Dinosaurs On A Spaceship

There was a point about sixteen minutes into the bonkers funtime of Dinosaurs On A Spaceship when I abruptly and vigorously applied the palm of my hand to the face of my head, irked that for the second week running I had missed all the clues in front of me. Well I hadn’t missed them so much as failed to put them correctly together.

Writer Chris Chibnall had previously scripted a two-part Silurian story for Doctor Who in 2010 (The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood) and this new episode of his was to be called Dinosaurs On A Spaceship.

“Hur hur,” chortled my, well, let’s call it a brain. “Chib’s certainly your go-to guy for cold-blooded scaly action.” Didn’t make that final five millimetre leap in logic to work out that this was going to be a Silurian story though, did I? Oh no.

Once again thanks are due to the kind-hearted reviewers and members of the Who community who knew this but did not spoil the surprise. The reveal that the spaceship was a Silurian ark on its way back to Earth was masterful.

They are a bit of a victim race are the poor Silurians. They first appeared in Malcolm Hulke’s 1970 story which seems now to be known by the rather weird, over-conjunctioned title “And The Silurians”.

Their sea-faring cousins the Sea Devils (which is surely not what they call themselves when they are sitting at home with their fins up, enjoying a plankton supper) appeared in Hulke’s 1972 follow-up story called, simply enough “The Sea Devils”.

Both stories were, as was so often the case with Malcolm Hulke’s stories, moral conundrums with some pertinent political questioning thrown in for good measure.

Briefly: In prehistoric times the Silurians and The Sea Devils, the dominant species on Earth in that era, both put themselves into deep subterranean hibernation to avoid a forthcoming planetary catastrophe. If memory serves it is the approach of a body that looks set to crash into the Earth but which instead settles into orbit, becoming the Moon.

This last minute non-occurrence of the catastrophe leads to both species sleeping through their alarm clocks. When finally awoken in the twentieth century they are understandably peeved that upstart chimps have taken over the place and they seek to eradicate us.

In both stories the antagonism resolves itself in the destruction of the older races. Hulke was an intelligent, liberal man though and did manage to raise the point, so often missed in the binary simplicity of science fiction TV, that maybe the apparent “baddies” actually had a bit of a point. They were here first after all.

This goodie/baddie dichotomy is a thing I always found a little bit problematic about the first three Star Wars films (IV, V and VI) too. We understand that the Empire is evil because all of its authority figures are quite ugly and dress in dark clothes. The rebels in the alliance, on the other hand, are quite sexy looking and wear light coloured clothes, so clearly they are the good guys.

Looked at objectively though it’s hard to see what the Empire is doing that is so objectionable. Life still seems pretty sweet down the space pub, and there’s always loads of blue milk in the fridges of the sand farmers. The revolutionary rage of the Rebel Alliance is obscure to me, and their phased regime change strategy seems lacking too. Politically they seem less astute than the People’s Front Of Judea and the Judean People’s Front put together.

But I digress.

My point is that it was nice to see a bit of moral ambiguity in Doctor Who even if the end result was the preservation of the status quo.

I am skipping over Johnny Byrne’s presumably well-intentioned 1984 story Warriors Of The Deep not because I don’t like it (I do), but because I don’t really understand it or what it is trying to say. It’s a clumsily executed Cold War allegory I think. Fifty percent Fail-Safe, fifty percent Rentaghost Series 9.

Hey, hey, it’s the Myrka

 

 

The Silurians’ reappearance in 2010’s two-parter was welcome though the ending, again, left me a bit unsatisfied. The reptiles return to hibernation after another bruising encounter with humanity, vaguely hoping that some sort of rapprochement between the species might be possible in the future. A two hundred million-year sleep and they still go for the snooze button.

The Silurian Ark in Dinosaurs On A Spaceship is a tremendous idea however, and full points to Chris Chibnall for being the first, as far as I know, to come up with it. A spiffing notion to have an off-screen homo reptilia equivalent of When Worlds Collide have taken place.

Extra points too for not then, having set it up, proceeding in that direction, but instead turning ninety degrees and giving us something different: the putting together of a team for a fight. Narrative gold dust from The Seven Samurai (and its western and sci-fi remakes The Magnificent Seven and Battle Beyond The Stars) through Kelly’s Heroes, and Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11 to Avembers Assengle. I loved it.

