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Dinosaurs on a Spaceship

Doctor Who stirred buzz by presenting dinosaurs on a spaceship, but just how accurate were the show's prehistoric creatures?

I have a confession to make. Before this weekend, I’d never watched even a single episode of Doctor Who. (Shock. Horror.) I’m a bad nerd, I know. But when BBC One announced that the second episode of the show’s seventh season was titled “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”, I knew I had to finally check out the goofy sci-fi staple.

I’m not going to say much about the plot of the show itself. When you have dinosaurs, Queen Nefertiti and a pair of insecure sentry robots voiced by David Mitchell and Robert Webb on the same ship–among other things–it’s better to simply let the program speak for itself. All you need to know is that an alien ark is harboring a number of dinosaurs rescued from earth before the non-avian varieties perished around 66 million years ago. I will say this, though: the dinosaurs in this episode of Doctor Who look infinitely better than the wonky puppets in the “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” episode of the original series. (Worst. Dinosaurs. Ever.)

Let’s start with the non-dinosaurian aspect of the alien ship’s prehistoric bestiary first. At one point, the Doctor and companions are attacked by a flock of Pteranodon. (Because where you find dinosaurs, flying monsters are never far behind.) The experts behind Pterosaur.net are better qualified to comment on these flying, non-dinosaurian archosaurs than I, but, my apologies to the Doctor, “pterodactyl” isn’t the proper term for these animals. The proper general term for these flapping archosaurs is “pterosaur.” “Pterodactyl” is an outdated term derived from the genus name of the first pterosaur recognized by science, but the term isn’t used by specialists anymore. It’s time to put “pterodactyl” to rest.

The rest of the Cretaceous cast is relatively thin. A pair of ornery ankylosaurs–modeled after Euoplocephalus–make a smashing entrance early on in the show, and our heroes soon cross a snoozing Tyrannosaurus youngster. Sadly, the juvenile tyrant is neither fuzzy nor sufficiently awkward-looking. Thanks to specimens such as “Jane“, we know that young Tyrannosaurus were leggy, slim and had relatively shallow skulls. They didn’t have the bone-crushing skull profile of their parents or the graceful bulk. And, as I’ve remarked many times before, young tyrannosaurs may very well have been fluffy flesh-rippers. The Doctor Who version, unfortunately, looks like a shrunken version of an adult.

Two different dinosaur species get most of the screen time, though. A friendly–or, at least, not overly aggressive–Triceratops helps the Doctor and friends out of a few tight spots. Like the ankylosaurs, though, the ceratopsid is a little bit too tubby and doesn’t run quite right. A Triceratops is not a horse. Likewise, the dinosaur’s tail was a bit too limp. The organ, essential to balance, flopped around like a big green sausage. All the same, the big herbivore was rather cute.

The dromaeosaurids, on the other claw, were not so friendly. They mostly keep to the shadows until the final act and are ferocious enough to temporarily endanger the crew. All the same, the unidentified “raptors” suffered the curse of the bunny hands and insufficient feathery coats. Filmmakers seem reluctant to drape feathers over dromaeosaurids, but, for any effects artists who may be reading, we know that these dinosaurs had exquisite plumage covering almost their entire body. If you’re going to have raptors, they should be intricately feathery. Nevertheless, I liked the idea that dinosaurs could ruffle their feathers to communicate with each other, and potential threats. You may want to laugh at a Deinonychus all puffed up, but that will be the last sound you ever make before it starts to eat you.

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About Brian Switek
Brian Switek

Brian Switek is a freelance science writer specializing in evolution, paleontology, and natural history. He writes regularly for National Geographic's Phenomena blog as Laelaps.

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