Doctor Who is a big fan of the base-under-siege story and it’s a format that generally works for the show. Trap all of your characters in one location and have them being hunted by a monster. It’s a pretty easy way at building tension and it often leads to a lot of interesting character moments as the main cast and the guest cast try to deal with whatever the threat is. The Tsuranga Conundrum is one such story. The major problem is that the monster terrorizing said base-under-siege isn’t particularly threatening. (Spoilers for The Tsuranga Conundrum)
Episode 1105: The Tsuranga Conundrum (written by Chris Chibnall and directed by Jennifer Perrott)
Injured and stranded in the wilds of a far-flung galaxy, the Doctor, 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.
So far, most of the episodes that Chris Chibnall has written completely on his own have not been super stellar. This one, still, isn’t super stellar. On the bright side, it is a better episode than The Ghost Monument was, at least. It features an ending that actually feels satisfying and the “villain” has a pretty understandable and engaging motivation for what it’s doing. The setting is really interesting and the acting and score are top-notch. There’s a bit less character development than in previous episodes, but there are still a few scenes with some really good character stuff (particularly for the Doctor and, later on in the episode, for Ryan). The pacing and tension are both fairly strong and it’s a very visually interesting episode. The plot plays out like your standard base-under-siege story: Team TARDIS gets trapped in a base (this time a medical spaceship that’s rescued them from a sonic mine explosion) that soon gets invaded by an alien threat who slowly comes after the rest of the crew. There are some twists on the formula and it’s all wrapped up in a fairly interesting way, but it’s still a base-under-siege story. With so many elements of this episode completely working, why is the episode not as great as it should be? Ultimately, it comes down to a mixture of a plot that ends up not being as interesting as it should be and a “villain” with a weird design. In previous weeks, the villains have been a let down because they haven’t been developed well enough, but in this episode, the “villain” – if you can call a creature who is only the antagonist because it’s doing what’s in its nature to do – is a let down because of its design.
Meet the Pting: one of the deadliest creatures the universe has ever seen. The only problem is that it looks extremely unthreatening. This kind of design (mostly) worked for the Adipose because they weren’t supposed to be threatening; the only reason they were threatening was because of the way they were being created. Here, the Pting are meant to be threatening. They’re nearly unstoppable, completely deadly to the touch, and don’t seem to have any discernible desire or goal at the beginning of the episode (though it’s later revealed that they’re just interested in consuming the most energy they can). Both the audience and the characters are supposed to be afraid of this thing, yet it’s only threatening when it roars (and even then, it’s more humorous than threatening as this large sound is coming out of such a tiny body). The episode doesn’t seem to know what to do with the Pting either. They set it up as a threat that’s not the typical base-under-siege threat; the monster isn’t actually interested in harming the people. It will if it has to, but it just wants to consume energy. But that’s as far as the episode takes it. There’s no commentary on the idea of creatures doing what comes naturally to them and not actually being evil. The Doctor just focuses on getting rid of it and shows no sympathy for it at all, even after she realizes it’s not trying to harm them. Making the creature not directly trying to harm the characters was an interesting idea, but it never goes anywhere. The creature is offscreen for most of the episode and so we never spend enough time with it to really believe it’s much of a threat, even if it’s unintentionally a threat. It’s just sorta there when the episode wants it to be and then discarded when it wants to focus on other things. The other problem with the Pting is that you never actually buy that this creature is there. It’s clearly a CGI creation and it looks like one. While the SFX have, in general, been massively improved in this season of Doctor Who, the CGI on the Pting doesn’t look any better than the CGI on the Adipose did ten years ago. Now, I’m all for the idea that things aren’t always as they appear, and sometimes the cutest, nicest looking thing isn’t so cute or nice, but it’s really hard to feel scared by something that looks less threatening than my cat. And the episode itself never really comments on the fact that this threat is so non-threatening looking. Having this design for the alien could have worked if any single character commented on how this monster doesn’t look at all threatening. Just a simple gag where somebody is like “Oh, you’re not so scary, are you?” and then having the Pting attack would have sufficed. But as it is, the characters all immediately treat this thing with fear like it’s some giant, scary threat and it’s hard to buy because you never quite feel like the actors buy it either. At no point did the show ever convince me to be scared of the Pting; instead, I honestly want it as a pet.
