Wednesday 7 November 2018

Doctor Who - The Tsuranga Conundrum

Doctor Who episodes can run the gamut from serious to funny, dramatic to silly, joyous to sad, terrifying, exciting, emotional—heck, sometimes even a little boring. This isn’t just a change from one episode to the next. Doctor Who frequently mixes many or all these things into a single episode. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, the results can be incredibly fun. And that’s the best way I can sum up “The Tsuranga Conundrum” by Chris Chibnall: fun. It’s fast-paced, tense, funny, silly at points, and just plain fun. I love every moment of it, from beginning to end.


The Tsuranga Conundrum” sets its tone right from the opening moments. Following a beautiful shot of the TARDIS sitting in a field of junk, we quickly see Team TARDIS searching for “a needle in a haystack” on a literal junk planet that is just one of many located in a junk galaxy—junk galaxy? Really? I think the Doctor’s just being silly with that statement. However, it does establish that this episode is going to be a little silly. But that’s okay. Doctor Who often does silly well, and that’s the case with this episode. It then immediately follows up the silly with the tension of discovering a bomb and the TARDIS crew all being at the epicentre of the explosion. And that’s what this episode does throughout: it juxtaposes serious or tense moments against more light-hearted, emotional, or even silly ones. (If I have one criticism of the opening, though, it’s that we never learn what Team TARDIS are looking for, but that’s a very minor point that has no effect on the rest of the episode.)

At its heart, “The Tsuranga Conundrum” is a “base under siege” story. It’s set in an isolated and confined location with a small group of people who are under threat from an invading force. There is no way to gain help from anywhere else, so the people must rely on the Doctor and banding together to save themselves. Doctor Who has had many such stories over the years and they’re generally not the most original. That’s true of “The Tsuranga Conundrum”, but lack of originality does not necessarily mean bad. What’s important is how well all its component parts come together.

The Tsuranga Conundrum” has all the requisite components for a good base-under-siege: compelling characters (as always, Chibnall’s strength), an interesting setting, tension, and threat. It maintains a heavy tension throughout, first through the uncertainty of where the Doctor and friends have arrived, then through the establishing of the threat, and finally through how that threat is dealt with. Base-under-siege stories often involve several deaths before the threat is resolved. In this case, there is only one death early on (and one at the end), but that death quite firmly establishes the threat. Indeed, the moments leading up to that death are a masterpiece of building tension as the at-the-time unknown creature moves quickly through the ship, sabotaging systems making its way to the life pods.

One thing that makes the death work as well as it does is that Astos has been carefully established as a sympathetic character that viewers can feel an attachment to even though he is ultimately in only a small portion of the episode. We know he is a competent doctor but not a good liar. He cares about the people under his care and is an encouraging mentor to Mambli, making certain to speak to her before the death he knows is imminent. He even manages to talk down the Doctor, which isn’t generally an easy task (although possibly a bit easier with this incarnation compared to some others).

Then comes the reveal of the actual threat: the pting. I was actually a little surprised at first how early this comes in the episode, expecting this to be the kind of story where the monster isn’t seen until near or at its defeat. However, in retrospect, its reveal comes at the perfect time because it maintains this episode’s mixture of silliness and drama. It’s important that we know that this terrible creature causing all the damage and destruction is a tiny little thing that could even be described as cute.

I know that many Doctor Who fans will see the pting as just silly—from its name to its appearance—and dislike it based entirely on that. They may think to themselves, “How can I take that seriously?” The truth is, it is silly. That’s kind of the point. It’s exactly the kind of thing that Doctor Who does all the time. It takes seemingly harmless things and makes them a threat, be they statues in “Blink” (2007) or plastic daffodils and inflatable chairs in “Terror of the Autons” (1971). Sometimes they’re terrifying (the statues); sometimes they’re just weird (the inflatable chair). And Doctor Who has had a lot of silly monsters over the years, from the bulbous, clumsy, hard-to-understand mechanoids in “The Chase” (1965) to the Kandyman, a creature literally made of licorice all sorts in “The Happiness Patrol” (1988) to the adipose, cute little blobs of fat in “Partners in Crime” (2008). Even the Daleks are rather silly in their basic concept—little blobs riding around in tanks that look a lot like salt and pepper shakers with plungers for arms.

