Monday 5 November 2018

Reviews in Time & Space: Doctor Who 11x05: The Tsuranga Conundrum

Doctor Who 11x05 - The Tsuranga Conundrum

Doctor Who series 11 has officially reached the halfway point, and for this week's episode the franchise is getting back to basics a bit. There's a spaceship, there's an alien, and there are also plenty of long corridors to be running down. The Tsuranga Conundrum is the fifth episode of the series, once again written by showrunner Chris Chibnall and directed by Jennifer Perrott. With "Team TARDIS" properly in place since the events of Arachnids in the UK, it's time for the adventures in space in time to truly begin.

Following an explosive mishap on a junkyard planet, the Doctor and friends find themselves aboard the Tsuranga – a medical spaceship on course to the space station Resus One. Waking up four days after they were initially back, the team have no choice but to remain onboard for the time being and see the Tsuranga's journey out to the end.

However when an alien creature manages to get on board, it's a race against time to both identify and stop it before it's too late. Either the creature will get to them, or the ship will be remotely destroyed if the space station detects it on board.

Now that we're exactly halfway into this series of Doctor Who certain patterns certain patterns are beginning to emerge, or more precisely these patterns are now cementing themselves. The five episodes that have aired so far have all had one thing in common when it comes to story – simplicity. All of them have worked off of fairly stock plotlines with next to nothing in the way of surprises, and instead have chosen to leave an impression via the continued development of Team TARDIS or (to a much lesser extent) the characterisation of the guest cast. With The Tsuranga Conundrum it's the age of story of an alien running amok on a spaceship – something that Doctor Who isn't exactly a stranger to. It's a template that the show has done so many times than an episode really needs to do something unique if it has any chance of being memorable, and in this case The Tsuranga Conundrum barely delivers. The story arcs of the guest cast are all very by the numbers and predictable, with the kind of comedy many would have derided had it been Russel T Davies delivering it. A similar thing could be said for the P’Ting, the gremlin-like alien that’s the cause of all of the ship’s problems. A woefully unimpressive bit of CGI that might catch the attention of child viewers for the duration of the episode, but will almost certainly have been forgotten by next week. Proper monsters already seem somewhat scarce in this series of Doctor Who, so another week with something forgettable isn’t doing it any favours.

Is this the effect of Chris Chibnall having such a hands-on approach to the series? So far the man has written four of the five episodes aired, and the fifth he had a co-writer credit. Despite all these episodes having very different storylines, the approach in them all feels exactly the same and it’s really beginning to show. Given that it’s his first series as showrunner it’s only natural Chibnall would have a big part in its structuring, but when the same issues keep cropping up week after week it highlights the importance of switching the writers up on a regular basis. Thankfully this is actually the end of Chibnall’s writing streak until the finale now, so hopefully those much needed changes will be coming in full force next week.

Unfortunately there isn't a whole lot in the way of development for the main cast either. It's quite interesting that the story comes about due to another failing of the 13th Doctor (the inability to stop the sonic mine from detonating) and she receives a nice dose of humility when reminded that a ship "full" of patients (with only two seen onboard the term is used very loosely) shouldn't just stop because she says so, but following that she only really seems to be there to piece things together and say something clever every now and again. After repeated incarnations where the Doctor is usually the smartest person in the room to an arrogant degree the approach Chibnall is taking with the 13th Doctor is very refreshing. Over the course of the series she's made numerous mistakes, questioned herself and failed to save everyone around her. This is exactly how it should be – the Doctor isn't the demigod the show has built them up to be, they're a mad man/woman in box travelling around the universe getting into trouble. If they can waltz into every problem knowing exactly what everything is and who the enemy is, then where's the fun?

There was also very little of note for our three companions too, save for a minor subplot about how Ryan's father left and Graham discussing why people might hide medical problems from their loved ones. The latter could have been a particularly effective moment given how little mention there's been of Graham's cancer, but disappointingly the scene just seems to come and go without anything particularly noteworthy. Meanwhile the call to give Yaz something substantial to do continues, as it’s becoming quickly apparent that her main role in the show is to ask questions that spur other people’s development rather than her own. Other than to pointlessly kick the monster that is anyway.

Interesting things could have been done with guest cast, but again it all just felt so predictable. Eve’s sacrifice would have had greater resonance had she been the only character in the episode to die, but since this wasn’t the case her big send-off at the end felt like it was just overlooking poor old Astos who had died earlier. Yoss’ doubts about fatherhood had a message in there, but a lot of it was lost under the forced reaction comedy to “male pregnancy”. Eve's brother Durkas feels a bit more rounded in comparison, but only worked as a companion piece to Eve's thread and ended up falling partially flat due to the previously mentioned exchange with Graham. All in all it was just a bunch of very basic ideas with very little done to make them truly stand out, which all things considered sums this episode up rather succinctly.

Following the near-consistent pattern of series 11 so far, The Tsuranga Conundrum is yet another episode that prefers to keep things as simple as possible and instead define itself on it purely on its cast. In most circumstances this would be fine, but the series is now halfway through and yet to show off anything other than the most basic of stock science fiction plots. In this respect The Tsuranga Conundrum is undoubtedly the weakest so far, with some brief character moments but nothing that truly stands out like in the previous episodes. Next week's episode is set to be another slice of history with Demons of the Punjab, but unless it's hiding a spark of originality for the second half then in terms of story Doctor Who is currently veering dangerously close to the realms of mediocrity.

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