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

Whither the Blinovitch limitation effect?

My most recent spell of post-romanticism has been characterised by my lying on my couch and staring at the ceiling. Now it’s a nice couch, and it’s a nice ceiling but torpor is just torpor and doesn’t make for much fun writing or reading about.

Also I have lost any ability to write that I might once have had. I mean check out that first paragraph, gangsta. Check it out. Two uses of the word “nice” and a preposition hanging off the end of it. That’s blooming crud that is.

I once read a book by Edgar Rice Burroughs – one of his Pellucidar novels, set in a mythical underground realm – which, even though it was quite short, had an apologetic note from the author as a preface. He was sorry to the reader, in essence, for the amount of scenery and weather he had put in the book.

Any scenery and weather in a book set principally under the Earth’s mantle is probably too much, but I didn’t feel the apology was necessary. Burroughs is Burroughs, and narrative chutzpah carries you through even his lesser work. This is why Edgar Rice Burroughs is a better writer than William S. Burroughs I think. You can read his books.

Sorry about all the weather and scenery here.

So, what am I talking about? The condition of heart-brokenness? Nah. Wouldn’t have a clue. It’s a bit embarrassing. It’s a bit painful. But worse things happen at sea, and anyway that’s suddenly a whole lot more PS3/Blu-ray time on my daily planner, surely.

Well it will be as soon as I’m done with the ceiling-staring.

A long time ago I would have gone off on a prodigious spell of drinking, backed up with a sheaf of self-serving justifications of byzantine complexity. But I don’t do that these days. I’m sure alcohol is still a perfectly charming molecule, and those who like it are right to feel free to enjoy it. It just does not, I concluded some time ago, agree with me.

The last time we had anything to do with each other, me and the booze, it was 2006 and I was absolutely clobbered powerless by it. It’s a funny old thing (in the hideously sad and painful sense of the word funny) is alcohol dependency. Alcoholism – let’s call it what it is. It can reduce you to a decaying, friendless, desiccated wreck, but it still seems like a roaringly good idea when you’re in the midst of it.

Hmm, you (or more pertinently, I) might think. I feel physically wretched, like I am actually going to die. That pain is in my liver. My eyes have the yellow look of very old ivory. I think that thing in the toilet bowl might be my stomach lining. You know what I need? A cheeky breakfast vodka.

Who wouldn’t regard that as something of a wake-up call? Sugar Puffs, milk, orange juice, vodka.

Well, me for one. Millions of other people for two. I had to get help from people who had done the same sort of thing in the past but didn’t do it anymore. I had to learn how to talk about myself (yuck, yuck, yuck) and listen to other people talk about themselves (boooooring). I had to set about clearing the wreckage of my past and minimising the rate at which I gathered new wreckage.

Luckily for me there were good people to help me with that. They weren’t difficult to find either. They are, as Craig Ferguson once put it, quite near the beginning of the Phone Book.

Thanks, those guys.

So no booze then. No sudden domestic or geographical lurches. Except I bought a trumpet. Anyway that is perfectly normal behaviour. Trumpet-buying. Turns out that when the mood came upon me there was only one trumpet for sale in all the shops of Inverness despite what my friend Kay might try to tell you about such clearly fictional enterprises as Trumpetland, World Of Trumpets and Brass Zone!

One trumpet for sale, but luckily it matched all of my expectations which is to say that it looked like every trumpet I had ever seen in my life, and it was priced within my trumpet budget for the month.

Hurrah for valve oil! Hurrah for embouchure (which is basically making a rude noise with your mouth)! But especially hurrah for the educational DVD I got! There is a furious urge within me to reach the point where my incontinent parpings are finally better than the pure, sweet notes the kid on the DVD produces.

I hate kids. They ruin everything. The film industry. Days out to interesting places. Trumpet tuition. You name it and I guarantee that a short, stupid kid with no idea about how the world really works has already spoilt it. Idiots.

The on-going trumpet adventure was a sign that I was probably going to be OK, but the sudden accretion in the last week or so of mind-bogglingly inane DVDs and comics has sealed the deal.

I have almost fully morphed back into the un-marriageable half-man half-compost heap that is my default setting.

Two of the movies I have just seen on DVD, Luigi Cozzi’s fabulously mad Starcrash and Thom Eberhardt’s low budget miracle Night Of The Comet, have reminded me how fond I am of the 70s and 80s. I hope to write a bit about them later.

But there is contemporary stuff to cover too. A thing that children have not yet managed to spoil in complete contradiction of my earlier assertion.

Since I last blogged – gulp – a whole season of Doctor Who has come and gone.

Can I talk a bit about Doctor Who now?

***

There, those three asterisks indicate where half my readers got on and the other half got off.

Doctor Who Season 5, or Season 31 as I prefer to call it. Any good then?

Yup. It was good.

Or at greater length:

Matt Smith is a tremendous surprise as the Doctor. Such was David Tenant’s authority that a few of the things he established as character traits looked as though they might become sine qua non attributes of subsequent incarnations of the character. The youth, the vigour, the sexiness, the gob, the insolence, the mania. These are things Tenant imported to the role but he did it so unquestionably that it is easy to forget that they aren’t typical of previous incarnations.

