really make this work, and the result instead comes across rather like ‘Boom Town’ – in which the Doctor faced a similar ethical dilemma, and which featured dialogue of similar quality.
“This is what happens,” Amy tells the Doctor as he brandishes a firearm, “when you travel alone for too long”. And indeed, we’ve just found out that the Doctor is now 1200, a decision that was presumably made to allow for bucketloads of Big Finish material (although, as Gareth points out, they’ve managed to squeeze in dozens of Fifth Doctor / Peri stories between ‘Planet of Fire’ and ‘The Caves of Androzani’, suggesting that “this sort of thing doesn’t worry them”). Anyway, this new revelation about the Doctor’s age leads to a lengthy deleted scene in which the people of Mercy decide to give him the bumps.
There’s a bit of squabbling outside the jail, where the angry mob arrives to take Jex out of town to leave him for the Gunslinger to discover. The Doctor’s having none of it, of course. And the next time we see him, he’s in the middle of the square, and it’s High Noon, and as the Gunslinger appears it’s apparent that the Doctor has come up with A Clever Idea. We are spared the A-Team style montage of assembly or preparation, and we have to work out what’s going on at the same time as the Gunslinger. I’m guessing that behind the scenes, the conversation went a little like this.
Doctor: Right. Here’s the plan, folks. First of all, I want some black marker pens. And some Jammie Dodgers, but they can wait. Pens first. Then I want you to sit and copy out the design on the side of Jeks’ head. Paint it on some of the townsfolk. It’ll confuse the cyborg and he won’t know where to shoot.
Rory: Hang on, you’re ripping off The Three Amigos?
Rory: [produces iPhone, finds this video]
Doctor: Interesting soundtrack.
Rory: Sorry, it’s the only version I could find.
Doctor: Anyway. Fair point, but we don’t have time to debate originality. Now. Volunteers to be the bait.
Amy: [hand in the air] I nominate Rory.
Rory: Oh, thanks.
Doctor: Good work, Ponds. Look at it this way, Rory, the merchandising opportunities are limitless. We can do two sets of everyone in the town, with and without splodges. Right, next: I want all the townspeople to hide in the church.
Amy: Hold on a sec, isn’t that a rather obvious place to look? I mean, wouldn’t it be better to find a cellar somewhere? I’m sure the town’s full of them.
Doctor: No, because that’s exactly what he’ll be expecting. Instead, I want you all to wait in the church and be impossibly quiet so he can’t hear you. Oh, and put some hymn books and bibles right on the edge of the seats. And make sure you have the children sitting there. It’ll induce some dramatic tension.
It all ends in a hurried moment of crushingly obvious self-sacrifice, and then a scene in which the Gunslinger stands alone on a hill in the distance, playing with a shiny badge. Oh, and a fake gunfight between the Doctor and the Kid Who Must Avoid The Road To Violence, in another Worst Moment Ever.
Seriously, Toby, how could you do this to us? I was able to endure this episode only under the influence of red wine, and that’s really not a good place for Doctor Who to be. I am assuming that series seven is following the Star Trek formula, in that the odd numbered instalments have been dull (by that rationale ‘The Power of Three’ should be a riot). The production values on this were fairly impressive, and with the right story and script, it could have been great. As it stands, it was hurried in all the wrong places and laboured in all the wrong places, with second-rate performances of third-rate dialogue, inadequate characterisation, an unsatisfactory conclusion…really, as Gareth pointed out, the only thing that wasn’t totally one-dimensional was the scenery. You couldn’t view it as a missed opportunity, or a story with potential. It was just a mess. It was forty minutes of my life that I’m never going to get back – and that, to be honest, frightens me more than anything that Moffat has managed to do since he took over the show.
* As it turns out, it already exists. Just goes to show great minds think alike.
Ok. The hat.
The other hat.
The fondness for music.
The box that really shouldn’t be airborne.
And, of course, multiple encounters with Deep Roy.
Plus the working knowledge of alien culture, the unexplained disappearances for years on end, and Wonka’s admission that he’s “an old man…much older than you think”.
