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Doctor Who: The Tsuranga Conundrum (Review)

The Tsuranga Conundrum is a very strange episode, in large part because it is perhaps the first episode of the revived Doctor Who that feels like the product of a writers’ room.

In that, The Tsuranga Conundrum feels very much like an episode assembled to fulfill a checklist of requirements that were due before the end of the season. The primary plot is a stylish futuristic science-fiction adventure with a monster that serves as a solid mid-level threat for the primary cast. At the same time, the secondary plot exists to further the arc of one (arguably two) of the show’s credited leads in a way that is clearly positioning the character for a satisfactory resolution at the end of the year.

Pilot error.

The two threads in The Tsuranga Conundrum don’t necessarily gel with one another in the way that the plots of best episodes do, where several story threads all develop from the same unified idea and move in parallel, as would be more likely if a single writer had pitched and developed the episode from scratch. Instead, the various elements of The Tsuranga Conundrum seem to exist because there has to be a story like this among the ten episodes in the season order, and there wasn’t room to split the two elements into separate stories or there weren’t any other stories in which these elements might be integrated.

The Tsuranga Conundrum feels like a script that went through several passes inside a writers’ room, with each writer working on each draft emphasising a different aspect of the story to the point that whatever had originally been the central focus of the episode has been lost in the process. This would be worrying enough of itself, but The Tsuranga Conundrum is very pointedly not the product of a writers’ room. It is a script credited to a single writer, the head writer on the series. The Tsuranga Conundrum is a Chris Chibnall script that feels like it has passed through several different hands before hitting the screen.

Seeing red.

On a plotting level, The Tsuranga Conundrum is arguably the most simple and straightforward story in the season so far, which is particularly notable coming hot on the heels of monster-driven Arachnids in the U.K. At its core, The Tsuranga Conundrum is an archetypal “base under siege” story, that familiar Doctor Who template that has been a fixture of the series dating back to the tenure of Patrick Troughton. Every iteration (and almost every season) of Doctor Who tends to offer its own spin on the concept; The Rebel Flesh, The Almost People, Under the Lake, Before the Flood, Oxygen.

The “base under siege” is very much a “meat and potatoes” approach to Doctor Who, and perhaps fits with the broader “back-to-basics” approach that is emerging as a defining attribute of the early Chibnall era. If Arachnids in the U.K. was the series demonstrating to new and lapsed viewers that it could tell stories about monsters lurking in mundane everyday surroundings, couched in broad political commentary, then The Tsuranga Conundrum is an example of demonstrating the familiar narrative templates where the characters are trapped in a claustrophobic environment and menaced by an outside force.

As with any genre of story, the “base under siege” is a sturdy model that can be deployed with varying degrees of success depending on the strength of both the writer and central conceit. Even during the Patrick Troughton era, where the series tended to pile one “base under siege” story atop another, the results were far from uniform. Stories like Fury from the Deep are roundly dismissed and largely forgotten, while stories like The Tomb of the Cybermen are cited among the best episodes that the series ever produced. It is possible to do something interesting and clever with the premise.

Part of the issue with The Tsuranga Conundrum is that it is very much driven by a fixation on the mechanics of the “base under siege” story, an episode that has to spend a lot of time justifying the internal logic of the premise in order to allow the very basic template to unfold in the expected fashion. This is most obvious in the opening couple of acts, where The Tsuranga Conundrum spends a lot of time and energy moving all of its pieces into position so that the rest of the story can employ the same reliable structure as something like The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit.

“Ain’t I a stinka?”

This explains why the opening act of The Tsuranga Conundrum fixates upon the missing TARDIS. The opening scene of the episode has the Doctor and her companions wounded by a sonic mine on Seffilun, at which point they are bundled on to a medical ship and spirited away. Naturally, the TARDIS is left behind on the surface of Seffilun. This is transparent plotting from Chibnall, a narrative trick designed to answer the question inherent to every “base under siege” narrative: why doesn’t the Doctor just load everybody into the TARDIS and take them away?

To be fair, this is part-and-parcel of constructing a “base under siege” narrative. Inevitably, the Doctor is separated from the TARDIS and subsequently reunited only at the point where reintroducing the TARDIS would not break the narrative. However, most modern “base under siege” stories have the common sense to separate the Doctor and the TARDIS cleanly and efficiently early in the story. Even two-parters like The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit understand that it is better to just get rid of the TARDIS and get on with the story.

