In The Tsuranga Conundrum, Chibnall-era Who has finally given me an episode that left me feeling satisfied at the end. That’s not to suggest that this is a particularly good or memorable episode; in another season, this would be a middle-of-the-road piece, neither a favorite nor hated. But I wasn’t bored or put off by this episode, and for this season, that makes it stand out.
There’s not a lot of meat to digest in The Tsuranga Conundrum; in a way, its greatest strength is its simplicity. The Doctor and her companions accidentally trip a sonic mine while salvaging on a planet of junk, and are picked up by an automated medical transport. Their trip back to a space hospital is interrupted when a P’ting, a tiny and adorably destructive alien, crashes on board, killing one of the two medics and threatening the rest of the ship. Making matters worse, if the hospital detects that this creature is on board, they’ll remotely detonate the transport rather than allow them to carry it back with them.
It’s a fairly straightforward setup, but the fact that there are multiple threats for the Doctor to juggle gives it a bit more topography than Arachnids in the UK or The Ghost Monument. Simply dealing with the threat in front of the Doctor isn’t enough; she also has to keep this second threat in check.
The episode culminates in a fairly satisfying series of events in which the Doctor solves one problem with another, and has the P’ting eat the bomb that was supposed to blow up the transport, satiating its hunger for energy, and then boots it out of the airlock. It’s not a particularly novel or involved story, but it functions, and it was enjoyable enough.
The simple fact that this episode features a threat which the Doctor overcomes by doing something moderately clever is refreshing. The Woman Who Fell To Earth had that, but none of the other episodes so far have; they’ve all just been series of things happening around the Doctor, which either resolve for reasons outside of her power, or simply…end. In fact, it adheres to my personal rule of Doctor Who story structure; there should not be a gap of more than five minutes between the Doctor fully understanding the problem, and the Doctor solving the problem, and preferably the audience should not be made privy to the solution until the moment before it takes effect. Any longer than that is almost certainly going to sag; watching the Doctor do things is almost never as interesting as trying to figure out what the Doctor’s up to.
There are a couple side characters in this episode, and while some of them are better than others, I quite like General Cicero and her nosy brother and Data-esque personal companion. Suzanne Packer plays her with a great sense of gravitas and the troubled relationship between the three is conveyed fairly naturally and convincingly.
There’s a scene right at the beginning, where the Doctor is very alarmed about the fact that her TARDIS has been left behind again, and tries to essentially hijack the medical transport to get back to it. The head medic, uncharacteristic for normal people in the presence of the Doctor, refuses to acquiesce to her aura of authority, and is insistent that the transport must continue on its current course, that there are other patients who need to get there as soon as possible, and that the Doctor can catch another ride back after they arrive. And the Doctor…agrees! She let her panic over losign her TARDIS again, so soon after being reunited with it, and admits fault. It’s a great scene for her as a character, but also it conveys to the audience that the Doctor’s ability to take charge in any scenario is because she’s right, not because she’s The Doctor And So Everyone Will Listen To Her. When she’s wrong, it doesn’t work. And that’s a great distinction that I don’t think has ever been made before.
This may be the best Chibnall episode so far, but it’s still a Chibnall episode, with Chibnall problems. The middle of the episode judders to a halt for that the characters can stare into the camera and exposit for the benefit of the audience. The scene with Ryan and Yas is particularly egregious; I don’t mind Ryan being reminded of his family situation by the pregnant fellow, but the fact that the scene where Yasmin (still criminally underused!) has the most lines of dialogue is a scene where all she does is ‘yes-and’ at Ryan, stiffly asking questions that it makes no sense for her to ask, purely for the audience’s benefit…well, it’s not great.
Speaking of Yasmin, Chibnall clearly doesn’t have the faintest idea what to do with three companions, and Yas is the one getting the shaft. Apart from one slightly goofy action scene (which I didn’t honestly mind), most of her lines this episode are either prompts for other characters to exposit in response to, or her piping up to make a daft and tone-deaf comparison. Like, yeah, Yas, the monitoring system sort of is like a policy bodycam, but you perking up to cheerily point out the similarity while an unstoppable alien menace is running about sort of kills the tension. The worst offender is when she asks about the ship’s antimatter drive (“It’s like CERN!”), prompting the Doctor to launch into an unforgivably long and pointless explanation of the mechanics of the drive. Chibnall really seems to struggle to convey important information to the audience in a natural manner, and this episode is no exception.
Actually, this is the best-looking episode to date! Many of the same old offences pop up here and there, most notably bizarrely tight closeups during normal conversations, but there are no jarring scene transitions, no distracting problems with focus, and the set and costuming work looks good. Actually, I really like the design of the P’ting – it’s simultaneously charming and threatening, and a lot of work clearly went into animating it.
Overall, it’s not a tremendously good-looking episode, but it looks all right, which is a step up.