Discussing Doctor Who: The Tsuranga Conundrum

Now that the Doctor has dispatched with spiders in “Arachnids in the UK” (… in the most humane way possible?), she and her companions are back in space for “The Tsuranga Conundrum.”

I’m joined again this week by Hannah Long (@HannahGraceLong) and Jenna DeWitt (@Jenna_DeWitt).

If you need to catch up, previously, we discussed “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” “The Ghost Monument,” “Rosa” and “Arachnids in the UK.”

This week, Jenna’s asking the questions again, while Hannah and I handle the answers.

Jenna: When the Doctor and her companions get picked up by an emergency medical ship, she gets so wrapped up in getting back to the planet where they left the TARDIS that one of the medical staff has to call her on her selfish focus.

There are other patients onboard who need to get to their destination and her resistance to going endangers them.

Were you glad to see the Doctor called out and having flaws or did it seem out of character to you that she wouldn’t think of others’ needs?

Hannah: I think it’s probably too early to say if it’s out of character. It was certainly one of the Doctor’s flaws in the past – charging in assuming he understood the situation perfectly. This Doctor has a lot of empathy and her people skills have improved dramatically (she may be socially awkward, but note she is self-aware enough to recognize her own awkwardness, a step up from the obliviousness of Eleven and Twelve.)

Because of her expertise in these areas, she’s usually more willing to be a team player. In fact, I’d say it’s a notable characteristic of this Doctor that she’s generous and selfless. So it does seem like an odd flaw to give her—but at least it is a flaw. It’s a welcome complication to Whittaker’s usually upbeat character.

Aaron: Right, it’s exactly in character for previous Doctors, but a bit odd for this Doctor based on what we’ve seen of her so far.

Perhaps it was more the strain of the experience. That’s not really the Doctor’s true character, but if you catch her in the wrong moment, like most of us, selfishness can pop up.

Still I’d love to see her be more complicated and alien—outside of the wonderful socially awkward moments.

There’s also the bit about her bragging about having an entire volume of history written about her, which is a change from when Eleven realized he was making too much noise in the universe and wanted to have a more lower profile.

Twelve

Jenna: The medical officer, Astos, has solid leadership skills and keeps the Doctor’s independence in check for the few minutes we have him on screen. Like all too-good people, though, he’s quickly out of the picture thanks to a little monster.

The monster, the Pting, disables the sonic and is revealed by the ship’s system to be supposedly one of the worst creatures to have enclosed on a barely manned crew in space.

Was it just me or was the Pting a little too cute to be scary? (Or does this monster of the week make up for last week’s truly frightening episode?)

Hannah: Cute monsters aren’t necessarily a problem, but the story doesn’t seem to know how it wants us to feel about Pting: charmed or terrified. The story opens with Pting killing a competent, strong character in a powerful way.

But then, upon seeing Pting for the first time, the Doctor casually walks up and pokes him with her sonic, which seems stupidly risky. That she gets away with it has the added side effect of destroying whatever menace the cuddly creature had left. I like his weirdness, but he doesn’t quite work.

Aaron: It was like having Vashta Nerada from “The Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead” posses an Adipose from “Partners in Crime.” Take a horrifying, unstoppable creature and cram it in a cute body. That can work if you either play it for laughs or for shock.

If you ratchet up the absurdity, you get something like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters. Or you can have the cute creature be the shockingly deadly monster. But you can’t really do both and that seems to be what “The Tsuranga Conundrum” tried to do.

It failed to commit one way or the other and thus we a left with a monster that will quickly be forgotten.

Jenna: Thanks to a pregnant Gifftan alien man (yes, yes, alien biology is alien, but at least it’s given a logical explanation), Ryan’s inspired to share more of his backstory with Yaz.

His mum had a heart attack and was found by Ryan at 13, which led to Ryan’s dad running out when he couldn’t cope.

Did this make you more sympathetic toward his dad’s absence? (or less?) What does this tell you about Ryan and/or where his story might be going?

Hannah: I have mixed feelings about this subplot. I like what it does for Ryan and Graham, but I can’t get over the disruption of gender roles in this archetypally female story. Archetypally…who am I kidding? Childbirth is an exclusively female story.

This oddness—this complete divorce of gender from biology and the experience of women from the female body—kept distancing me from the laudable themes of the story, which promote protecting and loving unplanned children, taking responsibility as a parent, and recognizing the effect parental absence has on children.

These traditional messages might be why Chibnall chose to genderswap the character, as they’re very much at odds with an individualistic, pro-choice culture. Chibnall might have felt that a man explaining them to a woman—even a young man speaking as an abandoned son—would come off as patronizing.

But on the other hand, he handled such a situation beautifully in Broadchurch – with, actually, Jodie Whittaker as the mother and Arthur Darvill as the adviser – so I shouldn’t have thought that would have been a problem.

Again, though, I like that we’re starting to find out more about Ryan’s past, and that he takes the initiative and gets out of his comfort zone in this episode. He’s bonding with Graham, bit by bit.

