“On the plus side, I now feel very well informed.”
Of all the episodes of Chris Chibnall’s newly re-vamped Doctor Who, it’s the latest episode – the Chibnall penned ‘The Tsuranga Conundrum’ – that best highlights the strengths and weaknesses he has as a showrunner and writer. On one hand, the episode has a killer hook. The Doctor and the gang wake up on a space ambulance set to explode at any moment while being terrorised by an indestructible, matter devouring alien. And the side characters are great too, especially the super famous space pilot and her android ward. But then you notice the bad stuff. An over-reliance on exposition for one. Not to mention the fact that the main cast is sidelined for the more interesting side characters. And perhaps Chibnall’s biggest flaw of all; an inability to wrap things up in a satisfying way.
So ‘The Tsuranga Conundrum’ starts well enough. The Doctor, Graham, Yaz, and Ryan wake up on strange Red Cross style aid ship after a nasty encounter with a sonic mine. The designs of the ship are pretty bland but the concept is enough to hold your interest. The ship has two medics, the inexperiences Mabli (played by Lois Chimimba) and the wooden Astos (played by Brett Goldstein). Wooden acting has plagued Who for as long as I’ve been watching and it’s charming, most of the time. But as the production quality of the show has improved over the years, I guess I’d sort of expected the acting quality to do the same. Ryan (Tosin Cole) is still noticeable for this but even the usually great Yaz (Mandipp Gill) has a couple of clunkers this episode. I really like their characters, however, which saves them most of the time. But boy was I glad when Astos kicked the bucket. Bradley Walsh is fantastic once again, of course, and it almost goes without saying that Jodie Whittaker is still absolutely brilliant as the Doctor.
The other supporting characters are pretty great, one of Chibnall’s strengths. They have interesting backstories and have cool shit going on like Suzanne Packer’s super-space pilot Eve Cicero and her bad case of “pilot’s heart”. Or her android pal, Ronan (David Shields). It’s just that Chibnall doesn’t always know what to do with these interesting characters once he’s created them. Eve just dies and Ronan later mentions that he’ll probably be decommissioned now. No one steps in to do anything, not even Eve’s brother Durkas (an underused Doc Brown). Surely Chibnall could have written that Durkas takes his late sister’s android as his own pal and they go and have adventures around the galaxy. And Durkas being a last-minute hero, filling his sister’s boots, is never mentioned again. There’s not much sense that the world and characters he creates exist past the end of the episode. And boy does Chib’s love his exposition. The sequence about CERN and anti-matter felt more like a science lesson than an episode of Doctor Who. Having said this, however, I do quite enjoy these moments. Whittaker conveys a genuine sense of wonder and I was honestly interested in learning about this stuff. But perhaps Chibnall balance the scales between exposition and well-written characters because right now one is winning.
The ending of the episode, while rushed and slightly contrived, was a great scene. The space funeral poem was cool and it felt like proper sci-fi. I appreciate how Chibnall weaves in future plotlines from this point too. Ryan’s Dad plotline is well handled and it will feel all the more rewarding when he inevitably shows up and we’re aware of the history between the two of them. The male pregnancy plotline was a surprisingly great vehicle for this plot and was so much less annoying than I expected. In fact, despite it being a clear B plot, it was probably my favourite part of the episode. Although I don’t see what Chibnall has against people not wanting kids. If Yoss (Jack Shalloo) didn’t want kids then that should have been shown as ok, kids aren’t for everyone. Bit regressive of the usually progressive Who. The monster this episode was fun too and was some fantastic CG from the usual budget conscious BBC. It’s a shame the ship looked like a hundred others from the show’s history but, for the most part, this was a good looking episode. So a pretty good episode in a very good season. The strongest point of this season though has been the historically set Rosa. Will the show recapture this magic with next weeks awesome sounding and looking ‘Demons of the Punjab’?