Saturday, September 8, 2012

Dinosaurs On A Spaceship

I wanted to love this episode.  I really, seriously did.  Dinosaurs on a spaceship is the most perfect concept you could put in this show.  But the execution is just awful, and I'm finding myself very sadly having a much more Hobbesian view of things when I wanted desperately to be as awed by the ideas as Calvin.

Okay, so here's what happens in this episode: in 1334 BC, the Doctor saves Ancient Egypt from destruction, and then impulsively brings Queen Nefertiti along with him.  Meanwhile, a space ark launched by the Silurians millions of years ago is boarded by a pirate in 2367 AD who ruthlessly murders all the Silurians with his cheap robots, then finds he can't pilot the ship and it's returning to Earth. The ISA, presumably the India Space Agency but in practice the 24th century equivalent to UNIT, calls the Doctor in to solve the problem before they're forced to destroy it with missiles.  After getting instructions from the ISA, he then picks up Edwardian hunter Riddell for some reason.  Then he picks up Amy and Rory... along with Rory's dad by accident.

So, to sum up, this episode includes the following:
  • Dinosuars on a spaceship
  • A Silurian space ark
  • A psychotic space pirate who commits genocide against said Silurians
  • A pair of Douglas Adams-ish robots
  • A successor to UNIT
  • Queen Nefertiti
  • A Great White Hunter
  • Amy and Rory getting picked up again since they aren't regularly traveling with the Doctor.
  • Rory's dad.
That's too many concepts for 90 minutes.  In 45, nothing works properly.

Well, except the dinosaurs on a spaceship.  It would have been nice if more had been done with that, but they work well enough.

Let's start with Nefertiti, since that's the one that really irks me.  She's all flirty, first with the Doctor, then with Riddell.  That, actually, is pretty much her entire characterization.  She's flirty and she's a Queen, so she has a power thing going.  She barely has any lines in the story, and has no function whatsoever until the climax, at which point she is captured by the villain for the final crisis.  She then waits around until the Doctor arrives to save her, then finally decides to save herself.  At the end, she goes off to be with Riddell for some reason.

It's a sloppily-detailed, half-formed characterization for a character who, frankly, could have been cut from the story entirely.  That would be bad enough without the moral problem, but this is a family show.  See, she clearly identifies herself as the wife of Amunhotep.  It's part of how she defines herself.  However, she tries to seduce the Doctor, then goes off to be with another guy at the end.  But that's okay, see, because she thinks her husband is boring.  I know they're much cheekier these days, but playing off infidelity as nothing more than a joke is just offensive.

But then there's the fact that she's Nefertiti.  One of the great historical icons.  And Chibnall gets nothing right.  The few details we do get about her are completely wrong.  This is one of the most fascinating figures of ancient history, and Chibnall can't get the three things he does say about her right.

Nefertiti and her husband, Amunhotep IV, led the Aten cult, a group of Egyptians who believed there was only one god, Aten, the disk of the sun.  In 1348 (give or take a year), Amunhotep changed his named to Akhenaten, still the name he's most commonly known by.  He and Nefertiti reformed the entire Egyptian culture, changing the Pantheon, the Capital city, even the style of art.  And they created the first monotheistic state religion, and were members of one of the first two monotheistic religions to ever exist, alongside Judaism.

Nefertiti had an unprecedented level of power for a queen, being nearly a co-regent with her husband.   She also deeply loved Akhenaten.  Then, in the 12th year of his reign, 1340(ish), she simply disappears.  After this, things get fuzzy, but at about the same time, a mysterious figure named Smenkhare appears and becomes Akhenaten's coregent, then Pharaoh after his death a few years later.  There may also have been a Queen named Neferneferuaten somewhere in there.  Those two may have been Nefertiti herself under different names, or maybe just the second one was.  Or maybe neither, and she died in 1340.  But the idea that she was both is the popular theory amongst amateurs like me.

Changing the state religion, unfortunately, drew the ire of the old priests, who had lost much of their power.  They took advantage of Akhenaten's preoccupation with his religion, and ensured that the Egyptian kingdom fell apart.  There was lots of intrigue and power struggling.