Aaron: It brings us back to the this being the first (known?) instance of the Doctor being a woman and the issue of what exactly gender means. I kinda bought in to the alien explanation of men having boys and women having girls, but I’m worried now that overturning any and all gender norms will be an incessant theme of Whittaker and Cibnall’s run.

It’s one thing to challenge gender stereotypes. We need more of that (says the quiet, bookish guy who doesn’t like to hunt or go camping). But mistakes in applying stereotypes universally is not corrected by asserting there is no difference between men and women.

Still I do appreciate the moment for bringing us more background information on Ryan (who continues to be the companion at the center of the story being told).

And I loved the moment at the end where Graham tries to fistbump Ryan and gets rebuffed, but lovingly. As a dad to boys, I recognized myself so much in that moment.

Jenna: A highly decorated general is one of the few people on board, providing someone to exchange technobabble with. The “iPhone version of CERN” powers the ship, so the Doctor gives us a lightning-fast physics lesson.

I have no doubt more devoted scifi fans will memorize and understand it, but as someone who watches more for the character development and relationships, I will leave that explanation to the scientists in the fandom.

Anyone able to follow that? Is this more of that educational focus? Thoughts on bringing more science to the Doctor Who brand of fantasy sci-fi?

Hannah: You know, for all Moffat’s wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey prevarications, he was really good at visualizing complicated science concepts for an audience of laymen. Chibnall hasn’t quite reached that level of translative talent, but I appreciate that he’s trying to incorporate some hard science into the show.

And to answer your question: no, I wasn’t able to follow it at all.

Aaron: Incorporate away, but don’t make it a lecture in the midst of what is supposed to be a harrowing situation. For me, the exposition on the ship’s power supply brought the story to a screeching halt, taking away from the action and not giving us much in return.

While it may not survive the microscope of a scientists, I’d much prefer my science explanations be more concerned with sounding plausible to the layperson in the audience and getting quickly back to moving the story along.

Jenna: Tight shots are an attempt to make the episode seem more energized and heighten the drama because otherwise it’s just fewer than a dozen people walking around a plain white series of plastic-walled rooms.

Did the set seem underwhelming to you? Or appropriately stark for a hospital? Any thoughts on the setting and cinematography?

Hannah: I thought the set was fine, though it didn’t reinvent any wheels. The episode makes a mistake acting like “we’re in a spaceship hospital” is a big reveal.

It looks exactly like the interior of a spaceship so I assumed that’s what it was from the beginning. If there’d been some windows with a hologram view of some blissful garden, I’d have been fooled (and that, actually, would have been a really interesting design innovation). But not with windowless corridors.

Compare this with one of the best reveals in Classic Who. After spending some time below decks on a creaky Edwardian yacht, the Doctor and his companions finally break into the ship’s bridge to find a bank of windows looking out to a fleet of yachts racing through the stars. It’s a stunning moment in a terrific episode.

Aaron: Again, it’s almost like they tried to do two things at once and it didn’t really work.

You can try to have the claustrophobic setting of a spaceship enhance the terror and paranoia of those on board like “Midnight.” Almost the entire episode is set on a small shuttle and you never see the monster, but you feel the fear of those on board.

Or you can play off of how expansive the ship is with so much of it being unexplored, something horrifying could be waiting around any corner.

I’m not sure if they were trying to do either, neither of both of those things in “The Tsuranga Conundrum.” Whatever they were trying, it didn’t work.

If it was not obvious from previous answers, this was my least favorite episode of the season.

Jenna: The sacrifice trope is played out as the general uses up the last of her health piloting the ship. Meanwhile, the alien man’s baby is delivered. Life given in sacrifice so that life may be given anew. Then at the end, they say a benediction in memorial to the general in a liturgical moment:

“May the saints of all the stars and constellations bring you hope as they guide you out of the dark and into the light, on this voyage and the next and all the journeys still to come, for now and evermore.”  

Religious-inspired themes are nothing new to Doctor Who, with past episodes even including hymns, but the emphasis on hope is especially strong with this one and the rhythm of the benediction provides some familiarity in an episode with strong alien and futuristic themes that don’t fit our normal.

How you do you think sci-fi can use religious themes for good? Is there a negative side to cultural allusions like this?

Hannah: I like that the show isn’t shying away from explicit religious language. Doctor Who has contained bits of religious imagery and meaning from the very beginning. Anthony Coburn wrote “An Unearthly Child,” the very first episode of the show, and told his son he based the Doctor on the Apostle Paul. (No kidding!)

That fascinating Doctor Who history tidbit aside, we have to draw a distinction between cultural allusions and themes. I think allusions are usually good. Real religious cultural allusions make for interesting color in a script. Jumping from allusion to direct reference is a mistake.

Tennant’s cheeky oblique references to Christ are fine, but visiting the Nativity would be something I think the show isn’t qualified to handle (same with big events in other world religions).