Happy Roald Dahl day!
“Just for fun, I scanned the script to see how many times the letter K appears. The letter K appears in this script 1,456 times. That’s perfectly divisible by 3.”
“So what’re you saying?”
“What am I saying? KKK appears in this script 486 times!”
(Kit Ramsey, Bowfinger)
You must remember this.
Specifically? It’s that scene in ‘Flesh and Stone’ where the Doctor appears in a jacket that he’d recently lost, in order to reassure Amy that she has to start trusting him. It set the internet buzzing. Many people thought it was nothing but a continuity error. Others – quite sensibly – reasoned that Doctor Who was too intricately produced to allow something so major to slip through unnoticed, and that the presence of the jacket was thus of importance. And, of course, it was, because it’s not the same Doctor: it’s a future occurrence of him, popping back through his own timeline just before he’s wiped from the universe. After ‘Flesh and Stone’, viewers were keen to see if it would happen again, and out-of-time appearances from the Doctor were apparently present throughout the series, if you look.
Arc signposting under Davies was always a fairly clunky affair. It was milked to death in the early part of his reign with the Bad Wolf / Torchwood / Saxon stuff – oh, and (courtesy of Gareth) this:
“What was his final whispered message, Doctor?”
“He said, ‘Maybe A Second Timelord Exists Really.'”
“But what could that mean?!”
The Face of Boe got another token nod right at the end of the third series, of course, thanks to a particularly clumsy dialogue exchange where Jack says “By the way, and as a complete non-sequitur, did I mention that when I was a model, they used to call me THE FACE OF BOE? Just thought I’d bring that up. And I’ll leave the conversation dangling right there“. In 2008 we had series four, and viewers were treated to nine episodes of “There is something on your back” (which wasn’t even true, because it’s only sitting on her back in an alternate timeline), and the cryptic “She is returning”, which presumably should have been followed by “to the dental surgeon”. Moffat has continued the run, with games of spot-Amy’s-crack forming the highlights of many blog discussions for series five, but he’s taken it one step further and left us clues that are not only there for the taking but that we’re actively encouraged to seek out and discover and talk about every week.
Changing viewing habits is a part of it. In the days before video, Doctor Who couldn’t afford to run storylines that demanded a second viewing before you even understood them, let alone picked up on the details. But these days, hardly anyone watches live: in my house we’re all too busy putting the kids to bed on a Saturday. The dependence on TiVo has been exploited to its fullest potential with anything Moffat produces these days – anyone who has seen the end of the second Sherlock series will recall that it climaxes with the apparently impossible, but Moffat has insisted in post-show interviews that ‘the clues are there’, indicating that we should all go back to the DVD rips and scan through until we find them. The same thing occurs in Who, with various things that you don’t always notice first time. I, for one, did not notice the jacket until it was pointed out to me. But again, I missed Rose’s appearance in ‘The Poison Sky’, at least the first time. Perhaps I just don’t pay attention.
The problem is that many of the clues are frankly silly, or obscure. For example, at the end of ‘Night Terrors’, Amy and Rory are reunited with the Doctor, who remarks “Well, here we are again…in the flesh”. At a basic level, this refers to Amy’s transformation into a doll (and back), but given the episode’s original sequencing (it was supposed to occur in the first half of the series just before the Gangers story*) it’s almost certainly a not-so-covert reference to Amy’s abduction by The Silence. Or it could have just been a coincidence. The Silence remark that she has “been here many days” just before the Doctor rescues her in ‘Day of the Moon’, which implies that she was replaced by a Ganger Amy when she was kidnapped by them in the orphanage, and then taken back in time, but the other school of thought was that this happened earlier, before the series even started. The point is you don’t know, so you either run yourself into the ground trying to work it out, or you just dismiss the lot as unnecessary silliness and try and enjoy the show without feeling the need to concentrate on all the hints. The problem is that Moffat has written drama and actively asked us to analyse it for clues he’s inserted – often at the expense of the narrative – and the more we do so, the less sense it makes.
