Doctor Who: Season 11, Episode 5 – The Tsuranga Conundrum

“So it’s just us. Alone. In space. With that creature.”

(SPOILER WARNING!)

Well, that was actually an improvement on last week. From 50s B-movie to… 80s B-movie? The Tsuranga Conundrum is unlikely to go down as a classic like Midnight, but it was a fun, lightweight space opera romp in the style of the ones you might have rented in a video shop in the 80s. True, handsome production values put it a little above, say, a Roger Corman or Richard Band production, and the overall feel was Star Trek the Next Generation meets Alien by way of Ghoulies.

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Ghoulies, you say? Well… it’s the creature, isn’t it? In an obviously intentional move, the Terror from Beyond Space in this episode, the marvellously named P’Ting, looks like nothing so much as the horde of cheap Gremlins imitators that rushed straight to video in the mid to late 80s. It’s less Alien than Red Dwarf, even down to the ridiculously cute noises it made.

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As I say, this was an obviously conscious choice that interestingly plays against a script which never implies the creature is anything less than a terrifying, eight foot tall, armour plated killing machine. In fact, the script was a bit all over the place in terms of tone, veering from the humorous one minute (a pregnant man!) to the dramatic the next (a pregnant man struggling to decide whether to give up his baby!).

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Peculiarly though, this felt like it worked. Perhaps because, unlike last week, Chris Chibnall had gone out of his way to write proper, fully-rounded guest characters with convincing back stories and motivations. Eve and Durkas Cicero were straight out of Star Trek the Next Generation (not that that’s a bad thing): a decorated war hero hiding a shameful condition, and her overshadowed brother trying desperately to save her from herself.

So their plot was a little hackneyed (injured ace pilot, making one last heroic trip, sacrifices herself and her rookie relative steps in and saves the day!). But it was played with great conviction by Suzanne Packer and Ben Bailey-Smith, who really made you believe in it, and like the characters.

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For a change in fact, not only were the guest characters fully rounded people, they were all likable. Not a villain in sight. Even the P’Ting wasn’t evil, just… hungry. And their likability is what made the drama work. You cared about these characters, so it was a nice rug pull to have the one seemingly acting as a pseudo-companion to the Doctor killed off halfway through.

It was indeed a shame to lose the hunky Astos (Brett Goldstein, who I’d like to see… more of) so early on, particularly after that very strong scene where he quite correctly called out the Doctor over her actions. But it quickly rammed home the danger of the situation, as well as being the catalyst for his rookie sidekick to step in and save the day. Perhaps Chris Chibnall has been watching a lot of war movies.

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The handsome production design though was very sci fi, and showed off how much you can do with a well-constructed and well-shot section of corridor set. The interior of the Tsuranga ship was a gleaming, well-lit mixture of Star Wars and Alien, and gave the whole look of the ep a real space opera feel. Again, the brightly lit sets were presumably a conscious choice of director Jennifer Perrott, and again, they nicely played against a script that could easily have gone down the route of the more rundown, darkly shadowed style of the bits of the Nostromo the Alien was usually to be found in.

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Instead, those bright, gleamingly lit corridors called to mind the 80s – not least the 80s incarnation of Doctor Who, which was frequently overlit to cope with the limitations of its studio facilities. Here, as an artistic choice, it worked well.

As did Segun Akinola’s marvellous, synth-ambient score, a nice call back to the style of the old BBC Radiophonic Workshop (or Tangerine Dream, given the whole 80s feel of the thing). I’m really liking Akinola’s style, a much needed change from the cinematic but never-changing style of Murray Gold after 13 years. Not that I didn’t love Gold too, but a change after that long is a real breath of fresh air.

Perhaps because the guest characters were so well-served in the script this time, the regulars got less of the character work than last week. And that’s good, actually – much as I think Chibnall’s attention to character detail is one of his best features, we don’t want this turning into a soap opera. Not when it can be a space opera!

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Even so, the characters now feel established enough that they can step back a little. We already know about Ryan and Graham’s issues, and something about Ryan losing his parents (one to death, the other to neglect). And that knowledge meant that they didn’t need to do much to convey the inherent drama as they joined forces to act as birth partners to Jack Shalloo’s lovable Yoss. Yoss’ dilemma played well into Ryan’s trying to reconcile his feelings about his father, and the yet-again denied fist bump from Graham foregrounded that their relationship is far from sorted yet… but may be getting there. Odds on the fist bump is reciprocated a few episodes down the line.

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Yaz, of course, got a much needed spotlight last week, so it didn’t feel she was too badly served by getting mostly generic, alien hunt sort of lines. And it was nice to see a more fallible side of this new Doctor, Jodie Whittaker playing that realisation that she was wrong superbly. Just as much Peter Capaldi as Matt Smith this week, I thought.

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She’s still definitively the Doctor, and I think she’s finding a way to be her own Doctor. Those Brian Cox- style hand movements as she passionately explained the wonder of the antimatter drive felt like a step in that direction. This is a Doctor who takes a much more innocent and childlike passion in the universe than her recent predecessors.

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The Tsuranga Conundrum was a fairly lightweight episode, but actually rather enjoyable because of that. Besides being a romp, it also had some consequence in its unabashed celebration of diversity. Yoss, a pregnant man, was the most obvious example; but after watching it I realised that the only white male not giving birth in the cast was David Shields, as Cicero’s synth ‘consort’ Ronan. And the fact this didn’t even occur to me until a long time after watching it may show how far we’ve come there. Whatever else one thinks of this season so far, I don’t think the show’s ever had so much diversity both in front of and behind the camera – well done to Chris Chibnall for that.

 

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