This story in a nutshell: The pting is…I’m not entirely sure I can sum it up in a nutshell. Antimatter. Asteroids. Bomb. Critter. A baby.
Oh Brilliant: Whittaker was dazzling this week, and it’s the first week (Rosa aside) where I have felt that we have had a fully confident and capable Doctor at the helm rather than a team player who allows everybody else to shine. Maybe Chibnall has just figured out how to write for her now, maybe Whittaker is naturally more confident in the role at this point or maybe I’m just enjoying the quirky northern charm that she brings to the role. There was plenty of Doctorish things for her to do, which really helps like running down corridors, fiddling with equipment, standing up to monsters, figuring out problems, reeling off technobabble, protecting her companions and thinking up insane solutions. It’s a performance with a great deal of energy and conviction whilst still a little vulnerability and humour. There’s not a chapter in the book of Celebrants about her, there is an entire volume. Not that she likes to boast. Actually, she doesn’t really, this Doctor is pretty reticent about boasting about her previous achievements. I thought the panic she displayed about losing the TARDIS, so soon after getting her back, was palpable and necessary. Her reaction to her sonic being eaten was priceless. A Doctor of medicine, science, engineering, candyfloss (??), Lego, philosophy, music, problems, people, hope. Mostly hope. And hope doesn’t just offer itself up – you have to use your imagination and the Doctor has that in spades. That’s a terrific scene for this new Doctor, exploring what she is all about. She strides into a room halfway through the episode and takes full charge for once. I never doubted her. Once she understands the Pting, she thinks up a genius plan to get it off the ship and I love how hairy the solution is. It has the potential to blow everybody up if she’s guessed wrong. The little salute she gives the Pting as she ejects him into space is perfect.
Graham: Why should there be a silly subplot with Graham and Ryan helping a man give birth, I hear you bemoan? Because it gives them both the chance to share a little comic relief and show their mettle in a crisis, but also it allows for some more touching scenes where they support and encourage this confused young man. Skipping over the fact that it is a man who is pregnant (probably the ultimate PC statement in a season full of them), these were genuinely warm and lovely scenes and they help give the climax a bit of emotional welly.
Ryan: Hooray for the return of the sweet and tortured Ryan from episode one, who in a beautifully scripted moment admits to Yaz how much losing his dad hurt him as a kid. Speaking as somebody who was also let down by his father as a child, I can certain empathise. It’s clear that we are building up to something here and Chibnall’s subtle building of his companions’ lives is one of the best aspects of the latest season. I’m certainly having the feels more for Ryan and (especially) Graham than I ever did for Clara or Bill. They might have been more memorable instigators of action, but they never felt this real. The reason Ryan’s dad left is pretty heart-breaking and finding his mother dead must have killed him a little bit inside. It explains a lot about why he is such an introverted soul.
Yaz: Marvellously Yaz really comes to life in the second half of this episode, in a way that she hasn’t for me to date. Suddenly she’s active with a staser, struggling with monsters, giving them a swift kick (that scene made me laugh out loud) and enjoying fun and frantic banter with the Doctor. She essentially stands around in the background in the first half of the episode, but her involvement in the climax shows a huge step in the right direction.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Whole worlds pivot on acts of imagination.’
The Good: A fabulous opening on Seffilun 27, a marvellous and memorable location that is brewed up for the purposes of getting the Doctor and company from A to B. I could have spent much more time poking around the scrap planet looking for a story to emerge but we have places to be. I’m pleased we’re kickstarting stories in this way rather than always opening inside the TARDIS. Like the Ghost Monument, these unconventional openings (Moffat used to enjoy doing cuts between many different plots in the pre-title sequences but would generally have the Doctor and companion arriving by TARDIS) which see the Doctor cut off from the TARDIS are rather unusual and enjoyable for it. A good old-fashioned spaceship of the clinical variety; I thought it looked visually impressive and given this is an old-fashioned base under siege story it needed to be for the Doctor and friends to run about in. There are plenty of West Wing style tracking shots to make the dialogue scenes snappier and to show of the design. I’d take this statuesque and gothic android over the android-not android from Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS any day. Suzanne Packer gives a nicely understated performance as Cicero, a character with a lot of hyperbole attached to it and instead of turning her into some arrogant military hero Packer and Chibnall instead make her much more nuanced and modest than that. The sibling tension angle is hardly a new device but as a way of giving both characters depth in a situation it worked on this occasion. I think if one of them hadn’t died, it might have lacked the heart it needed but by the end of the episode these two characters who are estranged have come together in a crisis and realised that they love one another, leaving one of them heartbroken and the other a heroine. That’s a character journey within an hour full of other stuff going on. Bravo. Everyone turns up to meet the star of the show: the Pting! As well as having a ridiculously quotable name, it’s an insanely designed creature that manages to be both cute and sinister (actually I sinister because it was cute). Why can’t creatures in Doctor Who be both? People had a similar problem with the Adipose and I adored them too. It’s different and a bit silly, and I think that’s the real objection. But different and silly works for me in this ultra-benign season. People have a whinge when Chibnall plays it safe and uses giant spiders and people moan when he goes for broke by introducing something bizarre and original like the Pting. I rather liked both. And I loved the fact that he gobbled up the sonic…and that one of the many climaxes of this story involved him eating a bomb and it detonating inside its stomach! Only on Doctor Who…and when I get to say that I know I’m onto something enjoyable.