However, perhaps reflecting the idea that the episode is intended to introduce a whole new generation to the genre and perhaps also reflecting the emphasis on mechanics within the Chibnall era, The Tsuranga Conundrum fixates upon the separation of the Doctor from the TARDIS. The character limps through the ship desperately trying to reunite with her lost time craft. “I’m worried about leaving it here on a junk planet where people come and scavenge,” she explains to Astos. “I might never see it again, and I’ve only just got it back!”

The weight that The Tsuranga Conundrum puts on this idea, to the point that the Doctor threatens to hijack a ship full of patients who desperately need medical aid in order to get back to the TARDIS, suggests a different sort of episode. It hints at something much closer to Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS than to Cold War. However, none of this set up actually matters. The entire opening act of The Tsuranga Conundrum is largely pointless, expending energy on a plot thread that ultimately goes absolutely nowhere.

The corridors of power.

In fact, by the end of the episode, the prospect of reuniting the Doctor with the TARDIS is almost an afterthought. “They’re booking your teleport to Seffilun, as soon as you’ve spoken to the investigators,” the episode offers by way of resolution to what was initially presented as an apocalyptic crisis. In fact, The Tsuranga Conundrum doesn’t even bother to show the Doctor’s reunion with the TARDIS. Instead, the episode closes on the crew coming together in a non-denominational prayer saluting General Cicero.

To be clear, the lack of resolution isn’t a problem of itself. “The Doctor will be reunited with the TARDIS” can be taken for granted in a story like this. The issue is the imbalance created by devoting so much of the opening act to the separation in order to justify a fairly stock Doctor Who premise, rather than simply getting on with things. The weight that the opening act places on the missing TARDIS creates an expectation of pay-off beyond a simple throwaway line at the close of the hour.

To be fair, this is been something of an issue with Chibnall’s other scripts in this season, which often struggle to offer a satisfying pay-off to the premise that has been set up. The ending of Arachnids in the U.K. was similarly abrupt, with the Doctor luring the spiders into a safe room where they might starve and eat one another while the largest spider had conveniently begun to suffocate before the final confrontation. This is to say nothing of Ilin’s convenient disappearance at the end of The Ghost Monument or the teleport away of Tim Shaw at the climax of The Woman Who Fell to Earth.

In its own weird way, this feels like a recurring issue with the season as a whole. There are points at which Chibnall seems to be writing his scripts as hyper-condensed Hartnell-era serials, cramming between-four-and-six-classic-episodes-worth of plotting into fifty minutes of television. This was most obvious with The Ghost Monument, which felt like a long lost Terry Nation script adapted for the twenty-first century, so crammed full of detail that none of it really clicked into a cohesive whole. This may also explain the recurring fascination with pseudo-science, another early Hartnell theme.

Ship shape.

The structural issues with The Tsuranga Conundrum create other problems within the episode, and contribute to the sense that this feels like several different episodes stitched together rather than something that was conceived and realised as a whole. One of the big issues with the “base under siege” narrative, and what makes them so challenging for the revival in particular, is the sense that these sorts of stories need room to breathe, which isn’t always possible within the confines of forty-five (or even fifty) minutes of television.

“Base under siege” narratives only work as well as their core premises and their guest casts. As a result, “base under siege” stories require both world-building and character development, for worlds and characters that have never been seen before and likely will never be seen again. Although Oxygen demonstrated that the revival could construct a tight and satisfying “base under siege” story in a single episode, there is a reason that so many modern “base under siege” stories are two-parters; The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit, The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People, Under the Lake and Before the Flood.

Devoting so much time to the Doctor trying to reunite with the TARDIS means taking space away from developing the guest cast and the world around them. The opening act is very tightly focused on the Doctor, literally following her through a series of corridors. Sure, the sequence introduces the guest cast, but never through the lens of these people existing as their own problems, but more in the sense that the audience should probably remember that there are other people on the ship as well.

There are other strange structural quirks within The Tsuranga Conundrum that compound this problem. The most obvious is that the character development seems strictly utilitarianism, with the episode almost cycling through the guest characters as it needs them. Characters tend to be brought into focus right before they get big scenes. As a result, the opening act spends a lot of time and energy developing the relationship between the Doctor and Astros right before it flushes Astros into space. Similarly, General Cicero only explains the particulars of her medical position right before it becomes plot-relevant.

Doctor, Doctor.

Again, there’s a lot of stopping and starting in The Tsuranga Conundrum, a lot of narrative elements that contribute to a lack of focus. There’s a strange rivalry between Cicero’s brother and her android companion, which is established early in the episode and broached at the very end, but which the episode never actually manages to pay off in any meaningful way because of the decision to separate the two characters during the action-driven climax of the episode. There’s never any sense of why Durkas finally accepts Ronan, because he doesn’t actually get to see Ronan do anything meaningfully heroic.

