… and Dinosaurs … IN SPACE!

We always catch things a day late. Or several days late. It’s wibbly-wobbly-2012-DVR-timey-wimey stuff. And so: Sunday evening we got around to the latest Doctor Who episode, the delightful “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.”

Talk about truth in advertising.S and I looked at each other even before the opening credits began to role and announced nearly as one: “Get these M-F-ing Dinosaurs off my M-F-ing spaceship.”

I may have taken some poetic license with how we expressed ourselves. In any case, in three parts:

I.

For those who want a synopsis of sorts, let’s be specific and, I hope, brief. Our tale begins with the Doctor in 1334 BC trying to evade Nefertiti but instead taking her along to the future, where a spaceship is heading toward Earth and the powers that be plan to shoot it out of the sky with missiles. So off the Doctor goes, collects Rupert Graves as a big game hunter / explorer named Riddell, and Amy and Rory, along with Rory’s father, who is along for the ride because the Doctor materialized the TARDIS around them, etc.

They were trying to change a light.

The Doctor and his entourage board the ship, are chased by dinosaurs, and by way of the Doctor’s curiosity our six characters are split into two groups of three, with the Doctor, Rory, and Rory’s father on a beach chased by pterodactyls. They realize the beach is actually the engine room of the spaceship—before being chased—, end up in a cave, and meet two talkative robots who take them to their master, an injured and grumpy fellow who is basically a space pirate.

Meanwhile Nefertiti, Amy, and Riddell discover that they’re actually in a Silurian ‘ark’ that was sent from Earth a long time ago (in a galaxy far far … never mind) … but there are no Silurians left on the ship. Curiouser and curiouser.

Using her phone, Amy calls Rory, who hands off said device to the Doctor, and 2 and 2 are put together. Yet the missiles are headed for the ship. The pirate has no idea who the Doctor is (and, by extension, how much he is ‘worth’), but his computers recognize Nefertiti, figure she is worth a lot, and he demands she be delivered to him … or else. Nefertiti delivers herself, the pirate absconds with her. The Doctor and the rest work on [1] stopping the missiles, [2] maneuvering the ship, and [3] rescuing Nefertiti. [1] proves impossible (due to obnoxious security forces on Earth); [2] is achieved by having Rory and his father pilot the ship jointly (it requires two pilots of the same “gene line”); and [3] the Doctor goes to the pirate’s ship, rescue’s Nefertiti, and leaves behind the locator/identifier beacon the missiles are tracking.

They—the missiles—destroy the pirate, the Silurian ship is redirected, and quite a few characters are ‘happy enough’ with the ending.

This, of course, does not do justice to the episode.

II.

Picking and nitpicking. The A.V. Club gave the episode a ‘B’ … I find it hard to argue with that grade, though I’d be perfectly happy if it had received a higher grade. It’s a somewhat inconsequential episode in some regards, a bit frivolous, and not as suspensfully plotted or emotionally resonant as many other episodes of the Steven Moffat era.

But not every episode can be. Or should be.

First: for a moment it seemed liked we were living in a kind of Harry Potter reunion special, as Rory’s dad was played by Mark Williams (Mr. Weasely), and our space pirate was none other than David Bradley (Argus Filch). I expected other recognizable actors to appear, but I digress.

Second: We do have a connection to the previous episode and the end of last season. To recap the latter: the avoid the Silence, which sought the Doctor’s death, said Doctor had to go ‘underground’ a bit. Mid-season the name/term ‘Doctor’ had ceased to mean ‘healer’ to many who met him; rather it had become a term of terror and fear. And in the last X-mas special (“The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe,” 2011) he didn’t even introduce himself as the Doctor, but rather as the Caretaker. Last episode our Manic Pixie Dalek Girl (aka Felina Fomez) hacks the Daleks and causes them to forget the Doctor; here our pirate’s computer cannot identify the Doctor. Because the two events are similar phenomena, and occur in neighboring episodes in the same season, it’s reasonable to think them related … but not necessarily causally. It almost seems less like a callback or continuation, and more like the foundation-laying of/for a season-long thematic arc.

Every season the Doctor has to deal with a historical figure or two. Donna went back in time to Pompeii and then got to meet Agatha Christie, Martha met Shakespeare, and Rose met Queen Victoria (and Charles Dickens). Amy met Churchill and Vincent van Gogh in her first season; in her second they almost killed Hitler (and they met Nixon). Here we get Nefertiti, but I’m not sure she really counts; she’s really more of one of the Doctor’s diversions, much like when he was hopping through time at the end of the last season. And poor Nefertiti suffers a bit in comparison to River Song dressed up as Cleopatra; and Liz 10 had more swashbuckling charisma. Nefertiti never worked on her own: she made Amy better and Riddell palatable, though I’m still not sold on him and Nefertiti at the end of the episode.

As for Riddell, he seems to come out of nowhere, though he reminds one of the way the Doctor called in markers last season, and it seems like quite a waste to employ Rubert Graves only here for an episode … perhaps I’ve just come to like him because of Sherlock. One gets the feeling that both Riddell and Nefertiti have to return.

Doctor: Look, Solomon. The missiles. See them shine? See how valuable they are? And they’re all yours. Enjoy your bounty.

