Doctor Who Series 7 Roundtable: “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”

 

Every week, my buddies and I will discuss the new episode of Doctor Who. We call this the Doctor Who roundtable. Creative, huh?

Cory: Another week, another standalone adventure for Doctor Who. From the time that the season’s early episode titles and first trailer were released, “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” has been an anticipated installment in the Barker household. I mean dinosaurs. On a spaceship. And even better, there aren’t any lame T-Rexes here, but there are cute triceratopses–triceratopsi?–involved. Though last week’s premiere was somewhat self-contained, it still featured the long-running enemy Daleks and introduced who we know is going to be the next companion. But this episode was almost entirely standalone, aside from some integral character moments between Amy and The Doctor. I’ve grown to enjoy these kinds of episodes in this era of the show, but this was one was mostly just fine. It felt like there were simultaneously tons of things happening and nothing happening at all. What’d we think, opening thoughts?

Tony: At the start of the episode, it seemed like we were going to be shown a kid friendly, light-hearted installment of Doctor Who. The Doctor was quite absent-minded, goofy and kid-friendly, there were no scary dinosaurs, the Triceratops acted like a domesticated dog and the opening scenes all rushed to get straight to the dinosaurs on a spaceship. Family fun Doctor Who. But I was then quite confused when the Triceratops was murdered and the comic relief robots turned into actual enemies capable of killing The Doctor and his companions.

The episode awkwardly attempted to transition from kid-friendly to dark and it didn’t really work. The Doctor again decided to take a life without question, while Amy fell deeper into fan service roles. And throughout, there was no logic for why characters seemed to jump from one behavior to the next. Was the episode entertaining? Sure. In the same way that having an episode where The Doctor mows lawn would be entertaining – he accomplishes a task the narrative is showing him to do. Not a particularly engrossing task, just a task.

Travis: What struck me again is the production quality. The dinosaurs were CG’ed quite nicely and looked reasonable ‘real’. That quality added to my overall enjoyment of the episode. The visuals of an episode like this would not have been possible a few seasons ago. Still though, the episode was fairly anachronistic (feminist Egyptian Queen/ cocky British Hunter/ Modern Amy, Rory, and Mr. Pond, I mean Rory’s Dad/Dinosaurs/Spaceships) but that added to some of the charm and wacky nature of the proceedings. Tony mentioned how the episode ends with The Doctor being so willing to kill off someone, which is so uncharacteristic for him. The episode ends on a dark note, again, contrasting with the lighter, kid-friendly stuff throughout the first two-thirds. For me, this fits perfectly with the narrative subject of dinosaurs. Dinos culturally exists in a space of both kiddy fare (Barney) but also fearful mystical murder monsters (Jurassic Park). These dualities also seem apt for The Doctor, since he is also both kid-friendly but also dangerously adult at the same time.

This was a decent episode that builds towards the question of “what will happen to Amy and Rory?” The Doctor still drops in on them all the time. The conversation between Amy and The Doctor hints at her not wanting to stop seeing him, even though she is fearful that she will be waiting her whole life to see him again. I wonder what will finally happen to make that happen. I also enjoyed that The Doctor’s data was missing from the Universe’s’ Most Wanted databank, referring back to the previous episode. And how about the Rory/Doctor kiss?

Myc: This was maybe my least favorite episode of Doctor Who and definitely my least favorite in the Matt Smith era. The story was wacky (which isn’t necessarily bad) and inconsistent (which is) and kind of, well, pointless. So, what did I like about the episode? Very little. A few guffaws here and there. A little bit of cleverness. As Travis pointed out, the production quality was very good. Rory’s Dad. Bright spot there. Mark Williams was great.

What did I not like?  Well, where to start? Nefertiti was kind of almost but not quite an interesting character. Even as a strong woman who gets to make her own choices (in terms of whether or not she is a damsel/sexually/whatever) she still comes off as just another hanger-on of the Doctor’s, an idea that at this point, is pretty tedious. I suppose every woman every in all of space and time must be completely in love with the Doctor (except, thankfully Donna Noble – thank God for Donna). As you guys mentioned, the Doctor’s character is again inconsistent. Solomon is a completely flat character, and pitting him against the Doctor is laughable. Then the Doctor actively decides to kill him. Like goes completely out of his way to make sure that he dies. He theoretically gives Solomon a choice early on—which has always been the Doctor’s shtick: Give them a choice and let their own hubris kill them—but until this season it has been pretty rare for the Doctor actively seek to kill someone. This is a big character shift.

This entire episode exists for the one beat where the Doctor tells Amy that she’d be there until the end of him and she suggests the opposite that he’d be there until the end of her. There was even a nice long pause to draw attention to the moment, chock full of exquisitely emotive Matt Smith facial expressions. Everything else in this episode just felt like fluff and filler. There’s a bit of nice Rory/Brian stuff that helps develop Rory’s character (nice to see him have a non-Amy/Doctor relationship). There’s some playful banter. And of course there’s dinosaurs. On a spaceship. But, like Cory said, it felt like an awful lot happened for nothing at all to happen.

