★ Every Doctor has her or his turkey. This is WhittakWho’s first. I fear it won’t be her last. The alien of the hour even looks like some freak-show poultry, force-fed and plucked, ready for basting. The “Pting” is quite the most ridiculous mini-critter in Doctor Who since… well, I’m thinking of those cutesy Adipose fat-blobs in Partners in Crime ten years ago. This junk-gobbling gremlin doesn’t convince and is patently absurd (bearing in mind one must be prepared for all degrees of absurdity in Doctor Who). I only hope the smaller kids watching will appreciate its cartoonish nature, bug eyes and bad manners.
The episode gets off to an unprepossessing start with Team Tardis grubbing about on a junk planet, sifting through rubbish – a bad omen if ever there was for what is to follow. Is this really the most enticing mission the Doctor can offer her pals after last week’s inspiring all-hands-together communion in the Tardis…? In quick time, they’ve stumbled upon a “sonic mine” but it has negligible effect upon their anatomy; the downside for the quartet is being collected by a passing rescue craft, where they must endure the remainder of this brightly lit but otherwise dismal instalment.
It’s Casualty in Space. Unlike the BBC1 medi-soap, this emergency unit is understaffed and largely automated. A spaceship that is traversing the cosmos undefended, it’s prone to attack – either by marauding aliens or by “remote structural termination” from its own base hospital. Failing hospitals everywhere, be warned.
In a vacuum of pleasures, the ship itself almost becomes the star of this show. It’s elegantly designed, clinically gleaming of course, but with skill and imagination put into the sweeping curves, gadgetry and detailed interactive displays. The mood music, almost a low-wattage Jean Michel Jarre hum and burble from Segun Akinola, enhances what little atmosphere there is.
A few interesting scientific and sci-fi ideas emerge but aren’t fully developed. Perhaps best is when the Time Lord starts marvelling at the ship’s antimatter drive, represented by a glistening coil. Jodie Whittaker becomes impassioned and almost sells the impression that she’s the most intelligent person in the room, which, in most cases, the Doctor should be. She witters and caws too much for my taste, diminishing the character, but is still the person you’d most want around in a crisis, and it’s novel to see the Doctor thinking, feeling towards answers.
Significantly, there isn’t enough action, or division of action, to warrant four regulars this week. Yaz is asked to help out in the emergency and bundles up the Pting in a blanket, and that’s just about it for her. Except when she ventures into soapland in the midst of the crisis and initiates a conversation with Ryan about how his mum died. Ryan and Graham end up saddled with a subplot about an alien man in childbirth, cutting open his stomach, snipping his bi-umbilical cords and coaching him into fatherhood. As an exercise in male bonding, it’s as hopeless as it is embarrassing.
None of the guest characters – staff, patients or attendants – is particularly vivid. Not the fault of the actors. Lois Chimimba is endearing as the vulnerable No 2 medic, Mabli. Closest to interesting is sickly General Eve Cicero, with whom the Doctor shares an entry in The Book of Celebrants, whatever that may be.
Adding to the Casualty vibe, Eve is played by Suzanne Packer, who was Sister Tess Bateman in the BBC1 series for many years (2003–2016). Her “expertise in symbiotic neuro-piloting” comes in handy but she expires in the effort of steering the ship. The tech that’s stuck on her while she’s in pilot mode is another underdeveloped idea that fails to satisfy.
Every week something different. That’s Doctor Who for you. The perennial pattern. Series 11 has certainly managed to deliver five varied dramas in succession. The showrunner Chris Chibnall has written four of the five so far and had a co-writing credit on the third. I doubt this is a sign of him running out of steam already, but at this stage you should still expect to see an episode showcasing something a writer wants to get out of their system. Apart from the weird angle on fatherhood, there’s very little to take away from this misfire.
The Tsuranga Conundrum is just like a trip to A&E. I was rushed in, struggled to remain conscious while an unpleasant lump was removed, was only partly reassured by a junior doctor, and I’m now so relieved it’s all over and hope never to return.