I also enjoyed immensely Mark Williams’ portrayal of Rory’s dad, Brian. Close family is not a thing that classic-era Who ever concerned itself with much, other than Ace’s mum’s brief appearance as a baby in The Curse Of Fenric. It has, however, been a defining feature of new Who since episode one, Camille Coduri’s barnstorming performance as Jackie Tyler kicking open the door through which Martha and Donna’s kin came merrily later.

Nothing was mentioned, unless I missed it, of Rory’s mum. But there was a shot which dallied deliberately on Brian’s wedding ring. This may signify plots yet to be. I hope so. Mark Williams is drily loveable in the role and I will take as much more of this as he is prepared to provide.

Brian’s very specific wedding ring

That character’s inclusion gave Arthur Darvill a number of opportunities to exhibit his amazing comic timing; a great many more certainly than he has had so far in his scenes shared with Karen Gillan’s Amy Pond.

Now, Karen Gillan is a good, confident actress and this does not reflect on her at all, but I have found the depiction of the Pond marriage to be a tiny bit unsettling recently. I had hoped to see some sort of evolving affection between Amy and Rory, but that has not happened. Their relationship seems instead to be descending into a borderline abusive one.

Amy can be stroppy, belittling and controlling. Her leaving Rory in the Pond Life mini episodes was put down to her wanting to spare him the pain of not being able to have kids with her. How passive aggressive is that? To hurt someone and then say it was what they wanted, even when it clearly wasn’t.

Also she is a slapper. And not the good kind of slapper either. She hits Rory an awful lot. It wouldn’t be acceptable if he were to be seen hitting her. I think that holds the other way round too. A personal opinion.

It’s not the kind of thing I care to see in real life. I worry about the depiction of it so lightly in this context, and I worry about the normalising effect that that might have.

You wouldn’t see it happen with Ian and Barbara. Or Ben and Polly. Or Jamie and Zoe. Or Sarah Jane and Harry. Or Jo Grant and absolutely every man in UNIT.

The Doctor is not above a bit of bullying behaviour either. Seconds after kissing Rory for having a good idea (a clinch that will launch a thousand fanfics) the Doctor is slapping him about the face because it didn’t work.

He has previous form in this matter does the Time Lord. Affecting not to remember the (entirely blameless) time-cuckold Mickey’s name for most of the first series in 2005 the Doctor finally gets it right, only to start calling him “Mickey the Idiot”.

If I was eight and this was happening in a playground I would be on Mickey’s side, but possibly I am missing a finer point here. Please leave a comment below if you would like to put me right.

It certainly seems not to fit with every single other aspect of the show, which is a gleeful jamboree. A ceaseless parade of positivity.

I love that.

I am constantly delighted that, in what I increasingly perceive to be a doom-inflected, angry, selfish world, Doctor Who just bulldozes through an agenda of joy, tolerance and love. It advocates that change happens, but that this need not be a thing to fear. Soap operas will portray change as darkening degradation and an unstoppable progress towards extinction. Doctor Who on the other hand will show change as a chance for evolution, improvement and ascension.

We see it in Dinosaurs On A Spaceship most obviously in Brian who changes from an anxious traveller into a trotter of the globe. But we also see it more subtly in the character of John Riddell (Rupert Graves) who moves from being an uncouth hunter to someone who takes his hat off when a triceratops is pointlessly butchered in front of him. In his final scene he seems to have found romantic fulfilment with a bazooka-wielding queen of the Nile.

And that’s just in one fifty minute episode. It’s been doing this for forty-nine flipping years!

Queen Nefer-what now? Sorry… I wasn’t listening

A final note of appreciation for the epically bad villain Solomon. I am not, I’m ashamed to say, very familiar with David Bradley’s Harry Potter work, and I am struggling to place him as one of the long-haired, bedraggled misanthropes of Game Of Thrones. I do however clearly remember his heart-breaking turn as Jim Broadbent’s brother in Mike Leigh’s ace film Another Year. It’s utterly compelling. Please consider giving it a watch, even if Mike Leigh isn’t on your usual wish list.

I hope that Solomon and his argumentative, sarcastic robots are not as dead as they appear to be. That was some high quality ruthlessness and I would like them all back please.

There was some fluttering on Twitter that maybe Matt Smith’s Doctor had behaved rather cruelly in his aiding in the dispatch of Solomon. I don’t buy this though. It was a final sanction after all possible alternative solutions had been offered and rejected.

It is certainly far removed from the still-troubling acid-bath-and-a-quip combo of Vengeance On Varos.

