❉ Without a doubt, The Tsuranga Conundrum was Chibnall’s best script so far for Doctor Who, writes Rob Fairclough.
“It’s destroying everything in its path!”
As a good friend of mine pointed out, this week’s menace, the energy hungry, tiny and deceptively cute Pting, appears to have been based on a 1980s TV advert for Chewits sweets. That featured a similarly ravenous but rather larger monster, promoting confectionery “even chewier than Barrow-in-Furness bus depot.” For all I know, writer Chris Chibnall may also have drawn inspiration from the ‘pregnant man’ press campaign that was doing the rounds too back then.
Inspiration can come from anywhere. It’s doesn’t matter because, without a doubt, The Tsarunga Conundrum was Chibnall’s best script so far for Doctor Who. Together with Rosa, it shows that the new fifty minute format for the series can work spectacularly well.
There was detailed world building here to rival ‘classic series’ writer Robert Holmes, who was the undisputed master of it: in the 67th century, men give birth to boys and women give birth to girls, medical spacecraft operate on programmed flight paths and can be destroyed remotely if contaminated or compromised, androids can be identified by the texture of their hair, and cease to function when their owners die – “there is only Shut Down”, a great line – astronauts suffer from a condition called Pilot Heart, the Doctor has “more of a volume than a chapter” in the Book Of Celebrants…
The care taken to embellish what was basically a base-under-siege story, with the added comedy twist of a pregnant man going into labour, was especially impressive after Chibnall’s rather spartan and lukewarm take on space exploration in The Ghost Monument. There was even time for a eulogy by the Doctor to antimatter. That was particularly wonderful; firstly because the dear old First Doctor would sometimes say similar things, secondly because seeing the wonder of science praised and promoted “conceptually and actually” like this is a great thing, particularly for children.
I love the idea that some futures still have the stylised, pristine white curves of Stanley Kubrick’s space epic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), alluded to so well here by production designer Arwel Jones, in a homage to 1960s sci fi spacecraft. It’s really refreshing after the interminable post-Alien grime fetish.
The Tsarunga Conundrum was warm, funny, tense and dramatic, with a real sense of crisis and time running out, superbly handled by director Jennifer Perrott, who also drew note perfect performances from the four regulars and the guest cast. David Shields as Ronan (resembling the walking dead guy from Lexx, 1997-2002) was a stand out, underplaying effectively as the Mr Spock in this situation. His hilarious “Are you experiencing comprehension deficiency?”, directed at the Doctor’s lateral thinking, was more than worthy of the USS Enterprise’s science officer.
The theme this year is definitely personal empowerment (the Doctor’s friends, Rosa, this week mediacl orderly Mabli) and the strength of family in spite of internal tensions (Graham and Ryan, this week General Cicero and her brother Yoss). In a rather cynical and harsh 2018, restating the beneficial effect of having a genuinely caring family around you is good to see.
I’m also starting to wonder if we’ve got our first pacifist Doctor. Despite endangering everyone’s life, the Pting was allowed to live when he/it could have easily been blown up by the bomb it swallowed, which would have been satisfyingly grisly. Five stories in, the thirteenth Doctor has yet to kill anyone or anything. The great thing is, it doesn’t affect the strength of the stories. It’ll be interesting to see how this production decision – if it is a production decision – pans out.
I love the new title sequence. I love Segun Akinola’s arrangement of the theme music. It’s all coming together; I’ll be watching The Tsaranga Conundrum again and again, and next week’s episode looks great too. I’m a happy fan.
That Pting, though… a comical little geezer, quite literally a gremlin corrupting the infrastructure of a spaceship. It looked funny but wasn’t, one of the visual motifs of Doctor Who. Personally, I hope they get them in the shops in time for Christmas.
“The stories have all been different, haven’t they?” said mum appreciatively after the episode finished. It was ever thus, mother.
❉ ‘Doctor Who’ airs on BBC One, and is made by BBC Studios in Wales. Series link: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006q2x0
❉ Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to We Are Cult, ‘Doctor Who Magazine’, ‘Infinity’ and ‘SFX’. He is the author of The Prisoner: The Official Companion to the Classic TV Series, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’.