One of Series 11’s hallmarks is spectacular location shoots – sweeping vistas from all around the world, stunningly shot, providing epic backgrounds for the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) to adventure in. It seems, though, that you can’t have those every episode, unless you want to make one episode out of action figures and papier mache. (Actually, I would totally watch that). Sooner or later, you have to confine our intrepid team of travellers to a cost effective spaceship for an episode. That budgetary expedience gives us The Tsuranga Conundrum and gives our otherwise picturesque series the air of holidays spent inside because of rainy weather.
Being confined to barracks, however, does the Doctor some good. After a couple of episodes where she has been swept along by events, struggling to be an active presence in the plot, The Tsuranga Conundrum offers her a chance to exercise her skills in Doctorly problem solving 101. It’s an exercise in piling problems on top of each other to see how the Doctor will cope.
There’s the ravenous P’ting, Doctor Who’s most notable entry into the established sci-fi pantheon of cute, but deadly creatures, which stretches back through Futurama’s Nibbler, Beep the Meep and Gremlins, all the way back to Star Trek’s Tribbles. But there’s also the threat of destruction by the authorities from afar, panicking about what might be going on on the suspiciously quiet ambulance ship. Then there’s the impending labour of pregnant fella Yoss (Jack Shalloo, an actor whose name sounds like it should be a Doctor Who character of its own). Plus the need to recover a distant TARDIS, and to recover from the lingering effects of stepping on a space landmine. As the sixth Doctor once muttered, Pelion upon Ossa.
The thirteenth Doctor rises to this challenge in reassuring style. She tricks the P’ting into falling for its own trap, luring it into an airlock and jettisoning it. She convinces warring family members General Cicero (Suzanne Packer) and Dorkus… sorry, Durkas (Ben Bailey-Smith) to cooperate on flying the ship to safety. She gives newbie nurse Mabli (Lois Chimimba) the confidence to hold herself together long enough to deliver a baby. She basically inspires a ragtag bunch of people to work together to overcome the challenges around them. In this sense, The Tsuranga Conundrum’s an opportunity to reinforce this new Doctor’s credentials, by showing her use all the ingenuity and resolve of Doctors before. If only there was a snarling villain to take down this episode, the checklist of Doctorish core competencies would be fully ticked off.
Along the way, there’s time for her to be funny and cheeky and exercise that old Doctory charm, too. If there’s a moment that doesn’t feel right, it’s where she allows herself to be put in her place by chief medico Astos (Brett Goldstein) for endangering the ship. It’s usually the Doctor who lambasts ineffective or recalcitrant supporting characters, not the other way around. On the other hand, there’s a trademark Doctor moment when she basically puts the episode on pause for a moment to wax lyrical about the ship’s anti-matter converter, her eyes lighting up and her voice rising in praise of atoms and positrons and so on. It brings to mind William Hartnell’s original moment of wonderstruck raving about the birth of a sun, all the way back in Inside the Spaceship (another of those, “we all have to play inside today” stories).
And yes, I should acknowledge that I’m brushing a lot of The Tsuranga Conundrum’s issues aside. Its clunky pacing. Its seemingly neverending exposition. But behind all that, there’s something positive happening for Whittaker’s bright and breezy Doctor – an attempt to restate why she’s the centre of this show, and what her Doctor is here to do.
But if this episode knows what it’s doing with the Doctor, it’s not as certain about what to do with her companions. Sorry, friends. We don’t call ‘em companions these days, for, um, reasons.
Yaz (Mandip Gill) takes on the role of the Doctor’s right-hand woman. Yaz is the one who is at the Doctor’s side as she’s trying to solve this conundrum. That means she gets to handle the guns and drop kick the P’ting down a short corridor (handily wrapped in a blanket designed to eliminate the need for tricky CGI shots).
But her role is also one of
companions friends of old: to helpfully explain plot points for the audience in a range of unlikely ways: “Like the Red Cross,” she says when describing the space ambulance. “Like a posh version of my uniform camera,” she says when discovering the hologram database thing. “Like at CERN,” when she sees the particle accelerator whatsit. Need something quickly explained by suggesting a familiar, modern day equivalent? Yaz is here to help. Like a talking glossary.
She’s also confidante-in-chief to a range of characters throughout Series 11. It says something about her policing skills that she’s often the one who coaxes information out of others. Here, it’s Ryan (Tosin Cole) who opens up to her about his mother’s death and his dad’s inadequacies. “Why am I even telling you this?” he asks Yaz at the time and the answer is only partly that the episode needs padding out.
It’s to help Ryan shoulder his way into the plot, with too many competing characters and no ladders to climb or bikes to ride. And so he is pressed into service as a doula for Yoss and is able to inspire him to commit to fatherhood. It’s a predictable moment, and one which sits oddly in a story of multiple things going to hell all at once, but it means Ryan gets a character note in a show which otherwise doesn’t need him much.
That’s two companions (yeah, I’ve given up) in and we’ve still got Graham (Bradley Walsh) to go. He’s there for a bit of comedy relief, what with his love of Call the Midwife and his gags about secretly accessing your loved one’s medical records.
No, let’s be honest, there’s no real reason for him to be there at all. He doesn’t even have the courtesy to hit his head on something and spend the episode in bed dreaming of the Phantom Piper (though in his case, it would be the Ghostly Bus Driver, or something). Truth is, in an episode which really only has room for one companion, or two at a pinch, the simplest thing would have been to give him 48 hours induced sleep in the delta wave augmenter.
And all this is a real shame. I’m a documented fan of the four person TARDIS crew, but here’s an episode which shows how much care is needed to divide the plot between them. The Doctor signals how difficult this is early on in the episode when, in order to separate herself from them, she simply says she wants to go on a limp on her own for a bit. But more often than not, the three of them are left to simply follow mutely behind the Doctor, like an oddly dressed security detail. Why go to all the trouble of creating a TARDIS ensemble and then jam them into stories too small for them?
Like stuffing too many kids into classroom during a rainy lunch break. As Yaz would probably say.
LINK TO: The Keys of Marinus. Apart from the fact that one has an Altos and one has an Astos, both have four TARDIS crew members.
NEXT TIME: Pack your deadly jelly babies, we’re off to face The Face of Evil.