The other major problem is the plot and the script. The plot never quite goes much of anywhere and, even with the slight twist on the base-under-siege formula, the episode never quite takes flight. It’s serviceable but never great. Even aside from the issues related to the alien, the episode’s plot just never quite goes anywhere. It can’t decide if it wants to be about the alien threat or about fatherhood or about familial issues. The biggest problem, from a writing standpoint, was that there were too many characters and not enough time to do justice to all of them. A lot of time is spent on a subplot involving a pregnant alien man, Yoss Inkle (Jack Shalloo) and that subplot is only there to help push Ryan’s ongoing character arc involving his father forward. But otherwise, there’s really no use for it. I feel like the episode could have accomplished that goal without including this entire subplot, thereby freeing up valuable time that could have been spent developing either Ryan, Yaz, or Graham some more or developing any of the other guest characters – particularly the pilot, Eve Cicero (Suzanne Packer), or her brother, Durkas (Ben Bailey-Smith ) – or the Pting. As written, Eve and Durkas are very two-dimensional characters. Eve has some kind of illness that she’s hiding from her brother and her brother is annoyed about it and then by the end of the episode, they’ve made amends with each other. There isn’t enough time spent with them to make this storyline quite land. But on the flip side, there are some great moments of character development. Early on, the Doctor is forced to confront her selfish streak as she’s putting the lives of everyone onboard the ship at risk due to her desire to get back to her TARDIS. It’s a nice moment and it’s always good to see the Doctor have to deal with their actions. Later on, the ongoing story arc between Ryan and his dad gets furthered some as he talks to Yaz about his dad and, later, as he deals with Yoss’s nervousness about becoming a father. Both of these scenes are nice and I do enjoy a lot of what Chibnall seems to be doing with Ryan this season. I wish there were some more scenes like that for Yaz, who is still the most underdeveloped character out of our four leads. But it looks like next week’s episode might focus more on her again, so I’m pumped for that.
All in all, The Tsuranga Conundrum is a bit of a mixed episode for me. Much of it works on paper, but the execution is flawed. There are some great ideas, but none of them go much of anywhere. There seems to be a theme of fatherhood, but the main subplot that deals with it feels totally unconnected from the rest of the episode and the episode never seems to know what to do with the alien threat. The rest of the plot feels a bit disjointed; they do a good job with building up the tension, but there’s just too much going on in the episode that doesn’t quite feel like it all connects. While, unlike the last episode, the resolution to this story actually worked and felt dramatically satisfying, the episode as a whole still didn’t quite land. Much of this is due to the fact that the overly cutesy design of the alien threat for this episode makes it hard to take seriously and the fact that none of the characters remark, or even seem to notice, how completely unthreatening it looks (and the actors’ inability to completely sell the creature’s danger) makes the alien fall flat. Otherwise, it’s mostly a fine episode. The plot is a bit weak and never quite goes much of anywhere and it could do with a couple less side characters, but it’s mostly fine. There are some good character moments, a really visually interesting set that’s well utilized, some great pacing and tension, and a generally good use of the base-under-siege format. I just wish the alien was actually even a little scary. I mean, it’s a bad thing when the first time the alien makes its scary noise onscreen, I laugh out loud. The design just didn’t work. But it’s otherwise a perfectly okay episode. It’s nothing special and the only reason this episode will be remembered in a few years are for reasons that it shouldn’t be proud of (namely the ridiculous alien design and the male pregnancy subplot that’s played solely for laughs). I still enjoyed it more than The Ghost Monument and about the same as Arachnids in the UK (just for different reasons), so at least there’s that.
3.5 out of 5 wands