Similarly, the male pregnancy subplot is a very strange beat. It doesn’t misfire as badly as it might otherwise, in large part because it understands (like Arachnids in the U.K.) that one of the luxuries of a large TARDIS crew is that it can split focus across several of them. As a result, there is theoretically room for Graham and Ryan to deal with Yoss while the Doctor and Yaz try to manage the larger crisis unfolding around them. So it isn’t the existence of the subplot itself that is the issue. Indeed, it might have made more sense to have Graham spend more time with General Cicero before her heroic sacrifice.

To be fair, the male preganancy subplot isn’t the worst idea in the world, at least on paper. It serves as an interesting counterpoint to gender-switching the Doctor, by reversing another long-established gender norm. More to the point, it seems like a narrative element that would really upset the kind of people who are still complaining about the casting of Jodie Whittaker. More than it, it theoretically provides an abstract science-fiction model for talking about the concept of fatherhood in a more involved way than a lot of popular culture.

However, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. There is a reason why “male pregnancy” is such a hackneyed comedy trope, whether in films like Junior or even a Star Trek: Enterprise episode like Unexpected. These sorts of plots lend themselves to all sorts of gender essentialist clichés about conceptions of masculinity and femininity, the sort of broad sitcom writing of which Steven Moffat was (rightly or wrongly) accused during his tenure. Even leaving aside these sort of broadly drawn caricatures, a lot of the jokes are both familiar and also trite. They weren’t funny the first time, and this is very far from the first time.

Please state the nature of the medical emergency.

“Breathe deep,” Ryan urges Yoss at one point. Yoss responds, “I am breathing!” Later, Ryan instructs the father-to-be, “Don’t panic.” Yoss reacts, “I am panicking.” This is all very boilerplate. There is no energy here. Chibnall is writing the most straightforward example of a stock science-fiction trope, without little room for elaboration or innovation. There’s nothing that sparkles about the sequence. It’s debatable about whether Davies or Moffat would have written a plot about male pregnancy as comedy, but it seems safe to assume that their dialogue would have at least been memorable.

Of course, Yoss serves an important thematic purpose of the larger course of the season. Ryan’s character arc seems to be driven by his relationship to a long-absent father. In The Woman Who Fell to Earth, his father neglected to attend Grace’s funeral. In The Tsuranga Conundrum, it is revealed that Ryan’s father didn’t even attend the funeral of Ryan’s mother. That absence is a meaningful part of Ryan’s life, something that had a profound impact on his development as a young man. It is something that the series wants to develop and explore.

As such, Yoss serves as a prism through which the series can explore and develop this idea, by forcing Ryan to talk to Yaz about his absent father in the same way that the letter in Arachnids in the U.K. forced him to talk to Graham about it. It is not subtle, but Doctor Who rarely is. After all, the first season of the series forced Rose to confront the trauma of the loss of her father through an apocalyptic paradox adventure in Father’s Day. There is nothing wrong with telling a story about Ryan’s strained relationship to his father through a science-fiction allegory.

The issue is positioning it within the larger plot of The Tsuranga Conundrum. It is a somewhat awkward inclusion. It is a necessary character beat in terms of the overall arc of the season, but it does not fit readily with the larger story being told. While the hospital ship setting provides context for the discussion of fatherhood, it has absolutely no relationship to the story being told involving the Pting. There is no sense that these two narrative threads are different facets of the same story in the way that the apocalyptic universe-consuming time travel paradox and Rose’s need to make peace with her father in Father’s Day.

Yaz, sir!

Along with the addition of the writers’ room and the ditching of the episodic teasers, creative decisions like this suggest the Netflixification of Doctor Who. It doesn’t really matter that Ryan’s issues with his father have no real bearing on this particular plot and including them within this episode takes focus away from the actual story being told in an episode that already suffers from a lack of narrative real estate. Instead, these character beats have to go somewhere in the middle of the season, and the background of the fifth episode is as good a place as any.

As a result of all these competing demands from space that seem to exist in service of larger concerns related to the episode’s genre and the season arc, there’s very little room left within The Tsuranga Conundrum for the actual story. To be fair, the plot of The Tsuranga Conundrum is not particularly complicated. There is a monster on the ship that is eating everything, and there is a self-destruct planted that will destroy the ship if it veers off-course. In a neat bit of plotting, these two elements handily cancel one another out when the Doctor feeds the bomb to the Pting and defuses two problems in one fell swoop.

