Every single series of Doctor Who has had its dull episodes. For every The Invasion, there’s The Dominators. For every The Sea Devils, there’s The Mutants. Earthshock/Four To Doomsday and Revelation of the Daleks there’s a Twin Dilemma. That trend has followed with the modern series, for every Dalek, there’s a The Long Game. Tooth and Claw/ New Earth. And it seems that Chibnall hasn’t escaped this trap either. Five episodes into the new series and it seems that for every Rosa there’s The Tsuranga Conundrum.
The Tsuranga Conundrum had everything going for it in the opening ten-fifteen minutes. The Doctor and her friends find themselves on a medical ship, hurtling back to base and quickly find that something has latched onto the outside of the hull. It doesn’t take long before that thing gets inside and attacks the critical systems. This proves incredibly problematic because it is a hospital ship, there is a woman suffering from an injury inflicted from her time in a battle, her strange robotic companion and her estranged brother, who is desperate to know what is going on. And then there is a man who found himself pregnant after a night of passion with someone who didn’t the right precautions.
As if all that wasn’t enough to worry about, the ship runs on a drive using antimatter and the creature is attracted to energy. One bite in the coils and the ship will go boom, killing everyone on board. And then they find out the alien is the deadliest in the galaxy.
All that sounds enjoyable enough as a concept but The Tsuranga Conundrum, for its entire 50 minute run time feels more like the outline for a compelling episode rather than a compelling episode in its own right.
If my plot outline sounded familiar, then that’s because I felt the opening fifteen minutes felt like the plot to Alien, the famous Ridley Scott movie from 1979, with some Doctor Who embellishment’s thrown into the mix. There’s a famous story about the time Tom Baker, Lalla Ward, Graham Williams and Douglas Adams went to see Alien when it first came out. Bored half-way through, Baker stood up and shouted at the cast on-screen to go to hold and kill the creature. Whether Chibnall seemed to subconsciously channel that story here but the crew and the Doctor quickly head to the centre of the disturbance, unlike Sigourney Weaver and her gang who wait for the alien to pick them off one-by-one.
But that is where the episode begins to falter, Chibnall spends too much time lingering on the effects of the TARDIS team’s encounter with a sonic mine and the Doctor’s futile attempts to get back to her TARDIS. Whether that was an attempt to add a slight layer of selfishness into her character, it just falls flat because it doesn’t add anything to the overall story. Had her selfishness put the lives of the other characters on the line, then it would have worked. Ultimately though, it didn’t and it doesn’t. The second mistake Chibnall makes is spending too much time on the supporting characters but in particular, Astos, played by Brett Goldstein, who, while I wouldn’t mind him being my doctor and who has worked with Jodie Whittaker before, is swiftly killed off. But Chibnall seems to think that we should have felt his death harder than we do because he is only in the episode for a few minutes. And that is a real shame because the two actors have a great chemistry and a lot of the story could have been formed around whether these two authority figures can come to understand and respect each other. Alas, it wasn’t to be and the episode decides to focus on something new and leaves that untouched. And it is never explained by the escape pod Astos is trapped explodes.
Chibnall also doesn’t help matters by only introducing the titular ‘conundrum’ halfway through the episode. Trapped aboard the ship, heading towards a base that is threatening to launch missiles if they don’t respond with the supposed threat and the cast of characters have to figure out how to stop the creature. From this moment on, the story does work as a fairly enjoyable thriller, with vibes of eighties Doctor Who and some interesting main players coming to the fore. But because he has mishandled to opening fifteen minutes, you can’t help but feel the rest of the adventure is trying to play catch-up with itself. Unfortunately, though, there are so many supporting characters, the companions suffer, rather than giving Graham, Ryan and Yaz some exciting things to do, they are relegated to playing run-around and wandering around aimlessly in the background and it seems that ten-supporting characters proved to be too many characters. Maybe it would have worked if Chibnall hadn’t been on writing duties.
