NOTE: Full spoilers for this episode of, “Doctor Who” are present in this review
Doctor Who’s eleventh series is still mostly proceeding along on a solid note, considering that the show drastically up-ended its leadership and roster of actors before it started, but it seems like the show is starting to stall a bit in terms of its storytelling. The fundamental ideas behind each Series Eleven episode are still pretty strong so far though, and that was once again evident in this week’s offering, “The Tsuranga Conundrum”, which pits The Doctor and her companions against an unstoppable alien critter that’s cornered them on a massive medical transport ship in outer space. It’s a strong idea, but the execution of this storyline doesn’t quite live up to its potential, since it has to contrive so many excuses to artificially inflate the threat of the alien, to the point where much of the situation completely stops making sense, even by Doctor Who standards.
Things begin excitingly enough, with The Doctor and her companions looking for junk on a garbage planet for some unknown reason, before accidentally finding and being injured by a sonic mine. Upon awakening, they discover that they’ve ended up in a medical facility called the Tsuranga, which just so happens to actually be an enormous transport ship that’s ferrying The Doctor’s crew, along with some other patients, to a nearby medical colony. After The Doctor tries to escape and fails, desperate to get back to the TARDIS, which is now light years away, she has no choice but to resign herself to the situation. Of course, that gets a lot harder when a mysterious alien flies into the ship from space, and begins feeding on the craft’s infrastructure!
Immediately, the show is contriving another forced excuse to separate The Doctor and her companions from the TARDIS, when they logically shouldn’t need one. The mere presence of the dangerous alien would be enough to motivate The Doctor to stay, even in the face of danger. That quibble is ultimately pretty minor however, since this episode has far bigger story contrivances to worry about. You see, the antagonistic alien, the P’Ting, an outwardly adorable yet very dangerous alien critter with toxic skin and an indestructible hide, which the ship’s computers aren’t even sure is a real species (huh?), feeds on non-organic matter, thus representing a danger to the ship. Fair enough. This immediately creates a great sense of urgency, since this alien can’t be touched or killed, and I do have to say that the design of the alien itself is pretty great, nicely blurring the line between innocent and deadly with its cute, yet vicious disposition.
The problems with the P’Ting arise when the episode, for whatever reason, tries to add more threats and obstacles that don’t need to be there, in a false effort to create more urgency. The urgency of the P’Ting eating the ship and endangering sickly, injured, and in one case, pregnant people, should be enough of a pressing time limit without all of these other forced complications! The P’Ting somehow ejecting the escape pods of the Tsuranga when it’s simply looking for food is absurd, and the idea that the medical transport would be remotely destroyed if there’s a threat, with no military personnel available to defend it, feels equally absurd! Even The Doctor comments that the Tsuranga’s design makes no sense, which feels like the writers sheepishly throwing up their hands and admitting that they have to force a lot of half-baked reasons for why the characters can’t just quickly get rid of or quarantine the P’Ting, or why they can’t just evacuate the ship. Even the Sonic Screwdriver is forcibly deactivated until the end of the episode, simply because the P’Ting nibbled on it a bit. Why?! Look, I get that the P’Ting can consume any non-organic matter, and disturbs energy distribution for reasons that become clear later on, but the ship has blast shields, so clearly concussive barrier containment exists in the 67th Century. Why, then, is there no method to contain people or invasive creatures this way on the ship? Hell, the head medic even mentions to The Doctor that there are plenty of ways to restrain unruly patients, before he’s unceremoniously killed off by one of those unrealistically ejecting escape pods! These somehow don’t include non-physical means of containment?
