It’s hard to have a filler episode of Doctor Who. The show’s built around each week providing a fresh storyline, location, supporting cast and the rest of it, so by nature, every outing’s of as equal importance as the rest. If it’s possible, though, “The Tsuranga Conundrum” feels like the filler episode of season 11. It’s an installment in search of a great hook that ultimately saunters along to its finish line and probably won’t stay long in the memory. After a run of episodes that possessed a lot of personality and heart, it’s a disappointment to say the least.
There’s a definite trend developing around season 11’s plots so far. Showrunner Chris Chibnall seems to enjoy taking the concept from a famous sci-fi movie – Predator for episode 1, Pitch Black for episode 2 and so on – and giving it a family-friendly re-write. In this case, Chibnall plumps for the classic “extraterrestrial attacks a spaceship” structure from Alien. We’ve obviously seen many takes on this story over the years – not least in Doctor Who itself – and Chibnall struggles to find a fresh way to tackle it.
What he ends going for is an unlikely homage to fellow BBC drama Casualty, only located in outer space. Just like in the hospital-set soap opera, there’s a bunch of medical mishaps going on onboard that the Doctor and her friends have to attend to alongside dealing with the invading alien. Speaking of which, don’t expect a Xenomorph-like horror awaiting the TARDIS crew this week but rather, an adorable little critter dubbed the Pting, who just likes to eat – the trouble is, he could munch his way through the whole spaceship if left unchecked.
The result is a meandering 50 minutes that lacks the cohesion of the episodes we’ve had to date this season. What’s more, it’s frustratingly simplistic. The return to straight-forward plotting for this brand new era of Who, in contrast to Steven Moffat’s notoriously timey-wimey version, was absolutely the right decision, but here the plot’s stretched so thin that it damages the drama and the characters. For instance, this week the Doctor should’ve really worked out that the Pting wanted energy long before she did (it was established early on that it wasn’t carnivorous, so what else would it be after?).
The episode’s ending also falls into another curious habit of season 11 as it once again essentially involves the Doctor hitting the story’s off-switch. In this case, pulling a bomb out from a draw and using it to send the Pting on its merry way. The continued dedication to depicting the Doctor as a true pacifist – always finding a way to fix the situation without killing her enemy – is to be admired, but it does mean that there’s rarely a big dilemma and emotional heft to the adventure’s climax (the fantastic “Rosa” being the exception, of course).
As it is, it falls on Jodie Whittaker to pick up the slack and keep our attentions from drifting. Arguably, this is one of those tests that every new Doctor has to go through and though she’s yet to battle the Daleks, the actress has now proven that she can still give a good performance while trapped in a lackluster episode. The breathless energy Whittaker brings to the part keeps the pace from completely flatlining and as ever she nails the Time Lord’s uncynical wonder – the moment the Doctor gushes over the anti-matter engine is wonderful.
It still feels like Chibnall and his writers have yet to properly work out all the kinks of the Thirteenth Doctor, though. The level of vulnerability to her is fascinating – those POV shots of a discombobulated Doctor uniquely put us in our hero’s head – but it’s somewhat frustrating that Thirteen rarely takes charge when she should. This week, for instance, the medic Astos dies because the Doctor defers to him and lets him wander into danger. To say the least, it was a curiously out-of-character moment.
There’s a case to be made that the modern format of Doctor Who – standalone 50 minute episodes – just doesn’t leave room for a large team of companions like the serialized classic series.
When it comes to the Doctor’s friends, they’re also given the short shrift. There’s been something of a problem so far with juggling all three of them but “The Tsuranga Conundrum” is easily the worst offender so far at finding something for each of the companions to do. Of the lot, once again Tosin Cole’s Ryan gets the lion’s share of the character work, with the parallels to his absent father lending the stock “pregnancy in an elevator” subplot – except it’s on a doomed spaceship and, you know, the person who’s pregnant is a man – some surprising gravitas.
In terms of the production side of things, I should really point out that this episode was stellar. The direction from Jennifer Perrott was strong and the visual effects this season continue to impress. Any shot of space feels good enough to be in a Star Wars film and the design of the Pting has no doubt done the job of making fans inundate the BBC with requests to make them into stuffed toys in time for Christmas. Some viewers are probably moaning about the creature’s cuteness, but there’s always room for adorable aliens.
Most fans would agree that every season of Doctor Who has at least one bad egg in it, so let’s hope that “The Tsuranga Conundrum” has that dishonor this year and the quality will increase again next week. As an undemanding Sunday night watch, this episode fit the bill and was no doubt enjoyed by many of you, but the show should probably be aiming higher than just “pleasant but forgettable.”
An episode lacking a great hook, "The Tsuranga Conundrum" marks the low point of Doctor Who's eleventh season so far - but at least the alien's cute.