Thankfully though, the performances were actually surprisingly enjoyable. We’ve got Suzanne Packer adding some gravitas to the story of her 67th-century fighter pilot who is plagued by the debilitating illness she has. Chibnall rightly allows the Doctor to fangirl over her and it really helps hammer home that this a character we are supposed to care about. Actually, if you look past the failure of the world-building here, The Tsuranga Conundrum really does shine at the quieter moments, like where the Doctor and General Eve Cicero discover the effects of ‘Pilot’s Heart’, a condition which implies a lot without the writer ever having to really go into detail about what it is.
There is some comic relief to be had too, mainly from Jack Shalloo’s character of Yoss, who is a race of aliens where men and women can have babies. It is handled like a bit of a gag, provoking memories of the Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movie, Junior. But there is some credit to be given to Chibnall and Shalloo’s handling of the material that there is some surprisingly enjoyable commentary on becoming a parent and the fears that come with that. He even debates the idea of giving the child up for adoption. In a surprising move where all the companions are pushed to the background, these comments spur Ryan into giving us some information on his background and his absentee father. He inspires Yoss into keeping the child, telling him you have to just be there and not worry about being perfect all the time.
Looking at the tone of the episode is a bit of a conundrum too as it walks something of a fine line between comedy and drama, both in its handling of Yoss and the alien, P’ting. As I said at the beginning of this review, it opens feeling a lot like Alien, all the tension it builds up is completely undercut by the hilarious reveal of the actual creature. The P’ting looks like a mixture of the Adipose, Stitch and the Crazy Frog but it does serve as a reminder that not everything dangerous in the world and indeed the universe, has to be big and ugly. It can also be small and cute. How many times have you said, ‘Aww’ at some nature documentary? You wouldn’t be reacting the same way if it was ripping your arm off! So in a way, the P’ting is something of a traditional Doctor Who monster, certainly more traditional than the spiders in the previous outing, Arachnids in the UK. And the P’ting serves as a reminder of how far the visual effects in the show have come.
Throughout this review, it seems I have put a lot of the blame, not only for this episode but the series as a whole so far entirely at the feet of Chibnall. To a certain degree, his writing hasn’t been very good, he seems to be good had creating situations and characters but not at the melding of the two. That is a pattern that has followed in all his stories both past and present. But The Tsuranga Conundrum works had to have both its major threats cancel each other out. Retrieving the ship’s self-destruct, the Doctor uses it to lure the P’ting to an airlock. The P’ting then eats the bomb and absorbs the energy, floating happily away into space, its tummy full. And the fact that the P’ting is sent away rather than killed seems a good conclusion for an alien whose purpose in life is a little more chaotic than pure evil. It was also quite sweet to see it floating away with a big smile on its face. I just wonder how long it before the BBC release a number of P’ting related merchandise based on how cute the thing looked.
Oddly though, if you try looking hard enough at this episode, it serves as a narrative on the circles of life. The death of her mentor forces the young medic Mabli, played by Lois Chimimba. Durkas, played by Ben Bailey-Smith is forced to step up and pilot the ship following the death of his sister, and continue her legacy as well as developing a new-found respect for her clone-drone, Ronan, who serves as the episode’s least developed element. Eve sacrifices her life to make sure a new life is saved when it is delivered in the medical bay and watching this baby come into the world makes Ryan rethink his entire outlook on life. While there are a few too many subtexts littering the scripts, at Chibnall had a good go at it this time and it is hard not to think about Ryan’s en-passioned speech about what it means to be a father to Yoss and the group’s final prayer to thank Eve for her sacrifice.
We currently sit half way through Jodie Whittaker’s debut series, and so far, things haven’t really the new heights we were promised. But I wouldn’t say that there has been a truly terrible episode so far, certainly not one that when I come to watching the series back in a few years, will look upon with dread. My biggest hope going forward is that Chibnall takes a step back and allows other writers to just tell the stories they want to tell, look at Rosa and how well that was written that was and then Chibnall’s script for Arachnids in the UK to know what I mean. But the series has definitely got people talking and that isn’t a bad thing and the viewing figures on the opening four episodes so far have certainly proven that another series should be on the cards. Let’s just hope that Chibnall and his group of writers this year manage to pick themselves up and tell some more cracking adventures.