The Tsuranga Condundrum offers us a new take on a format almost as old as Doctor Who itself – the Base Under Siege
Welcome to the space ambulance Tsuranga. It’s an isolated, claustrophobic location from which there’s no immediate escape. The Doctor and her friends are trapped without access to the TARDIS. They’re amid diverse range of locals with their own internal squabbles. And before long the commander gets incapacitated leaving the Doctor to advise their less experienced second. Meanwhile an unseen menace has somehow, impossibly, infiltrated the Tsuranga. Both Yoss’ impending giving birth and the auto destruct create an external ticking clock separate from the immediate threat. Yes, there’s no doubt about it; the Base Under Siege is back.
But what exactly is a Base Under Siege story? Surely most Doctor Who stories feature a location being attacked by monsters? But there’s more to the formula than just that. Arguably William Hartnell’s final story The Tenth Planet was the first Base Under Siege tale, but it was far from the last. The base can be a space station, moonbase, research facility or even lighthouse, but it needs to be an isolation location, sealed off from the outside world. So the likes of The War Machines or Doomsday don’t count, with their free ranging battles across a city.
It also pretty much requires a creeping sense of menace in the early stages. There need to be unexplained events that are at first minor puzzles before swiftly building to a fight for life. The bases in BUS stories are normally safe spaces, covertly infiltrated from initially unseen forces from without. So stories like The Parting of the Ways – with all out attacks, don’t count either.
The Base Under Siege stories work to a flexible, but definite, formula
Other elements aren’t omnipresent but frequently crop up. The locations are often military or scientific outposts – places with a firm chain of command, like Snowcap Base in The Tenth Planet or Sanctuary Base 6 in The Satan Pit. But the commander is usually mentally unstable, like Bennett in The Wheel in Space. Fine in normal circumstances maybe, but unable to accept the horrors they’re confronted with. As such their more inexperienced second in command must come to the fore. And, in the process, they lean on the newly arrived Doctor for advice and support. There’s often internal conflict among the humans trapped within the base that undermines their ability to react to the threat.
Often, but not always, the Doctor and their friends have lost the TARDIS – even if only because it’s wound up outside the besieged base. Certain monsters are more given to BUS stories – the Cybermen, Silurians and Yeti all love a good base siege. There’s also a surprising amount of blowing the threat out an airlock or otherwise blasting them away into deep space.
Chris Chibnall’s love of the Base Under Siege template was clear as far back as 42
Chris Chibnall plainly loves Base Under Siege stories. We all have aspects of Doctor Who that particularly speak to us as fans. For some of us its historicals, or the funny ones, or tales of strange monsters in everyday surroundings. Meanwhile some fans feel Doctor Who isn’t Doctor Who unless there’s a Dalek screaming down the lens. With Chibnall it was clearly the BUS serials that impacted strongly on his imagination. From 2007 until now nine stories he’s written or co-written have aired and four of them have had strong BUS elements while a fifth, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, has a slight touch of it too if you squint.
So his debut, 42, places the Doctor and Martha trapped on the Pentallian; the TARDIS locked in a superheated room. The crew are falling one by one to a malevolent force they don’t understand and Captain McDonnell has a sinister secret, while a literal ticking clock counts down to the ship falling into the star. And ultimately the problem is thrown out an airlock. In The Hungry Earth, a small isolated village is cut off from the world by a force field that stops the TARDIS from working. All the while people are being sucked under the soil by unseen enemies that turn out to be the Silurians. And while she’s not the commander, drama comes from Ambrose’s unpredictable behaviour under the stress of the siege.
In Jack Robertson, Chibnall creates a BUS character in the tradition going back to The Tenth Planet’s General Cutler
Arachnids in the UK quickly moves to a hotel complex far outside the city, which has been sealed by webbing. The giant spiders of the title are signalled by their webs and chittering, crawling noises within the walls before those trapped in the hotel actually see one. While of course the hotel’s owner, Jack Robertson vacillates between being a blowhard who butts heads with the Doctor and a quivering jelly in the face of the monsters. He’s a classic Base Under Siege commander – like Robson in the classic Fury from a Deep he’s a bullying tough guy in his usual sphere of operation but completely incapable of dealing with the situation he finds himself in.
But what counts is the twist that each new Base Under Siege Story puts on the basic template. The Tsuaranga Conundrum’s Astos is perfectly stable and competent but gets tragically jettisoned, leaving new trainee Mabli to lean on the Doctor for help. Many BUS stories contain an external ticking clock, as in The Moonbase with the superstorms running wild on Earth, or The Seeds of Doom’s impending starvation as ‘just in time’ shipping breaks down, or even or even the race to the stock exchange in Horror of Fang Rock. But Resus One’s threat of ‘precautionary detonation’ creates more of a sense of time pressure here.
And the Pting is almost unique among BUS threats by not actually being actively malign. It’s simply doing what it does as a force of nature. Even when the Doctor feeds it a bomb and blows it out the airlock in traditional BUS style, she’s actually doing it a favour.
Looking to the future
We can probably safely assume we’ll see more Bases Under Siege in the coming few seasons. So long as there is Doctor Who then these stories will exist. And so long as they bring new things to the table each time, and provide fun twists on the classic formula, bring it on.
The Doctor Who adventure continues…
Doctor Who continues this Sunday at 7pm GMT on BBC One and at 8pm EST on BBC America with Demons of the Punjab by Vinay Patel. Series 11 stars Jodie Whittaker (The Doctor), Mandip Gill (Yasmin Khan), Bradley Walsh (Graham O’Brien), and Tosin Cole (Ryan Sinclair).
Demons of the Punjab guest stars Shane Zaza (Prem), Amita Suman and Hamza Jeetooa (Manesh). Written by Vinay Patel. Directed by Jamie Childs.
“What’s the point of having a mate with a time machine, if you can’t nip back and see your gran when she was younger?”
India, 1947. The Doctor and her friends arrive in the Punjab as the country 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?