'Doctor Who': "The Tsuranga Conundrum" Review
Chris Chibnall offers up a slice of traditional 'Doctor Who' in Series 11's fifth outing.
Warning: Potential spoilers for the episode below.
In the age of social media, kneejerk reactions have become the norm. TV, particularly those programs with a sizable following, is no exception, and the eleventh series of the BBC's Doctor Who is a case in point. If fans of the long-running show thought the era under showrunner Steven Moffat had been divisive, the first batch of episodes under new showrunner Chris Chibnall and new Doctor Jodie Whittaker proved to be even more so. Partly as a result of that, I found myself stepping away from the show's 21st-century incarnation for a bit, hoping to gain some perspective for when I did finally sit down to watch the remainder of it (you can read my reviews of "The Woman Who Fell To Earth,""The Ghost Monument," "Rosa," and "Arachnids in the UK" elsewhere on Vocal). In watching the fifth episode, "The Tsuranga Conundrum," I found myself particularly grateful for that distance.
Why? Well, when it aired last autumn, this episode came in for what turned out to be the lowest Audience Appreciation Index score of Series 11 to date and mixed reactions from fans and critics. That wasn't especially surprising, given how much debate episodes before it had already caused. Finally sitting down to take in its 50 minutes, it isn't hard to see why that might have been the case.
Part of it might be down to this being the fourth episode to date scripted by the showrunner (fifth if you count his co-writing credit on "Rosa"). It is most assuredly the closest he's come to writing a traditional Doctor Who tale thus far into his era. In many ways, the premise harkens back to his very first script for the series, the 2007 Tenth Doctor outing "42." Both episodes feature the TARDIS crew trapped on a spaceship while facing a threat inside the ship, people onboard with secrets, and the looming prospect of death coming from without as well. So is Chibnall ripping-off the 1975 Fourth Doctor tale "Planet of Evil" a second time?
Not at all, thankfully, because otherwise, this review would resemble my 2013 review of that episode. Rather than dealing with possession and the crashing into a sentient celestial body as both Louis Marks and Chibnall himself did in 1975 and 2007, respectively, "The Tsuranga Conundrum" goes in a different direction. Namely, what if you had a whole set of crises going on at once, including having a seemingly indestructible creature eating your spaceship piece by piece? It's a storyline that gives everyone something to do, however small, to contribute to the outcome. No small feat when you've got four members of Team TARDIS at the heart of the show as well as a decent sized supporting cast.
It does lead to a problem, however. As a result of that, and potentially of the extended 50-minute running time, it's far more exposition-heavy than it needs to be. One example of that is the monologue the Doctor gives about the ship's drive engine partway through the episode. As a piece of writing, it's fantastic and wonderfully delivered by Whittaker at her most-eyed. The difficulty is that it brings the plot to an absolute standstill for the time it takes to present it within an episode that's already crammed with characters explaining things to one another. Somewhere there's a cracking 43-minute episode buried in an overstuffed 50-minute one.
Beyond the traditional nature of the plot, the tone and visuals of the episode call to mind other things as well. Tonally, the regular shifting back and forth between more comedic dialogue, exposition, and serious threats brings to mind Seth MacFarlane's Fox series The Orville, and the design of the Pting creature further reinforces that. Visually, the stark white corridors and rooms filled with screens, combined with the direction of Jennifer Perrott and the camera work of Simon Chapman, brings to mind the Enterprise of the rebooted Star Trek movie universe under J. J. Abrams, right down to the occasional lens flare. It's something that gives the proceedings a feeling that is at once different from the episodes before and, yet, oddly derivative at the same time.
All of which might go some way to explain reactions to it when it aired. Watching it now, with a bit of distance, "The Tsuranga Conundrum" feels like a bit of traditional Doctor Who in the midst of the series being turned on its ear a bit. It's the eye in the middle of the hurricane, as it were, though perhaps not in the place most would have wanted it. Is it the worst episode of Doctor Who ever made? No, far from it. Nor is it the best, but then, there are far greater sins than being a good piece of rainy afternoon Doctor Who.