doctor who the tsuranga conundrum review

All this season, I’ve felt like Chris Chibnall’s era of Doctor Who is trying to get on its feet, testing out new dynamics and new baddies while enthusiastically (maybe a little too enthusiastically) proving that this is the sci-fi show you know and love. “The Tsuranga Conundrum,” the Chibnall-penned fifth episode of the 11th season, is the epitome of that: leaning back on a familiar narrative while introducing whole new worlds and universes in a show that has prided itself for its kind of insular mythology. And while I’m happy for Doctor Who to leave the Daleks and the Weeping Angels be for now, I can’t help but feel a little wistful for the recognizable elements that the Chibnall era is so quick to shed.

It’s a good thing then that Jodie Whittaker gives her most delightful turn yet as the 13th Doctor in “The Tsuranga Conundrum.” Where Doctor Who is starting to feel progressively unfamiliar, Whittaker’s Doctor is steadily becoming that familiar friend who I can’t wait to hang out with each week. My ranking of favorite Doctors has already been thrown into chaos.

Scrapping for a Fight

Searching for some obscure piece of tech in a giant space junkyard, the Doctor and co. stumble upon a sonic mine that blasts all four of them unconscious. The Doctor, Graham, Ryan, and Yaz wake up in a medical bay where two medics inform them they they’re in Tsuranga. Still woozy and injured, the Doctor rushes out of the bay, looking for the exit to return to her TARDIS — which is suddenly in huge danger of being nabbed again on the scavenger planet — only to realize that Tsuranga is not a building, but a spaceship. One ship in a fleet of medical ships, in fact, which had scooped up Team TARDIS along with two other patients: One a decorated general, Eve Cicero (Suzanne Packer), the other a pregnant male alien, Yoss (Jack Shalloo). But this being Doctor Who, it’s not long before the entire group is thrown in danger with the attack of an alien — a cutesy energy-eating creature with more than a passing resemblance to Disney’s Stitch — which damages the ship’s system and threatens to devour the ship from under them. The rest of the episode is (literally) a ticking time bomb until the ship is destroyed by either the alien or the Tsuranga’s home planet, which is prepared to destroy any potential threats to its patients.

It’s a familiar sci-fi “base under siege” story that Doctor Who has visited a few times (Chibnall even did an iteration of it in his very first Doctor Who episode, “42”), but “The Tsuranga Conundrum” is less a horror-tinged Alien riff than it is a lighthearted suspense story. Well, tonally it’s not quite lighthearted, but how can you not be when you have an alien as cute as the Pting?

The Stitches Keep Unraveling

Daleks? Nah. Cyberman? Never heard of ’em. Meet the Pting, this episode’s Big Bad who looks like he crossed over from Disney’s Lilo and Stitch and is maybe not so big. A creature that only feeds on non-organic matter, the Pting is perhaps the most stereotypically alien monster we’ve had on Doctor Who — giant eyes, antennaes, and all. I almost laughed at how much this diminutive little guy looks like a satire of aliens, but then I remembered that most Doctor Who aliens are just people with spiky prosthetics glued to their faces. But still, this adorable little creature (who will surely be the star of a new line of Doctor Who plushes) poses enough of a threat to the Tsuranga to get the Doctor to spring into action. And it’s a joy to see.

The Doctor has taken kind of a backseat lately to her companions, playing more the part of the walking exposition mechanism than a real person. Chibnall is very determined to establish the companions as our gateway to this world and as the true main characters of this series, and that’s fine — it’s again a nod to the classic era of Doctor Who, and it’s a smart choice after nearly a decade of the Doctor’s near-deific status. But after four episodes I was frustrated to not really know who this Doctor is, apart from Whittaker’s innate ebullience. She was like a kind veterinarian the last episode, and in the one before that, an efficient team leader. But in “The Tsuranga Conundrum,” we get a peek at the Doctor’s flaws and at the rapid-fire charm that Whittaker can deliver when she’s in her element.

The Doctor strikes up an immediate rapport with the lead medical attendant, Astos (Brett Goldstein) in an easy way that we haven’t really seen with her up until now, but is probably familiar to Doctor Who fans. That rapid exchange of technobabble, that look of respect and comprehension that is shared — it’s silly, Doctor Who fun, and I love it every time. Whittaker shines when she’s paired with another capable character who she doesn’t have to exposit to (it happens later with General Eve Cicero too), the banter is more entertaining and less laborious. Maybe it’s because she’s separated from Team TARDIS who, while great, have taken pains to establish her as the woman in charge, but here we understand immediately: the 13th Doctor is the boss.

A Classic Conundrum, But That’s Okay

I’m going to talk about Jodie Whittaker’s face. It’s a wonderful face, always shifting, often alight with admiration and awe, and always offering us an open window into the Doctor’s thought process. Her face when she has her Eureka moment is a delight to behold, and comprises the majority of the fun in this mostly okay episode (though I guess the pregnant guy delivers a few chuckles). Her face is what helps this episode save face, as Chibnall gives in to some of his worst writerly tendencies.

Before he became showrunner for Doctor Who, Chibnall had written several episodes of Doctor Who, all of which had at least one thing in common: there were too many damn twists. Chibnall loves layering on the stakes, usually in the form of a time limit and several exacerbating conflicts that don’t amount to anything. In the case of “The Tsuranga Conundrum” we have two ticking time bombs (the Pting and the home planet Resus One), a dying general clashing with her brother, and a pregnant dude who goes into labor at the absolute worst time. But despite the extraneous added conflicts, “The Tsuranga Conundrum” is an all-around enjoyable episode that places importance on the tender character moments. Chibnall impressively balances rich backstories for all the supporting characters, giving the short-lived Astos a heroic death, delving into medic Mabli’s (Lois Chimimba) insecurities, and fleshing out a family drama between the dying General Eve Cicero and her brother Durkas (Doc Brown). Even the clone (David Shields) gets a little sympathy. As for Team TARDIS, Ryan is at the forefront again this week, as witnessing Yoss’s struggle with becoming a dad opens Ryan’s open wound left by his own father’s abandonment. There’s a high death count in this episode, but “The Tsuranga Conundrum” somehow leaves you feeling better off at the end. It all boils down to the Doctor’s explanation to Mabli of what kind of doctor she is: of medicine, science, engineering, candy floss, LEGO, philosophy, music, problems, people. “Mostly hope,” she says.

Tidbits in Time and Space

  • The Doctor has apparently “seen all 900 casts” of Hamilton, which to be honest, I would also do if I had a time machine.
  • The Doctor’s “I really need to visit the 67th century more” feels like the show’s sly way of explaining why we don’t know any of the aliens or planets this episode.
  • Doctor Who Easter Egg: On the console when the computer identifies the Pting, you can spot a few old Who aliens, including the Ood, the Cyberman, the Weeping Angels, and a Slitheen.
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