Eventually, the priests quietly managed to get back their power, and once Akhenaten's son (probably his, anyway) Tutankhaten, later Tutankamun, popularly King "Tut", came to power as a kid, they got him to return the throne to the old capital and restore the old gods.  Two pharaohs further down the line, orders were given to have the entire period erased from history so nothing like it could ever happen again.  Bits of the period resurface, but details are sketchy.  What we do have, however, is one of the most dramatic periods of ancient Egyptian history, and at the center, Nefertiti.

So if you're going to put her in your story, you should probably put her in a story that actually has enough time to give her some dues.  But even if you're not, you could at least get something right.  The Doctor picks her up in 1334, at which point Akhenaten was either dead or dying.  If she was alive, she was about to become sole ruler of Egypt (or already was).  Also, she had at least two living daughters (who later became Tutankhamun's wife) and possibly four.  So leaving her to abandon her post and her children with no motivation whatsoever is hard to take.

And she's bored with her husband?  The guy who tried to turn his world upside-down?  The guy she clearly loved deeply from every depiction we have of them?  And above all, she calls him Amunhotep.  13 years after he changed his name.  I mean, that one's just weird.  Anyone who's heard of him knows he's Akhenaten.  Even the 15 seconds of research required to come up with the right century and her husband's name would have turned that up.

Akhenaten and Nefertiti play with their daughters.

This is largely nit-picking, but it's an example of how sloppy the whole thing is.  Nefertiti is jammed into the story, but she's done so utterly wrong she fails as a representation of the real person (actually a bit of an insult, really, to one of the great women of ancient history).  That would be totally forgivable if it was a memorable characterization, but it's a pretty lousy one.  And even then, there might be something to be said for her mere presence and name if she actually accomplished something in the story, but her only actual purpose is to get captured by the villain for the sake of the climax.

This sloppiness pervades the entire script.  Like the way the Doctor mentions that they can't use the transports at one point because they shorted out, but they inexplicably work (multiple times) for the climax.

The sexual politics are just obnoxious.  Look, I have nothing against feminism.  I'm about as feminist as a male American conservative gets.  One of the things I love so much about this show is the presence of characters like Barbara Wright and Sarah Jane Smith being strong, independent, powerful women long before it was popular.  But the presentation here is terrible.  Riddell and Solomon are totally sexist, and Nefertiti and Amy are constantly putting their equality in their faces.  Riddell and Solomon become strawmen sexists, and frankly, Nefertiti and Amy come off like the sorts of characters Kate Beaton was satirizing in her Strong Female Characters comic.  Every time it comes up, it's cringe-inducing.

And there's Rory's dad.  Mark Williams is perfect, and the character gets a couple of nice moments, but when you bring in a previously-unseen relative, you should really make their relationship the emotional center of the story, or at least have a decent emotional arc.  He's a credible depiction of what you'd expect Rory's dad to be like, but he has nothing really to do.  Like Nefertiti, he's just sort of grafted on without any real thought to how he impacts the story (or doesn't).  It's a waste of a nice performance.

Riddell works better than the other two on the sheer fact that the Great White Hunter is such a brilliant trope it's almost impossible to screw up, and such a simple one you can just let it play in the background.  Even in otherwise weak adventures, that character adds tremendous fun to a story.  Think Connery's Allan Quartermain in the otherwise lame League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or (my favorite variation of the trope) Ernie Hudson as "your Great White Hunter... who happens to be black" in the extremely uneven Congo.  And Rupert Graves certainly plays it with all the charisma you'd expect.  He's got a particularly great moment where he calmly insists he can take down an ankylosaur with his pocketknife.  But far too much of his screentime is spent belittling the women long after they've proven their competence - not to mention long after the joke wears thin.

With so many things fighting for screen time (and losing), it's not much surprise that the actual story, which isn't bad (if a bit cliche), doesn't have time to actually develop.  To be honest, it feels like we missed all the good parts and just stumbled into some of the less interesting parts of the ending.

