While the first four episodes of Jodie Whittaker’s run on Doctor Who have been overall stellar, it’s safe to say that “The Tsuranga Conundrum” is where this current regeneration of the show has hit its stride.
So let’s crack into it.
The Doctor and company are scavenging on a trash planet when they accidentally set off a sonic bomb. They wake up on a rescue ship operated by Tsuranga that travels about finding injured people and taking care of them (sort of like a space Red Cross). The ship is automated, and will take them back to a Tsuranga hub before releasing them wherever they need to go, but before they make it back, the ship is attacked by a Pting, one of the most deadly creatures in the universe. It is small and eats nearly every inorganic material, and because Pting are toxic to the touch and uniquely destructive, no one has ever been able to figure out why they do what they do. The ship’s main doctor, Astos (Brett Goldstein), is killed by the Pting when he enters a lifepod that gets jettisoned from the ship and explodes. This leaves behind the second doctor, Mabli (Lois Chimimba), neuro-pilot General Eve Cicero (Suzanne Packer), her brother Durkas Cicero (Ben Bailey-Smith), her android “consort” Ronan (David Shields), and a pregnant male Gifftan named Yoss (Jack Shalloo).
It turns out that General Cicero is suffering from an ailment called “Pilot’s Heart”, which causes adrenaline surges that will eventually make her heart give out. She has been keeping this information from her bother because she doesn’t want to worry him. While their family drama plays out, Graham and Ryan get roped into Yoss’s labor. The Doctor and Mabli work to figure out what the Pting could possibly want from them, but they have a time table; the sensors on the ship have informed the Tsuranga base that their might be a Pting on board. They would ordinarily be instructed to escape in lifepods, but they have none left, and the base will still detonate the ship while they’re all aboard in order to prevent them from bringing the Pting back.
The Doctor realizes that the Pting is feasting on energy and that she can use the self-destruct bomb planted inside the ship to feed the thing. She removes the bomb, puts it by an airlock, and she and Yas wait for it. Eventually the Pting does come by, eats the bomb, and happily floats out the airlock, full of energy. In the meantime, Yoss gives birth and is convinced to keep his son due to Ryan’s encouragement. The ship is out of control due to being ripped apart, so Durkas creates a pilot interface for his sister, and she guides them back until her heart gives out and she dies, and he has to complete the landing for her. The group says a prayer in her memory as they dock.
We appear to have hit the mark where showrunner Chris Chibnall’s particular concept Doctor Who‘s future has finally found its mark. This episode was classic in many ways—trouble on a ship, a handful of people dealing with their own problems, and the Doctor and companions in step. There are questions about the perceived “enemy” throughout the story, and reveals about the alien and all the other characters throughout. But this episode is smart in how it uses these devices, full of subversion and action and fun.
There’s a load of fantastic guest stars here, and a fascinating gender juxtaposition of male characters who show strength through their compassion for others, while the female characters show strength via knowledge and competence. Astos does everything in his power to keep his patients safe, and when he knows that he will not make it, his final words are to give his coworker Mabli assurances that she is perfectly capable of seeing everyone through the ordeal. General Cicero is a legend, and a brilliant pilot, and willing to do whatever it takes to see the group safely to their destination; it falls to her brother Durkas and Ronan to worry for her health, and then to mourn her. Yoss spends the episode coming to terms with parenthood, while Mabli knows the Tsuranga procedures, and the Doctor and Yas are largely responsible for solving the Pting problem.
The Pting is a great alien, too. Weirdly cute, unintentionally deadly foes is one of those things that Doctor Who is perfectly situated to do well.
This story took great joy in flipping plenty of other common tropes on their heads. While there was an aspect of camp to Yoss’s pregnancy at the beginning, the typical “someone’s about to give birth in the middle of a crisis” led to several excellent twists: 1) Ryan and Graham could have acted disgusted by Yoss and the very concept of male labor, but they both adjust rather quickly to the idea. 2) Ryan doesn’t suggest that Yoss should keep his child because “he’s the dad,” but instead because he suspects that he might miss the child. 3) There are several well-placed wink’n’nudge jokes that Yoss’s labor is still less arduous than a female one, due the shortness of the pregnancy term and the lack of pain. 4) The labor requires that the show’s two main male characters have to not only sit out a good portion of the action to take part in a process that only female characters are typically stuck with, but they have to be emotionally present for another man in this process. It’s wonderful.