Years ago, there was another drama that was supposedly full of ‘clues’. It was called Twin Peaks, and it did it much better, because it was a murder mystery and the clues, when they arrived, were transparent and important and discussed by the characters rather than left solely for the viewer. There was plenty going on, but there was appropriate pacing (some episodes might even have been called sedate) and – up until the time Laura’s killer was unmasked – there was consistency and momentum. On the other hand, I watched Twin Peaks in my early twenties, when I was a carefree arts student with a multitude of unfilled hours in which I could read through the alt.tv newsgroup digests and plough through the books and rewind and fast-forward through the rented VHS tapes I’d got from Blockbuster. These days, I simply don’t have the time to analyse Who to the extent that the chief writer seems to expect of his would-be-serious viewers. I just want a story. At least with Davies you knew you’d just get that, even if half the time it was dreadful.
Bearing all this in mind, then, here is the opening instalment of a new series: my list of trivial things in the last two episodes THAT WILL TURN OUT TO BE IMPORTANT. Some are more trivial than others. BUT THEY WILL ALL TURN OUT TO BE IMPORTANT.
‘Asylum of the Daleks’
Here’s a rotating ballerina from Oswin’s ‘shuttle’. As the shuttle exists in Oswin’s head, this is a particular memory that she’s retained: as such it is clearly IMPORTANT. Presumably when the Doctor meets Clara, when he travels back to Victorian London, she will turn out to be a ballerina.
Right, here’s Amy. In a photoshoot. With the word ‘HATE’ written on one hand. She has ‘LOVE’ written on the other, but it’s the ‘HATE’ we see first. A recurring theme of this series will thus be the Doctor wrestling with his capacity to forgive and redeem versus his ability to destroy without remorse, as epitomised in the closing scenes of ‘Dinosaurs’ where he leaves Solomon to a grisly, missile-up-the-arse fate. Also note that Amy has hair that looks a bit like River Song. This cannot be a coincidence.
Ah. Oswin. And notice what looks like a red flower in her hair. This is clearly significant. Perhaps when the Doctor eventually encounters Clara, she won’t be a ballerina but will be a simple flower-seller who dreams of becoming a ballerina. And I’m no horticulturalist, but doesn’t that flower look rather like a Rose….?
Finally, here’s the Doctor looking at his watch. This is clearly IMPORTANT as he’s obviously waiting for a past occurrence of himself that he knows is already there to finish some kind of technical trickery behind the scenes elsewhere in the Parliament.
‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’
Here’s that broken light. It’s not the bulb. It might be the fitting. But it is clearly IMPORTANT that this light is broken. What did the Weeping Angels do in ‘Blink’ when they wanted to cross the cellar? That’s right, they turned out the lights. Just you wait. You’ll see.
Brian and his balls. He has two golf balls, and we are led to believe that this is so that Chris Chibnall can make a silly joke. But it is obviously significant that he only loses one of them. That second golf ball is going to turn up later in the series at a crucial moment, probably when Rory has had all knowledge of his father wiped from his brain before finding the ball in his pocket, at which point the light bulb will come on – or at least the one in his head.
Queen Nefertiti. Notice that she is wearing headgear that LOOKS A BIT LIKE THE TARDIS. We know that she and Riddell will turn up in a crowd-pleasing walk-on later in the series when the Doctor presumably assembles another band of people we don’t really know in order to do something dazzling, but there’s more to it than that. Could she be another incarnation of the Rani?
Postcards from Brian. Note the one in Rio. WITH A STATUE.
I rest my case.
* Apparently this was done to improve sequencing. ‘Night Terrors’ was considered too similar to ‘Curse of the Black Spot’ in the first half, presumably owing to the fact that as Gareth pointed out, the pirate story has people who are seemingly killed when dragged off somewhere else, in which we think “Oh no!” when Amy and Rory ‘die’, and which ends with a dreary father and son scene. So they moved it next to ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’, in which Amy and Rory are miniaturised and menaced by automaton creatures, the Doctor resolves a few parent-child issues and a nasty thing gets shut in the wardrobe.
