Over its years on screen Doctor Who has cemented itself an identity within the British zeitgeist. It’s science-fiction roots have always made it an easy target for ‘nerd’ culture, but due to the cheap aesthetics of the old series (especially in the later years), the show seemed to embed a specific image in the minds of those who weren’t viewers: that being that the show was typically cheesy, silly creatures wrapped in an uneasy sci-fi plot. Now, I’ve firmly been against such an ideology of course, but every now and then the show’s indulged in silliness (cough, ‘Love and Monsters’ cough) but unfortunately I have to say that if you had to judge the show on ‘The Tsuranga Conundrum’, then you’d be forgiven in making such a statement.
We’re now halfway through Jodie Whittaker’s first season as The Doctor, and showrunner Chris Chibnall has dominated every script so far (with an all-too-brief interlude from Malorie Blackman). His ideology for the show in the build up to the series opener ‘The Woman who Fell to Earth’ gave me hope in what he could bring. The entrance of a new head honcho is always exciting, and change can often bring about brilliant results, but Chibnall’s writing still seems to be the weak element here. There seems to be an overwhelming sense of fatigue on display. Chibnall shines with off-the-cuff adventures, he knows how to propose an A-to-B journey, but he’s yet to prove himself with either the emotionality or intellectual storytelling of his predecessors despite being adept with his time on Torchwood. If he could bring some of the mystery from Broadchurch to the world of Doctor Who it would be much appreciated.
‘The Tsuranga Conundrum ’starts with the TARDIS team on a junk planet scavenging for supplies where they accidentally set off a sonic mine, one that knocks each of them out and leaves them waking up aboard the medic ship Tsuranga, an understaffed series of pristine white corridors filled with touchscreen technology. The staff members Astos (Brett Goldstein) and Mabil (Lois Chimimba) tell them that they’re on their way back to the medic planet, and won’t be able to leave until they arrive there. But there’s a presence on the ship, one that hastily wipes out Goldstein’s Astos and is cutting power to the ship fast, threatening to leave them stranded. At first it seems as though Doctor Who is taking a leap from Alien (wouldn’t be the first time) and offering up a claustrophobic horror show, yet it’s swiftly revealed that the alien intruder in question is a hybrid of Crazy Frog and Stitch from Lilo and Stitch. The P’ting is a creature designed to sell merchandise, it’s small with huge eyes and is adorable, probably the most viewer-friendly creature on the show since the Adipose from ‘Partners in Crime’. Granted, the effects work on it is very impressive, and there were numerous points where I wondered if it was a combination of practical/CGI due to the detail of the skin, but its presence and impact on the characters throughout the episode is minimal at best.
The P’ting, it turns out, is eating its way through the ship and consuming as much energy as possible, making it only a matter of time until it reaches the ship’s power source (an antimatter drive) and kills them all. What follows should feel like a race against time, but instead the pacing feels relaxed and more interested in giving not just The Doctor and her three companions- but also the guest stars- enough screen time to justify their paychecks too. The episode spreads itself too thin in multiple ways, and if Chibnall could have trimmed the fat it would have offered up a more solid, streamlined adventure whilst continuing to include such a memorable alien.
Among the guest stars this week were a host of other patients including Jack Shalloo’s Yoss, a pregnant male, Suzanne Packer’s Eve, a decorated pilot suffering from pilot’s heart, her brother Durkas (Ben Bailey-Smith) and her android Ronan (David Shields – perpetuating the Alien comparison further). All of them are good enough yet detract from the priority of the plot, and all of their characterisation and story beats can be predicted from the moment they’re introduced. For example Yoss’ pregnancy, whilst handled well by Chibnall and not exploited for comedy, culminates in him going into labour during the episode’s most tense moment, exactly how you’d expect a pregnancy to turn out in a situation such as this. Shalloo gives a noteworthy performance with some nice conversations about facing parenthood single, and it’s probably the only lasting plot thread I’ve continued to think about since the episode’s end and yet it still meant relatively little in the grand scheme of the episode. The relationship between Eve and Durkas offers some hope, though not enough time is spent between these two for us to actually have an emotional connection with them. Therefore, when it’s revealed that Eve is dying and succumbs to her illness for the sake of saving the crew by piloting the Tsuranga herself to safety, we’re left with a feeling of emptiness and ambivalence – the same goes for Shields’ Ronan. Doctor Who has had countless androids in the past, but even the unfairly-maligned ‘Sleep No More’ features one with more presence and personality than shown here. He’s an unneeded character and his screen time could have been used to bolster up our time with The Doctor, who finally showed a smidgeon of doubt before proudly chanting that “hope prevails”.
I’ve said before in my recaps that Whittaker’s portrayal seems to be offering her a limited scope in terms of performance, and whilst I’d still say that were true, the scene where she becomes enamored by the technology and science behind the ship’s antimatter coils felt incredibly unique. It briefly toyed with the idea of being on the nose but instead came across as the ramblings of a lecturer who loves their work – and if that doesn’t suit The Doctor I don’t know what does. More moments like this please.
Bradley Walsh and Tosin Cole put in some more good work as Ryan and Graham once again, bouncing off each other when they can whilst Mandip Gill is given a pitiful amount as Yaz. Her contribution within the episode seems to be kickstarting an awkwardly-placed conversation about the death of Ryan’s mum, wrapping the P’ting up in a blanket and… kicking it down the corridor whilst commentating herself like a soccer game in a moment that had my head firmly placed within my hands. Doctor Who is struggling at the moment in coming up with enough action for the four leads to partake in, and I always feel as though multiple characters are left in the shadows of others. Hell, at this point I feel like Graham’s been given more development than The Doctor. I’d much rather the show cut back on characters and implore a ‘less is more’ tactic, as more often than not things seem to feel awfully crowded week after week. Funnily enough it’s Lois Chimimba’s Mabil that makes the most impact this week, with a headstrong and dedicated performance that fits her character. Her fears contradict the clear dedication to her job and her patients and it’s the most solid turn out of the lot.
Director Jennifer Perrott never allows the confines of the white corridors to feel limited this week, and makes the most of the ship’s interior whilst framing the effects up nicely. The set design and score from Segun Akinola continues to impress too, with a minimal atmospheric presence that elevated the danger despite the cuteness of the trouble. Not only that, but the Tsuranga’s exterior was beautiful too, another strong visual for the show. It would have been nice to see more exterior shots, especially when Eve was piloting the ship herself (instead, Durkas kept referring back to an on-screen map) but this is a small gripe compared to some of the others.
The P’ting is eventually lured into the airlock through an explosive device, and swallows it whole before being plunged into the depths of space to bother some other sci-fi show. Durkas takes over from his deceased sister in piloting the ship back to safety. Much like last week, the episode leaves the crew with multiple problems still facing them and doesn’t even explain how they make their way back to the TARDIS in time for next week’s adventure. Now, Doctor Who has a clear advantage over many shows in that it’s able to completely change identity week by week; however, this means that every now and then there’s always going to be episodes that fail to live up to expectation or don’t coincide with your tastes. For me personally, ‘The Tsuranga Conundrum’ was that episode for me. It failed to offer the B-movie thrills of ‘Arachnids in the UK’ and is probably the one I’ll end up skipping over during my later rewatches of the series as a whole, unless I need a dose of P’ting to spruce my life up. Next week’s ‘Demons of the Punjab’ offers up the first time this series that Chibnall isn’t on writing duty, and from the looks of the trailers we’re in for a bit of a treat.