Indeed, one of the most frustrating aspects of The Tsuranga Conundrum is how it reduces its setting to little more than a collection of exposition and background detail rather than anything more vibrant or dynamic. The Tsuranga Conundrum is a story about healthcare, and stories about healthcare are inherently political. After all, healthcare is a hot button political issue around the world, tying into issues of class and wealth in a modern society. They are a reliable source of science-fiction allegory, even in a Star Trek: Voyager episode like Critical Care.

Doctor Who has a history of telling these sorts of stories. Davies focused on healthcare in New Earth, for example. More than that, Steven Moffat returned time and again to the idea of healthcare systems run amok when any humanity was stripped out of them during his early work on the series and his tenure as showrunner; The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances, The Curse of the Black Spot, World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls. While some of these stories were more or less political than others, all of them grappled with the idea of healthcare as a field that merited exploration.

Top of the heap.

In contrast, The Tsuranga Conundrum treats the eponymous hospital ship as a backdrop rather than as a focal point. There’s never any exploration of whether General Cicero is getting better treatment of Yoss, never any question of how exactly the ship determined that the Doctor and her companions were “worth” saving. The fact that the ship is heading away from Seffilun is an issue for the Doctor, but Astros is quite correct that the Doctor would be “selfish” to turn the ship around for her own ends.

There are perhaps hints of commentary in the recurring implication that the staff manning the ship have no actual input into the operation of the vessel and that the ship is rigged with a self-destruct mechanism if it veers off-course. However, these are presented as plot complications rather than any commentary on the inhumanity of certain healthcare systems more preoccupied with procedure than with practical experience. In fact, the ship actually seems to be working pretty well on its own terms until the Pting arrives.

It’s telling that the monster running amok on the ship doesn’t tie into the idea of hospital ship specifically. It is not a threat that is specific to this basic premise. It is not a “siege” that is uniquely suited to this particular “base.” The Pting could just as easily be menacing a pleasure cruise or a prison ship or a troop convoy. There’s nothing about the hospital that makes it especially suited to the Pting on a level of plot or theme. In fact, it seems like the ship is a hospital ship just so the episode can have the subplot with Ryan and Yoss.

Following on from the overtly and broadly political Arachnids in the U.K., this is a disappointment. After all, healthcare is a hot button issue in the midterms taking place in the United States at the moment. In the United Kingdom, the N.H.S. is potentially at risk as a result of Brexit. There is plenty of room for a story that is about healthcare instead of simply being a story that uses healthcare as a backdrop to tell a much more generic story and to bring in a number of outside elements that are necessary for the clockwork mechanics of the season as a whole.

Keeping her Whit(taker)s about her.

Instead of using science-fiction as allegory, The Tsuranga Conundrum has a weird fetish for pseudo-science and a strange investment in the fictional mechanics of its world. There is a lot of attention paid, for example, to General Cicero’s case of “pilot’s heart”, which is caused by a “surge of adrenaline” and is regulated by “adrenaline blockers.” Which is all fine, but has nothing to do with anything. There is no comparable condition. There is no big metaphor here. There is just a lot of exposition about something that turns into a cheap emotional hook when General Cicero sacrifices herself to save the ship.

Similarly, the Doctor gets a big speech about the wonders of the sixty-seventh century towards the climax of the episode. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. Indeed, it might make for a nice reassuring moment of humanism, along the lines of the Fourth Doctor’s observation that mankind is “indomitable” in The Ark in Space, a reassurance to the audience that mankind can survive everything. Of course, these characters are not human, but the point stands. There is a way to have a speech about the future that emphasises the optimism and hope of a stable and peaceful galactic future.

In contrast, the Doctor delivers a big and meaningful speech that largely consists of techno-babble nonsense. “The particle accelerator smashes the atoms together,” she explains, “like a little anti-matter factory, to produce positrons, which are then stored very carefully inside electric and magnetic fields. The positrons interact with the fuel materials to produce heat, which produces thrust. It’s pretty old school, this one. It’s beautiful. Anti-matter powering the movement of matter. Bringing positrons into existence to move other forms of life across space. I love it! Conceptually and actually.”

This all sounds very nice, but what does it actually mean? Most audience members are unlikely to ever have their own particle accelerators, nor to travel and ship powered by them. Anti-matter is highly unlikely to ever be a factor in the day-to-day lives of anybody watching The Tsuranga Conundrum. So what does any of that actually mean, outside of Jodie Whittaker’s very spirited delivery? If this is a speech about the capacity of science to lift people out of darkness, perhaps as a counterpoint to the scientific horrors of The Ghost Monument, why not just actually say that?

