This review contains spoilers.
11.5 The Tsuranga Conundrum
Five down, five to go. It's tempting here at the midway point to sit back and take stock of the rhythms this new Doctor Who is establishing itself, examining the arcs of its companions and trying to work out where – if anywhere – the series is trying to lead us. Is there a bigger arc to all this? Are there clues we can glean about a shadowy presence that might be manipulating events from behind the scenes? Can we assign any meaning to 'The Timeless Child'? Will we ever get to see the custard cream dispensers take down advancing Dalek?
If you're scanning for a great reunion of all the villains you've escaped so far this season or looking for it as which of TARDIS's team, it's fair to say that this episode is not t one you'll be returning to time and again to screen-cap evidence. This is a classic Doctor Who episode of old, the shiny sets notwithstanding, and it serves as a solid, if unremarkable adventure that you'll probably skip over the next time you're binge-watching the series.
The episode's opening conceit, in which the Doctor accidentally unearths a sonic mine buried in an alien rubbish tip, sees the gear injured and then plucked to safety by a hospital ship. Unusually, the Doctor is the only one who is suffering from the blast – redundant time Lord organs are as much as they are blessing, apparently as she staggers, rather than pelts, down corridors.
The Second Doctor's era popularized a dynamic known as the "base under victory" – the TARDIS crew turn up in an unfamiliar environment, more often than not staffed by humans or humanoid aliens, or any suspicion or hostility they may encounter as a result of their intrusion is soon forgotten. Before long, everyone's simply scrambling to survive. Some of the more successful serial in this format raise the stakes further by combining an encroaching alien menace with a 'ticking clock' to race against – in the Third Doctor story inferno, for example, the fear comes from savage, kings, but it's a drilling exercise in the background and the torrent of leashes it leashes the ultimate threat.
Plenty of Doctor Who plots have aped this recipe in the last fifty years, including Chris Chibnall's own episode, 42; a show that is paired with enemy (solar energy fragments) with a deadline that more or less matches the episode's length. In this week's The Tsuranga Conundrum, the alien turns out to be a ping, a voracious beastie badly in need of an apostrophe, and the countdown is due by the planet that's supposed to save the lives of the hospital's patients. Should they be too close to their supposed salvation with a dangerous creature aboard, they'll be destroyed.
The thing with the pinging is that its character design rather works to undo the grave threat it's meant to pose. It is the size of an adipose with the facial features of a slitheen, and presumably it is indiscriminately. Although it is a toxic-skinned harbinger of destruction at random, it does not seem to be the same.
It's so damn cute, even when it's hisses like a stray cat being caught with its bum sticking out of yours wheelie-bin. The moment where Yaz snares the ping in a blank and promises to get rid of it, only to drop it down the corridor and look supremely pleased with herself, feels borderline cruel. There is a plot point where the lil 'critter seems to be gazing at asteroid field where, one might suppose, many more of his kings are waiting to snack on the rest of the craft, but that never amounts to anything.
Cuddly calamity notwithstanding, the majority of the ship's occupants are its patients, including Yoss; a pregnant alien whose birth becomes this week's bonding exercise for Graham and Ryan. Actor Jack Shalloo gives his sub-plot matter, but not when everyone's in mortal peril to erstwhile performance as a single dad faced with the terrifying prospect of being not good enough to raise his baby. Graham and Ryan's Relationship is one that's been forged by the crime of loss, difference, and learning to cope with their grief-here, regardless of who or what they are giving birth to, and they're both reduced to wincing and squirming at a comedy pregnancy like any other sitcom odd-couple.
The episode's sibling newbies – ace fighter pilot Eve Cicero and her brother engineer, Durkas – Ronan acting as a prissy bodyguard of sorts. Once encouraged by the doctor, they are finally responsible for buying the time. Their chemistry is far from the strongest we've ever seen between Doctor Who'S minor players, but the characters are as workmanlike and well-performed as you might expect from a plot of this type.
Speaking of the Doctor … the speech of the concept of "the iPhone of CORE reactors" and expresses its conceptual, actual love for the technology. Antimatter payment plan tomorrow, after all. If this is not the case, then it is time to give it a try . Like The Ghost Monument's earnest discussion on the benefits of NVQs and the properties of acetylene, which are factoids that just do not fit the moment.
As we soon learn, it's not the clean-energy engine of the ship that we should be worried about; rather, it's the self-destruct system beneath it. It's not hard for any sci-fi experience to end the story, but it's undeniably a neat solution – feed the bomb to the monster and back into the void with a pleasingly full belly. Let your two problems cancel one another out, in other words. It's a simple but effective bit of storytelling that ties up rather than last week's instalment.
There are a few niggles. The doctor's inexplicable adoration of a wartime fighter pilot rankles, which does the pinging devouring of the sonic screwdriver, which takes the all-too-mobile gadget out of the picture for … ooh, a full twenty minutes? Then there's the conversation between Yaz and Ryan, who's about to be dead and has a heart-to-heart about Ryan's dad, even though they're supposed to be down by a six minute countdown. Ronan, the android, is outright the only entity aboard who can handle the pinging, but he never complains about it. Yoss's birthing pod being used as a lure at the cost of leaving him without anesthetic. Likewise, the ship being a hospital feels like a squid that has been used, somehow, to add some more distinctive flavor , rather than simply being broken to begin with.
Overall, during the episode, that's how it happens well. Segun Akinola's soundtrack, which has been understated up until this point, tramples all over the opening few minutes of this episode with an intrusive, synth-y tune that was oddly reminiscent of Bad Wolf and its use of the Big brother theme. Tsuranga-class corridor set what, there really and not much of it to work with.
All told, it adds up to a bit of a nile-nil draw. There were bits to enjoy, for sure, and some fun scenes. From its time-worn story structure to the disposable characters, this is an adequate, old-school episode that could blithely be described as 'filler'. That should not be a problem, really; every show has filler. Right now, however, the 2018 reboot of Doctor Who, despite its excellent character work, it still does not deliver a real, original corker of a story concept to justify those weeks when it does not try and reinvent the wheel. With a scant ten entries this year, five of which are now said and done, episodes of epidemic might not be good enough to convince the critics that the show is ready to mesh its rediscovered human factor with the grander narrative themes of yesteryear. That said, the back of Series 11 has yet to be unveiled …
Read Chris's review of the previous episode, Arachnids In The UK, here.