The only negative I can think of from using allusions like these is that it could cross the line from indirect allusion to direct reference, which is a bad idea in sci-fi. The genre works best through allegory and myth—not straight preaching.

As for themes, religion can offer great opportunities for talking about ideas relevant to the show. There’s a wonderful conversation in the Sixth Doctor audio story The Marian Conspiracy where a 16th Century lady-in-waiting talks to the Doctor in religious terms about guilt and redemption.

Religion forms a perfect frame for the Sixth Doctor to express his apocalyptic guilt (this is, after all, the Doctor who was put on trial by the Time Lords for alleged genocide).

They discuss whether believing you’re doing the right thing justifies horrible deeds…at first they’re talking about Mary, Queen of Scots, but then the Doctor fully confesses his sins.

Doctor: What would you say if I were to tell you that I once destroyed an entire race, that I have led friends to their deaths and caused numerous wars. That my intervention has led to peaceful races taking up arms and good people having their faith or reason destroyed. Because I failed to act, millions upon millions of people have been enslaved or killed. What if I had done all of those things but had always, always believed I was doing to the right thing?

Sarah: If you were to tell me that, I would say, may God have mercy on your soul.

Doctor: Sarah…

Sarah: But I would also say, I trust and pray that he will.

It’s a lovely, thoughtful moment in a fascinating episode (that also, by the way, introduces one of the best companions of all time—Evelyn Smythe).

Aaron: As Hannah noted, religion and Doctor Who have been intertwined since the beginning of the show. Those themes have been explored in numerous books like Religion and Doctor Who: Time and Relative Dimensions in Faith, Bigger on the Inside: Christianity and Doctor Who, and even small group Bible studies like The Salvation of Doctor Who: A Small Group Study Connecting Christ and Culture.

Those evaluations range from scholarly to … not so scholarly, but it’s obvious that the show has consistent religious themes.

I agree with Hannah that I appreciate the allusions to historical religious moments or ideas, but to directly explore those would be almost certainly a catastrophe.

And I don’t think there’s a need to because sci-fi or fantasy and, perhaps surprisingly to many, horror are the genres most able to explore deep religious themes without breaking the story and giving in to sermonizing or mockery.

One of my other favorite shows, Battlestar Galactica, has heavy religious allusions, but they serve the story and make fascinating discussion pieces. They don’t take away from the narrative.

Jenna: Bonus question: With lines like “Whole worlds pivot on acts of imagination” and “Hope prevails” as easy catchphrases to turn into inspirational memes, the writers seem to be making a clear statement about what they want the end message to be of each episode.

I love how the Doctor (of medicine and various other things, but “mostly of hope”) has such relevant lines for our times—and all times—in between alien emergencies. Do you have a favorite Doctor quote (from any incarnation) that gives you hope?  

Hannah: I think mostly of hopeful moments. The eucatastrophe at the end of The Doctor Dances, where a war-weary Nine rejoices that “just this once, everybody lives!” He swings around a little boy miraculously cured from a terrible ailment.

River Song’s final speech in The Forest of the Dead, where she promises the beauty of a future life for the Doctor, “You and me. Time and space. You watch us run.” That the speech is delivered in the context of an act of sacrificial love makes it all the more powerful.

When Idris, finally, realizes the complicated, sad word she’s been looking for: “Alive.”

I usually need context to really make quotes my favorites (thus, while I love those Thirteen catchphrases in theory, they aren’t really backed up by the setting). But a few more hopeful lines just for good measure:

“There is, surprisingly, always hope.” – The Eleventh Doctor to Vincent van Gogh

“One good solid hope’s worth a cartload of certainties” – The Fourth Doctor

“There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, and the sea’s asleep, and the rivers dream; people made of smoke and cities made of song. Somewhere there’s danger, somewhere there’s injustice, and somewhere else the tea’s getting cold. Come on, Ace. We’ve got work to do.”The Seventh Doctor, speaking the final words of the Classic Series

Aaron: The Doctor is such an inherently hopeful character that it makes him, and now her, ever relevant. There’s a reason Scripture is so full of passages on hope. We are always in need of it.

The problem often comes when the hope is delivered without the danger threatening it. I love when Nine said, “Just this once, everybody lives!” Except that became the norm. It wasn’t just that once. It was virtually every time. Pain and loss were undermined and escaped, often in absurd ways.

Our stories, like Doctor Who, need death and tragedy. They need to reflect our current and real situation in a fallen world. Otherwise, it’s a false hope.

Hope is not saying that everything will always be OK. Because it’s not. We’ve seen that unfortunately again this week with another mass shooting.

We need hope to remind us that one day everything sad will become untrue, as Sam asked Gandalf, but in the meantime the hope can get us through those days when the sad remains true.

Next week: “Demons of the Punjab”

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Aaron Earls

Christian. Husband. Daddy. Writer. Online editor for Facts & Trends Magazine. Fan of quick wits, magical wardrobes, brave hobbits, time traveling police boxes & Blue Devils.