So the pting is rather silly. But it’s also worth pointing out that it’s only silly because we’ve been conditioned to see it that way by tons and tons of media telling us one kind of thing is threatening while another is not. In fact, there are many real creatures that are small and harmless-looking that are anything but harmless, creatures that can sting or bite and deliver deadly poisons, beautiful plants that are deadly to eat. When Doctor Who has creatures like the pting, it is one way of reminding people that this show doesn’t follow the rules of other shows. Cute and innocent-looking doesn’t always mean kind and caring; sometimes it means the exact opposite.

I do like that the pting turns out to not be as malicious as it at first seems. It’s mean and nasty, but it’s not actively trying to kill people. It just wants to eat, and it just so happens that the things it wants to eat are things people need to survive. The episode handles this twist extremely well and in a way that makes perfect sense. Initially, it seems to target the life pods specifically to cut off a means of escape for the patients, and it seems to deliberately lure Astos into one in order to kill him. But in reality it goes for the pods because they are a source of energy and that’s what it wants to eat, and it’s just bad timing that Astos ends up in one when it’s destroyed. Indeed, with the benefit of hindsight on a second viewing, it’s clear that everything the pting does before this twist is revealed is indeed just to get energy. The episode also importantly maintains tension and threat after revealing that the pting isn’t trying to kill. It’s actions will still result in people’s deaths regardless, so it still needs to be stopped.

The way the Doctor stops the pting in the end also perfectly ties together various threads in a tight, consistent, and logical manner. Chris Chibnall isn’t always the best at resolutions (see last week’s “Arachnids in the UK”), but this one is pretty near perfect. It’s a very Doctor-like solution to use one threat (the bomb) to remove another (the pting). And honestly, the smile on the pting’s face as it eats and absorbs the bomb’s energy is so satisfying. It’s a very Doctor Who solution that results in the defeat of the enemy without killing it. It’s finally eaten its fill and can be ejected in space without worry of it returning any time soon.

I’ve commented in previous reviews of Series 11 that one of the things I’m really loving about this year is how grounded it is. “The Tsuranga Conundrum” is one of the more outlandish so far with its cute, indestructible alien that can eat anything, set on a medical spaceship in the 67th century in a junk galaxy, yet it still maintains its grounding, and that’s through the very human stories it tells amidst this backdrop.

All the characters are very real and human, despite not technically being human. From the tension between General Cicero and her brother to Mabli’s lack of self-confidence and Yoss’s uncertainty over whether he could be a good father. What’s particularly nice is that all of these characters have their own little story arcs that are resolved by the end. In recent years on Doctor Who, supporting characters have often not gotten their own story arcs, so it’s nice to see that happening here. That said, I wish we got to see a little more of Cicero piloting the ship at the end—a little more of her struggles and what she needs to overcome. It would add just a little more to her death. Nonetheless though, this is a minor point.

Of the main cast, Ryan gets particularly good development here as he tries to come to terms with his relationship with his absent father while helping Yoss learn not to make the same mistakes his father made. We also learn how his mother died and get further insight into the things that have shaped him into the person he is today.

Graham and Yaz have smaller roles in this episode, although Yaz does get some good moments on her own defending the antimatter engine with the android Ronan. Graham is a bit more comic relief in this episode, which makes an interesting contrast with him usually being more the straight man.

The Doctor gets much more focus than the companions this episode, and this allows Jodie Whittaker to really shine. She gets quite a few scenes separate from her companions, interacting with other characters, particularly Astos and Mabli, allowing for some great moments. As I mentioned earlier, Astos actually talks her down and this creates a great moment as she realises how her behaviour has actually been endangering other people on the ship. With Mabli, the thirteenth Doctor also gets one of her first truly inspirational Doctor speeches:
"[Hope] doesn’t just offer itself up. You have to use your imagination. Imagine the solution and work to make it a reality. Whole worlds pivot on acts of imagination."
It’s short, but brilliant.

I also love the Doctor’s awe over the antimatter engine. The dialogue here is obviously inserted as an educational component, but Whittaker serves it up with such intensity that it just works.

The episode is packed with moments of humour, too. Often this is just in individual lines, such as the Doctor’s response to Astos’s question of whether she’s kidding: “Sometimes, but not right now.” Other times, it’s entire sequences, such as Graham and Ryan’s discomfort when Yoss is giving birth. These moments are mixed in with the tense pace of the rest of the episode without distracting from it or grinding everything to a halt. The humour and the drama both work together to create one very fun whole.

Overall, “The Tsuranga Conundrum” is not the greatest Doctor Who story ever made, but not every episode needs to be the greatest. Each episode just needs to entertain, and this one does so from beginning to end in an incredibly fun way. I just love it to bits.

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