This review contains spoilers.
11.5 The Tsuranga Conundrum
Five down, five to go. It’s tempting here at the midway point to sit back and take stock of the rhythms this new Doctor Who is establishing for itself, examine the arcs of its companions and try to work out where – if anywhere – the series is attempting to lead us. Is there a larger arc to all of this? Are there clues we can glean about a shadowy presence that might slyly be manipulating events from behind the scenes? Can we assign any meaning to ‘The Timeless Child’? Will we ever get to see the custard cream dispenser take down an advancing Dalek?
If you’re scanning for a grand reunion of all the villains who’ve escaped so far this season or looking for hints as to which of Team TARDIS might be due to snuff it in the finale, it’s fair to say that this episode isn’t one you’ll be returning to time and time again to screen-cap evidence. This is a classic Doctor Who episode of old, the shiny sets notwithstanding, and it serves as a solid, if unremarkable adventure that you’ll probably skip over the next time you’re binge-watching the series.
The episode’s opening conceit, in which the Doctor accidentally unearths a sonic mine buried in an alien rubbish tip, sees the gang injured and then plucked to safety by a hospital ship that automatically sets course for the nearest friendly planet, leaving the TARDIS behind. Unusually, the Doctor is the only one to suffer any lasting trauma from the explosion – redundant Time Lord organs are as much a curse as a blessing, apparently – but the nature of her injury mostly manifests as needing to clutch at her left-hand side as she staggers, rather than pelts, down corridors.
The Second Doctor’s era popularised a dynamic known as the “base under siege” – the TARDIS crew turn up in an unfamiliar environment, more often as not staffed by humans or humanoid aliens, but any suspicion or hostility they may encounter as a result of their intrusion is soon forgotten when a greater alien peril begins to manifest. Before long, everyone’s simply scrambling to survive. Some of the more successful serials in this format raise the stakes further by combining an encroaching alien menace with a ‘ticking clock’ to race against – in the Third Doctor story Inferno, for example, the imminent danger comes from savage, transformed scientists, but it’s a drilling exercise in the background and the torrent of lava it unleashes that provides the ultimate threat.
Plenty of Doctor Who plots have aped this recipe in the last fifty years, including Chris Chibnall’s own episode, 42; a show that paired an enemy (solar energy fragments) with a deadline that more-or-less matched the episode’s length. In this week’s The Tsuranga Conundrum, the alien turns out to be a Pting, a voracious beastie badly in need of an apostrophe, and the countdown is provided by the planet that’s supposed to be saving the lives of the hospital ship’s patients. Should they get too close to their supposed salvation with a dangerous creature aboard, they’ll be destroyed.
The thing with the Pting is that its character design rather works to undo the grave threat it’s meant to pose. It’s the size of an Adipose with the facial features of a Slitheen, and supposedly it’ll indiscriminately chomp its way through the ship while being invulnerable to any form of weaponry or assault. Although we’re told that it’s a toxic-skinned harbinger of destruction capable of moving at incredible speed, though, all we actually witness is it waddling around like a Minion and snacking on random debris.
While it’s easy to appreciate the conceptual danger of having your ship gradually eaten away from underneath you, it’s hard to take the miniature monster seriously because it’s so damn cute, even when it hisses like a stray cat being caught with its bum sticking out of your wheelie-bin. The moment where Yaz snares the Pting in a blanket and promises to get rid of it, only to drop-kick it ten feet down the corridor and look supremely pleased with herself, feels borderline cruel. There is a plot point where the lil’ critter seems to be edging the ship towards an asteroid field where, one might suppose, many more of its kin are waiting to snack on the rest of the craft, but that never amounts to anything.
