Doctor Who (Modern): S11E05 “The Tsuranga Conundrum”

Series 11
Directed by Jennifer Perrott
Written by Chris Chibnall

It only took 40% of the season for us to get here, but we finally have our Team TARDIS as an official unit after the events of “Arachnids in the UK”.  Granted, that feels a bit disingenuous since the show has slowly been building up the cohesiveness of the four as a group with the last one being the strongest of the year in that regard, but it now falls upon this episode to show how that dynamic changes now that they are voluntarily journeying far away from home instead of stuck in the situation.

We also get our first “base under siege” story of the season, a Doctor Who staple to the extent that certain seasons *stares at the Second Doctor’s run, specifically Season Five* would become dominated by them.  They’re cheaper (all that money they have been pouring into making the show look great this year had to come from somewhere) since they can be filmed on limited sets.  The stories involve the cast transporting themselves into an isolated situation of some sort that is in the process of being (or is soon after) besieged by some outside force as the Doctor must help them to fend off the invasion.  If you’re looking for more modern reference points for the show, they range from “The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit” to the Chibnall scripted “42” to the more recent “Under the Lake/Before the Flood”.

The Doctor and the companions have been traveling for at least a bit before this episode and I appreciate the little touches the show throws in to indicate that their adventures aren’t just one bit of chaos after another.  While scavenging on a junk planet, the Doctor sets off a sonic mine and the next thing they know, they are in a hospital with doctors asking for their med tags that everyone has and that’s the only way any of them can perform a procedure.  It seems like a standard sci-fi dystopian set-up future (the 67th century) where everyone is logged, and basic medical knowledge is a thing of the past, and yet, Doctor Who avoids this trope for once.

The Doctor is disoriented and recognizes the name Tsuranga and General Eve Cicero (a neuropilot with whom she shares mutual admiration by name), but it takes her a while to deduce the truth about the hospital.  The hospital is actually an automated medical ship four days out from the planet whose job is to basically keep people alive until they get back to base.   The Doctor is so eager to get back she nearly hijacks the ship to get back until it is rightly drilled into her head that she’s being selfish and that others need to get back more urgently than she does (even discounting the fact that it would be treated as a hostile takeover by the system).  It’s not a great look on her though and it’s indicative of The Doctor’s often self-centered view of the world, one she can blame all she wants on being injured, but I’m not sure that rang completely true to be.

With The Doctor’s confusion and desire to take over the ship under control, the episode doesn’t waste a second pivoting to the main part of the episode as something breaches the life pod (lifeboat, but in SPACE).  It starts jettisoning the life pods including one in which the chief medic dumbly wandered into.  The creature is a tiny CGI creature (a Pting) with a voracious appetite which is impossible to take seriously.  Such a goofy little guy.  They can devour any inorganic matter and they are impossible to kill, only temporarily stun.  The word “gremlin” isn’t used and though the final reveal indicates that they really are targeting energy, it’s clear that it was a very heavy influence.

The episode also resists the typical temptation to make any of the characters evil or even jerks.  The general’s big secret that she has been keeping from her engineer brother is that she has pilot’s hearts and has been taking adrenaline blockers to hide the symptoms.  The pregnant Gifftan man who intends to give up his son, having gotten pregnant after unprotected sex, seems like a decent, well-meaning bloke who only wants what is best for the kid.  The Gifftan acts as a surrogate for Ryan’s father whose father abandoned him under similar circumstances when he was Ryan’s age and while I think the episode was trying to get us to side with Ryan counseling someone not to make the same mistake his father did, it feels more like an excuse for him to work out his issues.  It does feel like Ryan gets to the place where he forgives or at least understands his dad not being there for him when he was born, it’s not being there when his mom died of a heart attack when he was 13 (and who Ryan was the first to find) and for the recent death of his Nan, that he is not ready to forgive.

Once again, we get a sort of set up for the future since the Pting is not defeated, merely fed a sonic mine and when temporarily satiated, thrown into space to float for a spell.  It’s another uneven if enjoyable episode, one that can’t quite stitch together the various tones (the comedic Pting and dramatic conversations about Ryan’s parent issues and the general’s health issues) and the two parts of the episode (with The Doctor’s medical issues becoming barely relevant by the end and yet were apparently enough to greatly affect her decision making early on).  The cast is still largely carrying these episodes with their chemistry starting to feel natural by this point.

Grade: B

Stray Observations

– First some news as there will be no Christmas special this year.  Of the traditions they are breaking this year (alongside the much longer-standing tradition of airing on Saturdays), this is the good news.  The writers did the best they could with it, but I believe them when they said they’ve run out of ideas for Christmas stories with the show always feeling like it had to hold something back to keep in the spirit or some other malarkey.
– Would have liked to have seen more of that experienced medic who was every bit as stubborn as The Doctor and protective of his patients.  He brought a natural internal conflict which was lost when he died (even if it stemmed from The Doctor acting selfishly)
– I was convinced the sonic was done for when the Pting got it
– Gifftan men give birth to men, while the women give birth to women after a weeklong pregnancy.
– Graham watching Call the Midwife and looking away at the squeamish bits was absolutely adorable.  I’m also fully onboard with his justifying watching TV as “learning life skills”.
– Tim Price is credited as the creator of the Pting which is the first such credit for the show and also indicates that Price clearly thought enough of his creation that he wanted it to be credited to him.  I’m guessing this has something to do with licensing (while the Daleks never got such a credit for Terry Nation, he was credited as the writer) so expect to see this all-consuming creature again.
– The comparisons to Nibbler from Futurama also did not go unnoticed.

Next Up:  Doctor Who Classic coverage is next up tomorrow on 11/5 with “The Krotons” at 10 AM EST while next Sunday, 11/11, we will return to coverage of the Thirteenth Doctor with “Demons of the Punjab”.