For all the strength of its characters and the depth of its storytelling, sometimes Doctor Who comes up with an episode that reminds us that there’s a simple truth at the heart of why the show’s so great. This show can go anywhere, do anything, get more bizarre and more adventurous than anything else on television, and that’s where a lot of the joy that comes from watching it is born. This week’s episode is that kind of unapologetic thrill ride, a story with an impossibly cool (or, as The Doctor himself says, “fabulously impossible”) conceit at its heart, the chief goal of which is to take us on an adventure. And what an adventure.
Note: This review will be as spoiler-free as possible, so if you haven’t seen the episode yet, you’ll be able to read on. However, I will be tacking on a slight final word that includes spoilers at the very end, so watch for your second warning.
When an Earth space agency asks The Doctor (Matt Smith) to help stop a spaceship on a collision course with Earth, he decides it might be fun to assemble a gang. Among this gang are the Ponds, Amy and Rory (Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill), Egyptian Queen Nefertiti (Riann Steele), famed explorer and hunter John Riddell (Rupert Graves) and Rory’s dad (Mark Williams, who you might know best as Mr. Weasley), who just happened to be over at the Pond house when the TARDIS materialized around them.
From there the group arrives on the ship and quickly discovers it’s not only vast and surprising, but filled with an untold numbers of dinosaurs. This excites The Doctor to no end, but (as usual) the gang quickly discovers something darker’s afoot, and they must find out what it is and how to stop it before Earth forces decide to launch missles to blow the ship.
One of the keys to why Matt Smith is such a successful Doctor – and he is a successful Doctor, whether you like it or not – is his ability to shift very, very quickly from grave and ancient to giddy and childlike, then back again. He doesn’t have the same furiously gleeful energy that David Tennant had (he always seemed to attack the fun he was having), but he does childlike better than perhaps any other Doctor, and this is his chance to showcase it over and over again. The Doctor is in awe of the events of this episode, all of them, even the dark things that take away his dinosaur buzz. That says something not just about Matt Smith, but about the character, something that most every Doctor at least since Tom Baker has embraced in one way or another. Despite being hundreds of years old, The Doctor is still able to marvel at the universe. But more importantly, as a few smaller moments in this episode tell us, he’s able to do that in spite of the tragedies that have befallen him, and the tragedies yet to come. Or is he merely going through the motions, hoping no one will notice his pain? With a Steven Moffat-run series, we must always ask that question, and this may be the year we get an answer.
As for the episode as a whole, it’s relentlessly fast-paced and fun, even in the dark moments, with a fantastic guest cast that also includes the likes of David Bradley (who you might best remember as Argus Filch). We get to see Rory’s dad favoring Amy over his own son, we get to see Rory and his Dad do some space adventure bonding, we get to see The Doctor and Amy reconnect a bit and, most important, we get to see Dinosaurs on a freaking spaceship! What’s not to love about that?
Warning: A few possible SPOILERS ahead. Don’t read on if you don’t want to know a few things.
Still here? OK then.
This episode didn’t have too many implications for the overall arc (though there are hints of what’s to come), but I did want to take a moment to remark on a moment in this episode that I found wonderful. At the end, after the adventure is done, Rory’s travel-hating dad asks a favor of The Doctor, and when we next see him he’s sitting on the stoop of the TARDIS, feet dangling into space, eating out of a lunch pail and staring happily down at the Earth. When next we hear of him he’s traveling all over the world. Just this once, forget which Doctor you prefer, or which showrunner, or which villain or which Companion. Forget your quibbles with the overall story arcs and your hopes for the future of the series. This is why we watch Doctor Who. This moment. We want to be the person dangling our feet out into space. We want to travel. This show answers that call for all of us, and though it was just a small moment, it reminded me of that.
Oh, and by the way, who else noticed Amy’s very Doctor-like demeanor when left to her own devices, as well as her willingness to refer to herself as a queen? She’s always been feisty, but is this a self-destructive course she’s on? We shall see. The endgame is short.
Next week: “A Town Called Mercy”