Frothy but fun. That would be the succinct way to describe tonight's Doctor Who story, which swung the show's often unpredictable genre-o-meter hard in the direction of comedy.
The on-the-nose title suggests a riff on Snakes on a Plane, but thankfully the tone is never that spoofy. Instead we get one of those breathless Who adventures which rattles along at the same speed as the Doctor's own thoughts. Even before the opening credits, we've caught the tail end of an unseen escapade in which the Doctor has been hanging out with Queen Nefertiti in Ancient Egypt. He gets a message on his psychic paper, summoning him to yet another of Earth's many futures – in this one, defence of the planet falls to the Indian Space Agency and they're about to launch missiles at an apparently unmanned spaceship that's locked into a collision course.
The word “missiles” doesn't sit right with the Doctor, of course, so he vows to investigate – pausing only to pick up another ally, Rydell, a big game hunter from the 19th century, as well as Rory and Amy. Trouble is, the Doctor's haste means he materialises his TARDIS around the Ponds, and scoops up Rory's dad as well. No sooner has this motley crew arrived on the mysterious vessel than they're charged by two ankylosauruses. “Dinosaurs!” beams the Doctor. “On a spaceship!”
That exclamation sets the tone for much of the episode, and the result is breezy, energetic and enormously likeable. The Doctor's always good company when he's in wide-eyed wonder mode, and after an unusually muted performance from Matt Smith in last week's "Asylum of the Daleks," he's firing on all cylinders here, dragging everyone along in his wake with manic enthusiasm and a glint in his eye. The revived series has, on occasion, leaned a little too hard on the notion of the Doctor as a tragic figure but it's stories like this one that remind us just why he bounces around space and time: he loves it.
It's not all wacky shenanigans though. Darkness creeps in at the edges as the nature of the ship becomes clear, as well as the fate of its crew. There's a nice cameo for the Silurians, but this isn't their tale. Instead, it's Solomon, a space pirate by any other name, who provides the dramatic impetus for what happens next. In many ways he's an inverted echo of the Doctor. Where the Doctor travels the universe driven by altruism and curiosity, Solomon is a man of ruthless greed. An ark full of dinosaurs is a valuable commodity, worth enough that he callously killed the Silurian crew. On this occasion his avarice has led him to bite off more than he can chew, as he's unable to navigate the ship and it defaults to return home – to Earth. His second mistake is thinking that blackmailing the Doctor with threats of violence will save him.
It's a classic Who setup, then: a seemingly impossible race against time wrapped around a moral quandary posed by a villain who is everything the Doctor isn't. There are no great surprises in how it all gets resolved, but that doesn't mean there's no room for some fantastic scenes along the way. It's not a great story, but it's fine entertainment – a shameless adventure story full of dinosaurs, robots and spaceships that could have been culled from the cover of a 1950s pulp magazine.
The dinosaurs themselves are seriously impressive, and a bold statement of intent from a show that is infamous for its low budget special effects. A confident mix of CGI and animatronics, the dinosaurs don't technically get to do much in the story – a fun but ultimately unnecessary scene with Amy and Rydell fending off raptors is the closest it comes to Jurassic Park action – but they look fantastic. Given that the show has only occasionally dabbled in prehistoric beasts – as in the 1974 story "Invasion of the Dinosaurs" – this is one of the best looking episodes in the show's history.
Less successful are the two robots that assist Solomon in his dirty deeds. The design is great – big, chunky things with real presence – but the decision to use comedy duo Mitchell and Webb to supply the voices backfires pretty badly. The robots are simply too silly and too corny with their bickering and complaining, and since more than one scene relies on them to supply the threat, it can't help but undercut the action.
More problematic is Solomon's fate. In a move straight out of the third act of Batman Begins, the Doctor pretty much murders the guy, sending him out into space as a decoy for the missiles aimed at the Silurian ark. There's no choice in the matter, no way that Solomon can survive, and the Doctor even gloats over his fate as he leaves him behind. It's a glaring misstep for a character who is perhaps the most pacifist hero in all of genre fiction, often going out of his way to find the middle ground, take the diplomatic route and risk his own life so that everyone else can make it to the end credits.
Comedy robots and a moment of unlikely Timelord bloodlust are the the only real weak links though, with the rest of the cast hitting a consistently high standard. There's no real reason for Rydell and Nefertiti to be along for the ride, but there's a free-wheeling feel to the way they're casually tossed into the mix, and the expanded cast offers lots of possibilities for the dialogue to riff back and forth. “Never had a gang before,” muses the Doctor, and I'm hoping it's not the last time he gets more companions than he bargained for.
Special mention must go to Mark Williams as Brian, Rory's dad. He's another actor who favors comic roles – he's a veteran of British sketch series The Fast Show, and probably best known as Arthur Weasley in the Harry Potter films. Somehow, it's quite fitting that Rory could be a Weasley. Williams takes full advantage of the comedic potential of a stuck-in-his-ways suburban dad being whisked away on an intergalactic adventure, but he nails the more subtle moments as well. We get a sense of the friction between him and Rory, and a little hint of closure as Brian sees Rory coping with things far beyond his understanding. His role is arguably not that different to that of Wilf, Donna's grandfather in the David Tennant seasons, but the shot of him enjoying a sandwich while watching the Earth from space, legs dangling over the lip of the TARDIS door, was still quite lovely. This won't be the last we see of Brian – he's in the upcoming episode "The Power of Three" at least – and it'll be fun to see where they take him.
And fun is really the dominant theme of this episode, even with a few ominous reminders that Amy and Rory's time in the TARDIS is almost up. The quality of this sort of standalone episode can vary wildly on Doctor Who. Adequate but forgettable recent efforts such as "The Curse of the Black Spot" or "Night Terrors" often felt like placeholders, going through the motions. "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship" simply has too much going on, too many throwaway ideas crammed in, to suffer that fate. With its brisk pace, lively humour and just enough dramatic weight to stop the story drifting away entirely, this may not be an important episode but it's definitely one of the good ones.