Monday, 5 November 2018

Space Balls

Doctor Who
The Tsuranga Conundrum
Series Eleven, Episode Five

Oh, what’s this?  A fifth consecutive episode written or co-written* by Chris Chibnall?  (*See Rosa, noticeably the best episode yet.)  Well, I see no reason to worry.  Off we go.

Surprise!  It sucks.  Some of which is down to odd choices in the production, and I’ll get to those.  But most of it is our good friend, the writing.  Of course it is.  To expect Chibs to suddenly metamorphose into a brilliant writer now is the definition of insanity.

The Tsuranga Conundrum actually starts well, with the TARDIS already having landed and the crew in the middle of something.  That’s my jam!  Granted, what they’re in the middle of is wandering around a junk planet with metal detectors looking for… something… which they can’t be bothered to explain, even though they’ve apparently been at it for four hours.  You’d hope it was important for all that.  (Incidentally, it’s so helpful when a character announces how long they’ve been doing something.  Like that old joke of how you find out the time in the middle of the night: bang a drum until someone yells “WHO’S BANGING A DRUM AT FOUR O’CLOCK IN THE MORNING.”)  Graham promptly finds a “sonic mine” which the Doctor is completely unable to stop, giving us yet another pathetic “Sorry” before they’re all obliterated.

Well look, at least it's not copyright infringing that alien.
Just kidding!  The Doctor lucks out and none of them are killed – not for want of standing around like a tit and staring at the bomb as it goes off – although the Doctor does gain a serious injury that will plague her for the rest of the episode.  Kidding again, sort of!  She has some sort of pain which means she’ll occasionally wince and grab her side.  It serves absolutely no purpose in the story for her to do that, but do it she will, on and off for forty minutes.  Grand.  Anyway, our heroes find themselves on some sort of space hospital, and for some reason it takes the Doctor a while to figure out this is actually a spaceship.  I’ve no idea why since a) she probably knows there’s nothing like this on the junk planet, and b) she’s been on a billion spaceships before, it’s obviously a spaceship.  But this is Series 11 and the most basic information is going to be treated like a revelation.  Certainly when it’s this Doctor figuring it out, one head-scratch or grunt at a time.

We quickly meet the two medics in charge and their patients, including a pregnant man.  We learn about them in quick succession, all with the usual subtle Chibnall touch.  “I understand your responsibilities, Ronan.  I hear about them endlessly.”  “Says the man who never wants any of his own.”  /  “I fix the things pilots like my sister tend to wreck.  And she looks down on me for it, and she always will.”  /  “You can do this, Mabli.  You’re good enough.  You have to believe in yourself!”  /  “He was one of the only people who ever believed in me, including me!”  Mercifully a plot arrives in the form of a mysterious alien, which gives the Doctor plenty of opportunities to strut her stuff.  Kidding, obviously!  She gets put in her place by the chief medic and then fails to save him, as he stupidly blunders into an escape pod which is blasted into space and then explodes for some reason.  She then comes face to face with the alien, tries to sound tough and is completely ignored, observes that it can “digest pretty much whatever it wants” and is somehow surprised when it eats the sonic screwdriver she waves right in its face.  Not exactly a showcase for Jodie’s Doctor, this one, but then have we had anything like that this series?

Still, we have our alien.  What’s it like?  Well, remember me grumbling about production choices?  Here’s one.  Perhaps not wishing to copy Ridley Scott, they go in the opposite direction with a cute CGI critter that looks like Stitch, and then they tell us it doesn’t eat living things.  Aww!  Except it’s responsible for one death already – not deliberately, though the Doctor has to do some more bumbling and guessing before she twigs this – and the episode hinges on the threat posed by it, so maybe they could threat it up a bit?  But despite a lot of early comments about how fast and unstoppable it is, the Doctor seems happy to ask for seven minutes to think of a plan, and the other characters are then able to wander around having slow conversations like nothing’s wrong.  You could cut the tension with bubbles.  And incidentally, what conversations: since Ryan’s purpose in life is to moan about his dad, the sight of a pregnant man gives him all sorts of Feelings to work through.  Yaz’s purpose in life is to do whatever’s left over in the script, so she gets to feed him lots of thankless questions which, if you’re feeling really charitable, could be construed as policeman-like?  (This is her side of the conversation: “When was the last time you saw your dad?”  “Why?”  “D’you mind me asking, how did your mum die?”  “God.  Who found her?”  “How old were you?”  That... that isnt how conversations work, you guys.)

