Doctor Who, “The Tsuranga Conundrum”
Series 11, Episode 5
Written by Chris Chibnall
Directed by Jennifer Perrott
Starring Jodie Whittaker, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill, and Bradley Walsh
Guest Starring Lois Chimimba, Brett Goldstein, Suzanne Packer, and
Original Broadcast 4 November 2018 (50 minutes)
For anyone who thought that Doctor Who Series 11’s fourth episode, “Arachnids in the UK,” was pure insanity, showrunner Chris Chibnall, with the season’s fifth outing, offers this response: You ain’t seen nothing yet.
“The Tsuranga Conundrum” takes viewers on a trip to Crazytown without pauses, delays, or stops—all of which have been pulled so far out that they may never again get pushed back in. The Thirteenth Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and companions Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole), Yasmin “Yaz” Khan (Mandip Gill), and Graham O’Brien (Bradley Walsh) begin this adventure in the 67th Century, prospecting for metal on Planet Seffilun 27, located in an unnamed junk galaxy, but instead discover a sonic mine that explodes and knocks everyone unconscious. They awaken four days later on the hospital ship Tsuranga to discover that the Doctor is more seriously injured than everyone else, with her ectospleen causing enough pain to double her over once or twice, but never long enough to slow her down.
That is good news for the Tsuranga crew, which boasts only two physicians, Astos (Brett Goldstein) and Mabli (Lois Chimimba), to assist Team TARDIS; “neuro-pilot” General Eve Cicero (Suzanne Packer), suffering from adrenaline surges that will eventually destroy her heart; and a pregnant male member of the Gifftan species named Yoss (Jack Shalloo). If Chibnall’s plot does not sound busy enough, the automatically piloted Tsuranga, while travelling toward its space-station hub to offload all patients for full medical treatment, finds itself attacked by a small, yet ferocious creature known as a Pting. Resembling a greyish version of the extraterrestrial “dog” Stitch in Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois’s 2002 animated film Lilo & Stitch, the Pting is similarly talented at causing chaos, to wit, the creature immediately begins eating every inorganic component—including solid metal—that it can find.
Here we go again, longtime viewers will say. Apart from its opening scene, “The Tsuranga Conundrum” takes place entirely aboard the Tsuranga, making this episode a venerable example of that old television staple, the bottle show. The ship’s multi-room, futuristic, and sterile medical set evokes feelings of claustrophobia and terror in the tradition of Doctor Who’s best base-under-siege stories, which find the Doctor trapped in confined quarters battling a mysterious enemy that threatens to destroy everything and everyone in its path. This plot came to prominence during the Third Doctor’s (Jon Pertwee’s) Classic Who tenure from 1970-1974, but New Who, in 2006, perfected it in Series 2’s Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) adventures “The Impossible Planet” and “The Satan Pit,” still among the franchise’s best two-part episodes.
“The Tsuranga Conundrum” is a worthy successor, not only full of spooky tension thanks to the Pting’s depredations but also boasting an unconventional narrative thanks to Yoss’s pregnancy. Perhaps this outing’s best feature is how it overturns—or attempts to overturn—many taken-for-granted science-fiction tropes by having Ryan and Graham assist Yoss’s birth pangs while the Doctor, Yaz, and Eve Cicero deal with the Tsuranga’s dire straits. The women take charge effortlessly, while Ryan and Graham express no disgust—or even much surprise—at Yoss’s impending childbirth. By episode’s end, viewers may forget just how odd is its ability to combine extraterrestrial attack, ecological concern, and pregnant-man comedy.
Such paradoxes and perambulations are Who staples, for the franchise has always melded the quotidian with the fantastic—and the serious with the silly—into a unique mixture of mundane madness. “The Tsuranga Conundrum” raises these stakes once the Pting accidentally kills Astos after he follows it into an escape pod that prematurely jettisons. The Pting may be able to survive the vacuum of space, but Astos cannot, so “The Tsuranga Conundrum” is not all fun and games even if, thanks to its blinding pace and the comic relief offered by Yoss’s storyline, this entry is frequently a joy to behold.
The Doctor and Yaz eventually realize that the Pting is not, in fact, an extraterrestrial invader bent on destroying the Tsuranga, but a space-dwelling creature who nourishes itself by feeding upon inorganic material—metals, rock, even antimatter—to stay alive. This development mimics the denouement of “Arachnids in the UK,” which sees the Doctor expressing compassion, sympathy, and regret for the giant, mutated spiders that Team TARDIS encounters in Sheffield, England. These creepy-crawlies, like the Pting, are neither evil nor monstrous, but are living, breathing beings trying their best to survive in a cruel universe. This ecological consciousness makes “The Tsuranga Conundrum” less a conundrum than an elegy for nature’s despoliation, as well as a lament that human beings disregard the cosmos’s remarkable diversity in favor of labels like monster, invader, and threat that foreclose the possibility of appreciating the biological complexity that surrounds us—and in which we participate—every day.