And even in Graham’s smugness over knowing a thing or two because he watches Call the Midwife, he still has to admit that he looks away during the scary bits.
This all plays into Ryan’s arc as well, taking his chance to help Yoss deal with impending fatherhood as a way of working through some of his problems with his own largely absent father. Ryan and Yas have a moment finally talking about how his mother died; we learn that she had a heart attack when he was thirteen, and that he was the one who found her. Watching he and Graham bond has been meticulous handled on top of all of this, and it’s hard not to love the both of them as they come to really love each other as family.
With Ryan and Graham getting emotional boundaries to cross each week, it leaves Yas to be the more proactive and engaged of the group in terms of asking the questions and getting things done. Hopefully, she will get her own emotional arc soon enough, but it’s so enjoyable to watch her treating the Doctor more like buddy, because they read like contemporaries side by side. (It occurs to me that the Doctor hasn’t made mention of the fact that she’s longer lived, even if regeneration has been brought up.) It means a lot to have a female Doctor and female companion working together so easily, and their chemistry is completely effortless.
While the companions continue to shine and grow and be generally lovely as a little crew, this episode was really a renewed mission statement for the Doctor herself. Here we learn the bits and pieces that separate her from her forebears; she still doesn’t like being told what to do, but she’s a much better listener—she actually stops what she’s doing when Astos tells her that she might get everyone hurt because she’s being (however unintentionally) hostile toward their environment. She pays attention to what everyone around her is doing and saying, enough to pick up on important cues, such as Ronan getting adrenaline blockers for General Cicero. She keeps tabs on everyone easier than before, in part because she’s far more cognizant of what skills and abilities she can call on.
In addition, we are seeing an emerging key factor for the Thirteenth Doctor’s persona; she’s more of an engineer than her previous incarnations, and shows a deep love and fascination for the discipline. (Indeed, another theme of the episode is the importance of appreciating engineering, between the Doctor and Durkas’s skills being essential to the group’s survival.) When she enters the engine room and explains how the anti-matter drive works to Yas, her face lights up like a child watching fireworks. She declaims its beauty, the fact that this concept allows beings to travel across the universe, and says, “I love it. Conceptually… and actually.” This Doctor doesn’t just know science, she adores it. You cannot for a moment dismiss the intention of that decision, cannot ignore the fact that the creative team must be thinking at every turn: We are going to get children (and particularly little girls) to care about science, to be awed by it. The Doctor will show them how.
True to form, she is the one who figures out that the Pting wants energy and thinks to use the bomb meant to destroy their ship to feed the thing. (There is something particularly satisfying about watching its little tummy implode with energy as it smiles and floats away into space once more.) It’s a gorgeous Whovian solution, true to everything that the show tries to espouse about thought over might, understanding over fear.
And even apart from all this we get a small moment between the Doctor and Mabli, where she asks if the Doctor is a doctor of medicine, misunderstanding her name. The Doctor replies, simply, “Well, medicine, science, engineering, candy floss. LEGO, philosophy, music, problems, people. Hope. Mostly hope.”
A million grandstanding speeches across the show’s half-century could never put it more succinctly than that.
The Doctor of Hope.
Adorable asides for this week:
- The Doctor has seen all 900 casts of the musical Hamilton. (Okay, but which number does she do while making tea in the morning?)
- The Doctor said “snap!” again, which is a favored exclamation used by both Classic and NuWho Doctors.
- We see the ship’s database flash through a bunch of old Who villains on the bridge screen before the report on the Pting.
- I love that the Doctor can’t resist bragging about her “volume” in The Book of Celebrants. Whatever that is.
- Start taking bets… how long before someone decides to name their kid Avocado Pear?