This whole episode exists for this one 12-second beat that, as Travis said, raises the question of what will happen to Amy/Rory. The obvious answer is that Amy and/or Rory will die (but probably Amy). The show has been prepping us for it since last season, and on some levels it is the only ending that makes sense. We’ve seen the main companions: trapped in an alternate universe forever (eventually with a broken and angry pseudo-Doctor-clone-thingy); bravely decide to leave the Doctor for her own sake (and *GASP* find happiness with another man!); and forget all of her adventures with the Doctor or face a brain-explody death (except when we need her to remember for a minute, but again, ultimately finding happiness). The only place to go from here is the very real death of a companion. I honestly don’t think that Moffat would do the whole “visits are getting longer and longer in between until the Doctor comes back and the companions have died from natural causes” that seems implicit in Amy’s worried comment in this episode because: 1) It would be deeply unsatisfying (and frankly kind of disrespectful) to the audience who has followed this group for three years; and 2) It was so well done in “The Girl in the Fireplace” that it would be kind of stupid to revisit.

As I said last week, the one-off episodes that tie tangentially to the over-arching grand narrative of the season tend to be some of my very favorite. This one was not. As a self-proclaimed Whovian I still enjoyed the episode because it was New Who, which is never a bad thing, so like Tony I agree that it’s entertaining but in the same way literally any narrative of the Doctor would probably be entertaining. I’d watch the Doctor drink tea for an hour because there’d likely be shenanigans. But as someone who can separate that from critical analysis I have to say that this episode was BLAH. That’s the only word I really have for it.

The missing information from tat databank will likely be brought back later this season as we get back to the question of “Doctor who?” so that I guess was something. And the Doctor kissed Rory. Also a thing that happened. So far, two episodes in, I’m finding that the main cast (Smith/Gillan/Darvill) are all being vastly underused and the guests (I use this term loosely knowing that Coleman is definitely and Williams will likely return) have been pretty great both in terms of what they were given to do and in terms of their performance (which isn’t to say that the main cast did poorly, but that they weren’t really given a whole hell of a lot to do).

Tony: Building on the idea that The Doctor is now an “unknown,” I wasn’t aware that the entirety of the universe forgot about him, rather only that he was wiped from the Dalek’s database. On one hand, I want the season to flow and make sense. On the other, the Daleks controlling all the recorded information in the universe adds a whole level of new dastardly things that the Daleks could unleash on The Doctor and his companions! I want this episode’s logic to mean something but I find myself grasping at straws to make any pathway for it to fit within the overall narrative since the re-launch in 2005. Two episodes with a complete character shift in The Doctor seem to indicate a focus within the narrative that I eagerly await further depth into (hopefully, a solid narrative over the inconsistency that has been shown thus far).

I was super excited about the Doctor/Rory kiss! We’ve seen it before from Tennant’s version of the Doctor but really haven’t seen that side from Smith yet. Now that I think about it, actively killing people, kissing your same sex counterpart –  is the Doctor really Captain Jack in disguise?! (If this means the return of Captain Jack, I’m fine with it).

Travis: It’s not The Doctor it is The Flesh!!!! I mean, does The Doctor REALLY have a Christmas list?

Myc: I swear to all that is holy to all people in all universes at all times that if this is a flesh Doctor I will fly to Wales and punch Moffat in his brain.

Cory: As the one least familiar with the show, I wasn’t that bothered with The Doctor being so actively willing to kill but I see how that it represents an odd character shift that doesn’t gel with what has come before. While we joke, it’s not really beyond Moffat’s nature to do something wild like have The Doctor actually be “The Doctor” for a handful of episodes. 

Although I didn’t actively dislike this episode as much as Myc, I will say that I’m curious to see how this first batch of episodes plays out because right now, it makes little sense that the show has spent two episodes purposefully crafting more standalone, movie-like stories (and had the individual posters to go with them) and yet, we have three episodes left of the Amy-Rory era. That’s it. They’re gone in episode five. The show has certainly successfully built up the dynamics between the three over the last two full seasons and any “resolution” is therefore going to be emotionally powerful but the shot clock running down doesn’t quite match up with two episodes devoid of permanent stakes.

This episode marked time by telling us that The Doctor hasn’t visited Amy and Rory for 10 months (a choice that conveniently allows the Ponds to be happy again without really getting into why they were upset with one another to begin with, so way to go there, Steve) and featured that one moment everyone’s talking about. There’s been a lot of talk about Amy’s departure being pretty tough and I believe that. It’s just a little unfortunate that the show is screwing around getting to that gut-punch, especially when I can’t tell why any of this is happening other than allowing us to meet Rory’s dad before we never see Rory again (though wouldn’t it be interesting if Amy dies and Rory sticks around? There’s been less talk about his departure.) and “Dinosaurs, LOL.” I’m fine with both of those things, but the contextual knowledge that Amy is leaving soon colors my impressions of this episode far too much.

Tony: I have also been quite confused by these two episodes not focusing much to do about the buildup of Amy and Rory leaving. There were multiple announcements before the season began about Amy and Rory leaving. This included, as you pointed out Cory, the exact episode in which they will part ways! Why not have four episodes of buildup in character/relationship development culminating in the departure episode? 

