This review contains no spoilers for Episode 5, but mentions plot details from the rest of Season 11 so far. Read on below for our additional spoilery observations, after you’ve seen the episode.
“Risk to life – ultimate.”
As titles go, The Tsuranga Conundrum is 1978 AF. It absolutely sounds like something Tom Baker would get involved in, between finding segments of the Key to Time. Alas, at the halfway point of this very 2018 season of Doctor Who, its influences are more thinly spread throughout TV shows and movies from the intervening four decades.
The base-under-siege story format is almost as old as the programme itself and in its 21st-century incarnation, it’s given us a number of episodes that embrace all the attendant tropes but include new wrinkles and subversions to freshen things up. If anything, The Tsuranga Conundrum struggles to gain traction, even though it almost starts with the Doctor and her chums in traction.
After inadvertently setting off a sonic mine while rummaging around a junk galaxy, the gang wake up onboard a hospital rescue ship bearing its patients back to a medical colony called Resus 1. Unfortunately, the Tsuranga-class transport is also carrying an extra passenger, whose appetite could ruin the trip.
Before the season started, it was suggested that using a writers’ room would serve to average out its overall quality. The low benchmark episodes would be better, but also, the peaks would be lower. Chibnall has written four out of five episodes so far (and was co-credited on the other) and while they’re an eclectic mix of stories, the bread-and-butter Who adventures have turned out to be on the weaker end of the scale.
To measure directly against Chibnall’s last two episodes before taking over as showrunner, this is closer to Dinosaurs On A Spaceship, a scattershot romp whose tone veered wildly between comic and serious, than his underrated UNIT-centric mystery, The Power Of Three, which took an unusual alien and told a similarly unusual story.
As with the invasion of the small black cubes before it, the monster of the week bodes well, but the brilliantly named Pting (no silent P!) is a better concept than the episode can live up to when it’s so packed with stuff. Chibnall has some fun with it, but like the earlier Dinosaurs, it feels overstuffed and somewhat under-written.
Boasting the largest guest cast of the series so far, the episode introduces us to medics Astos (Brett Goldstein) and Mabli (Lois Chimimba) and their patients, including General Cicero (Eve Packer), her brother, Durkas (Ben Bailey Smith), and her robotic consort, Ronan (David Shields). Oh, and there’s Yoss, (Jack Shalloo) whose condition is coming to a head when the crisis begins.
Where the regulars held the fort with last episode’s similarly shaky script, it’s the guest stars who shine here. Goldstein is particularly strong as the foursquare medic who impresses the Doctor early on, and Packer and Bailey Smith have a really compelling chemistry that lends the episode its heart.
Regrettably, the regulars feel as stranded in this plot as their characters. Five episodes in, it’s difficult to avoid noticing some tropes emerging. Yaz keeps being sidelined, Ryan keeps finding awkward moments for conversations about his family, and Graham… well, we like Graham a lot, but it would be nice if the writing were half as good for the other characters. That includes the Doctor, and it really shouldn’t.
It’s a weird thing to get halfway through the season and feel this kind of imbalance between the larger TARDIS crew. In an episode full of more enjoyable weirder things, it’s a shame that this is the main takeaway from The Tsuranga Conundrum. It’s got plenty of plot fuel, but a serious shortage of new ideas. There’s some inventive fun to be had, but there’s a far better episode buried somewhere in here.
Doctor Who Season 11, Episode 5 is available on BBC iPlayer until 9th June 2019.
Additional notes (contains spoilers)
– Chibnall’s tendency for his characters to explain everything really sticks out here, with a plot that is overwhelmingly told rather than felt. Jodie Whittaker handles exposition like the best of them, but there’s a weird feeling of the Doctor still finding her feet a bit.
– It’s strange that The Woman Who Fell To Earth foregoes the “I am the Doctor” moment until late in the action, but it’s weirder still that she’s still spinning her wheels a bit at this point in her first season. With that said, her riff on the time-honoured “what are you a Doctor of” exchange is an all-timer.
– There’s a bit in Gremlins 2 where Joe Dante lampoons the famous Santa Claus speech that Phoebe Cates gives in the original, cutting her off before she can similarly ruin Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. It’d be nice if someone does the same next time Ryan stops the plot dead to just talk about his errant dad. It’s especially annoying when Yaz is pushed into the outsider position in Team TARDIS, and hopefully, next week’s Yaz-centric episode will finally redress that.
– Speaking of Gremlins, the Pting is a ludicrous little critter, playing as equal parts Stitch from Disney’s Lilo and Stitch, Crazy Frog, and the creature from the wing of the plane in The Twilight Zone. The subversion of having this creepy little gribbly cause so much damage isn’t necessarily original, but it’s the episode’s biggest success, elevating it above the mid-tier Red Dwarf episode it keeps threatening to become.
– We needn’t count Three Men And A Baby among the countless sources to which this episode owes a debt, but that’s how Yoss’ pregnancy winds up. Even though all three men sell the hell out of it, Chibnall has an uncomfortable outlook on unplanned pregnancy and adoption here that leaves a strange taste in the mouth. Bonus points to Bradley Walsh as Call The Midwife fan-turned-reluctant doula, who almost covers for the jarring tone of this climax.
– The real winner here is Goldstein, who leaves a great impression with a relatively small amount of screentime. He previously starred opposite Whittaker (in a BIFA award-winning turn) in 2016’s Adult Life Skills, but you should really know him as SuperBob (streaming for free on Amazon Prime Video at the time of writing), if you don’t already.