There are moments when The Tsuranga Conundrum seems interested in science-fiction plotting and dialogue for nothing more than the sake of science-fiction plotting and dialogue. This is perhaps a welcome change in emphasis for fans alienated by the lyricism and poetry of the Moffat era with fairy tale sentiments like “time travel has always been possible in dreams”, but it also seems like a potentially dangerous avenue of development. The kinds of fans who react will to dialogue about the mechanics of “anti-matter” are not casual viewers, and it is important not to alienate that broad audience with this fetishism.

After all, Doctor Who ran into a great deal of trouble under the stewardship of Eric Saward for fixating on this sort of storytelling, coupled with a grim and gritty aesthetic. It was an approach to Doctor Who that alienated whatever remained of the audience, and which helped to turn the BBC against the series. The Tsuranga Conundrum feels just a little bit Sawardian in its approach, opening with the characters rummaging through a gigantic rubbish dump and then transitioning to an archetypal science-fiction setting. With its pale-skinned android and sleek interior design, the Tsuranga could be the Enterprise.

Juxtaposed with this, the Pting itself is an interesting contrast. It is a delightfully silly monster for such a seemingly gritty setting. It is a ridiculously cute threat to the crew, evoking science-fiction staples like the Adipose from Partners in Crime or Nibbler from Futurama or Stitch from Lilo and Stitch. In contrast to the relatively straight surroundings and high stakes, there’s something endearingly goofy about the insatiable koala that is gradually munching its way through the ship. Although the special effects budget was likely stretched by the concept already, The Tsuranga Conundrum arguably needs more the Pting.

Of course, like the TARDIS getting left behind or like General Cicero’s “pilot’s heart”, there is something very utilitarian about the internal logic of the Pting. The audience are told at one point that “while strictly non-carnivorous, they devour all non-organic material.” In other words, the Pting functions exactly as the plot needs it to function in order to provide exactly the right amount of threat. It doesn’t eat the crew, because that would create a tension with its cuteness even beyond inadvertently trying to kill them by eating their ship. However, it can eat the ship, because the plot requires some tension.

At the same time, there is something interesting in the care that The Tsuranga Conundrum takes not to vilify the Pting. It is a monster, but it is not monstrous. It is acting in accordance with its nature, doing what it needs to do in order to survive. “Every living thing, from the tiniest to the largest, wants something,” the Doctor explains at one point. “Food, survival, peace.” The episode makes a point to release the Pting into space without killing it. The creature is allowed to fill the narrative role of the monster without being presented as completely evil.

This is perhaps a more important point to emphasis in a modern “base under siege” story. After all, what is the “base under siege” narrative but the most fundamental story of an “in” group and an “out” group caught in an existential struggle, a bunch of people (usually humans or human-looking) menaced by a monstrous alien force? Sure, it is easy enough to point to exceptions or to examples where the threat is so absurd that it doesn’t track. However, the result is cumulative. “Base under siege” stories are tales of “us” versus “them.”

These are highly charged narratives at this moment in time, when issues like immigration are a source of incredible global tension. It would be very easy for a “base under siege” to play like U.K.I.P. propaganda in the era of Brexit, a story about how the country is itself a “base under siege” from sinister outside forces. This is part of what makes episodes like The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit or The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People such interesting spins on the basic premise; the base under siege by either a religious force or by clones of the people inside the base.

The Tsuranga Conundrum is canny enough to avoid presenting the Pting as something monstrous or horrific, instead suggesting that it is simply acting in accordance with its nature. It’s a decision that feels much more relevant to constructing a “base under siege” story in late 2018 than answering the same old questions about why the Doctor doesn’t just take everybody home in the TARDIS.

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2 Responses

  1. As regards this paragraph —

    “The Tsuranga Conundrum feels like a script that went through several passes inside a writers’ room, with each writer working on each draft emphasising a different aspect of the story to the point that whatever had originally been the central focus of the episode has been lost in the process. This would be worrying enough of itself, but The Tsuranga Conundrum is very pointedly not the product of a writers’ room. It is a script credited to a single writer, the head writer on the series. The Tsuranga Conundrum is a Chris Chibnall script that feels like it has passed through several different hands before hitting the screen.”

    — it’s worth noting that there was actually another writer who worked on this and as part of the DW writers’ room, before leaving to work on something else: Welsh playwright Tim Price, who Chibnall credits in DWM as creating (and naming!) the Pting, which he then wrote some of the episode around. If you look at the end credits of this episode, you will also see that it says “PTING CREATED BY TIM PRICE.”

    Just a fun heads-up!

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