Doctor Who – Season 11 Episode 5
“The Tsuranga Conundrum”
Doctor Who delivers an outer space adventure when a nigh indestructible energy consuming creature threatens a medical ship.
It can’t be said that this season hasn’t delivered variety in its storytelling. Each episode has been entirely different from the last and presented new challenges for Team TARDIS. For this episode the writers return to familiar territory for Doctor Who by delivering what basically amounts to a base under siege story that plays out in a single location with a ticking clock increasing the tension.
There’s a lot going on in this episode which is both an advantage and a disadvantage. More plots means there’s more for the companions to do but it also means that there’s a lack of focus to the storytelling. The main threat is supposed to be the appearance of a ravenous creature called a P’Ting but it never quite manages to feel as dangerous as it needs to. This is a combination of the creature being entirely CGI which automatically limits its appearances and the design being overly cutesy which makes it difficult to take seriously. Characters talk about how dangerous it is but the actual visual evidence is limited so it falls a bit flat.
In some ways that’s sort of the point. The P’Ting has a reputation for being a dangerous and fearsome creature though the reality is far different as it isn’t motivated by a desire to cause chaos. It’s baseline motivation is to absorb as much energy as possible because that’s what it needs to survive. It isn’t until the Doctor observes one up close that she comes to realise this which in turn helps her figure out how to stop it. In true Doctor tradition she doesn’t want to hurt the P’Ting but she does want to send it on its way so that it can no longer be a danger to them.
She does so by encouraging it to eat a powerful explosive which has the added benefit of saving the ship from being destroyed as well as giving the creature enough food to sustain it for a long time. It’s very much a win-win situation and a clever way of solving a problem without condemning an innocent creature to death. Once again this show promotes an attitude of understanding rather than passing judgement.
The abundance of subplots also prevents the P’Ting problem from gaining the traction that it really needs in order to make the threat level feel urgent. One of these subplots is a male alien named Yoss (Jack Shalloo) who is about to give birth. This mainly exists to help Ryan contextualise his own issues with his father and flesh him out more by having him talk about the death of his mother. Yoss is a reluctant father who doesn’t feel up to the challenge and his fear helps Ryan see how his own father might have felt particularly after the loss of Ryan’s mother. He admits to Yaz that he hasn’t always acted at his best when dealing with his father and starts to understand that he has some part to play in the current state of that relationship. Dealing with this also makes for another well played bonding moment between Ryan and Graham who acts almost fatherly in the way he lends his support. This continues to be a strong and engaging connection that progresses in every episode.
There is pay-off to what Ryan learns when Yoss doubts himself at a crucial moment and Ryan reassures him that being a father is something that he is more than capable of because he’s a good man and his concern has its roots in not wanting to do the wrong thing by his child. This helps dray parallels for Ryan who starts to realise that his own father might have felt the same way though there is a notable difference in how Yoss is choosing to approach the relationship with his own son. He acknowledges that he will make mistakes and sees that as part of learning. The male pregnancy plot could have been played for laughs but instead it offers important insight into Ryan as a character.
Less successful is the legendary pilot Eve Cicero (Suzanne Packer) who feels like a largely extraneous addition to the narrative because what she accomplishes could have easily been done by someone else to make for a much neater story. The attempt to explore the burden of a legendary reputation was interesting in theory but didn’t really land because it was buried under everything else that was going on and was only periodically raised so that her heroic sacrifice would have more impact. It doesn’t work because it’s entirely predictable right down to her defiant declaration that she was going to survive being the thing that secured her fate. The funeral service was really poetic and effective though which does redeem it somewhat though not entirely.
Eve’s companions, Ronan (David Shields) and Durkas (Ben Bailey-Smith) also feel largely pointless because they are connected to Eve’s problematic characterisation. Ronan serves no purpose at all beyond getting a hold of adrenalin blockers to help Eve deal with her emotions. The same thing could have been accomplished through Eve herself rather than wasting time with another character. Him being an android means that he can touch the P’Ting but Yaz with a medical blanket accomplishes the same thing so once again he’s pointless. Durkas is only in service of the ship eventually needing a pilot. It was obvious early on that he would end up flying the ship because Eve always wanted him to rise to his potential but there’s no real weight to their connection because there’s no time to explore it.
Early on the episode delivers some really strong material. The sonic mine followed by the disorientation as Team TARDIS wake up on the medical ship is really well done. The frantic of not knowing where they are, what the situation is or how to get out of it works brilliantly and the release of information is both organic and effective. Most notable is that the Doctor as a fallible being is directly addressed. She wanders around the ship on the assumption that everyone aboard has to drop what they’re doing so that she can get back to the TARDIS. Astos (Brett Goldstein) won’t stand for the way she’s acting and keeps questioning her as she accesses parts of the ship he feels that she has no business being. Eventually he’s able to get her to realise that there are people on the ship with more pressing needs than her and she will have to settle down or face consequences.
Jodie Whittaker plays this flawlessly with a touch of the Capaldi era stubbornness in her performance before coming to the realisation that she’s being unreasonable and that there are concerns beyond hers to address. Astos may not have a lot of screen time but there’s really good chemistry between Brett Goldstein and Jodie Whittaker in the moments they do share and Astos comes across as a fully rounded character in his brief appearance. His death does successfully raise the stakes and feels significant because of the strong work done to establish who he is.
As a contrast Mabli is a solid addition though the episode doesn’t do enough with her after Astos’ death other than have the Doctor deliver a pep talk about seeing the situation as she would any other medical problem. Her inexperience and reliance on Astos could have been a really strong through line but as with everything else it becomes muddled by how busy the episode is in terms of competing plot lines.
The strongest moment of the episode was the Doctor talking about the anti-matter generator and what it represents. Yaz has the perspective of particle accelerators being huge and expensive but the Doctor helps her see the miniaturised version onboard the ship as an example of progress and the Human desire to enable themselves to explore the universe. It promotes a positive attitude to growing as a species and hope for a better future.
An uneven episode that delivers some engaging character beats and furthers the main relationships well enough but fails to successfully juggle too many plot lines. One of the biggest problems is that there are too many characters to give any of them enough development. Most of them bring something interesting to the table but there just isn’t enough time in the episode for each of them to come into their own. The P’Ting as a threat both works and doesn’t. Being fully CGI limits its appearances and the cutesy design means that it can’t live up to the threat value it’s supposed to represent. In some ways that’s the point though it gets lost among the other stories vying for attention. There are some really good development points for Ryan that further deepens his relationship with Graham and the early part of the episode does a great job of building the mystery of the situation as well as pointing out the Doctor’s failings.
- the Doctor acknowledging her failings
- a positive speech about progress
- the development of Ryan
- the effective introduction of the medical ship and the situation
- the P’Ting not registering as the threat that it needs to be
- too many characters and subplots
- some predictable plotting
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