These environmental concerns may also explain why some online commentators—particularly those with Internet Movie Database (IMDb) accounts—so dislike “The Tsuranga Conundrum.” They loathe this episode as much as “Arachnids in the UK,” perhaps more so, particularly when accusing “Tsuranga” of the tonal inconsistencies that have characterized Doctor Who since its 1963 premiere. These haters especially dislike Yoss’s male pregnancy, a subplot that at first blush appears unconnected to the Pting storyline, but that Chibnall’s script braids into its larger narrative about birth: of people, surely, but also of new ideas, perspectives, and understandings of the wider cosmos. So yes, Yoss’s pregnancy may well signal Chibnall’s support for the rights of LGBT citizens—particularly transgender men and women—to raise their own children, and if so, good on Chibnall for recognizing that Doctor Who has always advocated equality for all life forms, real and imagined, since its 1963 inception (and certainly since Russell T. Davies resurrected the program in 2005). If “The Tsuranga Conundrum” is Doctor Who’s stealth argument for the mainstream acceptance of transgender people, I can only say, “Hurrah!”
Yet we need not read this episode as a political treatise about equal rights, personal autonomy, and individual dignity to credit its capacity to entertain us with the wacky mixture of outer-space adventure, armchair philosophy, and kooky fun that Doctor Who, by this point in its run, has patented. Seeing the Doctor stumble around the Tsuranga trying to repair the many malfunctions that the Pting’s arrival provokes is hilarious thanks to Jodie Whittaker’s mastery of the role. Even while doubling over in pain, Whittaker infuses the Doctor with intelligence, empathy, and a brio that fizzes from every pore. Mandip Gill again makes Yaz Khan the best friend a Time Lady could have, playing her character’s curiosity, trepidation, and courage so well that it seems Gill has held this role for years, not weeks. Lois Chimimba, reuniting with Whittaker from 2017’s BBC medical thriller Trust Me, is as good here as she was as Karen there, while Suzanne Packer—best known as Nurse Tess Bateman in the BBC’s long-running hospital drama Casualty—gives the episode’s best guest performance as Eve Cicero, a pilot willing the sacrifice herself for every Tsuranga passenger despite the protestations of her brother, Durkas Cicero (Ben Bailey-Smith).
Despite the naysayers’ opinions, Chibnall writes Yoss’s pregnancy as the highlight of “The Tsuranga Conundrum,” leaving Tosin Cole, Bradley Walsh, and Jack Shalloo to bring this seemingly daft storyline to life. And inject life they do—into scenes that are, by turns, funny, hapless, empathetic, and touching. Yoss’s pregnancy lasts only one week, the norm for all male Gifftans, who only give birth to male babies. Shalloo’s artful performance invests Yoss with all the anticipation, longing, and doubt that characterizes real parents-to-be. One of Shalloo’s best moments sees Yoss ask Ryan and Graham to be his doulas in an abashed, yet nonchalant tone that shows just how frightened he is. Although Mabli assists them, Ryan and Graham reassure the uncertain Yoss that he will be a terrific parent to the baby that Yoss wants to give away. Even better is the short scene where Mabli tells the companions that they will need to cut open Yoss’s “pregnancy sac” to help deliver the infant. Graham, who has just proudly declared that watching every episode of the BBC period drama Call the Midwife has prepared him for anything, confesses to the amused Ryan, “I always looked away at the squeamish bits.”
Graham also tells Yoss that Ryan will make a terrific doula because he (Ryan) is “descended from an old Earth nurse, it’s in his blood.” Invoking the memory of the sorely missed Grace Sinclair-O’Brien (Sharon D. Clarke), Ryan’s grandmother and Graham’s wife—who sacrificed herself to save them in Series 11’s premiere episode, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth”—brings the male-pregnancy subplot full circle by showing that both men have worked through enough of their grief about Grace’s death to embrace her compassion for people who require care regardless of circumstances. Chibnall, by allowing these comments to develop spontaneously, as natural responses to the childbirth scene’s frenetic pace, demonstrates a commendable subtlety that the rest of “The Tsuranga Conundrum” shows little interest in indulging.
This outing, all in all, is a clever piece of television narrative full of messages, to be sure, but so entertainingly structured, filmed, and performed that its appeal is impossible (for me, at least) to resist. First-time director Jennifer Perrott keeps a light touch with the comedy but brings suitably grim shadings to the tragic moments, including Astos’s accidental demise and Eve Cicero’s brave death. Yet Chibnall kills off another female character of color this week, which does not sit well, especially since Eve’s brother Durkas gets to be the hero who pilots the Tsuranga to safety. Like Grace four weeks earlier, Eve receives a lovely memorial service, but that is no real consolation given the fact that heroic women seem fated to die more than heroic men in Doctor Who’s Series 11.
That is a slightly sour note upon which to conclude this review of “The Tsuranga Conundrum,” but it is also a sour note upon which to conclude “The Tsuranga Conundrum,” so we will call it a wash for now. Let us hope that Chibnall does not think it necessary to make the rest of Series 11’s supporting female characters courageous, even kick-ass in the way that Grace and Eve are, then kill them off under the mistaken presumption that doing so illustrates how dangerous the Who universe can be. “The Tsuranga Conundrum” does a good-enough job of that anyway, meaning that, despite its drawbacks, this entry remains worth watching.