The bit with the guns at the end is particularly poor.  Riddell has the villain dead to rights, but he's stopped because he's using a gun.  A stun gun.  It seems like it's just the usual New Who anti-gun thing, but here's the thing: not only is it non-fatal, but it would solve the problem.  Immediately.  There is literally no reason in the Time-Space continuum not to just shoot him with the tranq gun.  There's nothing stopping him.  He's a Great White Hunter, villain in his sights, at point blank range.  Well, okay, there's the robots.  But so far as I can tell, they won't do anything that the villain doesn't tell them to do.  Once he's dead, do they do anything?  It's just a poorly thought-through showdown.

And it's not like the Doctor has a problem killing the guy.  He's pretty cold-blooded about it, actually.  So what's with the big anti-gun thing?

Speaking of which, though, the robots are great.  In the Douglas Adams tradition, they're the lower-quality models, meaning instead of being great kill bots, they're barely adequate kill bots who spend all their time bickering with each other and their victims.  It's a delightful bit that tragically lacks a punchline, but still represents one of the few things in the story that actually works.

As for the Doctor, he's... fine.  Matt Smith is great as ever, but Chibnall seriously overdoes the quirks.  The running joke about the Doctor being parts of music recordings is really tiresome by now.  His interference in creating minor parts of history is charming in small doses, but gets annoying after a while.  Note to Chibnall: quirks are charming.  QUIRKS are incredibly off-putting.

Amy spends too much time bickering with Riddell, but otherwise, she's good.  It's fun to see how well she handles the situations she's handed.  She really is a pro at this stuff.  She also gets a short but effective conversation with the Doctor about the way he picks them up and then disappears for months at a time, and how she can't stand to have to hold down a job in the meantime.  Rory is similarly fine but unspectacular.  All of his lines and scenes are good, but he's not around much.

There are moments where it comes together and works.

Rory: "Where are we?"
The Doctor: [sticks his tongue out] "Well, it's not Earth.  Doesn't taste right.  Too metallic."
 But on the whole, it's a typical Chibnall story: good ideas, not-so-good execution.


* * 


  •  Why didn't Rory's dad meet the Doctor at his son's wedding?  Was he not there?  Shouldn't this have been addressed?
  • The implication with the ICS is that India is the dominant world superpower in the 24th century.  Yet another good concept that's completely trampled by its brevity.  I totally missed that until a commenter mentioned the agency's name.
  • So, given the presence of the Ankylosaurs, Triceratops, T-Rex, and overgrown Velocoraptors, the Silurians must have launched their ship in the late Cretaceous.  This is extremely strange, as every prior appearance suggested they came from other time periods. 
    • In The Silurians, they went in hibernation when they thought the Earth capturing the moon would cause massive geologic upheavals.  We can set aside that the current scientific consensus is that the moon formed from a collision between the earth a Mars-sized object (a theory with massive problems of its own that will probably be replaced by a better one, as such holey theories generally are), which is forgivable since I believe the capture theory was the consensus in 1970.  The point is, if that was the case, they would have existed around 4.5 billion years ago, which is problematic for reasons I probably don't need to mention.

But here's a pretty picture of it by the great Chesley Bonestall.
    •  However, the title of the story suggests they existed around 430 million years ago.  This doesn't work since terrestrial life was limited to coastal plant life.  At any rate, the Doctor later claims the name is a misnomer...
    • ... in The Sea Devils, where he says they should more rightly be called Eocenes.  This comes much closer to making sense given who the Silurians are, placing them between 56 and 34 million years old.  If they truly ruled the world, that would be about the time period that fits best.
    • But dinosaurs had been extinct since 65 million years ago.  It's possible a small number survived the K-T extinction event, but not by that long.  And on the other hand, the Silurians are said to have ruled the Earth, which is unlikely in the Mesozoic because, you know, dinosuars.
    • All of which is to say, I dare someone to come up with a coherent, unified theory of the existence of the Silurians.  Give it your best shot!


  1. Nice work. Just thought I'd help you out with something: In the establishing shot with the ISA it states it's 2367 A.D. and just after hanging up on the Doctor before launching their missiles, the ISA is spelt out as Indian Space Agency.

  2. Thanks! I edited the entry to fix that.