We've only seen two episodes of Doctor Who season seven thus far, but do we already know the thread that connects the stories? After watching "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship," we're pretty sure we see the common element that runs between this year's adventures.
"Dinosaurs on a Spaceship" was a pretty rollicking stand-alone adventure, but it did have one element that stuck out rather noticeably: The bad guy didn't know who the Doctor was, something that was also the case with the Daleks by the end of last week's story.
"Dinosaurs on a Spaceship" teases us a bunch of times with the notion that the villain, Solomon, is going to turn out to recognize the Doctor somehow. First, when Solomon hears Rory and Rory's dad Brian call the Doctor by his title, Solomon is all excited — but it's only because Solomon's legs are injured and he needs a doctor to patch him up. Then Solomon scans the Doctor with his fancy appraisal device, and finds no records of him. Later, Solomon says he's scanned the whole massive ship, and found something of great unique value — and you assume he's talking about the TARDIS, but he actually means the Doctor's latest traveling companion, Queen Nefertiti.
The episode makes such a point of teasing us with the notion that the baddie knows the Doctor, or will find out about him, that it seems like a theme is being developed. On top of the Daleks being "brainwashed" (sort of) to forget the Doctor last week, this seems like an idea that's being built up over time.
Villains not knowing who the Doctor is, or what the TARDIS is, was par for the course in a lot of old-school Doctor Who episodes — but it's a fairly revolutionary notion in the new series. And it allows the Doctor to define himself more, like when the Doctor tells Solomon he doesn't respond well to violence, or when the Doctor shows his outrage at Solomon's genocide, piracy and triceratops-slaughtering. The Doctor is actually more formidable when his reputation doesn't precede him.
The other notion that seems to be important in "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship" is that there's been a shift in the Doctor's relationship with Amy and Rory — he's been dropping in on them less and less often. To the point where Amy wonders if he's trying to wean them off him. He claims that he thinks of them as different from all his past companions because they have each other and they can have a normal life, but at the same time, he seems to be putting a bit of distance. And for their part, Amy and Rory seem rather eager to get home after the adventure is over, rather than tagging along for the dinosaur-returning portion.
And of course, the Doctor also shows up with two other random companions in tow: Queen Nefertiti and Riddell, the big game hunter. (This combines two of the show's favorite recent tropes: famous woman from history is in love with the Doctor and wants to marry him, and the Doctor gathers friends and allies from all across time and space for a mission.) Amy wonders if Nefertiti and Riddell are the "new us," but the Doctor insists that he's just enjoying having a gang, for once. (Oh, and I sort of liked Nefertiti, especially when she puts Solomon in his place, but could take or leave Riddell, really. And the two of them ending up together seemed a bit forced.)
Given that this is the tail end of Amy and Rory's time with the Doctor, it's interesting that we're seeing more distance between them and the Doctor, rather than a building intensity. (And did we see some foreshadowing when Amy jokes about being with the Doctor until she dies?) Meanwhile, both Amy and Rory have some of their best ever moments in this episode — Amy is unusually resourceful, figuring out the Silurian computers and shooting dinosaurs while schooling Riddell in feminism. She seems very comfortable with this life. Meanwhile, Rory gets to show off his nursing skills, figure lots of stuff out, and co-pilot a spaceship with his dad.
Which bring us to the other new element this episode introduces — Rory's Dad is randomly brought along for the ride, and he's splendid. He's sort of the new Wilf. The cranky old buffer who hates traveling, loves golf, and always carries a trowel is completely annoyed at being kidnapped from the Ponds' home and whisked away on a big space adventure with dinosaurs — but then he totally rises to the occasion and winds up helping to save the day. By the end of the episode, he's become a seasoned traveler who goes all over. And drinks his tea while sitting above the planet Earth, in one of the most lovely shots ever.
Overall, "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship" is the most fun I can remember Doctor Who being in years — writer Chris Chibnall has finally made me forget "Cyberwoman," once and for all. This is a completely daft, silly episode, with a villain who's just nasty enough to keep the plot in motion. In a nutshell, there's a spaceship that's going to crash into 23rd century Earth, and the Indian space agency is going to shoot it down with missiles. The Doctor and his "gang" go to investigate and find that it's full of dinosaurs. The ship is actually a Silurian ark, but the evil Solomon has killed all the Silurians and is attempting to steal all the priceless dinosaurs, without much luck. In the end, the Doctor uses Solomon's ship as a decoy to divert the missiles, so the ship full of dinosaurs is saved. Oh, and there are silly robots!
I'm not even sure why "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship" seemed like more fun than pretty much any other Matt Smith episode, off the top of my head — maybe it's just the zippy pace, the non-stop silliness, and the fact there are a lot of nice character moments but absolutely no attempt at manufacturing a huge personal crisis for any of the characters. (Other than Brian finding out the truth about Rory's travels.) It's just a fun ride. Oh, and this might be my favorite Matt Smith performance yet — he milks so much fun out of every one of the zillions of funny lines he's given in this episode, and he brings a real sense of outrage to the Doctor's interactions with the evil Solomon.
So, yeah — not a universe-shattering adventure, but like I said, the most fun that Doctor Who has been in yonks. And you heard it here first: the Doctor not being recognized is a definite theme this year.