The Bad: A female Doctor, lectures on guns, a story that vilifies racism, an ecological sermon and now a pregnant man. I loathe to say this but maybe the Daily Mail is right and Doctor Who has become too PC for its own good? Hahahahaha. Of course not, I’d rather choke on my own intestines than admit that. But all of these left-wing agendas back to back are starting to form a pattern of morality that is a little dictatorial. I’d love next week to offer a really scathing attack on the partition of India with more morally grey areas. On its own there is nothing wrong with the concept of a pregnant man from another species. I have seen it done before on other shows and it’s a harmless bit of fun. It’s biggest crime here is that it is entirely disconnected to the episode as a whole, just there to give Graham and Ryan something to do. As a subplot on it’s nicely acted and written with some rather touching moments. I’m sure there are plenty of young single mothers out there who can empathise with what Yoss is going through. Character subplots like this that eat up so much time belong on Star Trek really. But beyond adding more detail to the the ultra-liberal themes that are running through season eleven like Brighton through a stick of rock, I don’t have any major objections to this sweet bit of character drama. I’m baffled that we did not get any exterior shots of the ship diving through the asteroid field as Eve directs them through. Stinks of a budget saving device to me, classic Who style. Maybe the money is being saved for next weeks trip to India. The self-rebooting sonic smacks me as being a bit of an easy fix. Call the Midwife? Pop culture references really date a show in years to come. But I guess no more than in Bad Wolf or a hundred other RTD references. The avocado gag completely missed the mark for me. Chibnall proved in this episode that he capable of grand moments of energetic humour (Yaz smacking the Pting into the net) but his scripted jokes often fall flat because they are obvious and too simple. The prayer at the end was probably a push to hard towards making the audience emote. Gridlock achieved its grand swelling of emotion during the prayer scene because the entire episode had been pitched at that operatic level. This was a much more contained and quieter piece and so going out on a prayer feels a bit overdone.
The Shallow Bit: Whittaker just has a look, she’s radiant. I think she’s a stunning looking lead for the show. And just to keep things balanced we also have Tosin is practically edible in some shots (the pep talk he gives to Yoss during his pregnancy in particular). There was a very cute nurse in there too, all
Result: Fans declare WORST EPISODE SINCE…so naturally I rather enjoyed it. I would say this is Chibnall’s most agreeable episode to date, The Woman Who Fell to Earth notwithstanding. For the Pting alone I would give this an above average mark, the horrifically cute little critter was such a quirky addition and led to some brilliant moments of lunacy, exactly the sort of thing I would never expect from a Chibnall script. Doctor Who fans love to talk in absolutes and I’ve seen the Gallifrey Base forums light up with exclamations that this was biggest piece of televisual excrement they have ever seen. In my humble opinion it is hardly that and if it does get a little pedestrian in places there is plenty happening in the myriad of plots to keep the interest focussed and the surprises coming. I’m still confused about the title, though. Perhaps the conundrum is how the five different narrative threads belong together in the same episode. However, in a season of episodes where I have been complaining about the lack of plot, to have this much going on (the Pting, the guy with the baby, the sibling rivalry, the ship out of control and the bomb) is actually quite a relief. I’m not entirely sure that The Tsuranga Conundrum pulled all of these off brilliantly but there was certain enough happening to keep this mid-season episode pacy, active and engaging. Nice design and direction, a Doctor that is fully active and involved, lovely character moments (I always approve of those) and a memorable (for the right or wrong reasons depending on your tolerance to this kind of thing) monster. You could do a lot worse. Chibnall pretty much always scores a win when he is writing human drama but falters when it comes to science fiction but this had plenty of the latter and some of it was surprisingly good. There’s something rather uncynical about his approach to Doctor Who, focussing on the nicer side of the universe, which is actually rather refreshing: 7/10