If you’ve watched enough Doctor Who, you’ll spot patterns in everything. There’s the way stories are constructed. There’s the spacing between the in jokes. There’s the catchphrases-that-aren’t-quite-catchphrases. There’s the repetitive companion behaviour traits and obvious characters who won’t make it past the second reel. This is how drinking games are formed. Then, of course, there’s the episode titles.
Formulaic titles are the norm in many TV shows. In the late 1980s there was a sitcom over here called Watching, in which every episode title contained a present participle – ‘Pairing’, ‘Moving’, ‘Wrestling’, ‘Hiding’, ‘Shagging’ (OK, I made that last one up). The mercifully short-lived Ardl O’Hanlon vehicle Blessed featured song titles. And it seemed that about half the episodes of Bottom (‘Gas’, ‘Accident’, ”s Out’ were designed to be dropped in as a suffix to the show’s title, presumably before the writers got bored.
Across the pond, The Big Bang Theory melds scientific / mathematical terminology with something that’s discussed (however briefly) in that week’s episode: ‘The Jerusalem Duality’, ‘The Vengeance Formulation’ and ‘The Middle Earth Paradigm’ are but three of over a hundred. This sort of thing was also very popular in the 1990s with Friends, which spent years starting every episode with ‘The One With / Where / When’, or occasional variations thereon – the first two words were abbreviated, so all over the internet you can find lists of titles like ‘TOW Ross is increasingly whiny’, ‘TOW you can see Matthew Perry’s eating disorder’, ‘TOW the inappropriate product placement’ , or my personal favourite, ‘TOW Joey’s rampant stupidity devolves into an even bigger parody of itself’.
Other shows aren’t so lucky. 24, for example, has nothing but the hour as an identification marker, meaning episodes are titled ‘Day 7, 12:00-13:00’ and so on. This is fine if you possess an encyclopaedic knowledge of the show, or a smartphone with the Wiki page bookmarked, but unless you’re as obsessed as I was you’d have no way of knowing purely from the title that this was the episode where [CHRONIC SPOILER], [SPOILER] gets [SPOILER] by [SPOILER] just before revealing the location of the [SPOILER], or [SPOILER] suddenly reveals that they’ve really been [SPOILER].
But what about Doctor Who? Well, there are ways and means. A surefire way to get a Doctor Who title that sounds like a Doctor Who title is to call it ‘The adjective of villain’, or ‘The object of planet’. Or, if that sounds too much like hard work, you could start with ‘The object’, although that sounds a little less Who. But that’s how it’s done, or at least more often than not, and particularly during the Tom Baker run, where almost every story seemed to fit that criteria.
Some numbers will help here, and so I’ll reveal that I did a little counting. There have been 229 titled Doctor Who stories since 1963 (a healthy mixture of pre-2005 serials and post-2005 one-shots), including the five that are currently being broadcast. Of all these, 93 were prefixed with a ‘The’, and 75 used the ‘X of Y’ format. (I haven’t touched the BF stuff or the spin-off media; there’s just too much of it. In the meantime, I do the stats so you don’t have to. You may thank me later.)
Parodies of Who exist, of course – ‘The Curse of Fatal Death’ is one of the more famous ones, although Big Finish have done some of their own – and they tend to stick to the formula. And a few years ago, a BBS bulletin board of which I am still a member hosted a user-generated discussion where members were invited to submit their own Doctor Who titles, the sillier the better, using words from existing Who titles as a starting point. Gareth kindly dragged out the file from the archives, and we can confirm the submissions ran as follows:
- The Of of the Of
- An Unearthly Earth
- The Daleks of the Daleks
- The Green Polo
- Mission to Time
- The Five Four Three Two Ones
- Revenge of Vengeance
- The Faceless Face
- The Tenth Greatest Seeds Meddler
- The Green Mutants Within the Daleks
- Happiness in Paradise
- Doom, Death and Destruction
- The Evil Face Operation
- Survival of the Monsters
- The Galaxy Galaxy
- Four of the Daleks
- The Horns of Smugglers
- Marco Trial
- The Evil Abominable Curse of Horror Death and Terror Doom
- The Greatest Snowman in Paradise
- From Genesis in Eden, to the Ark in the Sea, to Revelation in Armageddon
And then, only yesterday, the BBC added a new one:
Watching ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’ was, I thought this morning, rather like ordering the mixed starters in a Chinese restaurant. Rather than offering us a coherent narrative, Chris ‘mixed episodes of Torchwood’ Chibnall offered up a platter of random elements which more or less fit together. It was a stark contrast to last week, which at least tried to be consistent (even if it was dull). Chibnall didn’t even try here: there was, instead, a series of comedy vignettes loosely strung together by a frayed piece of string that we might call a plot. It was forty-odd minutes of insanity. And – let’s get this out of the way – I thoroughly enjoyed it.
