After last week’s escapade in modern day Sheffield with giant spiders, it’s back into space for Team TARDIS, who are having a very bad day after being on the business end of a sonic mine while scavenging for spare parts in a junk galaxy. Wounded and helpless, they get picked up by an automated ambulance ship – equivalent to a space Red Cross – which ends up under attack by one of the most adorable looking but lethal life forms in creation. It’s a race against time to stop the ship from being destroyed, either by the creature or by remote detonation from the ship’s home base, while having to deal with a sick VIP and a pending birth. All in a day’s work for the Doctor and friends.
One of the traditional storylines of Doctor Who is the ‘base under siege’, where a group of people find themselves in a confined situation, under assault from an invading force, and ‘The Tsuranga Conundrum’ falls very loosely into that category. The ambulance ship which is the setting of the episode is a beautifully conceived set, feeling a solid and totally realistic setting, with its sweeping corridors and 360-degree rooms. The only slight downside is that it falls a little bit into the Apple Store styling of JJ Abrams’ USS Enterprise in the rebooted Star Trek movie series, complete with snatches of annoying lens flare too, but overall a great job by the design team.
It’s another one of the show’s traditions to have to face the tricky situation posed by having a four-strong lead cast, as there are times in its history when it’s been tricky to find enough for all the characters to do. So far, the series has mostly done pretty well with serving Graham, Ryan, and Yaz, but it’s seemed a little bit trickier this week, as the companions find themselves mostly sidelined, particularly with Graham and Ryan shunted into a light relief C-Story, involving a pregnant alien.
However, it’s no bad thing to leave them in the background for much of the episode, as it gives the Doctor a chance to come to the fore. Jodie Whittaker really shines here, with her manic energy being tempered by the Doctor’s internal injuries, as she struggles to come to terms with being separated from the TARDIS so soon after regaining it, with the ship having been left behind after they were rescued. It’s a powerful moment as the Doctor’s made to realise her selfishness by potentially putting the lives of others at risk by her singleminded attempt to turn the ambulance ship around; and it’s played beautifully.
Given the ongoing controversy about the Doctor’s sex change, you can’t help but feel Chris Chibnall’s having a bit of a dig at the #NotMyDoctor crowd, by having the expectant party being a male, upending expectations and also showing just what a strange and wonderful universe the Doctor inhabits. Although it’s clearly pitched as being light relief, it also brings up very real issues such as the struggles of a single parent, and the insecurity and feelings of inadequacy that can come with having a child. It’s nice to have that contrast coming up, offsetting some of the humour coming from the situation, with Graham and Ryan finding themselves as birthing coaches and midwives, while the real action is taking place elsewhere on the ship.
One of the things Chibnall seem to do so well with his iteration of Doctor Who is reminiscent of what Russell T. Davies did when he revived the show back in 2005: making things seem relatable to the audience, by using pop culture references to put things into context, as well as grounding them in a world we recognise, no matter how strange or unfamiliar the setting. It seems to have been done deftly here, with mentions of iPhones, CERN, Call The Midwife and the musical Hamilton (which also gives rise to a neat time travel joke about the Doctor saying she’s seen it with all 900 casts). The use of familiar terminology and plain English also helps move along explanations of things such as the anti-matter drive, which is a trope often used in sci-fi, but might not be too well known to the more casual viewer.
The episode’s ‘big bad’ – the Pting – seems at first glance to be a faintly ridiculous creation, but its relatively cute outward appearance – reminiscent of Stitch from Lilo & Stitch – belies its sheer lethality, and there’s a delicious moment where the ship’s computer explains in painstaking detail just how deadly it is. It’s also nice to see the Doctor temporarily without her Sonic Screwdriver after the Pting sucks up all its power, leaving the Doctor having to rely on her wits. In fact, it’s something of a disappointment to see the Sonic up and running quite so easily.
Chibnall also gives us the B-Story of sibling rivalry between a brother and sister, having to try to come together against the desperate situation in which they find themselves. Suzanne Packer as fabled eat hero General Eve Cicero and Ben Bailey-Smith as Durkas Cicero do a creditable job of showing the conflict between the two estranged characters, along with the heartfelt reconciliation towards the end. It’s such a pity that it seems to fizzle out, and leaves us with a rather rushed and not quite satisfying final conclusion to their story.
The episode also falls down by trying to shoehorn in more of Ryan’s continuing backstory, about his estrangement with his father. Although Chibnall presumably wanted to draw a parallel with the two Ciceros, it just brings proceedings to a crashing halt, and makes the pace of the story feel rather disjointed. Another weak spot is Brett Goldstein as Astos, who is a rather likeable character on the page, but the realisation is rather flat at times, with a particularly stilted performance in his final scene.
One laudable message that runs right through the episode is one of hope against all the odds, particularly in the rather dark and uncertain times in which we currently find ourselves; especially as we get ever closer to Brexit and with the global rise of the far right. Light in the darkness is just what we need right now and another example of the show catching the zeitgeist, even if more by fluke of timing than judgment. Overall, another solid entry and shows we’ve still yet to hit a real clunker. Bring on next week.