Cuddly calamity notwithstanding, the majority of the ship’s occupants are its patients, including Yoss; a pregnant alien man whose birth becomes this week’s bonding exercise for Graham and Ryan. Actor Jack Shalloo gives an erstwhile performance as a single dad faced with the terrifying prospect of not being good enough to raise his baby, but there’s not enough weight to make this sub-plot matter, not when everyone’s already in mortal peril. Graham and Ryan’s relationship is one that’s been forged by the fires of loss, and difference, and learning to cope with their grief – here, regardless of who or what might be giving birth, they’re both reduced to wincing and squirming at a comedy pregnancy like any other sitcom odd-couple.
The episode’s sibling newbies – ace fighter pilot Eve Cicero and her engineer brother, Durkas – fare somewhat better, with android Ronan acting as a prissy bodyguard of sorts. Once encouraged by the Doctor, they’re ultimately responsible for buying enough time to save the day. Their chemistry is far from the strongest we’ve ever seen between Doctor Who’s minor players, but the characters are as workmanlike and well-performed as you might expect from a plot of this type.
Speaking of the Doctor… the episode doesn’t benefit from her unexpected speech on the brilliance of antimatter, wherein she describes the spaceship’s fictional engine as “the iPhone of CERN reactors” and expresses her conceptual, actual love for the technology. If other stories this season have been far too on-the-nose when delivering their educational and ethical messages, this lecture felt particularly oblique – it’s not like we can call up our energy providers and switch over to an antimatter payment plan tomorrow, after all. Like The Ghost Monument’s earnest discussion on the benefits of NVQs and the properties of acetylene, these are factoids that just don’t fit the moment.
As we soon learn, it’s not the clean-energy engine of the ship that we should be worried about; rather, it’s the self-destruct system beneath it. It’s not hard for any experienced sci-fi fan to connect the dots at this point and work out how the story will end, but it’s undeniably a neat solution – feed the bomb to the monster and punt it back into the void with a pleasingly full belly. Let your two problems cancel one another out, in other words. It’s a simple but effective bit of storytelling that ties things up rather more neatly than last week’s instalment.
There are a few niggles. The Doctor’s inexplicable adoration of a wartime fighter pilot rankles, as does the Pting’s devouring of the sonic screwdriver, which takes the all-too-handy gadget out of the picture for… ooh, a full twenty minutes? Then there’s the conversation between Yaz and Ryan, who decide to stop dead and have a heart-to-heart about Ryan’s Dad, even though they’re supposed to be constrained by a six minute countdown. Ronan, the android, is outright stated as being the only entity aboard who can manhandle the Pting, but he never does anything beyond stand around complaining. Likewise, the ship being a hospital feels like a squandered opportunity that could have been used, somehow, to add some more distinctive flavour – like, say, the generator from Yoss’s birthing pod being utilised as a lure at the cost of leaving him without anaesthetic, rather than simply being broken to begin with.
Overall, while the episode manages to avoid a few of the production pitfalls that have dogged this series to date, there are also instances here where aspects that would normally garner praise – the music and the direction, for instance – occasionally don’t work so well. Segun Akinola’s soundtrack, which has been outstandingly understated up until this point, tramples all over the opening few minutes of this episode with an intrusive, synth-y tune that was oddly reminiscent of Bad Wolf and its use of the Big Brother theme. Likewise, no amount of jump-cutting and lighting changes can disguise the fact that as gorgeous as that Tsuranga-class corridor set was, there really wasn’t very much of it to work with.
All told, it adds up to a bit of a nil-nil draw. There were bits to enjoy, for sure, and some fun scenes alongside the ones that dragged or felt out of place. From its time-worn story structure to the disposable characters, this is an adequate, old-school episode that could blithely be described as ‘filler’. That shouldn’t be a problem, really; every show has filler. Right now, however, the 2018 reboot of Doctor Who, despite its excellent character work, has yet to deliver a real, original corker of a story concept to justify those weeks when it doesn’t try and reinvent the wheel. With a scant ten entries this year, five of which are now said and done, filler episodes might not be good enough to convince sceptics that the show is able to mesh its rediscovered human factor with the grander narrative themes of yesteryear. That said, the back half of Series 11 has yet to be unveiled…