This one was plugged as Snakes on a Plane, without the plane, or the snakes. Such comparisons are inevitable but not really fair: the snakes, in David Ellis’s 2007 misfire, are the whole point of the film, whereas the dinosaurs in this installment of Who, while impressive, are a McGuffin of comparatively little importance. Because what this episode is really about is Rory’s Dad. It had to happen: we’ve had two and a half years of the Ponds managing more or less by themselves, with Amy’s parents resurrected at the end of series five only to vanish into complete obscurity, while her husband hasn’t even got a look-in until now. Credit should go to Moffat for keeping away from the soap opera family sagas that dogged Davies’ run, but perhaps it’s the very absence of detail that’s made me curious: who is Rory’s family? Does he have one? Last night, we sort of found out.
After a madcap opening which saw us go from ancient Egypt to the plains of Africa, which echoed ‘A Good Man Goes To War’ and which, I feared, was setting us up for a catastrophic fall from grace, we visit the Ponds. Some time has elapsed since ‘Asylum of the Daleks’, and Rory’s dad, Brian
Pond Williams, is fixing a light bulb, which is something that Rory apparently can’t do himself. Brian’s a gruff, grumpy character quite unlike Arthur Weasley (who, for some reason, I somehow expected him to be playing) – quite stunned to find himself suddenly inside the TARDIS, which has materialised around them all. The Doctor takes everyone into the bowels of a colossal spacecraft “the size of Canada” (which enables them to go from beaches to jungles to grimy steel without worrying about the tone) and immediately jumps on Brian, before getting cross with Rory for bringing him along, much to Rory’s annoyance.
No one has time to be grumpy for long, because that’s when the main door opens, and we find out what the vessel is being used for. “Dinosaurs!” exclaims the Doctor. “On a SPACESHIP!” Which would be a wonderful reveal to take us into the opening credits, were it not for the fact that a) it’s the episode title, b) it’s been on all the promotional posters, c) it’s been flogged to death in the press releases.
So much for spoilers. There was at least one surprise in store, although given Chibnall’s Who-related history perhaps we should have seen it coming: the ship is an ark formerly piloted by the Silurians (presumably to escape the disaster that wiped out the dinosaurs, which the Doctor really should remember). Unfortunately, the one Silurian actually present in the episode is visible on camera in a thirty-second pre-recorded video, which we can’t really see properly anyway because Amy is blocking the view, and that’s yer lot. I know that the new Silurians shamelessly rip off V (at least physically; otherwise we’re in chicken and egg territory), but it’s hard not to feel a bit cheated. Perhaps more surprising is the revelation that it’s pronounced ‘sy-loor-ian’, which means I’ve been saying it wrong all these years. At first I thought Amy was bringing a Scottish lilt to things, in the manner of Kevin Lindsay’s mispronunciation of ‘Sontaran’ in ‘The Time Warrior’, but apparently not. Still, I suppose the occasional clanger on my part is to be expected when you do your Who correspondence over the internet.
There are no Silurians hanging around because, as it turns out, they’ve all been killed by the evil Solomon, who is nursing his injuries in a shuttle hidden in the depths of the ship. Solomon is played with sinister flair by David Bradley, recently seen in Harry Potter.
