‘Doctor Who’: Team TARDIS Is Under Siege by the World’s Most Adorable Alien (RECAP)
Team TARDIS checks into a futuristic hospital where a pocket-sized pest is on the loose in tonight’s brand new Doctor Who.
We’re at the halfway point of the season, and in an ideal world, the series should be hitting its stride by now. The characters have been introduced and settled into a comfortable dynamic, and Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor has quickly become a commanding presence. Now is the time for some weird and wonderful Doctor Who adventures. Sadly, it feels like the TARDIS is stuck on autopilot, steadily cruising through the motions.
“The Tsuangra Conundrum,” written by showrunner Chris Chibnall, is the most by-the-numbers episode of the season so far. It’s a classic base-under-siege plot in the vein of Alien; the type we’ve seen countless times on Doctor Who over the years, to varying degrees of success. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that trope, but there is a problem when you do nothing new with the concept. Chibnall, unfortunately, plays it predictably safe.
Team TARDIS is scavenging on a junk planet when they stumble upon a sonic mine which goes kaboom in their faces. They wake up on board a hospital-spaceship, their bodies intact, except for their organs, which the onboard doctor, Astos (Brett Goldstein), tells them were disrupted by the sonic mine. The Doctor leaps, and then winces, into action, clutching at her “ectospleen” as she tries to find a way off the ship and back to her TARDIS, which is once again lost in space.
The plot from here on out is just as clinical as the ship’s aesthetic. An intruding alien sneaks aboard and wreaks havoc while the Doctor tries to figure out what to do. There is a sacrificial lamb (Astos, who is dispatched in a life-pod). Power outs. A devious android. And a ticking time bomb. It should feel more exciting than it does, but the story is tragically lacking in tension, even with the missing TARDIS and the malfunctioning Sonic Screwdriver.
I don’t want to keep hammering Chibnall for his clunky dialogue, but regrettably, that is still the biggest weakness of the season. There are far too many scenes in this episode of characters stood around listlessly spewing pseudo-science mumbo-jumbo. There is no wit or panache; it’s just a data dump that neither entertains or offers deeper insight into the characters. It’s even worse in the scenes where Graham (Bradley Walsh) isn’t there to break-up the info overload with his quips.
There are also a lot of new characters in this episode, and with a 50-minute runtime, the story is unable to service them all. There are six passengers already aboard the ship, seven including the alien, and that is on top of our four core cast members. That means the characterization is perfunctory at best and dismally one-dimensional at its worst.
Astos is the kind doctor who mostly delivers stilted exposition until he’s disposed of. Mabli (Lois Chimimba) is the unconfident young nurse learning to believe in herself. Eve (Suzanne Packer) and Durkas Cicero (Ben Bailey-Smith) are sister and brother who don’t seem to get along, but really they love each other, except Eve is dying and she doesn’t want Durkas to be upset. And Ronan (David Shields) is the “duplicitous-but-not-really” android who is never quite used to his full potential.
On the positive side, Yoss (Jack Shalloo), the pregnant man, is a fun character and receives some humorous lines, mostly when he’s yelling at Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Graham while giving birth. And the alien, Pting, is an adorably vicious little creature. It resembles something out of Monsters Inc, rather than a threating sci-fi villain, but I kind of enjoyed watching it scurry around the ship, devouring its way through anything that stood in its path. Both of these characters were different and unexpected, and those are elements this episode was desperately lacking.
Ryan is the episode’s emotional center once again; his interaction with Yoss bringing to the surface his daddy issues. His heart-to-heart with Yoss about how you “don’t have to be perfect” to be a dad, “you just have to be there,” is nicely played by Cole and is sure to make his character resonate with audiences. His chat with Yaz (Mandip Gill), however, is less successful, and mostly because of the way it reduces Gill’s role to that of fact-checker. “When did you last see your dad?” “How did your mum die?” “Who found her?” “How old were you?” She sounds like an insurance agent rattling off questions from a survey.
Whittaker and Walsh continue to deliver the goods. Both of their performances help lift what is often bland material. Walsh nails Graham’s sarcastic wit without ever veering into an overbearing territory. While Whittaker brings such an enthusiasm to the Doctor that you want to follow her, even if all she’s doing is walking into another white room to talk about anti-matter drives. It’s probably the most Doctor-y Whittaker has felt so far too; she takes charge of the situation and saves the day by luring the Pting into a life-pod and feeding it an energy bomb. As you do!
The episode overall though felt inconsequential. There was no emotional connection to these paper-thin characters, so it was hard to care when Astos was flung out into space or when Eve died trying to pilot the ship back home. That said, I do appreciate characters dying (not in a morbid way, but so often Doctor Who cops out of having characters stay dead). It wasn’t a bad episode per se, just seriously banal. It felt like a filler episode, and with a shortened 10 episode run, we don’t have time for filler!
-What happened to the Doctor’s ectospleen stitch? She seemed magically healed by the end of the episode with no explanation.
-When the Doctor meets Eve, she references something called the Book of Celebrants, seemingly a collection of significant figures from across the universe. The Doctor casually mentions she has a whole volume of the book dedicated to her. I smell a Christmas book spinoff!
-The Doctor’s stethoscope made a reappearance! Most frequently used by David Tennant’s tenth Doctor, but has been around since the days of Patrick Troughton’s second Doctor.
-Yaz does get one moment of glory in this episode when she punts the blanket-wrapped Pting and namedrops Siobhan Chamberlain (a goalkeeper who plays for England women’s national soccer team).
-Yoss decides to name his child “Avocado,” having read in texts that “Avocado Pear” was an “ancient Earth hero.” That must mean the surviving texts from the 21st century are a millennial’s Twitter feed! Dark times indeed.
Doctor Who, Sundays, 8/7c, BBC America