Next week it’s cowboys, which can mean only one thing.

SINGSONG!

Last Chance Saloon

So fill up your glasses and join in the song

The law’s right behind you and it won’t take long

So come you coyotes and howl at the moon

Til there’s blood upon the sawdust in the Last Chance Saloon

Asylum Of The Daleks

When we were being clever in the seventies sometimes we would stroke our chins and say things like “Ah yes, you see Terry Nation writes about blank-faced figures of totalitarian authority.” This was based on a fairly simple reading of Blake’s 7 and the knowledge that Nation had invented the Daleks.

It didn’t really stand up to examination. There aren’t themes of political oppression in Nation’s peerless TV series Survivors. And whilst I am unfamiliar with his radio scripts for Terry Scott, Eric Sykes and Frankie Howerd I can’t imagine that they staggered under a weight of doomy metaphors for despotism.

I could be wrong.

Another stupid thing we used to say about Terry Nation was that Blake’s 7 was somehow a British Star Trek, which was a bit thick of us. The two shows are entirely antithetical. For instance, in Star Trek the idea of a rigidly hierarchical expansionist Federation manned by thugs in uniforms was deemed to be a good thing, whereas in Blake’s 7 it wasn’t.

Space Commander Travis and Captain Kirk. The same bloke. That’s all I’m saying.

(I utterly, utterly adore Blake’s 7 with its bunch of sarcastic new romantics. Not so keen on Wagon Train To The Stars.)

What is true is that the Daleks were intended to be symbolic Nazis when they originally appeared. The first Dalek was glimpsed towards the end of 1963, a short eighteen years after the end of the Second World War. And whilst the sight of a bombed out London in 1964’s Dalek Invasion Of Earth looks eerie to us, to a child watching the story as it was first broadcast that was just the way their parents would have recalled the city looking during the blitz.

Daleks have always, accidentally or otherwise, held a mirror up to contemporary society. As the baby boom generation began to more confidently assert itself during the sixties and memories of the war receded so the Daleks became less feared and more mocked.

This loss of reputation, partly stemming from their sheer ubiquity, led to the Daleks being sidelined for several years before reappearing in the colourful Pertwee era of the early seventies. Their impact had undeniably diminished though.  They were by now mere totems of evil. Their motivations and agendas were as opaque as those of THRUSH or Galaxy or the Mysterons.

In the persuasive 1975 Tom Baker story Genesis Of The Daleks, however, a new direction was found. There are blatant First World War trappings but underneath that what the story clearly is is a Cold War parable. This theme was carried over into 1979’s Destiny Of The Daleks in which the irresistible force of the Daleks has fought itself to a standstill against the immoveable object of the space-disco empire of the Movellans. It doesn’t matter which represents the West and which the Soviet Bloc, this is self-evidently John le Carré in space.

S-K-A-R-O! We are S, super-sexy. We are K, komplicated…

As classic Doctor Who started tripping over itself so too the Daleks lost their way. What were they now? Funeral directors? Bank robbers?

In the last classic era Dalek story, Remembrance Of The Daleks (1988), the action is relocated to 1963 London in a dizzying spin of self-reference and pantomime. It’s a really enjoyable story but if the Daleks had arses this would be the point at which they finally disappeared up them.

When Doctor Who came back on the telly (hooray!) in 2005 we were initially told that there would be NO Daleks. This was misinformation clearly. In fact they reappeared quite quickly in Robert Shearman’s wonderful story simply called Dalek.

How contemporary was it? Well, unlike any previous Dalek stories this was the story of a lone survivor of the Time War; a single Dalek on a journey of self-discovery, struggling against appalling odds to achieve its destiny. It is the Peoples’ Dalek. The Dalek Of Hearts. It is the winner of Britain’s Got Daleks.

The Daleks even lowered themselves to become involved in TV production before ultimately, in the delightful Victory Of The Daleks (2010) refreshing their brand proposition as the New Dalek Paradigm. You just cannot get more of the moment than that.

(Briefly and parenthetically on the subject of the New Dalek Paradigm: I can broadly understand the Scientists, Strategists and Supremes. The Eternals are pleasingly mysterious. But the Drones? Really. What are they? Drones don’t actually do too much in a hive. The word basically means idler or slacker. There is a reason that Bertie Wooster is a member of The Drones Club. Did the writers intend this, or have they just confused Drones with Workers? This is a genuine question. Please feel free to answer.)

