Previously on Doctor Who, “Arachnids in the UK”
In “The Tsuranga Conundrum,” writer and series producer Chris Chibnall and director Jennifer Perrott bring us a classic “base under siege” Doctor Who episode which bonds the Doctor and her team to relative strangers while fighting off a mysterious creature, but the material itself is relatively new. Prior to the season, Chibnall expressed a desire to bring new peoples and places to the Whoniverse, which is often so self-referential that one imagines any given script might create a paradox in space time. Not one of the episode’s introduced organizations, people, or creatures is familiar, and it works just fine despite simultaneous birth and death TV trope, and a lack of real anxiety; after all, the ship can’t possibly blow up, certainly not thanks to any cute pocket-sized aliens.
The episode kicks off with quite a unique twist when the Doctor and Team TARDIS unwittingly trigger a sonic bomb while searching for spare parts and have their innards scrambled. Not too many classic Who episodes like that! They wake up hurt but recovering on the Tsuranga, a remotely-piloted medical aid ship manned by two medics, veteran Astos (Brett Goldstein) and newbie Mabli (Lois Chimimba). Stubborn as always, the Doctor stumbles through the hall looking for an exit and runs into the rest of the episode’s cast, legendary neuro-pilot General Eve Cicero (Suzanne Packer), her engineer brother Durkas (Ben Bailey Smith), her android consort Ronan (David Shields), and an overdue pregnant male Gifdan, Yoss Inkl (Jack Shalloo).
Frustrated, the Doctor tries to hijack the computer, but Astos talks her down, reminding her that there are other patients on board; uncharacteristically, she agrees she’s being selfish and doesn’t like being told what to do. The fast-moving creature breaches the shields, so they split up to investigate. Astos is trapped in an escape pod, which jettisons and explodes, his last seconds spent encouraging Mabli via intercom. This crisis is countered by our first view of the creature itself, a Pting, tiny and cute like Adipose but with an extra layer of teeth. According to the ship’s records, it can eat all nonorganic matter and can’t be imprisoned or touched, and it schleps into the Tsuranga‘s inner workings chomping away with 80s gremlin sound effects. When the Doctor confronts it, it comically ignores her and eats her sonic screwdriver, then throws it up broken, so once again she is without her TARDIS and her sonic. Between its looks and this moment, the Doctor surmises that, although it is a true danger, it isn’t bloodthirsty, so they must uncover its true motivations before the hospital base triggers the ship’s self-destruct mechanism to maintain quarantine.
Left in an emotionally raw state after his grandmother’s death and father’s letter, Ryan finds his encounters with expectant father Yoss churning up feelings of abandonment and loss. When he and Yaz fetch Yoss for an all-hands meeting and see the baby development photos, he realizes he’s the same age as his father when he was born, opening a window of empathy. He tells Yaz how at 13 he found his mother dead of a heart attack in the kitchen, finally understanding how his dad must have struggled with her loss. These feelings only amplify when Yoss says he will place the baby for adoption, and again when he asks Graham and Ryan to serve as doulas when he goes unexpectedly into labor, doubting his ability to make it through labor or be a good father. Ryan builds him up so much that Yoss decides to give fatherhood a go, even if he does name the baby Avocado Pear in honor of his Earth friends.
On the more serious side of things, Graham discovers Durkas trying to hack his sister’s medical records because things are not adding up. After she tells the Doctor a Pting massacred her fleet and Mabli mentions the Doctor might want to double-check her condition, she admits to having Pilot’s Heart, presumably damage from earlier primitive flight technology much like Idris Elba’s character in Pacific Rim, and one adrenaline surge could kill her. Her brother overhears, and, despite his disappointment and her tenuous situation, the two siblings challenge each other to work around the ship’s recall technology. Durkas creates a manual jack for Eve to step into and pilot through an asteroid belt before the base realizes they’re off course, and Eve takes the Doctor’s usual line:
“Everyone’s going to live, including me.”
That leaves Yaz and Ronan to protect the anti-matter core after a wonder-filled tutorial by the Doctor on the technology. The police officer and android body guard track the creature’s rumblings and taze it into momentary submission, wrap it in a med blanket, and punt it down the hallway to buy them time (shoutout: Siobhan Chamberlain). While the General through a crucial juncture in their course, alarms go off one final time, leading the Doctor to two revelations. One, the creature is after energy, and two, there’s a bomb built into the engine. She carefully extracts the bomb from the core and partners with Yaz to attract the Pting to the bomb. Each scene hits its climax at once: Durkas holds his sister as she dies a success, at peace with one other; Ryan and Graham have to cut into the birth sac and then cut the cord together; and the creature eats the bomb, absorbing the energy happily and is ejected unharmed into space. The Doctor returns to find Durkas in Eve’s position, completing the mission, as Mabli hands Yoss his child. Despite the somewhat heavy hand of that trope, Chibnall softens its edge with an absolutely lovely group incantation to mark Eve’s passing:
May the saints of all the stars and constellations bring you hope, as they guide you out of the dark and into the light. On this voyage and in the next. And all the journeys still to come. For now and evermore.
The plot for “The Tsuranga Conundrum” feels a bit light and uneven at times, and the clean, minimalist set must have done wonders for the infamously cheap series’ bottom line, but that is not to understate the players involved. Each guest star is a pleasure to watch and perfectly chosen for their role. With only a few minutes on screen, Brett Goldstein makes Astos’s solid veteran medic realistically empathetic and brave. Lois Chimimba shines as newbie medic Mabli, progressing from being manipulated by Ronan to growing in confidence with necessity and passing on the encouragements she previously received. Ben Bailey Smith and Suzanne Packer feel relatable and right as brilliant rival siblings Durkas and Eve Cicero, respecting, supporting, and ultimately making heroes of each other in crisis. Jack Shalloo projects Yoss’s naive alien-ness but also crippling self-doubt in a major life moment. And lastly, David Shields leaves the dedicated Ronan with a brush stroke of unexpected honor and sadness, now that his mission is complete, but will he really be shut down? Like all the other endings this season, that seems open to interpretation.
Quotes & Trivia
- “In light and dark times, hope prevails.”
- The Doctor’s seen “all 900 casts” of Hamilton.
- “I’m the Doctor.”
“Are you kidding?”
“Sometimes, but not now.”
- Eve Cicero shares a place in The Book of Celebrants with the Doctor, who admits she has her own volume. (No link for you, this is a new creation.)
- In the modern Who, the Tenth Doctor most often used a stethoscope vs his other incarnations.
- The Doctor claims she is a doctor of “medicine, science, engineering, candyfloss, Lego, philosophy, music, problems, hope. Mostly hope.”