Scanners indicate an absence of spoilers
Ah dinosaurs! The monsters guaranteed to strike terror into the hearts of long-time Doctor Who fans! Is it because the ground shakes when these titanic reptiles walk by? Is it because they sport fearsome jaws and claws? Is it simply their incredible size?
No, it's none of the above - we dyed-in-the-scarf Who fans fear them because they have a habit of appearing as ruddy awful not-so-special effects. Let's look at their track record...
The first saurian monster from the past appeared way back at the beginning of the Third Doctor's time. In his second adventure he encountered the Silurians who had a large dinosaur as a pet/watchdog. The actual species of this reptilian horror is unclear; the Target book adaptation identified it as a Tyrannosaurus Rex but most viewers more accurately pegged it as a large glove puppet.
However this wouldn't be the last time the Third Doctor would encounter monsters from prehistory. They would return en masse in his final series for Invasion of the Dinosaurs in 1974. Now in fairness, some of the dino effects in this are rather decent for the time and the budget they had. However few viewers can forget the sight of a wobbly T-Rex which although it's supposed be attacking a Brontosaur actually appears to be attempting to do some unmentionable to it!
The next terrible lizard which would cross the Doctor's path was the Loch Ness Monster in Terror of the Zygons. Yes, I know that the story revealed that Nessie was actually a cyborg alien moo-cow (no, seriously) called the Skarasen, but as its design was modeled on the popular idea that the Loch Ness Monster is a plesiosaur I'm shamelessly crow-barring it in here. Once again, the realisation of the Skarasen was a case of reality trumping the hopes of the effects crew, with the beastie menacing the Fourth Doctor in very jerky stop motion animation. And in this adventure's climax, it terrified Londoners in glove puppet form, popping up out of the Thames like a scaly Sooty.
Now the last appearance of dinosaurs in classic era Who came in 1985's Mark of the Rani. With their wicked schemes foiled, renegade Time Lords the Master and the Rani flee in her TARDIS, but the Doctor has sabotaged the ship's systems. This resulted in a time spillage which caused one of the Rani's biological samples, a T-Rex embryo, to spring into life and begin to grow at an accelerated rate! Viewers however were largely unconcerned - partly because it was the baddies getting their just desserts, but mostly because it looked like the Rani had procured said T-Rex from a seaside joke shop...
So then with this less than impressive track history, you can understand why dinosaurs are feared by fans. And although this episode is being made in the modern age, with a better budget and the magic of computer created effects, personally I did wonder whether the 'curse' of the dinosaurs might not still strike again. After all, we've all seen plenty of rubbish CGI FX work haven't we...
But... as it turned out the dinosaurs looked fine. Yes, at some points they were clearly only TV quality CGI but nicely realized on the whole plus there was some nice practical stuff too! Decent dinos on Doctor Who at last... Come to think of it, how come it's taken them seven series to do a dinosaur story! Anyhow, now we know the saurians were up to scratch, how was the actual episode itself?
Well this is another adventure penned by Chris Chibnall who gave us The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood two parter back in Series 5. Now I rather enjoyed that one, as it felt like a nice blend of old and new Who, but Dinosaurs on a Spaceship is as different for his Silurian story as it was from it's predecessor 42 in Series 3. And this latest offering seems very in tune with Mr Moffat's tag for this season of Doctor Who being 'a blockbuster every week'. For Dinosaurs on a Spaceship felt like a big fun family film, simple straightforward plot, lots of actions, familiar faces in the cast, and plenty of laughs. Yes, it's another light and fluffy episode, but jolly good fun all the same.
Now I know some of you will be groaning 'oh Rassilon, not another bloomin' romp!', but I don't mind the show being a daft and lightweight sometimes. But of course, for every one who hates the frothier episodes, there will be others who are rejoicing, who equally disliked the dark and scary episodes last year. Now for me personally, I embrace the different styles as it's the wonderful thing about the format of Doctor Who - you can be creepy one week, silly the next, and epic after that.
If I'm honest, I do prefer my Doctor Who dark or epic, but I will say that in this case, I was more than happy to have an adventure will higher humour quotient. For, let's be honest, dinosaurs on the a spaceship isn't the most high-brow SF concept out there: it is a daft idea. But what made it work so well here was that the comedy was clearly in the great tradition of SF comedies like The Hitch-hikers Guide To The Galaxy.
Now bearing in mind we've avoid spoilers here, I don't want to say too much about the plot. Though I will say say that the story is constructed about the mystery of why there are dinosaurs on a spaceship, and having the Doctor and his companions riddle out what is actually going on makes a pleasing change for the endless the galactic threats the Doctor is called upon to thwart. And what is going on, does make for a cracking little adventure.
There's some nice surprises along the way, both in terms of the little plot twists and in the characters who appear. Now as I like to largely ignore all the pre-showing publicity, I was pleasantly surprised to see the sprinkling of famous faces appear and who they portrayed, and so if you don't know either I won't go into detail. However I will say, the guest cast were great fun and we met some fascinating new folk.
All in all I had great fun with Dinosaurs on A Spaceship, despite being very wary of the funnier episodes as a rule. Now obviously I'd not want the show to be like this every week, in exactly the same way you wouldn't want a bag of jelly babies for breakfast every day... But once in a while it's tremendous fun!
JIM MOON, 8th September 2012