After the Daleks’ appearance in Victory Of The Daleks Stephen Moffat announced that they would be retired for a while.

Mr. M. is a puckish, playful show-runner however, and here we all are now at what, for the sake of simplicity, I shall call Series 7 and what do we have?

Asylum Of The Daleks.

To emphasise their tail-end-of-2012 credentials and maintain that zeitgeistiness I’ve just been bibbling on about for eleventy-twelve paragraphs the Daleks are now revealed to be heavily reliant on outsourcing.

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the universe DALEK PUPPETS! The G4S of Doctor Who monsters.

They have always tendered some work out to third parties have the Daleks. One thinks fondly of the Robomen and the Ogrons. This is something a bit more though. The Dalek Puppets are a genuinely clever innovation (though they have an antecedent of sorts in Lytton from Resurrection Of The Daleks) and they can do all sorts of stuff that actual Daleks can’t do. Applying make-up. Driving double-decker buses. That kind of thing.

Their focused obtaining of the Doctor, Amy and Rory at the beginning of Asylum Of The Daleks is a rather wonderful thing. It’s so much better than the usual method the Daleks use to apprehend the Doctor which tends to involve designing a bewilderingly complicated trap and then hoping the Time Lord somehow walks into it.

Which to be fair he usually does.

It is magnificently creepy that the puppets can have access to their own memories when required. The best thing though is the sprouty eye-stalk they develop as they become fully conscious.

We have had third eyes before in Who (the Silurians, Davros, the upgraded Adam) but this is the first time I can recall it being so symbolically purposeful. Also known as the Ajna chakra in Hinduism, the third eye is associated in mystical traditions with enlightenment, religious visions and communication with higher planes of existence. It is supposedly stimulated by the process of trepanning.

I love the fact that that image is just dropped into a kids’ teatime TV show.

I liked Asylum Of The Daleks very much, but rather than just pointlessly recapping the story for you or embarking on a bit of febrile speculation as to what happens next I’d like to list just some of what I loved about the story. It’s a bunch of spoilers really. Mind how you go. (Though honestly if you’re reading this before seeing the episode my question to you is: Why are you reading this before you’ve seen the episode?)

1) There’s a Parliament of the Daleks. So there must be elections of the Daleks and maybe Expense Scandals of the Daleks too. Floating Slyther Islands. Trench cleaning. Bunker flipping.

2) There are broken, ill, lunatic Daleks but they aren’t destroyed because that would offend the Dalek aesthetic.

3) The most deranged Daleks turned out to be the ones who have been defeated by the Doctor: Spiridon, Aridius, Kembel, Vulcan, Exxilon.

4) Jenna-Louise Coleman showed up several episodes before I expected her to. As a Dalek. A sexy, witty, elfin Dalek.

5) The script was smart, giving us clues as to what was happening. Soufflé, milk, eggs… “Are those things eggs?” No Rory, those are etheric beam locators.

6) The Rory/Amy dynamic took a turn for the unexpected and, in conjunction with the Pond Life mini-episodes that have been available on the BBC website, that moved me a little bit. Which was unexpected.

7) Arthur Darvill’s comic timing was superb on the line “What colour? Sorry. There weren’t any good questions left.”

8) Matt Smith’s galloping confidence is glorious. His entrance, a shadow in profile, was epochal. You can already imagine this stuff being fondly written about in forty years time by today’s seven year-olds.

9) The visual language is fabulously sophisticated. I like the clue we get that every time Oswin sees anything on her monitor it’s through a Dalek sighting reticule. And I outright love the reflective compositions that accompany the Dalek Puppet abductions of Amy and Rory. This visual shorthand for a fractured, unreliable sense of personal identity is straight out of the Nicolas Roeg/Donald Cammell movie Performance (1970). Top directoring.

Amelia Pond acquired

Rory Williams acquired

10) I knew what I was expecting and I was wrong-footed. Completely. Happily. Excitedly.

By any standards this is high quality television. For a crowd-pleasing, family-oriented, ratings-sensitive Saturday night it is pure platinum.

There was a singing competition on the other side.

Next week it is Dinosaurs On A Spaceship. This half-reminds me of a Calvin & Hobbes strip but I can’t immediately source it.

Also, apparently, it will feature the voices of David Mitchell and Robert Webb.

Are they the baddies?

Stephen the Special Weapons Dalek, in case you missed him