Eventually even Chibnall decides the Pting is a bit too adorable to hang the whole episode on – even the name sounds fun! – so we’re reminded that the ship’s home base will blow them all up without hesitation if they believe there’s a dangerous creature on board.  Teeny bit harsh?  How likely even is that?  (Earlier on, the chief medic says they could get blown up if the Doctor tampers with the controls.  Did someone just buy a lot of explosives and really needs to get their money’s worth?)  The Doctor’s seven minutes are up and – surprise! – she hasn’t done anything and asks the rest of them for ideas.  This is the generously-named “conundrum”, by the way: they need to get rid of the alien, ideally without touching it, and hope the home base doesn’t blow them up first.  The Doctor eventually figures out that one of the ship’s explosives could a) lure it towards an airlock and b) feed it long enough to get away, but the magic ingredient to her plan is, and always seems to be time.  This Doctor never works stuff out, she just fruitlessly marches up and down until the solution plops out in front of her when the episode’s nearly done.  This is surely not how you write a genius character.

This week, in a shocking development, Ryan is a dick to Graham.
Just to raise the stakes, the pregnant bloke goes into labour – what did you think this was, Fargo? – but it’s a comedy subplot especially since it’s a bloke, so the stakes don’t actually get any higher, it’s just wacky extra colour.  But it lets Ryan tediously lecture an alien on how to live his life because of his own dad baggage.  A famous space pilot gives her life piloting the ship towards the home base, only for that to be awkwardly undercut when her (not-at-risk-of-dying) brother ably takes over.  So, uh, what did she die for, then?  All the while, the Doctor keeps putting the home base’s surprisingly polite “Are you sure we don’t need to blow you up?” question on snooze, like the goddamn genius that she is.  Eventually the sonic screwdriver fixes itself, probably because it noticed it wasn’t getting anywhere with her.

And the thing just goes on and on and on.  At one point the Doctor delivers a speech about the wonderfulness of anti-matter drives.  Why not?  We’ve got all day, apparently.

It probably should be exciting, with a… technology?  No, energy-eating monster on the rampage, and a spaceship that will explode with the slightest provocation.  But the characters aren’t scared, unless you count Mabli the medic whose crisis of confidence is well established before the alien even turns up.  “Action” scenes include Yaz kicking the Pting uselessly down a corridor – because it’ll never find its way back from there! – and the only deaths are by accident or from natural causes.  At a glance it’s trying to be Doctor Who meets Alien, but as there’s no attempt to create any atmosphere what with the cuddly-wuddly monster and all the friendly, brightly-lit corridors, and all the attempts at tension suffer from the incessant need to stretch everything out, they might have been better off leaning into Gremlins and making it funny instead.  They try to with the Man Have Baby! stuff, much good it does the rest of it, but look at what passes for a “joke” here.  When he finally has the baby and wants to name it “Avocado Pear” in honour of Ryan and Graham, because… future history is wrong, and like, full of avocadoes or something… he says that calling it “Ryan Graham” would make it a laughing stock.  Why?  Oh right, for no reason at all.  Haha?  What the hell is that?

I felt quite sorry for the director as the characters yacked on interminably and, in one curiously un-thrilling sequence, stared at a ticking bomb and just hoped for the monster to amble along.  What can you do with this stuff?  Yet again it feels like Chibnall’s making it up minute-to-minute, piling on threats to keep it interesting but straining to the point of aneurism just to get the simplest plot progression going.  As for writing the Doctor, a character of mythical mystery with a dizzying intellect, that’s seeming like a taller order every week.  On the plus side we’re now out of Chibnall territory for a few weeks, but who are we kidding?  We’ll be back.  And he’ll be there, ready to force his latest half-idea slowly and painfully through a mesh screen, where other show-runners used sometimes to fire them out of cannons.


  1. Yep, we are definitely on the same page here. This was one where we enjoyed reviewing it a great deal more than we did watching it. The relentless dumbness is really grinding us down.

    1. Well done on your review - I loved it! Deffo more creative and fun than the episode. Weirdly I considered a similar approach as I was running out of ways to say “I dunno about this Chibnall guy, fellas,” but I chickened out. Might save it for a later one. :P