With a gleaming sci-fi sheen and a frenetic plot, we were back to the future again this week for another flavour of Doctor Who, this time a base-under-siege, in space. A spaceship-under-siege, if you will.
While it began with mild curiosity in a junkyard – and if there was ever the justification for the return of the pre-credits teaser, this was it – we were soon in the world of pulse pilots, neuro fleets, Gifftan male pregnancies and driverless space ambulances. It felt like Chris Chibnall’s script had gone into world building overdrive and yet, at its heart, the story was pretty straightforward, with the Doctor having to take charge and corral a group of diverse characters, getting them to work together to survive and continuing this series’ theme of ‘teamwork makes the dream work’.
This setting looked great; a minimal bunch of sets helping to give a claustrophobic air and oodles of corridors. It’s been a while since we’ve been treated to a dose of good old corridor action. In truth, the threat to the ship could have been pretty much anything and I have no great issue with the cute but deadly Pting: half Gremlin, half Stitch, with a hint of Nibbler, it was a merchandiser’s wet dream and a cosplayer’s delight. With an insatiable appetite for energy as a motivation, rather than anything malicious, it does however add to the paucity of proper villainy so far; only the Stenza has felt close to top drawer, and much of that was attributed after the fact.
To up the stakes, it would have been good to see the Pting damage someone physically, rather than simply warn us about it in the info-dump. We were all teed up for Ronan the clone drone (David Shields) to tackle it in a line by his mistress (and what was he and what was their relationship?), in a tussle which never materialised. Perhaps the Pting could have burned his organic components, or consumed him if he was non-organic? Instead, we saw Yaz (Mandip Gill) wrap the wee beastie in a super space blanket and drop kick it away in a heroic moment, though she gets top marks for name checking a footy hero as she did.
On the subject of #TeamTARDIS, I am not entirely sure there was enough story to go around and this was partially borne out by having both Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Graham (Bradley Walsh) assisting at the birth, although it did offer the chance for some great comic interplay. You just know Graham’s going to finally get that fist-bump on his – whisper it – death bed, don’t you?
I suppose a pregnant male was a valid and entertaining way to prompt Ryan into considering his father’s entreaties, but it felt pretty unsubtle too. While prompting a lovely heart-to-heart between Ryan and Yaz, with the clock ticking and the ship under threat, it sucked the tension out of the moment and felt out of place. Great chat guys, but some other time!
For her part, Yaz was easily the best used of the trio; defending the anti-matter chamber and asking all the right questions. I enjoyed the sciencey bit with the anti-matter drive, though I cannot help thinking that Yaz went to a pretty good secondary school, or maybe she was simply one of those kids who was always paying attention!
Despite some of the tensions it brought to the story however, I did have some trouble with the contrivance of the setup. In particular, the rather ludicrous notion that neither of the crewmembers was able to manually fly the ship. While it was dramatically interesting to have the ailing General (Suzanne Packer) step up and make her final flight, it would have made sense to have Astos (Brett Goldstein) as the pilot and then have him bumped off. As it was, I enjoyed the fact that he became an ally of the Doctor so quickly, but then was offed within the first few minutes.
When Cicero did fly, I was rather disappointed not to see the ship manoeuvring within the asteroid field; it would have helped sell the piloting sequence to have tied an outside perspective to her movements. Did the Pting eat up all the CGI budget too?
At the heart of this story was Jodie Whitaker’s performance as the Doctor and it is one I cannot fault. I adore the return to a more flawed and vulnerable Doctor, who gets things wrong, but proudly claims her specialities to include medicine, science, engineering, candy floss, LEGO, philosophy, music, problems, people, and hope. She took charge and empowered others, notably Mabli (Lois Chimimba) who is a character I’d gladly see again.
Curiously, despite the addition of an ecto-spleen, there were no particular references to the Doctor’s remarkable biology or indeed mentions of her race. In that respect, it feels like we are back in the early RTD era – with a finger in the dam of the show’s history, allowing a new generation of fans to paddle gently and not be flooded by 50-plus years of accumulated references. It’s no bad thing too and an understandable reaction to the point the show has reached over the previous 10 series.
Of course, as we are coming to learn, these stories always provide a number of unanswered questions: in this case, what were the TARDIS crew looking for in that junkyard and who planted the sonic mine? I’m happy enough to let those go, as I am to let the Pting float away as a one shot problem. I was entertained, but feel no grand desire for Planet of the Pting next series!
Questions aside, and with the exception of the sublime Rosa where she was understandably restrained, I’m calling The Tsuranga Conundrum as the strongest outing for the new Doctor so far, if perhaps not so much for her companions. This was an energetic run-around with the Time Lord at its heart, both out of sorts and under pressure, which both looked good and was fun to watch.