5 November 2018

The Tsuranga Conundrum review

Written by Chris Chibnall. Directed by Jennifer Perrott
Chris Chibnall’s most dynamic Doctor Who script prior to becoming showrunner was `42` which had a superb sense of urgency that is shared by `The Tsuranga Conundrum` to equally strong effect. While there are no real innovations in terms of the scenario, and almost every element can be traced back either to earlier Doctor Who or one or other Star Trek series it is played out with an involving sense of character. It is so well packaged, directed with such flair and performed with such gusto that the viewer is swept along. A visually impressive opening scene on a celestial junkyard leads to a peril strewn adventure in one of the series’ most generously spaced ships which has an air of Star Trek- Next Generation about it. If the cause of much of this danger is a comedic looking albeit dangerous alien kudos to the production team for going with something different. Well something that resembled the Crazy Frog crossed with a Pokemon!

That fantastic opening vista pure takes your breath away and it’s not even going to be the setting for the episode! A junk strewn world viewed from above it is one of those moments where you can say- “only in Doctor Who” and I was so taken with it that the jolt from there to the main location was almost as jarring for me as it is for Team Tardis. Are we calling them that? Yeah, go on then.
What the episode successfully achieves more than anything is making the Universe seem very big and sometimes odd. We meet a whole culture and two races we’ve never heard of before and there are no back references which makes the whole thing seem fresh. It’s true that you can sometimes see the parts that make up the sum- the Trek inspired ship and android, the retro sci- fi alien, the influence of `42` and indeed `The Invisible Enemy- yet it coalesces into a packed, breathless 50 minutes. Yes it is convenient that such a legendary pilot just happens to be on board but sometimes we are too super critical of writers. There are just enough different characters and subplots each of which get time to shine yet feed into the overall story.

The Pting itself is realised as a perfect collision of a Gremlin, Pokemon and the Crazy Frog and you can’t help but find it entertaining. Unless you hate it - there’s no middle ground! It’s not the obvious way to go- we all expected something dark and mysterious to emerge- but that’s part of the appeal of the episode. It’s quite an inspired visual choice meaning that some of the usual clichés can be avoided.   Though Chibnall and his characters lead our attention away from the fact, it’s clear that this invader is after the energy rather than the people so the Doctor’s big realisation isn’t quite as mind blowing for attentive viewers than it seems to be for the Doctor.
Even so it’s another zinger of an episode for Jodie Whittaker whose verbose Doctor works things out and tells us her working. Sometimes as mentioned last week this can become a bit lecturey- this time round we get a crash course in the hadron collider (though she doesn’t mention she was there a few years back). I do like the idea that the Doctor has to work things out and can struggle; recent Doctors have had a tendency to be written as all- knowing and finding it easy to sort things out; this Doctor puts the work in and it pays dividends.
Again the rest of the team get more to do than just follow the Doctor round and need rescuing. The whole baby subplot was a great way of lightening the tension yet also challenging Ryan’s own character. Tosin Cole has been the breakout star of the main cast and Chris Chibnall clearly loves writing him; good though both Graham and Yaz are, it is Ryan who you can feel the writer connects with the most. Plus the actor is such a natural un-showy performer who gives each line truth. He and Bradley Walsh have really gelled as a team- if there were more episodes I’d love them to do one of those Doctor-lite ones they used to with the two of them caught up in some dangerous situation. Mandip Gill gets a bit more of the focus this week and her kicking of the Pting down the corridor was a moment where I thought we are starting to see more of what Yaz is really like, presumably to be developed next week. Is she a football fan on the sly?
It’s been so pleasing that Chibnall has both brought back memorable guest characters and yet also remembered the Doctor Who tradition that not all of them will make it to the end. Jack Shallo’s pregnant Yoss (more gender twisting) is a hoot while Lois Chimimba’s rookie nurse Mabli proves an excellent enabling character. She’s the subject of two of my favourite scenes; one when the Doctor encourages her and later when she just slips into professional medical mode despite her fear. Earlier there’s a great extended sequence where Astos and the Doctor slowly learn to trust each other as the situation gets out of control. It would be so easy to go for the obvious- he pulls a gun or otherwise tries to restrain the Doctor-  but instead you have him realising over extended conversations that they can help each other.
It iss sometimes the case that with roles in which  a character is supposed to be a veteran of something or other you just don’t see it but Suzanne Packer as Eve is note perfect. We can imagine what sort of illness “pilot’s heart” is (thankfully we’re spared a detailed explanation) and the performance sells it. I also liked the dynamic between her and her brother Dorkas (Ben Bailey Smith) again striving for an authentic connection. As it turns out the whole episode has a familial theme what with our new Tardis family, the Ciceros and Yoss’s upcoming fatherhood. In the face of all that it’s tempting to view the Pting as an especially disruptive child!

It won’t really matter long term but I do feel showing this directly after `Arachnids in the UK` draws attention to the similarities between them despite very  different locales. In particular for the second week running we have a predator just doing its thing, the threat it poses being a side effect. It won’t work every time, guys, but there are enough differences between the tone of these two episodes to allow it to. The episode does suggest that these Chinallian traits are going to recur at least this year. Both  -the accidental menace and the educational bit - are not in themselves bad but some variation needs to occur before they start grating. On the other hand the series still feels fresh and grounded both by the characters and situations.
Half way into the 2018 episodes I’d agree with other reviewers’ opinion that while there hasn’t been a bad episode (and there have been some standout scenes) neither has there been a stone cold classic. What I do like is the harder edge and reliance on `real` objects rather than the more fantasy orientated clever- clever tricksy approach that were the province of the previous regime. This series still sometimes feels too careful and with Google at our disposal scripts don’t really need to fill us in on factual stuff we can look up later.
Looking ahead the next three episodes sound like they have the potential to be even better and more bizarre than what we’ve seen so far. Here’s hoping they turn a promising and entertaining series into a brilliant one!

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