It’s a shame, because, like I said, the danger to innocent, sick and injured people would be more than enough reason to make The Doctor stay, and the P’Ting threatening to destroy the ship with its ravenous appetite provides enough of a pressing time limit, without providing an impractical means of having the ship’s command destroy the craft simply because it’s acting a little funny, or has a few weird readings. What this uncontrolled self-destruct protocol actually means to lead to is another unlikely solution to fix the situation by The Doctor, who finds a bomb that command placed on the medical transport (very ethical, obviously), and feeds that to the P’Ting before ejecting it into the airlock. Yes, somehow it took The Doctor the whole episode to figure out that the P’Ting craves energy even more than non-organic matter, and that it’s benign, except it’s not, because apparently it massacred an entire fleet of soldiers, despite not being a carnivore. Yeah, the anthropology and behaviour of the P’Ting really doesn’t make sense, nor does it seem consistent. Again, the episode doesn’t need to invent more excuses to make the P’Ting dangerous! The alien doesn’t need to be a killing machine! It would have worked a lot better if the P’Ting was completely benign, innocent and just wanted to eat. It could have just been attracted to the ship’s anti-matter core, and The Doctor could have just had to try and steer it away before it could be safely ejected, saving the life of everyone onboard. That would have also given The Doctor an even better reason to try and get rid of the P’Ting without killing it. Unlike the ridiculous bleeding heart spider speech from last week, The Doctor would have actually had a believable reason to object to killing the creature this time!
Fortunately, where this episode usually functioned a lot better is with the subplots. Ryan and Graham having to assist a pregnant humanoid male provided a solid excuse for Ryan to once again struggle with the thought of being let down by his own deadbeat father, even confiding in Yas the story of how he lost his mother, and how it affected him. Again, he admits aloud that he doesn’t know why he’s suddenly talking to Yas about this (answer: Because the script says so), and it may have made more sense to have this scene with Graham, but whatever. It’s still interesting. Likewise, one of the patients being a war hero that The Doctor read about, one that is hiding a medical condition that suddenly has her career as a pilot threatening her life, provides more great material, especially when we see the pilot having to hide this terminal condition from her brother, who is seen as the less successful member of the famous family. The pilot inevitably sacrifices her life to help everyone get back to the main medical facility, with the brother finishing the job, and that makes for a simple, but effective feel-good story regarding one of the other key patients on the Tsuranga. Yas, meanwhile, didn’t really have much to do beyond be a sounding board for Ryan and The Doctor this week, but that’s fine. Maybe this also explains why Ryan is inexplicably confiding in Yas about his father too.
“The Tsuranga Conundrum” sets out with a pretty strong premise, but its execution is frustrating, since the foundation of the story becomes way too overcooked and stuffed with unnecessary obstacles. The P’Ting is overthought and inconsistent as a threat, despite its standout visual design, and the many conflicts that beset the characters just didn’t feel like they flowed naturally or made any believable degree of sense. Even The Doctor’s crew being injured by an unexplained sonic mine didn’t necessarily need to happen, especially when this merely leads to The Doctor sometimes being injured, and sometimes acting as if this injury never happened, as the plot demands. The TARDIS could have just as easily plunked The Doctor’s party on the Tsuranga, and they could have stayed to help because that’s what they do, rather than being forced into an intense survival situation that has them saving everyone simply so they can save themselves. When The Doctor and her companions end up forcibly separated from the TARDIS for questionable reasons, it just makes them less effective as heroes. This starts turning Doctor Who into a simple-minded self-preservation effort, rather than an effort to try and make the universe a little better, one situation at a time. That selfless altruism is usually how The Doctor operates, and so far, that’s really only come through with the Rosa Parks episode from a couple of weeks ago. Hopefully, we’re running out of reasons to keep separating The Doctor and her friends from their exit strategy, so they can get back to fixing history because it’s the right thing to do, and not simply because they have to.
- Exciting spaceship episode with a promising threat
- Ryan continuing to confront his feelings over his father
- Solid feel-good subplots with the junior medic, the pregnant man and the ailing pilot
- Inconsistent portrayal of the P'Ting's behaviour
- The Tsuranga's design is blatantly illogical
- Command's aggression is inexplicable and unnecessary