Whoooooa, we’re halfway there! Doctor Who Series 11 hits the midway mark with a suitably middling episode. Was The Tsuranga Conundrum your sort of Pting?
Time flies, doesn’t it! It feels like only yesterday that Doctor Who burst back onto our screens, but now we’re already halfway through Series 11. To mark the occasion, Chris Chibnall offers up his fourth solo-scripted story of the season – and it’s certainly quite a doozy. This week’s episode not only serves as a divider between the two halves of the series, but very much also as a divider between the fans. Certainly, this one’s going to cause a stir. At times it shows a lot of promise – yet at others, it’s as puzzling and incomprehensible as its title. You might even say it’s a mystery wrapped in an enigma, squeezed into a script that’s just a little bit too tight. (Ahem.)
Needless to say, we’ve got a Pting or two to say about The Tsuranga Conundrum…
I Believe In a Pting Called Love
It started off so promisingly, too. Following a series of off-screen adventures, we catch up with Team TARDIS doing a spot of metal-detecting on an alien junk planet. Not the most exciting of set-ups, we’ll admit – but then they accidentally stumble upon a sonic mine. BOOM! The next thing our heroes know, they’re waking up on an automated space ambulance, millions of miles away from the TARDIS. Oh, and there’s a monstrous little menace trying to tear the ship apart before they get there. If that sounds like the familiar base-under-siege formula… well, you’d be right. So far, so very Doctor Who. In fact, The Tsuranga Conundrum feels closer to ‘classic’ Doctor Who than anything else we’ve seen so far. It looks absolutely stunning, too. The ship is perfectly clean and clinical, and the corridors boast exactly the right narrowness for running down.
Yes, there’s a genuinely solid premise behind this episode – the problem is, it chooses to ignore most of its greatest strengths. Chief example: our main characters are injured, their bodies still recalibrating after the impact of the sonic mine. But, a few wobbles and wails aside, it hardly seems to affect them much at all. There’s a great story to be told about the Doctor, badly damaged and physically hindered, trying to struggle through an impossible scenario. Unfortunately, this isn’t it. Similar potential is wasted elsewhere – we audibly cheered when the sonic screwdriver stopped working. Chris Chibnall’s scripts have been guilty of using it as an easy get-out in the past, after all (The Power of Three, we’re looking at you!). But, half an hour later, just in time for the episode’s resolution, it magically manages to get itself working again. So near, yet so far. Oh well.
Where The Wild Ptings Are
That said, this is hands-down Jodie Whittaker’s strongest outing as the Doctor to date. Her character’s admittedly been a little bit all over the place these last few weeks. Sometimes she’s kooky, sometimes she’s fallible, and sometimes she’s spurting out jokes like a discount Matt Smith. Here though, we get the best of everything. Thirteen’s manic energy is channelled into her desperate situation, with the craziness toned down and the capableness toned up. At last, we get to see the more tough-willed Doctor we’ve only seen glimpses of before. Every time the camera is on Jodie, she owns the role and believably draws you into the action. Her awe-filled speech about the anti-matter machine may even go down as one of her defining moments. In fact, we’re sure everyone will agree that this episode’s best and most exciting scenes all feature the Doctor.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of other characters on board the ship – and none of them do very much at all. The guest cast all put in a decent performance, but the way they’re written is not memorable in the slightest. In particular, the episode spends far too much time (and far too much drama) on Yoss, the pregnant man. What feels like a one-and-done joke is stretched out into an entire sub-plot, purely to serve as an analogy about Ryan and his dad. Don’t get us wrong, we’re all for ongoing character development, but this is extremely on-the-nose. (And we’re all for inclusiveness too, but admittedly, this does come across as trying too hard). That aside, our regulars have little to do besides blend into the background. Yaz is done a particular disservice: she’s entirely surplus to requirements again, only one week after showing some much-needed promise.
All The Small Ptings
And then there’s the Pting. Credit where credit’s due, this is the most effective villain the Doctor’s faced in Series 11 so far. A ruthless, relentless creature that doesn’t want to eat the passengers, but is hell bent on devouring the ship they’re travelling on. Sounds great on paper. It looks great on screen too – whoever did the CGI work should really be proud of their work. And yet, even that is tainted with controversy. The Pting is (dare we say it) cute – something ever-so-slightly at odds with its terrifying nature. It’s like the Adipose, Disney’s Stitch, and the bus gremlin from The Simpsons all rolled into one. You’ll either love it or you’ll hate it. It was a far scarier threat at the start, when it was just an unseen entity. It might’ve been derivative of Midnight or Listen, but at least the fear factor would have remained intact.
In reality though, the Pting’s design is merely representative of this episode’s larger issue: it’s one giant oxymoron. Everything it sets out to do, it contradicts with something else. It wants to feel like a ‘classic’ Doctor Who story, yet it forces in lots of jarring ‘modern’ elements. It wants to be a fast-moving action thriller, yet it constantly slows down the pace for talky exposition and unnecessary sub-plots. And it wants to give development to each of its expansive cast, yet everyone except the Doctor feels like they needn’t be there at all. There are moments of utter brilliance scattered throughout The Tsuranga Conundrum, but equally there are just as many moments of utter bafflement. For our money, it wasn’t a bad episode. But it wasn’t a good one either. Confused? So are we. The Pting wasn’t the story’s biggest enemy – the writing was. Told you it was puzzling!