By Mark Laherty
Doctor Who has a tradition of ‘base under siege’ stories. Even keeping it to Modern Who, many will recall that weird David Tennant one where they literally meet the Devil or the Capaldi one with the ghosts. It boils down to the Doctor and their companion(s) semi-accidentally getting stuck in a base with a cast of new, one-off characters and some alien threat. Tensions rise between everyone as they try to find a way out of the mess.
And so it is with ‘Tsuranga Conundrum.’ The gang end up stranded without the TARDIS on a hospital-spaceship with a strange and deadly intruder on board: the Pting, a cute but nasty little CGI buddy. So, with the hospital crew and patients in tow, they must figure out what the Pting is, what it wants, and how to stop it.
To dismiss this episode as standard genre fare runs the risk of being cheap and lazy criticism, but there’s not an awful lot that will surprise you. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that. The genre is just about your relationship with the text. You expect XYZ things to happen and, for the most part, they do.
This episode was directed by Jennifer Perrott, who has proven chops both in and out of sci-fi. Her short film, The Ravens, caught Chibnall’s attention and got her the job. While some episodes this season have really blown the budget, this one was relatively minimalist; most of the episode is just actors running around a few different rooms and corridors because that’s all they have money for. This sort of restriction is probably why the base-under-siege format has come back time and time again. So, this is a blockbuster-scale story told on a shoestring budget. Although rarely claustrophobic, this is very distinct from the crane-jumping thrills of the season premiere. It’s the sort of thing that Doctor Who has been doing for decades now – and it works.
Conventional wisdom seems to be that the Pting stole the show. It’s easy to see why. It was apparent within the first minute of this season that the budget had jumped up and this little guy makes that all the clearer. There were similar monsters back in 2008 called the Adipose and while their designs were cute as all get-out, the ten years of tech and budget evolution are visible. Better yet, this thing could have been like the Minions but isn’t. It’s more comparable to the Niffler from Fantastic Beasts. Special mention must also be given to composer Segun Akinola’s fun, taunting motif for the monster; the soundtrack this season has shown an impressive range of styles as the stories have jumped genres.
What also jumps out is Jack Shalloo’s role as Yoss, a heavily pregnant alien man. As the life-or-death situation escalates, Yoss goes into labour. It’s a strange situation and they play up the weirdness of it, yet the positive message that this sends to trans people is obvious. Here is a man, who very much presents as male and performs masculinity, but apparently has the birth-giving bits. When Graham and Ryan are initially confused by this, they have to catch up. Having said that, this could probably have been better again if they had included a character who was an actual trans man rather than an alien with different biology. Yoss, as he exists, obviously challenges conventional notions of gender, but it’s hard to top straightforward representation. It certainly would have been better if they had cast a trans male actor.
Other characters are more of a drag. The usual TARDIS team perform well – Ryan is given a lot of characterisation in a short space of time – but the rest of the hospital crew and patients are a snooze. Brother and sister Eve and Durkas Cicero, played well by Casualty’s Suzanne Packer and comedian Ben Bailey-Smith, have some functional but bland drama. A robot character named Ronan is the subject of a half-hearted ‘robots are humans too’ theme. It’s nice how it all links into the series’ overarching theme of families, both biological and found, but this week saw those ideas at their least engaging. On the upside, robot Ronan’s role in the story is nowhere near as tone-deaf and insufferable as Detroit: Become Human.
I hesitate to dismiss this episode as genre nonsense; I love genre nonsense. I also wouldn’t want to dismiss anyone interested in making a deeper analysis of the themes and ideas in play here. But, although many are happy to see the back of the old, twist-happy era of Who, Series 11 hasn’t delivered much in the way of interesting perspective shifts. Once you watch the first 15 minutes of an episode, you can basically tell what’s going to happen – and then it happens. That’s genre. That’s the contract you enter. And while there’s nothing terribly wrong with that, ‘The Tsuranga Conundrum’ isn’t going to win over any fence-sitters.