Contains spoilers for the episode
At the end of last week’s episode I suggested that it had felt like it marked the end of the first four-part phase of Chris Chibnall’s project to re-energise Doctor Who. It implied in turn that this week would be the start of the next phase, with things starting to settle down to what passes as ‘normal’ in this extraordinary show after the necessary transition period establishing a new Doctor, new companions, and a new production team.
And broadly speaking the peculiarly named “The Tsuranga Conundrum” does indeed feature what passes for an ordinary day in the life of the Tardis crew. We find them in the middle of dumpster diving on a planetary scale (for what exactly I’m still none too sure) with dialogue letting us know that some time has passed since Graham, Ryan and Yas (Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole and Mandip Gill) actively decided to join the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) on her travels. They have clearly bonded as a team over a number of off-screen adventures and have the familiarity of a group of people who have got to know one another much better in the interim.
Even more than “Arachnids in the UK” (which at least retained a layer of commentary on environmental damage and corporate greed), this leaves the episode able to have some big old dumb, uncomplicated fun just like the good old classic science fiction/space opera days of the original show. The Doctor and her friends find themselves on board the advanced 67th century hospital ship Tsuranga after suffering at the business end of a sonic mine. With the Tardis left light years away, the ship in question comes under attack from a remorseless, unstoppable, all-powerful predator which leads to an escalating series of problems for the Doctor to overcome.
In short, it’s Alien crossed with one of those disaster movies from the 1970s such as The Poseidon Adventure. There’s a considerable overlap between these two genres in any case, with a small number of characters being whittled down as the story progresses, and it’s easy very early on to guess which character has been assigned which role in the disaster template. For example the charismatic senior nurse Astos (Brett Goldstein) is firmly in the Captain Dallas role, meaning that his time in the episode is inevitably on the short-lived side.
Despite this paper-thin transparency I thought the cast did a good job in establishing a rounded line-up of people that the viewers could have reasonable investment in. There’s former Brookside and Casualty star Suzanne Packer as military hero General Eve Cicero who is on board for treatment for a mystery condition, accompanied by her faithful android attendant Ronan (David Shields) and disappointing younger brother Durkas (Ben Bailey-Smith); Jack Shalloo as pregnant patient Yoss who is about to deliver his baby; and Lois Chimimba as the remaining inexperienced junior nurse Mabli who feels totally out of her depth.
I’ve long said that what I’ve wanted from Doctor Who for a while now is stories about interesting characters in interesting locations, and “The Tsuranga Conundrum” broadly delivers on both fronts. It makes space for the guest stars by pretty much forgetting that the Doctor’s companions even exist for the first third of the story, with only the occasional comment, gripe or quip from Graham registering. Later on Yas gets to serve in an ad hoc action hero capacity (I guess that makes her the Tsuranga’s equivalent of Ellen Ripley) while Graham and Ryan are given a child-birth B-plot to attend to.
Aside from adding some basic comedy to the episode, this seems designed purely to allow Ryan to ruminate on issues of parenthood and to talk about his own missing father. It means that Chibnall can continue with his agenda of making Doctor Who more down-to-earth and relatable with real-world emotional storylines, but on this occasion it seems especially crow-barred in to the proceedings and sticks out like a sore thumb. Ryan is certainly the only one of the regular cast to have time set aside for sustained, week-by-week character development, and it all rather suggests that Chibnall has a definite destination for him in mind down the road.
The interesting location this week is the hospital ship itself. Subverting the Alien tropes of a dark, dirty, blue collar industrial environment, the Tsuranga is a pristine white and neon state-of-the-art affair that wouldn’t look out of place in the latest Apple Store catalogue, and is glossily captured by director Jennifer Perrott and cinematographer Simon Chapman. The technology on display is certainly one of the major co-stars of the episode, although the Doctor’s extended paean to the wonders of anti-matter seems obvious and heavy-handed to anyone who has ever seen a warp core in Star Trek or paid attention to science documentaries about the large hadron collider at CERN. Just me, then?
