I Think I'm Ready for Doctor Who to Stop Proving That It's Still Doctor Who

By James Whitbrook on at

Despite being a programme about change, there’s always a certain amount of trepidation in Doctor Who when any amount of it happens, whether it’s just a new monster or a whole new Doctor. The latest season has seen more changes than we’ve had in a while – and it still feels like it’s trying assuage that familiar trepidation.

“The Tsuranga Conundrum,” like practically every episode this season before it, takes a page out of the big bumper book of Doctor Who story types. “Arachnids” was B-movie horror, “Rosa” was a properly old-school historical, and “The Ghost Monument” a sci-fi mystery caper. “The Tsuranga Conundrum” is the classical “base under siege” trope, as the Doctor and her friends find themselves wounded mid-adventure and carted aboard a hospital ship that patches them up...only for the ship to be waylaid by a creature stalking it, threatening to literally munch its way through the whole thing and leave them stranded (or blown up by the weirdly hostile administration that runs the hospital ship).

Even when it’s meant to be petrifying, the Pting is just too gosh darn cute.

The monster attacking the base – adorably named the Pting – ends up being significantly less monstrous than first thought by the Doctor and her friends. In fact, if it wasn’t dining on the parts the ship needs to actually be spaceworthy, it’d be almost too cute to bear. But the Pting, adorable as it is, gives “The Tsuranga Conundrum” its monster to battle, and so the Doctor and her friends do, like Doctors and their friends have done pretty much every other time Doctor Who has done a “base under siege” story. And it does a perfectly fine job doing so, and outside of the ongoing theme this season of relishing in the scientific-side of science fiction, it just ends up feeling like a solid execution of a story we’ve seen many times before. Neither amazing or awful, just...existent.

And that’s fine, sometimes. Not every episode of Doctor Who has to necessarily be either an iconic, unforgettable piece of television, or a turgid, abject failure. Across 55 years of time and space adventure, you’re going to get a few stories that hits their beats solidly, and go in one ear and out the other the minute you’re done watching – let’s be real, who among us really remembers “The Ribos Operation” as well as we do something like “The City of Death”? As ridiculously, show-stealingly cute the Pting might be, “The Tsuranga Conundrum” is destined to join many stories in that middling ether.

The Doctor waxes lyrical about the beauty of antimatter in one of the episode’s best moments.

Hell, there’s even an argument to be made that Doctor Who frankly wouldn’t be Doctor Who with the occasional throwaway story, to more keenly contrast the giddy highs and crushing lows against a patina of average-ness. But “Tsuranga” being not just a perfectly serviceable episode, but a perfectly serviceable aping of a story style we’ve seen countless times on Doctor Who before – coming off of a string of takes on other Who tropes executed far better already this season – seems to indicate we’ve reached a bit of a breaking point, at least when it comes to this new era of Doctor Who trying to earnestly prove to us that it can still do Doctor Who-y things.

“The Tsuranga Conundrum” is almost classic-era Who to a fault. It’s a slowly-paced story where the stakes are more simply that the Doctor and friends showed up and need to leave, rather than there being a day to be saved, so the stakes aren’t particularly personal or lofty. There’s a large group of companions, which leads to multiple branched paths as they all split up, meaning less time for banter with each other (outside of that lovely moment between Yaz and Ryan about the latter’s father) as their stories run parallel. It’s all, once again, finely executed, but the lack of a particular impact beyond the confines of this episode leaves “Tsuranga” ultimately feeling a bit throwaway.

Last week I started pondering just what Doctor Who gets out of this performative ouroboros, the quest in exploring its own meta-narrative past by churning out takes on familiar archetypes. And I think part of it is that with so much change in season 11, there was a need felt to introduce Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor and her new friends through the lens of stories Doctor Who has repeatedly turned to in its past as a way of combating that trepidation I mentioned earlier. Look, it’s the same old Doctor Who, but with a great new face! And it’s a smart move that’s seemingly worked very well so far, drawing back in lapsed viewers to a pretty respectable tune. But “The Tsuranga Conundrum” marks the halfway point into the 13th Doctor’s maiden voyage.

Which means that I think it’s more than proved enough that it’s still Doctor Who already – if anything, it didn’t really need to keep trying to prove it again with “Tsuranga,” given the overall strength of this season of familiar story tropes so far. We have a remarkable new Doctor, a promising new companion group, and a revitalised energy to the show brought about by all this change. Doctor Who needs to start capitalising on that to show what this brave new era can add to the rich tapestry of the show’s nigh-on-undefinable legacy of Who-ness, because really, it has proved it knows its roots more than enough at this point.

Nothing detonating a giant, ship-scuttling explosive in its insides SHOULD BE THIS ADORABLE.

Assorted Musings

  • Seriously though: the BBC are screwing up big time if there’s not a plush Pting on store shelves in time for Christmas. That thing was adorable, and while it’s an anecdotal metric at best, it was pretty much the only Doctor Who thing that trended on social media in the wake of the episode. Give the people what they want!
  • I am loving the ongoing science-nerd aspect of the 13th Doctor’s character. That moment she got lost in explaining positrons and antimatter to Yaz was beautifully done. This era of Doctor Who loves itself a science-education moment – if the Doctor can inspire people to learn more about STEM subjects, that can only be a good thing.
  • Maybe the real “Tsuranga Conundrum” was just what the hell the Tsuranga corporation actually is, because the episode barely explained why we should care. The Doctor mentions early on that the name is familiar, but we never get a sense as to actually why. Something the show will pick up on, maybe?
  • For people who apparently had their insides smushed up by a sonic mine, Yaz, Graham, and Ryan seemed awfully fine, recovery-wise, in comparison to the Doctor. I sort of love the irony that a Time Lord who loves sonic gadgetry would be more keenly wounded by a weaponized version, though.
  • Next week’s episode finally – finally – seems like it’s going to be a big one for Yaz. The moment she had with Ryan this episode about his father was great, but more in service of Ryan’s (very well handled) arc so far this season rather than her own. I really want to like Yaz more, but Doctor Who needs to give her more of a focus for a bit and maybe step back a bit on Ryan and Graham.