The fifth episode of Doctor Who S11 has landed. Here’s everything you need to know about ‘The Tsuranga Conundrum’:
What’s it about? Team TARDIS are transported aboard a hospital spaceship, where a ferocious invader threatens everyone’s health.
Verdict: Showrunner Chris Chibnall recently said he wanted to make each episode of Doctor Who series 11 “as visually distinct as possible”. So consider The Tsuranga Conundrum his White Album. Set aboard an interplanetary medical facility, its gleaming, sterile walls and shiny, futuristic tech make for a striking contrast to last week’s dark, cobwebbed corners and piles of rotting landfill.
Older viewers may have cause to recall 70s Tom Baker classic The Ark in Space, and not just in the echo of Roger Murray-Leach’s brilliant, clinical white sets: that story, like this one, featured an alien parasite literally chewing the scenery as it munched through vital life support systems. But whereas The Ark in Space – a precursor, in some ways, to Ridley Scott’s Alien – went down the claustrophobic horror route, The Tsungara Conundrum is more of an action adventure romp, with the Doctor scrambling to save the stricken ship from either being eaten or self-destructing. (Chibnall is clearly a fan of race-against-the-clock stories set on spaceships, an idea he previously explored in 2007’s rather under-appreciated Tenth Doctor adventure 42.)
Tonally, what distinguishes this story from most other Doctor Who creature features is the nature of the threat. The PTING, it’s fair to say, is no Wirrn or Weeping Angel, and certainly no Xenomorph. A sort of psychotic space guinea pig, its closest screen cousin is probably the mogwai from Gremlins, with a dash of Star Trek’s pesky Tribbles. After 55 years, it’s a challenge thinking up new types of monster for the Doctor to face, but the idea of a pocket-sized critter who isn’t interested in human flesh, but will chomp its way through the only thing between you and the vacuum of space, is certainly novel. In that sense, this is less a tale of good versus evil than very high-stakes pest control.
Like last month’s The Ghost Monument, it’s a story that throws a small cast of characters into a perilous situation, and watches how they cope. Unusually, though, Chibnall resists the temptation to make any of them villains, or even particularly unlikeable. (I felt certain that, if nothing else, the Doctor and Suzanne Packer’s decorated war hero General Eve Cicero would butt heads over who was in charge, but no: they just divvied up the work and got on with it.)
All this may run contrary to the first rule of writing – that drama arises from conflict – but it’s not as if there isn’t enough else going on, what with a toxic creature eating the ship, said ship about to go kablooey and a pregnant man’s waters breaking at the least convenient moment.
This latter sub-plot – with Yoss (Jack Shaloo) rapidly gestating a baby following a holiday romance – is largely played for laughs, especially when Ryan and Graham are cajoled into playing doula (“Do what?”). It also riffs – and indeed bangs the drum for – another BBC One Sunday night hit, Call the Midwife, of which Graham turns out to be a huge fan. It’s an example of Chibnall at his most playful – though surely he missed an obvious gag by not having anyone assure Yoss “In space, no-can hear you scream…”
The episode showcases Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor at her most… well, Doctorish, taking charge and improvising solutions on the fly – even when those solutions are as mad as priming a bomb. We also get a rare flash of her more mercurial side – though she quickly apologises for being “hostile and selfish” – and get to witness her in professorial mode, giving a quick physics lesson as she circles the anti-matter drive, full of wide-eyed wonder (“I love it – conceptually, and actually”).
Amidst all the frenetic action, Chibnall stops the clock for the occasional break-out discussion in which people work through their family issues. Of these, Ryan opening up to Yaz about finding his mum dead by the kitchen sink is the most affecting, and beautifully played by Tosin Cole. Eve and Durkas’ (Ben Bailey Smith) conflict-rapprochement journey, by contrast, feels a little flimsy, and Mabli’s (Lois Chimimba) sopping wet “no-one believes in me” shtick is just plain irritating.
In all honesty, The Tsuranga Conundrum – which at times threatens to sink beneath a critical mass of info-dump dialogue – is unlikely to be many people’s favourite story of what is shaping up to be a strong season of Doctor Who. But it’s a decent runaround, and certainly several leagues better than the show’s last pass at a futuristic hospital story, 2006 howler New Earth. I’ve a sneaking suspicion kids will love the PTING, too.
Director Jennifer Perrott marshals the whole thing with great energy, and production designer Arwel Jones’ sleek sets give it a distinct identity and colour palette unlike anything else you’ll see on British telly this year.
The end of the story also marks the halfway point of the series – and with the show once again punching its way to the top of the ratings, and Jodie Whittaker’s Time Lord receiving rave reviews across the board, you don’t need a med tech to tell you that Doctor Who is currently in very good shape indeed.
Doctor’s notes: So now we know what the Doctor is a doctor of: medicine, science, engineering, candy floss, Lego, philosophy, music, problems, people and hope. (Mostly hope).
Fellow travellers: Ryan found his mum dead by the kitchen sink when he was just 13; shortly afterwards, his dad did a runner. Graham has seen every episode of Call the Midwife (“bang-on TV”), but he looks away during the squeamish bits. Yaz can drop-kick an alien like (England keeper) Siobhan Chamberlain.
Isn’t that…? Suzanne Packer (Eve Cicero) spent 12 years playing Sister Tess Bateman on Casualty. When he’s not spitting rhymes as rapper Doc Brown, Ben Bailey Smith is an actor and comedian whose roles include Bradley Walsh’s DS in Law & Order: UK. Lois Chimimba (Mabli) appeared alongside Jodie Whittaker in last year’s Trust Me.
Location, location, location: The Tsungara, an interstellar medical facility in the 67th century.
Scary monsters: The PTING, ferocious little critters with a “fatally violent nature”. They don’t eat meat – but they eat pretty much everything else.
Quote unquote: “It just sort of ignored you there, Doc.” “Got that, thanks Graham.”
“You’re probably wondering why I called you all here. Sorry, bit Poirot.”
“Hope doesn’t just offer itself up. You have to use your imagination.”
Gadgets and gizmos: Sonic mines (they disrupt your internal organs – nasty). Clone Drone – an android consort (you can tell by the hair). Anti-matter drive (a particle accelerator – “the iPhone version of CERN”).
Best bit: It may have been a direct steal from Chris Chibnall’s own 42, but it’s a credit both to the writing and Brett Goldstein’s performance that Astos being ejected into space in the escape pod packed a real emotional punch, even though we’d barely known him 10 minutes.
Worst bit: Ryan’s “You don’t have to be perfect – you just have to be there” speech to new dad Yoss tipped the cheese-o-meter into “dangerously ripe”. But hey, if you can’t be cloyingly sentimental in a Call the Midwife tribute, when can you be?
Scariest bit: The PTING breaching the ship’s shields. (At this point, we still don’t know what it is – it’s a lot less scary when we do.)
Funniest bit: The Doctor explaining her entry in the Book of Celebrants: “I’d say it was more of a volume than a chapter. Just you know.”
Next time – Demons of the Punjab: India, 1947. The Doctor and her friends arrive in the Punjab, as the country is being torn apart. While Yaz attempts to discover her grandmother’s hidden history, the Doctor discovers demons haunting the land. Who are they and what do they want?