Doctor Who: The Tsuranga Conundrum (S11E05) Review

I missed watching “Doctor Who” live for the first time this series due to family fireworks commitments but having caught up now, I don’t regret my choice because there was precious little spark in this collage of half-developed sci-fi ideas and forced character moments.

Injured and stranded in the wilds of a far-flung galaxy, the Doctor (Shirt watch: Red), Yaz, Graham and Ryan must band together with a group of strangers to survive against one of the universe’s most deadly – and unusual – creatures.

The episode starts brightly enough, with the Doctor and her friends combing a junk planet to find…something? There’s amusing banter they may be on the wrong planet (although if their search area is that loosely defined you have to question the effectiveness of searching a small area of a single planet on foot) and some tantalising teases of unseen adventures. Rain bathing in the upwards tropics of Konstano sounds like it might have been fun to see, but we’ll have to hope Big Finish pick it up at a later date because it’s not what’s in store for us. Instead, Graham finds something but it’s the Doctor who sets it off – a sonic mine, which literally goes off in the Doctor’s face as she stands and does nothing, not even telling her companions to run, while it happens. It’s a curiously passive moment, painfully so because it exists solely for narrative convenience.

The Doctor awakens, woozy and in pain on board the Tsuranga, an automated space ambulance, bound for space hospital. She’s the last to wake, despite her Time Lord constitution. The medical staff – all two of them on this automated hospital ship – seem unfussed by the doctor’s physiology; it never even becomes a talking point. Like the ‘bigger on the inside’ conversation, it’s one of the stalwart series moments fans look forward to, the reassuring reference to the fact the Doctor having two hearts.

What is a talking point, especially for the early part of the episode, is the Doctor’s concern over the loss of the TARDIS on a junk planet where people come looking for scrap. Are we to gather she left it unlocked? The desperation to return to the TARDIS gives us a Doctor with an entirely selfish motivation, something Astos has to point out to her before she gets it. But once all the other plotlines crowd in, she doesn’t really give the distance from the TARDIS a further thought. It’s an unwelcome return to season 11’s untidy writing and it doesn’t come as a surprise that it’s a plot thread which isn’t resolved at all in the episode. Judging by next week’s episode trailer, the TARDIS is recovered – surprise, surprise – without incident, off-screen.

During the Doctor’s frantic search for the controls of the hospital ship give us a leadenly obvious introductory sequence where we meet, in turn, the other patients aboard the hospital ship. We start with ace space pilot Eve Cicero (Suzanne Packer) and Ronan (David Shields), an android sidekick who looks like a late model Mutoid, think Poe Dameron and BB-8 if BB-8 had zero personality, and Cicero’s brother Durkas (Ben Bailey-Smith).

Next up, if you had ‘pregnant man’ on your Virtue Chibnalling bingo card, cross it off now as we’re introduced to Yoss Inkl (Jack Shalloo), a pregnant Giftan who’s ready to give birth any moment. Along with head medic Astos (Brett Goldstein) and wracked-with-self-doubt rookie medic Mabli (Lois Chimimba), our cast of characters is set for the threat to finally reveal itself. And reveal itself it certainly does, as we find out our collection of hospital drama clichés face certain doom at the hands of… CGI Stitch called a Pting. There’s even a hint that the Pting may have been artificially created by an unknown party (how did Chibbers miss the opportunity to tie this in with the Stenza and their weapons research planet?), but unfortunately, Dr Jumba Jookiba doesn’t turn up to join in the fun.

The sets are quite impressive, the sterile whiteness reminding me a lot of the sets of “The Invisible Enemy” but the similarities end there. The series is really struggling to justify having three companions, especially when it comes to giving them something to do. They’re completely sidelined early in the episode while the Doctor teams up with Astos and then later, they’re tagged on to one or other of the other patients’ stories, except in one ungainly scene where apropos of nothing, Yaz decides to ask Ryan how his mum died, providing us with another lump of backstory. It’s basically all Yaz gets to do (apart from wrap the Pting in a blanket and throw it in a corner) while Graham and Ryan end up stuck in the comic relief story of the male pregnancy.

It’s a weirdly oblique commentary on fatherhood that doesn’t seem to know what it wants to say. It’s meant to kind of connect to Ryan’s recently raked over daddy issues but it’s a bizarre sequence because Graham and Ryan are glibly pontificating on the merits of fatherhood and life choices despite being entirely ignorant of Giftan society and how it works. But the episode doesn’t want you to think too hard beyond the pseudo-feminist thought experiment of ‘what if men had to give birth?’ because if you do, it gets really scary really quick. Just how did a species evolve a reproductive cycle which requires surgical intervention? Before medical procedures, did the vast majority of men die as their babies emerged xenomorph-like from their bellies? What’s the female Giftan birth process? Is it the same? Is it too much to ask to get some well-thought-through sexual political comedy aliens?

The most frustrating moment of the episode, though, comes from the most intriguing. Early on, the decidedly unfearsome Pting gobbles up the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver but spits it out, like a COnehead cleaning a spark plug, apparently disabling it. It’s exciting to see the character deprived of a device which has become such a crutch so it’s immensely disappointing that its disablement has little weight in the moment and it later conveniently recharges itself just when it’s needed again.

The Tsuranga Conundrum, it turns out, is trying to figure out what this was all about anyway? A Gallifreyan gallimaufry of “Holby City”-In-Space b-stories, none of which are remotely strong enough to carry an entire episode themselves duct-taped together with Chibnall’s comfort zone soap opera character moments to fill the episode runtime along with a bafflingly (what little there was) momentum sapping lecture by The Doctor on anti-matter but for what? It’s a bit early in the tenure to start simply marking time, isn’t it? There’s no denying it was quite a pretty episode; pretty set but also pretty dull and pretty pointless. Why spend all that money on a TARDIS set not to use it? Why make a big deal of the TARDIS being lost again if it ultimately means nothing? Sure, you can look at “The Tsuranga Conundrum” and excuse it as an adequate, serviceable throwaway filler episode of “Doctor Who” but thus far, this seems to be the show’s new standard.

There’s absolutely no denying new showrunner Chris Chibnall’s determination to open up the writing of “Doctor Who” to more women and people of colour has been entirely vindicated by the first half of season 11 because it’s clear that all the writing done by middle-aged white guys has been dreadful.