You can almost hear the phone call.
“David? It’s Keith. Got something. They want you to play an evil trader in Doctor Who. The writer describes it as ‘Half businessman, half Somali pirate’.”
“There’s a problem: They blew the entire costume budget on CGI and they want you to bring your own outfit. Do you still have the Filch costume?”
“Yes, as it happens. Warner Brothers didn’t want it for the museum. Apparently sadistic caretakers just aren’t glam enough for the displays.”
“Every cloud, though.”
On the other hand…
Well, we could be here all day.
In the absence of any other plan, the gang (as the Doctor refers to them – “It’s new”) – decide to split up and look for clues. It’s not entirely on purpose; an inconvenient teleport zaps Rory, Brian and the Doctor down to Glamorgan, only as it turns out they haven’t actually left the ship – the beach is nothing but an enormous engine, as we discover when the Doctor asks them to dig, and Brian inexplicably (but amusingly) produces a trowel from his pockets, in much the same manner as Mick pulls out salt and pepper from his jacket in The Caretaker. Or, on the other hand –
These scenes are really designed to give the three men a chance to Be Funny together, which – to be fair – they manage quite successfully. Smith seems to have regained his sense of humour after last week, boyishly declaring “I’m going to look at rocks!” before wandering off, although it isn’t long before they’re back and looking at a swanky computer screen.
While the Three Stooges are running away from pterodactyls, Amy has the rather tedious job of wandering round the rest of the ship, stumbling across a sleeping dinosaur that can’t be much bigger than a rhino before musing “At best guess, a tyrannosaurus rex”, suggesting that either she doesn’t know her dinosaurs or it was just a really, really small one. Her main role in this episode, however, consists of interacting with the two supporting characters, both of whom are there to provide crucial narrative support at one particular moment, rendering the rest of their appearance entirely pointless.
Amy deals with this by having the two of them argue about gender politics, before drawing their attention to the screen.
It really is mind-numbingly tedious. And so is Amy, who seems to have been so drastically rewritten this series it makes me wonder what on earth I saw in her the first place. Last week she was laughing in the face of danger; this week she’s pressing buttons, because apparently that’s the sort of thing the Doctor does. Rarely has Karen Gillan had me looking at my watch, and it isn’t really her fault, but for the first time last night I found myself grateful that we’re facing the imminent departure of the Ponds.
Meanwhile, the Doctor et al. appear to have met a triceratops, which, in This Week’s Funny Moment, slobbers all over Brian.
Which, in turn, calls to mind this little moment of comedy gold.
The triceratops, of course, behaves exactly like a dog, adhering to dinosaur film principle #1: any herbivorous creature must be friendly, sweet and not in the least intimidated by humans. The canine-like behaviour extends to the point that it runs to fetch the golf balls that Brian throws for it. The whole thing is very silly, but it’s hard not to raise a smile when the Doctor, Rory and Brian leap on its back and gallop through the halls of the spaceship, or feel a pang of sadness when Solomon and his robotic cronies subsequently gun it down.
Ah, yes. Those robots. I have no idea what the casting directors were playing at here, but bringing in Mitchell and Webb was a mistake: amusing for one line, when David Mitchell faces down the Doctor and says “We’re very cross with you”, and then swiftly grating. (Besides, if we’re going with hulking monstrosities with silly voices, Suburban Commando got there first.) Reduced to a one-scene cameo with amusing dialogue this could have been another celebrity cameo in the manner of Billy Crystal in The Princess Bride, or Bill Bailey in ‘The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe’. As it stands, their pre-recorded patter swiftly becomes tiresome: the robots-behaving-like-children thing ages faster than Sara Kingdom at the end of ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’, and Mitchell saying “You’re going straight to the naughty step” would have been funny if he hadn’t said more or less exactly the same thing to Webb in the Mac advert campaign.
The ship is still speeding towards Earth, where the military has No Choice But To Shoot It Down, despite the Doctor’s reassurances that everything is OK. The ethical ‘dilemma’ as faced by the Earth is epitomised by the pained look of one particular commander.