The other way that the episode subverts the Alien comparisons is with the design of the monster itself. It’s a big build-up to the creature reveal, and when the Pting shows up it couldn’t be any more different from HR Giger’s famous xenomorph. Instead, it looks like the Crazy Frog has cross-bred with a weaponised Adipose and the result is the annoying ‘cute’ alien pet called Blarp that Penny Robinson adopted in the 1998 Lost in Space feature film. Worryingly, the CGI used for the Pting actually doesn’t look much better than that effort from 20 years ago; and come to that the brief external shots of the spaceship in flight, which should be bread and butter work to any modern Visual FX house, also have a brittle and unconvincing quality to them. I do hope that this isn’t a sign that the show has already burned through its budget and will be left struggling to deliver the back run of five episodes.
The upended expectations of the monster’s appearance definitely deliver a laugh out loud moment of relief, as it was doubtless intended to. But that five second release comes at the cost of seriously undermining everything that follows. It ceases to be a threat and becomes just an irritation, while everything else that the Doctor is contending with is a rather more abstract danger that is harder to care about. The ‘cuteness’ of the creature (your mileage may vary on that factor) also means it’s not going to be killed and there’s going to be one of those happy-ish endings in which the Doctor is able to deal with it in such a way that it goes off happy without also killing everyone on board.
The Pting, therefore, is going to be a hugely Marmite matter – as is the episode I expect. I’ve seen some overnight reviews suggesting that this is the worst Doctor Who episode of all time, which is something I categorically cannot agree with. In many ways it feels like a close relation to “42” which was another fast and furious, real-time spaceship-set story scripted by Chibnall in 2007. That has been similarly poorly regarded by fans over the years (it placed 176th in a total of 241 stories in Doctor Who Magazine’s 50th anniversary readers’ poll) but I actually really liked it and still consider “42” an overlooked gem of the Tennant period. I wouldn’t make any such grandiose claims for “The Tsuranga Conundrum” – which is to put it charitably only the fifth best of the five stories of the Whittaker era to date – but neither did I hate it or even mildly dislike it. It was simply pulpy good fun and exciting entertainment for the whole family without getting ideas above its station, for good or ill.
One thing that “The Tsuranga Conundrum” did do was put the new Doctor front and centre, taking charge in a more dominant fashion than we’ve seen her to date in the more ensemble set-up of season 11. As such, the episode may prove to be a litmus test for the viewers’ feelings about how Jodie Whittaker is doing in the title role. I have to say I was very happy with what I saw, some odd business with the sonic screwdriver notwithstanding, and feel that she’s settling in very nicely in the role in the way that she mixes elements of Tennant and Smith with unique wide-eyed qualities of her own. That said, it did seem odd that Chibnall chose to vaguely hinder her with injuries from the sonic mine that reset her to something akin to post-regenerative trauma. I would rather have used this opportunity to be dazzled by what a 13th Doctor at the top of her game is capable of doing rather than see her unnecessarily reined in again.
Ultimately the story came down to one simply and boldly (and baldly) stated theme: that hope prevails. There’s a ‘darkest before the dawn’ moment when the Doctor appeals to the room for ideas to get them out of their base-under-siege predicament and no one has any suggestions, not even the Doctor herself; but she’s vindicated by the way that everyone subsequently raises their game and overcomes their individual fears and limitations to get the group as a whole to safety. Along the way they are all empowered to become the best versions of themselves – even the Pting, within its energy-chomping limitations – and disaster is averted in a remarkably non-cynical, uplifting fashion.
That alone may irk and alienate some viewers who prefer a darker, more dangerous and sceptical mise-en-scène to their favourite show, but we’d better get used to the fact that this is simply not Chibnall’s approach to Doctor Who. Instead, he continues to skip from genre to genre, with a return to the pseudo-historical in store in next week’s “Demons of the Punjab” when things threaten to get serious again, and probably rather worthy once more.
Doctor Who continues on BBC One on Sunday evenings at 7.00pm, and is afterwards available on BBC iPlayer for viewers in the UK. A home media release on DVD and Blu-ray is expected early in 2019.