With the departure episode titled “The Angels Take Manhattan,” if Moffat returns to the original use of the Weeping Angels (teleport you somewhere throughout time/space rather than just snap your neck), the narrative could involve Rory sticking around to look for Amy. I honestly don’t expect either Amy or Rory to stick around without the other as they’ve been quite the package deal since their introduction in season five.

Cory: I’m growing ever-fascinated by Rory sticking around. I don’t care if it’s not happening. To Tumblr! Time to write some fan fiction.

Tony: I can see Rory as a new Captain Jack-esque character, stealing a time travel device to search for Amy throughout all time and space, regardless of how long it takes. Sometimes crossing paths with The Doctor. The boy who waited becomes the boy who searched. He’s a plastic person anyway, time doesn’t matter! (Did we just write a spin-off?)

Travis: Rory isn’t a robot, he is a person. Be nice to Rory the person.

Myc: I am in agreement that the buildup to the companions’ departure has been less than stellar. I can’t wrap my head around what they’re trying to do in these first few episodes. I expect the death of Amy. I also see how it’s kind of a nice reversal since we’ve seen Rory die a billion times but it’s never permanent. I think we’re going to find ourselves at one of those ever-so-useful fixed points in time and Amy will die and no one will be able to do anything about it. Rory will, of course, blame the Doctor. And the Doctor will blame himself. And there will be sadness. Likely on a spaceship.

I’m frustrated with these first two episodes. I don’t think that’s going to stop anytime soon. The whole approach to this season, treating the first five episodes as separate but slightly connected “movies,” is not a particularly good from of storytelling for the Doctor Who format. I’m frustrated and disappointed with that approach since I think it’s the primary problem with this season so far.

Cory: I’m curious Myc. You noted that you’re not a fan of the slightly connected movie approach, but you were also frustrated with the intense, some would say convoluted mythology of last season. Are you suggesting that the show needs to simply find a middle ground between these two approaches and execute it better? Or something else?

Myc: I’m seeing the movie approach as more of event television. It’s like each and every week I’m being shown “A Very Special Episode of Doctor Who” – which is kind of annoying, particularly with all of the things that we’ve been discussing that probably should be the driving force of this season so far. I love one-shot type stories in the Doctor Who universe, don’t get me wrong, but these episodes (and the ones coming, at least from the promos) feel like spectacle for the sake of spectacle. There’s definitely a place for that in Who, but it’s called the Christmas Special.

Now, to make myself sound like a complete ass: I LOVE mythology and world building in television. Absolutely love it. I love little bits of fan service and things that recall past episodes/seasons. However, that shouldn’t be the main focus of an entire episode or season (“Dinosaurs” did this well with the nod to the Silurians). The problems I had with last season were largely in the execution. It was unnecessarily convoluted as we’ve discussed. Additionally, the narrative pace was largely slow in the beginning (when there was a great chance for mythology growth), and was rushed as the season concluded, robbing the audience of the payoff (but enough of that repetitive complaint).   

What the first four seasons of the Doctor Who relaunch did incredibly well, that maybe the past few seasons haven’t (particularly so far this season, but that is a harsh criticism to levy against a two episode sample), is made everything fell both connected and important. There was a more balanced and nuanced understanding of what was happening in the narrative both in individual episodes and as seasons and how that built the show. And the audience could feel that. Juxtapose this against the massive, grandiose and convoluted puzzle like narrative that we’ve been getting through the Moffat seasons set off by event-style episodes and you’ll sort of see what I mean. Maybe some people are absolutely thrilled at the “maybe we’ll get a piece of the puzzle this week, oh no we get dinosaurs – I guess that’s good too” form of storytelling. To me it’s a little frustrating. It’s really all about balance and execution.

I feel like the best thing Doctor Who used to do was show us a character that was a complete mystery to us (and the companions who sort of serve as the surrogates for the audience) and give us insight into him. The Doctor was (is) a stranger to us, and the episodes allowed us small glimpses into who he really was. We were given a complex character that we could grow with and learn to understand. The Doctor always knew something we didn’t, but it felt like he shared that with us, and in doing so shared a part of himself. In some ways that is maybe the only way to really be able to understand a complicated character. 

Seasons five, six and seven (so far) have done the opposite. These seasons have purposefully and overly = complicated the Doctor (which is kind of hard because he’s already a pretty damn complicated dude), shrouding him in (even more) mystery, and practically making him inaccessible. He still knows things that we don’t, but it always feels like instead of sharing it with the audience (and our surrogates in the companions) he is serving an agenda – but to what end we couldn’t possibly know. He has become the Lonely God that Moffat seems to want him to be, a character we can never truly understand. And then, after doing this, we are infuriatingly asked ad nauseam “Doctor who?” as if that’s a question that we can ever really answer (and is also kind of insulting to the audience). 

Cory: Well hopefully as we get closer to Amy’s departure, the show will hone in on why and how she matters. Until next week!

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