My concern, prior to seeing any of Matt Smith’s episodes, was that we were going to get more of the same. A string-thin young wannabe poncing round the multiverse shouting.

That’s not what we got though and I have to applaud Smith for running with the more spiky, almost autistic aspects of his character. Tenant played the Time Lord as a geek, but a knowing kind of geek. One who is aware of his own brainy allure.

With Smith, certainly after the regeneration trauma but before the series settled down, it was as though we were sharing the Tardis with Maurice Moss from the I.T. Crowd.

He, the actor, is playing down the looks (and he’s a pretty boy underneath it all isn’t he?). He’s happy enough with the improbable hair and the face like an unexpected ocean liner looming out of a fog bank. It’s subtle what Smith is doing. It’s long-game characterisation. He knows that if we stick with him we will learn to love him despite the alien angularity and the awkwardness. It can be a bit like watching Patrick Troughton, or Colin Baker if Colin Baker had been done right.

There has been some tabloid tutting, doubtless welcome by the writers, at how sexy the show is. Is that an issue? I was more surprised at hearing the Doctor use mild swear words like Bloody and Hell. That felt new and slightly transgressive to me. I mean I’m not going to dispute that there’s a sexual element to the programme, but what’s new?

The first time we met the Doctor in 1963 he was living with his grand-daughter. Over time we speculated that maybe that was just a turn of phrase or a kind euphemism to explain Susan’s presence. But no, the tenth Doctor talked briefly of having had a family in the past. So from Day 1 this is a programme which has at least acknowledged its title character’s sex life. The tenth Doctor spread it about quite a bit actually, certainly compared to the ninth’s slightly hesitant fumblings with Rose and Jack.

But in the classic era sex was never far away. Ian and Barbara? Ben and Polly? Jamie and Zoe? Harry and Sarah? Leela and K-9? (Though I might have imagined that one). And that’s just the companions.

Look at some of the Doctor’s relationships. The third Doctor and Jo, for instance. It was always that drip Captain Yates from UNIT who was asking Jo out, but she always ended up with the Doctor in the Tardis. And how upset was the Doctor when she left him to sail down the Amazon with that hippie from Wales? He was crying for God’s sake.

The Fourth Doctor and Romana. The Fifth Doctor and Tegan. The Sixth Doctor and Peri. The Seventh Doctor and Ace. Don’t tell me you never noticed.

The sexual undercurrents are not new then but I am pleased at the way Karen Gillan has asserted herself. For a while I thought she was overdoing the pouting, stropping and sulking. It looked, particularly when River Song was also in the picture, as though the Doctor was getting a bit hen-pecked.

The inclusion of Rory as the dithery, useless fiancé didn’t help at first, but stone me, as the series progressed and the characters settled down a bit it all started to work.

Once Rory had been written out of the Universe, re-incarnated as an Auton Roman soldier, redeemed and then reintroduced to the Universe as a human in the grand re-boot he started to become appealing.

The current Tardis line-up of the barely socially functional Doctor and the married couple one of whom is a voracious, lunatic, nymphomaniacal, redheaded Scotswoman is quite an exciting one.

Russell T. Davies always did a fabulous job celebrating pan-sexuality in his Tardis line-ups. This current one as constructed by Stephen Moffat could not be more heterosexual. It’s practically George and Mildred in Space.

That isn’t a bad thing.

There were a few things about the series that didn’t quite work I think. The whole story arc doesn’t make much sense once you start following it through. Time paradoxes can be great fun if you’re rigorous about causes and effects. Doing stuff because it’s flashy and then covering over the holes by saying something like “Timey-wimey stuff can be a bit difficult to get your head around” is unfair.

You could see it work well in microcosm with the gag about the Doctor accumulating the Tommy Cooper hat and Norman Wisdom mop we knew he had to be holding when he met Rory. It all fell apart on the macroscopic scale though. I’ve watched The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang through three times now and I’m embarrassed to report that I still can’t understand them.

And whilst we’re here, whatever happened to the Blinovitch limitation effect? I’m sure there was a good reason why you couldn’t keep crossing your own time stream and that was it!

A secondary fault was that there was a slightly solipsistic, constrained feeling to some of the episodes. The empty village in the Silurian two-parter for instance, together with the massive drilling operation manned by precisely three people!

Scale was a problem with the Big Bang too. What a tease Stephen Moffat is mentioning the Draconians, the Zygons, the Drahvin and then not showing them. What did we get? Three Daleks, a sack of Sontarans and some Cybermen. And what is it with these Cybermen anyway? Aren’t they from a parallel universe? Our home-grown Mondas/Telos Cybermen were much better.

Perhaps these underwhelming crowds and this absence of convincing background activity were scripting infelicities, but I’d be more inclined to believe that they were budget constraints. If that is the case then I will just quietly accept that the best job possible was done under the circumstances. Particularly in The Hungry Earth and Cold Blood. I’m glad that they spent the cash on tons of lady Silurian soldiers rather than human extras.

The Silurianettes brought about in me that same cross-species dilemma I had when I saw Helena Bonham Carter made up as a chimp in Planet of the Apes. I know it’s not right, but…

Yes, you would.