Every season the Doctor has to deal with … wait, I already said that. But it’s true, and it’s one of those things that seems to tie Doctor Who to its origin as a show for children. As something almost educational. And yet it always walks a fine line … it’s the kind of show for children that ought to make children jump behind the sofa to hide. It often hints at being scary; occasionally it gets a bit dark. The conclusion to the space piracy is dark, as the Doctor send Solomon off to die. It’s the Doctor, with all of his power, playing the role of judge, jury, and executioner. I say ‘play the role’ instead of just ‘play’ because it’s not just a game; for the Doctor it is serious, and he has a kind of legitimacy in those functions. Let’s just stay with the modern-era-Who: Eccleston’s was a bit of a bi-polar, traumatized space god who always wanted to find a non-violent solution (see also: “Everybody lives!”); Tenant specifically asked himself what kind of man he was—and answered that he was the kind who did not give second chances—, and while he could be provoked to violence, he, too, was somewhat melancholy and it was from his humanity that his vengeance came; but Smith’s Doctor is decidedly an alien wearing a human mask. His steps toward humanity are almost always missteps; he forgets who and what he is (as River has had to remind him), and he even forgets how others see him and why they fear or hate him. And so I am reminded of that pair of 3rd season (Tenant) episodes, “Human Nature” and “The Family of Blood,” especially the conclusion to the latter. As one of the ‘villains’ narrates, the Doctor hid from them not to save himself, but to save them from him:

Son of Mine: He never raised his voice. That was the worst thing — the fury of the Time Lord. And then we discovered why — why this Doctor, who had fought with gods and demons, why he had run away from us and hidden… he was being kind.

He wrapped my father in unbreakable chains forged in the heart of a dwarf star. He tricked my mother into the event horizon of a collapsing galaxy to be imprisoned there, forever. He still visits my sister, once a year, every year. I wonder if one day he might forgive her, but there she is. Can you see? He trapped her inside a mirror. Every mirror. If ever you look at your reflection and see something move behind you just for a second, that’s her. That’s always her. As for me, I was suspended in time and the Doctor put me to work standing over the fields of England, as their protector. We wanted to live forever. So the Doctor made sure we did.

There is human anger and loss behind the 10th Doctor’s actions; the 11th is colder. He is angry about the killing of the Silurians, a genocide; he witnessed Solomon’s cruelty (to Rory’s father, to the dinosaur, to Nefertiti); he realizes that Solomon cannot be redeemed … almost casually he send him to his death.

When Amy asks him whether he is weening her and Rory off of him (the Doctor) (Amy: “… the gaps between your visits. I think you’re weening us off you.” Doctor: “I’m not. I promise.”), it almost appears the reverse is true: he is weening himself off of them.

III.

All of this is pretty immaterial. What’s important in this episode? It’s delightful.

S quite rightly takes me to task for my occassional (they used to be more frequent) remarks about how a certain actor in something we’re watching is clearly enjoying him/herself … after all, it’s possible that they’re not, but they give the impression that they are (ah, what good actors, then!), and what does how much fun the actors are having have to do with the ‘quality’ of whatever we’re watching? In a certain sense it is clear that a creator’s enjoyment in his/her work—writing, acting, painting, directing, playing, conducting, whatever—will impact how he or she attends to said task. But there is not a simple causal link between enjoyment in creation and the quality of the creation (either direct or inverse). After all, spite, hatred, and intense agony alike can all lead to great performances, whereas pleasure can lead to flatness or carelessness.

When I speak of delight, then, regarding this episode, I am not speaking directly about ow much fun the actors, writer(s), or director had in putting it together (and I’m not even considering the editors, who even more than the above demonstrate what a mediated construction a film or television episode is). No, intead I just mean that the result is delightful, a delightful ball of energy and whimsy, almost but not quite naively so. Let me contrast. I’m very fond of the first New-Who episode, “Rose,” which maintains energy and pace throughout, accompanied by a helpful musical score and tight, purposeful editing. And at times Eccleston and Piper smile in such a way that seems to convey the actors’ rather than characters’ glee. Yet it’s a neurotic episode. There is the childlike but not childish wonder at play in the first Smith episode, “The Eleventh Hour,” in which Smith’s alienness is emphasized and he spends the early part of the episode acting with a child. Fish fingers and custard, anyone? Here it’s the follow-through on a promise made at the end of the first Smith season: “An Egyptian Goddess, loose, on the Orient Express… in space.”

Close enough.

A similar point is made in io9’s look at the episode:

Overall, “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” is the most fun I can remember Doctor Who being in years — writer Chris Chibnall has finally made me forget “Cyberwoman,” once and for all. This is a completely daft, silly episode, with a villain who’s just nasty enough to keep the plot in motion.

On a similar note I am reminded of a recent/current NPR story on Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing” adaptation screeing at the TIFF:

It’s my position that there are films in the world the highest and greatest purpose of which is to be delightful. That the creation of delight is an entirely valid use of one’s talent, and that normal humans have always known this, and it’s only critics who sometimes forget because they are bombarded with so much false and forced delight. So certain projects exist in part to remind you that real delight is an end unto itself. Joss Whedon’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing is exactly this kind of film, and because it’s utterly delightful, it’s utterly successful.

Of course, I might have been distracted by the rightness of a later observation, “[…] and Fillion should quite possibly play nothing but Shakespearean law enforcement officers for the remainder of his career.” The third part of the article with which I mostly agreed was the question:

As I watched Much Ado About Nothing, I had the distinct thought, “I wonder whether this is the future.” Not the future, of course […] but a big piece of the future. Big films have gotten so big, expensive films so expensive, that all of the risk has to be drained out of them, which often leaves behind a dried-out version of whatever was originally intended.

The opposite of delightful.

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