The Tsuranga Conundrum was arguably the weakest episode so far this season. It was still reasonably enjoyable and engaging, but seemed weak in comparison to most of the other episodes so far.
While the opening scenes, in which the TARDIS crew are separated from the TARDIS seemed redolent of the stories of the sixties, the bulk of the episode looked elsewhere for inspiration. While other versions of the programme might have focused on the horror of the Pting stalking the spaceship or the comedy of the male pregnancy and the Pting’s conspicuous cuteness (cf. Partners in Crime), The Tsuranga Conundrum stayed focused on characterisation. In this regard, the programme resembled Star Trek more than Doctor Who, not for the first time this season. In particular, it was reminiscent of Disaster, the Next Generation episode where the Enterprise D hits a cosmic plot device and loses power, resulting, among other things, in Counsellor Troi taking command and Worf having to deliver the O’Brien’s baby.
Unfortunately, The Tsuranga Conundrum focused as much on the guest characters as the regulars and ended up too short to develop the guest characters as much as would be needed to make us really care about them. A better tactic might have been to focus on the regulars more. While Ryan’s father issues received some attention, more could have been made of Grace’s medical background and the fall out of her death (while it could be morbid to dwell on that too much, I feel there is still room to explore it more than has happened so far). I also feel that Yaz has been somewhat neglected, the appearance of her perhaps as a result of her family last week notwithstanding. The familial relationship between Ryan and Graham has proved a more obvious conduit for emotional resonance. It would be interesting to develop Ryan’s relationship with Yaz without going down the easy route of a romantic or will-they/won’t-they relationship. At any rate, next week’s episode will hopefully let Yaz, and Mandip Gill, take the centre stage.
I’ve been feeling something of an ‘early eighties’ vibe to this season so far, not just in the obvious four-strong TARDIS crew (like the fifth Doctor, Tegan, Adric and Nyssa or, perhaps stretching a point, the fourth Doctor, Romana, Adric and K9), but in the sense of a stripped back version of the programme, getting rid of some of the laughs and scares to focus on the character drama and occasional chunks of science (I’ll leave it up to someone else to decide on the accuracy of this episode’s CERN-talk. I did A Level physics, but, like Yaz, it was a long time ago (rather longer in my case)), as well as looking even further back to the early Hartnell era as a ‘pure’ model for the programme, full of Reithian promise.
It’s worth noting in this regard that while Davies and Moffat were children of the sixties and early seventies, Chibnall (born in 1970) would have been more or less the right age to see Christopher Bidmead and John Nathan-Turner’s vision of the programme in the early eighties as an exciting new approach, taking the programme more seriously when he was of an age to start wanting it to be more serious. Like the early part of season nineteen, there’s been a sense so far this year of the programme reinventing its key tropes for a new audience, making the regulars and especially the Doctor vulnerable again. Like season nineteen, parts of the first half of this season have felt lightweight (with Rosa as this season’s Kinda, perhaps). Will the second half have an Earthshock to add to the drama? Time will tell…