I haven’t seen Alien. I don’t know what happens in it, either. But lots of people are comparing The Tsuranga Conundrum to Alien, and because I haven’t seen it I’m not sure if that’s supposed to be a good thing. From the fact that the comparison is being made, though, I can gather that Alien is probably about an alien that boards a human spacecraft in the 67th or maybe the 42nd or the 93rd Century and wreaks havoc, probably dramatically killing numerous people, while the human crew and passengers frantically try to steer the ship to safety. How did I go? I just looked up the plot on Wikipedia and I’m delighted to report that I’ve got it right – although it was the 22nd Century, not the 93rd.
I could guess the plot of the film everyone is comparing this episode to because it’s not exactly the most complex of storylines – nor particularly the most original. The base-under-siege-by-a-berserk-killer-alien-that’s-going-to-eat-us-all is a staple of the sci-fi genre. Doctor Who has done it a number of times before, in one form or another: there was 42 and The Impossible Planet and Flesh and Stone and Under the Lake and even Midnight. This is nothing new. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. There’s a Doctor Who reviewer I like reading whose benchmark for a good Doctor Who story is basically “something I’ve never seen before”. I’m with this reviewer insofar as I’d prefer to see Doctor Who do new, original things rather than persistently rehashing old ideas, but originality doth not by itself a good Doctor Who make (as Love and Monsters is testament), and unoriginality doth not by itself make bad Doctor Who.
And that’s more or less how I feel about The Tsuranga Conundrum. Not great, but not bad, either. It’s fun. It holds the attention for its 50 minutes’ running time. It’s another worthy addition to the Doctor Who canon. But, no, it doesn’t do anything especially interesting or important. No one’s going to remember The Tsuranga Conundrum or put it in a Top 10 list of anything (or Bottom 10, for that matter). And that’s okay. Not every Doctor Who story has to be Heaven Sent. It’s okay to be The Tsuranga Conundrum. There’s a place for the Tsuranga Conundrums and the Dinosaurs on a Spaceships and the Gridlocks of the Doctor Who canon. I love Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, by the way – I think it’s the best episode of Series 7 (which, to be fair, isn’t really saying much).
As the latest iteration on the base-under-siege genre, it was fine. It wasn’t a stellar exemplar of the genre, but it wasn’t a poor effort, either. I thought the episode was about to dip into an unrelenting downward trajectory when I saw that the alien from which the base was under siege was not the great, carnivorous, many-toothed beastie I thought we were about to see, but a rather cute, squeezable beastlet measuring about 1 foot high called a Pting. He reminded me of a mix between a toad and a Niffler from Harry Potter. Not particularly intimidating, and the sight of the Doctor edging cautiously towards what looked like a cute Japanese plush toy come alive was a bit comical, a bit killer rabbit from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (“That’s no ordinary rabbit, that’s the most foul, cruel, and bad-tempered rodent you ever set eyes on!”). Maybe the intern was given the task of designing this one.
But no matter — it did its job. It caused enough havoc and drama (mostly off-screen, it must be said) to make the characters’ impending doom pretty convincing. The best moments of this episode, though, weren’t the mayhem and the action, but the quieter character moments: there was Ryan reflecting, glassy-eyed, about his parents and his childhood to a captivated Yas. There was the Doctor fawning reverently over the antimatter generator, in the most Doctorish little passage I’ve seen from Whittaker yet. There was the Doctor suddenly being hit by Astos’s rebuke that she was being selfish and belligerent and not like the Doctor at all. There was Durkas and Ronan touchingly making up after losing the woman they both loved (insofar as a robot can love…) The character writing has consistently been the best aspect of this series, which should come as no surprise given that Chris Chibnall has already proven his chops as a master character writer (for a citation on this, I will never stop recommending Born and Bred – watch it!). Even the supporting characters have been consistently good, which is still the case this week – even the “synth robot” Ronan, General Eve Cicero’s partner (I guess, kind of like a 67th Century sexbot).
All I’ll say about Jodie Whittaker this week is that she’s getting better and better. She had more good moments in this episode than any yet – it’s just a shame the scripts are getting more and more ordinary. What I’m enjoying seeing from Whittaker, even if her Doctor isn’t dazzling me yet, is that she’s clearly having fun. The first few sequences of the Doctor staggering around on the ship after awakening from being blown to smithereens were great because Whittaker was clearly enjoying herself. It still feels strange to hear other characters address Whittaker as “Doctor”, but there’s no doubt she’s having fun, and when Whittaker is having fun, we’re having fun. And if Whittaker is having fun being the Doctor, she can only get better as time goes on.
Finally, while this episode was by no means bad, something I will take issue with is that we’re now halfway through Series 11 and we’re still being served up average to good-but-not-great scripts. My attitude towards The Tsuranga Conundrum is a good metaphor for the quality of the series so far: not great, but not bad; just fine. We’ve seen nothing so far that has made Series 11 worthwhile or that would make me look back on Series 11 with anything other than indifference. The Ghost Monument looked promising, but it did nothing more than whet the appetite. Series 11 so far hasn’t delivered the promised main course. If anything, it’s actually gone backwards – the last two episodes have been fine in themselves, but have felt the most like the Doctor Who this series is supposed to be getting away from so far. It’s not a great start to what was supposed to be a brave, exciting new era. This series isn’t generating excitement or reeling in couchloads of new viewers. And it matters because we’ve now reached the halfway point for this series. From next week we’re on the home stretch – Series 11 has five more episodes to get its act together.
“The Tsuranga Conundrum” has to be my least favorite episode of Series 11 so far, and the first one to disappoint me upon broadcast. It feels like 90% of this episode is pure, emotionless technobabble and exposition, and 10% heart. The Pting never manages to be cute or threatening to me; the sterile hospital location gets boring pretty quickly (though I wonder how much of that is due to the direction); the companions get sidelined pretty hard and most of character-building scenes in this episode go to the guest cast; I’m still wondering what Thirteen and her friends were doing on that junk planet in the first place; and after four episodes of the Doctor stressing guns and violence are evil, it feels really weird and out-of-character for Thirteen to gush over a future general when she sees her. Well, they can’t all be winners.