Doctor Who – “The Tsuranga Conundrum”

“The Tsuranga Conundrum”
Doctor Who: Series 11 – Episode 5
Written by: Chris Chibnall
Directed by: Jennifer Perrott

Synopsis: Injured and stranded in the wilds of a far-flung galaxy, the Doctor, Yaz, Graham and Ryan must band together with a group of strangers to survive against one of the universe’s most deadly – and unusual – creatures.

Fast-paced and with plenty of fires needing to be put out simultaneously, “The Tsuranga Conundrum” was a brilliant example of the Doctor put on the spot and forced to work against a time limit. Once again separated from the TARDIS and her sonic screwdriver, albeit temporarily, this episode highlighted the Doctor’s ingenuity and her ability to quickly adjust to and take control of her new surroundings. Reminiscent of episodes like “42”, “The Impossible Planet” and “Sleep No More”, “The Tsuranga Conundrum” isolated the Doctor on doomed spaceship and applies a tense time-limit to the situation.

As with other stories seen this season, on paper “The Tsuranga Conundrum” had a fairly simple plot structure but Chris Chibnall used his knack for character-driven drama to strengthen his script and humanise the sci-fi elements. Each of the supporting cast were given some meaningful development and growth throughout the episode, such as the fractious relationship between the Cicero siblings, the junior doctor struggling to keep things running in the absence of her superior, and a pregnant male alien debating his worthiness to be a father. So much was crammed into this episode, but these sub-plots actually flowed nicely alongside the bigger action set-pieces, complementing the big moments with emotional pay-offs that mattered.

With so much time dedicated to the supporting characters, it did feel like Graham, Yaz and Ryan were pushed further into the background – although Chibnall did manage to address some of the season’s recurring subplots; such as Ryan and Yaz’s blossoming romance, and Ryan and Graham’s male bonding tour of the galaxy. Yet again, Ryan refused to give his step-grandfather a fist pump, clearly saving that moment for the season finale. I am surprisingly invested in their relationship, which is a credit to the writing, and really hope that the pair are given a happy ending – however, I suspect that Chibnall’s focus on human drama might mean that we aren’t going to see a resurrected Grace at the end of their travels with the Doctor. While Yaz is given a nice action sequence, and a spot alongside the Doctor in the climactic scenes – she still lacks a defining character trait. I’m hoping next episode’s “Demons of the Punjab”, which promises to explore her family history, offers some much-needed depth for the character.

One element about this episode I really enjoyed was how unpredictable it seemed in the initial ten minutes, and how it wasn’t clear who or what the antagonist would actually be. At one point, I thought that Ronan – the android assistant – was malfunctioning and sabotaging the ship; I also thought it might be a case of inter-planetary war relating to Eve Cicero and her history as a pilot and then later on, I suspected that it was some kind of electric current monster inhabiting the ship. As it turned out, it was a Pting – a small gremlin-esque creature that looked like a Slitheen and and Adipose had gotten overly affectionate in a space locker somewhere. Eating through the ship like Stitch from Lilo and Stitch, without regard for health and safety of its occupants, it created a chain reaction of life-threatening events forcing the Doctor to keep enough plates spinning until they reached a way to trans-mat back to the TARDIS.

While Chibnall has actively avoided using classic monsters in order to establish the new Doctor in her own right, and create a new set of villains for her to face – none of them have particularly stood out as candidates worthy of repeat appearances. Until now, that is. I thought the little Pting creature was brilliant – equal parts cute and deadly, indestructible and insatiable, the creature will definitely sell plenty of action figures and merchandise. In the same way that T’zim-Sha felt like The Predator viewed through a family-friendly lens, the Pting felt like someone had put a Gremlin, Critter, the Tasmanian Devil and Stitch into a blender and created a medley of pop culture references. That said, the final result is so cute and extremely well animated that I saw past some of the similarities to other hungry aliens. While I doubt it’ll make a return appearance, the Pting is a welcome addition to the Doctor Who menagerie of monsters and has a name that is extremely fun to say out loud!

Arguably, “The Tsuranga Conundrum” is the most science-fiction orientated episode of the season so far, however Chibnall manages to keep things accessible and easy-to-follow, remembering that the series should engage with children first and foremost. I’m sure kids will love the simplicity of the Pting eating its way through the ship, and marvel at the idea of a pregnant man. As we’re now at the halfway point of this season, I look back and see numerous key moments that kids will no doubt be re-enacting in playgrounds across the country, and while I have no evidence whether less children watched the show during Steven Moffatt’s era or not – there is no denying that the storytelling had gotten more complex and confusing to a casual viewer. As a result, Chibnall’s more streamlined storytelling can sometimes feel too simplistic and rudimentary in comparison, but ultimately, the series has not been this accessible since 2005, and I hope it is proving popular amongst schoolkids.

Gripping, cinematic and with a memorable antagonist at its core, “The Tsuranga Conundrum” was yet another solid example of how Doctor Who has reinvented itself in its eleventh season – blending sci-fi action and human drama together to produce stories that can be enjoyed by both old and new fans alike.

Score – ★★★★

Next Episode – “Demons of the Punjab”
India, 1947. The Doctor and her friends arrive in the Punjab, as India is being torn apart. While Yaz attempts to discover her grandmother’s hidden history, the Doctor discovers demons haunting the land. Who are they, and what do they want?

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