Doctor Who: 11-05 “The Tsuranga Conundrum” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
It’s scarcely believable that after the lengthy wait for Jodie Whittaker’s first series as The Doctor that we’re at the halfway point already. Falling out of the sky through to battling massive spiders (arachnophobes can safely tune back in this week), Thirteen’s first few swings of the bat have been anything but uneventful, regardless of where you stand on the quality of the stories. A strong, steady viewership is cause for celebration, yet the lack of any real stand-out classic yet for Jodie (other than maybe the really quite heart-rending Rosa) to stand as her first series belter just yet is one of the last real things I’ve been crossing my fingers for from this brilliant cast. Our fifth instalment of Series 11, The Tsuranga Conundrum, looked in promo material that it might achieve that.
Injured by a sonic mine aboard an alien junkyard planet whilst searching for a needle in the proverbial haystack, Team TARDIS are rescued and given care aboard a clean, blindingly white-walled hospital, in what is a slight contrast in colour. The Doctor in particular seems to have been hit for six (that pesky ecto-spleen, ey) and not long after discovering that they’re aboard a hospital ship by the name of Tsuranga, there’s soon a pesky beastie rattling around inside the ship and threatening to voraciously eat the entire craft- if the medical bosses back on home base Resus One don’t blow them up for harbouring a dangerous creature, first. The synopsis for the episode wasn’t lying- risk to life: ultimate.
If you were expecting some lavish, horrifying Giger-esque alien monstrosity stalking the beautifully created Tsuranga corridors that director Jennifer Perrott keeps feeling fresh (even if they are the same few corridors, it must be said, but this is staggeringly better produced than your standard base-under-siege Who fare) then you’d be disappointed, because the imminent threat facing Team TARDIS and this week’s guest cast is the Pting, a diminutive little gremlin who looks like a blend of Stitch from Lilo and Stitch and Nibbler from Futurama, who only wants a nice meal of everything that isn’t alive. While as a concept it’s a cool little creation, there’s some inherent threat missing when the CGI for it is simply so cute, hissing like a cat as it pirouettes down pipes and wiggles into small spaces. It feels like the cute-factor could’ve been played up more, and there’s a lack of tension coming from it once its non-lethal- well, meat-eating wise- status is established. Plus, there’s an android on board- why wasn’t he flagged up for death as the only member of the ship in real danger from being eaten? (I’m not a masochist, promise.)
The guest cast surrounding our tiny new monster is a mixed bag, with Jack Shaloo’s earnest pregnant alien man Yoss adding some life. There’s been some warranted hesitation surrounding the whole “pregnant man” plot, and while it is played for laughs initially the writing makes an attempt at drawing pathos from Yoss and not simply treating him as a joke in the end, even if Ryan and Graham’s experience by his bed is your typical role reversal comedy. Ryan’s ongoing battle with maturity is attempted to have more light shone upon it with the pregnancy plot, however it feels clumsily done and the end result of the message could easily be taken as “adoption is a bad thing” even if that wasn’t the intention.
More successful is Ryan’s mid-story chat with Yaz, as Tosin Cole gets some meaty character work that feels age-appropriate for his character beyond being a nine-year-old in a nineteen-year-olds body, as he grapples with the leaving of his father and his potential to be one. Yaz is left short-changed once more though, and I genuinely forgot she was there at times. A half-hearted attempt at reminding us that she’s a police officer isn’t enough for Mandip Gill’s talent. At least Bradley Walsh is allowed to have fun aboard the Tsuranga, his not-in-my-comfort-zone character working more than ever aboard the futuristic ship, and he’s the only one outside of Jodie in the main cast who seems to be having real fun with it, whether that’s through the writing or otherwise.
The warring siblings of decorated fighter pilot Eve Cicero (Suzanne Packer) and engineer Durkas (Ben Bailey-Smith) alongside David Shields’ snooty android Ronan are more bread-and-butter amongst the guest cast, working functionally but not really having more to them than the bare minimum. There’s a lot of talk about the strife of the siblings and their rivalry, and there’s emotion to be played out here, but it fails to land properly. Brett Goldstein is the stand out amongst the guests, his experienced medic Astos, who’s a real player by the rules, bouncing off of Thirteen well (and for the dedicated Adult Life Skills fan base out there, this will have been extra special!) even despite having to deal with plenty of exposition. Their chemistry makes it work, and as Astos come around to trusting The Doctor (most do, in the end) it’s a real shame that he snuffs it shortly after. Lois Chimimba’s newbie medic Mabli coasts by on likeability alone, and is easy to invest in, which makes it disappointing that her interactions with Jodie are limited.
It’s an interesting story for Thirteen and there have been a multitude of takes on how she works throughout Tsuranga. While many have taken umbrage at her almost being reckless and making a mistake early on, I found that to be a really powerful moment and possibly one of the only ones that land as intended throughout. Thirteen seems to still be figuring herself out, and I think it’s unfortunate that there are some that are tying Thirteen’s first female Doctor status into what they feel should be an inability to make mistakes. It humanises her, and given how much more of a down to earth friend than all-conquering God she seems to be, I feel it works. It’s rare to see The Doctor this humble, and Jodie still gets to have all of the joy possible alongside, the slight smugness of her “actually, it’s more like a volume” comment to Eve Cicero is textbook Doctor.
Jodie herself is feeling more assured than ever here even if Thirteen is still bedding in, as she passes the rapid fire rambling and combination of whimsy and smarts tests with flying colours throughout, taking charge of the situation as the climax approaches to give her a more dominant role. It was also a treat to see a bit of lamp shading of some Doctor-ly clichés, with Thirteen’s expectance of more questions when she lays out the plan to deal with the Pting. One of the more Marmite Doctor moments this time around will be the explanation of the anti-matter drive. Did it slow the plot? Did it take the “science lesson” quota a bit too far? I feel like the moment works on Jodie’s acting alone. If you could bottle the wonder of Thirteen’s enamoured feeling towards the drive, you could sell millions.
Ultimately though The Tsuranga Conundrum only started to approach what I hoped the entire story would be as it neared the conclusion, with the chaotic triple climax of the baby delivery, Thirteen and Yaz dealing with the Pting and the sibling pilots saving the day combining for a messy but fantastically ridiculous third act. Thirteen and Yaz bickering comedically as they lure the creature into the escape pod to cast away- give me so much more of that, please! The strange ending is pure Who as well, the otherworldly feeling coda as Eve is lain to rest providing one last lovely moment.
Tsuranga as a Who story feels disappointingly passable, rather than the potential of what it could have been. All the elements are here for this to have been the memorable tale it should’ve been, but story-wise and thematically everything feels ever so slightly off, with precious little landing or tying in as it should. There’s still enjoyment to be had, however it’s hard to knock the feeling that this is more of a stumble, with perhaps too many characters to service them all fairly. Tsuranga shines early on and as it reaches its conclusion, leaving the middle section as largely bloated and forgettable. The cast and crew can- and have- done so much better, and the only real conundrum here (other than how to pronounce Tsuranga correctly) is how a futuristic base under siege story featuring a tiny, cute little gremlin that’s rapidly eating the ship doesn’t translate into a thoroughly enjoyable story. Oh well, at least the Pting toy will be cute.