Up on the ship, the Doctor has a plan, but he has time to chat to Amy first and reassure her that he’ll never leave her. “You’ll be there until the end of me,” he promises, to which Amy quips “Or vice versa”. This grants the Doctor the opportunity to give her a Very Serious and Worried Look.
Said look is presumably designed to dangle the prospect of Amy’s death in front of our noses until ‘The Angels Take Manhattan’, in which Moffat will reveal that it was all a bluff just before he actually kills Rory.
Speaking of death, the end of the episode sees some dubious moral choices: the Doctor saves the dinosaurs by freeing Solomon’s ship, allowing him to escape, but reversing the signal so that the missiles pursue him instead of the dinosaurs. It’s technically possible for him to escape, just as it was technically possible for Johnny to have escaped at the end of Mad Max, but this is the closest the Doctor’s come to outright murder in a while, and it’s not a comfortable place for him to be. Meanwhile, Riddell the hunter has taken care of the approaching velociraptors – with the help of Amy, who has inexplicably developed fantastic shooting skills in the same manner that washerwomen and market traders develop chorographical skills in musical numbers. This is an excuse for another bit of fancy gunplay, as rather than take a side of the room and stick to it the two embark on a dazzling display of shooting-past-each-other, while finishing – as Gareth pointed out – in the middle of the room, whereas standing right by the door would surely have been the safer option. Riddell is, of course, using tranquilisers, which absolves him of moral responsibility so presumably we won’t feel bad when he heads back to Africa and starts shooting real animals again.
Brian gets to be a hero, piloting the ship out of danger with the help of his son, although Chibnall missed a trick here – there was the potential for more banter in the manner of parent-child driving lessons, but instead all we get is Williams shouting “I’M FLYING A SPACESHIP”. Nonetheless, he’s the focus of the nicest scene in the episode, which consists of nothing more than a quiet sandwich lunch (with Thermos) at the open door of the TARDIS, looking out over the Earth. It’s wordless, understated and really rather lovely.
Brian’s experience on the ship, of course, has given him the travel bug, and one of the final images in the episode is Amy and Rory’s kitchen wall, adorned with photoshopped postcards of his excursions. Well, being chased by pterodactyls and getting shot by robots is one way of curing hodophobia. It does rather recall the subplot in Amelie where the titular heroine gets her father out of the house by kidnapping his gnome.
For all its structural issues and inconsistencies, ‘Dinosaurs’ was a riot. It was silly, and outrageous, miscast and occasionally poorly written. It was also very, very hard to dislike (and I wanted to. I really did). Because stories like this need to be fun, in the way that Snakes on a Plane wasn’t. Regular readers here may remember that a couple of months ago I predicted that ‘Dinosaurs’ would be rubbish. And I stand by that, because it was, but it was a fun, silly, highly amusing sort of rubbish, and so in many ways not really rubbish at all. Perhaps it was the Chardonnay, but I enjoyed last night’s Who more than any other I’ve seen since 2010. That can’t be a bad thing.
OK, there’s this.
And then, as Gareth pointed out this morning, there’s this.
On the other hand, he also points out that the background has changed on the BBC website this week, and it now looks like this:
Which would suggest that they’re going to change the fill pattern every week to suit the episode. Which would also suggest that the fill for ‘Asylum of the Daleks’, despite its glamourous appearance, is presumably supposed to be Dalek bumps / breasts / eggs / whatever the hell you’re supposed to call them now.
“It doesn’t alter the fact,” said Gareth, “that it says ‘Docton Who’.” Which, indeed, it does. Which makes the anagram ‘Tonchwood’, which doesn’t work. Or possibly ‘Ch, not wood’. Ch, we would therefore assume, is an as-yet undiscovered wood-like element, and the anagram refers to something the Doctor shouts when he realises his screwdriver works on it, in what is a small but vital (and implausible) plot point.
Anyway, if the Doctor’s going to enter showbusiness, which is what we all thought from last week’s Las Vegas logo, he could do a lot worse than the lineup listed in this scan from the Brilliant Book: