Doctor Who: The Tsuranga Conundrum
(1 episode, s11e05, 2018)
Stitch, Roy Kent, and a safe sacrifice.
Our heroes are hanging out in a junk galaxy. On Seffilun 27, one of the planets in this refuse-filled wasteland, the travelers are hunting for spare parts to patch up the TARDIS. As they dig, the Doctor uncovers an active sonic mine. When it detonates, everyone is knocked out and awakens in a hospital. The nurse, Astos, mentions that scavenger bots brought them to Tsuranga, which sets the Doctor off and motivates her to find the TARDIS.
As they search for the exit, the travelers meet Eve Cicero – over whom the Doctor fangirls – her brother Durkas, and her android consort Ronan. Eve is a fan of the Doctor, recognizing her name in the Book of Celebrants. The travelers move on and find a pregnant man named Yoss Inkl – a Giftan, a species of which both genders can give birth, but only to their own gender – before the Doctor succumbs to her injuries and collapses.
Also, the Tsuranga isn’t a building. It’s a rescue starship.
The Doctor picks herself up and tries to find the control room. Unfortunately, the ship is completely automated, crewed by nurses Astos and Mabli. Overriding the automatic systems would be seen as an act of hostility, and the Doctor finally relents when she realizes that she’s in the wrong.
Astos reveals that the ship is in an asteroid field close to Constant Division, a disputed territory, and both of them are startled by an alarm warning of a fast-approaching object and a subsequent hull breach. They track something moving around inside the shields, and Astos provides the Doctor with a communication unit as they investigate. Meanwhile, Ronan asks Mabli for some adrenaline blockers while Durkas attempts to hack into Eve’s medical records. Graham finds Durkas and they discuss how loved ones can sometimes hide bad news, which Graham attributes to keeping people from pain. Durkas says that Eve is being treated for Corden Fever, but her distance makes him think there’s more to the story than an easily treated disease.
As Astos and the Doctor track the disturbance, they find that the port escape pod has been jettisoned. Astos investigates the starboard escape pod but is trapped inside when it engages. He says a cryptic farewell to Mabli over the comms before the pod explodes. When the Doctor arrives at the pod door, she finds a small, angry creature snacking on various metal components. As Mabli, Yaz, Ryan, and Graham join the party, the Doctor tries to scan the creature but it bites the sonic screwdriver, spits it out, and dives into a nearby hole.
Everyone regroups in the ship’s control hub. Mabli mourns Astos’s death as she digs into the computer databanks. They soon find out that the creature is a Pting, a highly dangerous, toxic-to-touch, very hard-to-kill eating machine.
The Doctor tasks her companions with gathering everyone in the assessment area while she and Mabli develop an attack plan. Ryan and Yaz have a touching discussion with Yoss that stirs up childhood memories for Ryan, including how he found his mother dead from a heart attack when he was thirteen. Meanwhile, the ship detects the Pting and activates a sequence to prevent the creature from reaching Resus One, the Tsuranga‘s home port. The Doctor can postpone the sequence three times, but after that, the ship will self-destruct to save the station.
The Doctor briefs everyone in the assessment area on the situation. The ship’s main power goes out, leaving them on backups as heat and oxygen become premiums. Ryan and Graham end up acting as Yoss’s doulas as he goes into labor, and Mabli suggests that the Doctor scan Eve for more information on her condition. Eve has experience with a Pting – it decimated an entire fleet – and coordinates with the Doctor, Durka, and Ronan as they work on the antimatter drive. Yaz and Ronan stand guard duty over the drive as the Doctor, Eve, and Durka work on the computer.
The Doctor discovers that Eve has Pilot’s Heart, a condition among neuro-pilots that causes heart failure when adrenaline spikes. Durkas finds out as he tells the women that he’s rigged a primitive holographic interface to pilot the ship, and Eve decides that she will be the one to use it.
The Pting breaks through to the drive room. Ronan stuns it and Yaz wraps it in a medical blanket and punts it down the corridor. Meanwhile, as Eve is hooked up to the interface, the Doctor realizes that the Pting is hungry for energy, not for killing people, and races for Yaz and Ronan after postponing the ship’s autodestruct for the last time.
The Doctor’s sonic screwdriver reboots in time to help find the bomb built into the antimatter drive. She extracts the bomb and leaves Ronan to stand guard over the drive. Yaz accompanies the Doctor to the airlock and lures the Pting to them by speeding up the timer. The Pting takes the bait and the Doctor ejects it into space as the bomb explodes. The creature absorbs the entire blast and contently drifts into the asteroid field.
Eve pilots the ship out of danger and expresses her love for Durkas before she dies. Durkas takes control of the ship and pilots it to Resus One.
During all of this, Ryan and Graham bond over Yoss’s labor and delivery. Ryan channels his anger and grief into counseling for Yoss. Yoss doesn’t have to be perfect… he just has to be there for his new son. Yoss names his son Avocado after the legendary Earth hero Avocado Pear, which is a humorous misreading of Earth history.
When all is said and done, Mabli has arranged for the Doctor and her team to be taken back to the TARDIS. The collected survivors are buoyed by hope and their shared grief, and they all say farewell to Eve in a traditional ceremony.
This episode presents another case of interesting ideas being bogged down by questionable writing. The idea of the Pting is the typical no-win scenario trope found throughout science fiction, especially when coupled with a medical emergency that would drive urgency in a typical by-the-numbers script. But the urgency isn’t present because the medical expertise exists to deliver a baby without fancy technology. Humans have been doing it successfully for 200,000 years or so, and one can assume that Gifftans have done so as well.
So, instead of a medical emergency driving the urgency, we get an automated system that inexplicably allows three chances to override it. Instead of transmitting the data to the station and permitting the on-board medical attendants to explain the situation, a system is used to wipe out the problem without context. It becomes a sterile logic problem: A threat exists, eliminate the threat. Black and white, ignoring shades of gray.
I can get on board with this, but this time it comes with a major problem. We’ve seen systems like this before in Doctor Who, but we also take the time to discuss them and paint the allegorical picture for audiences to explain why they don’t work. There’s none of that here. The questionable writing is evident in a lack of follow-through. The plot ideas are seeded but are then promptly forgotten, which is a problem that plagues Chris Chibnall’s work on this show.
It also shows with the Doctor’s injuries, which nearly crippled her at the beginning of the story. They are virtually non-existent once the Pting arrives except for a bit of lip service paid in one or two exchanges, but she’s miraculously cured when the credits roll.
That said, we have a lot of excellent character development for Ryan and Graham as they grow closer. The rift isn’t quite sealed yet, but it’s getting there. The treatment of anti-matter is also well-researched.
It’s hard to not draw a connection between this story and Flesh and Stone, which also traps the Doctor, the companions, and the dangerous creatures in the same dramatic bottle. In that story, the energy was used to defeat the Weeping Angels, but here it merely gives the Pting a snack as it is removed from the ship to go
kill bother someone else.
It’s also not hard to draw the connection between Pting and Disney’s Stitch. Cute, small, and dangerous? This is the second time that I have seen the episode and I can’t not make the comparison.
Finally, there’s the Ted Lasso connection. The show about footballers wasn’t around in 2018, but I nearly leaped off my seat this time when Roy (F’in) Kent appeared as a nurse. It was quite the surprise and was nice to see him in a somewhat more lighthearted role.
To sum up, this episode is merely okay. The drama of the threat fails because the hand is tipped well before the final round. Eve and Astos have to die because the story demands heroic sacrifices, but everyone else is safe and happy in the end.
That’s exactly what this story is. It’s just safe science fiction.
Rating: 3/5 – “Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow.”
UP NEXT – Doctor Who: Demons of the Punjab
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