And, once again, Doctor Who proves its classic format can still work in the modern age of television.
Last night’s episode, “The Tsuranga Conundrum” is another example of a tried and true Doctor Who story idea: the Doctor and friends get stuck on a space ship hurtling toward an uncertain terminus while some unseen terror rips it apart. Variations on the concept occur of course, like the Classic Series’ 12th Season story “The Ark in Space,” in which the ship is a space station, or the 24th Season’s “Earthshock,” in which The Doctor (Peter Davison) must prevent a ship full of Cybermen from reaching Earth.
But no matter the variation, “The Tsuranga Conundrum” boils down the conventions of the doomed space ship plot down to its key ingredients: Doctor, companions, notable guest characters and a thrilling monster concept. It cuts the fat from the Classic Series 4-part structure (which featured even more running) and still manages to find time for character work.
In fact, it does the last bit with a skill Russell T. Davies brought to the show early on in the 2005 revival. One of his great strengths as a writer was his ability to imbue a guest character with a lot of personality and backstory in a very short scene. He often did this to make their deaths matter more, but it also revealed an incredible storytelling ability. Here, showrunner and episode writer Chris Chibnall gives Eve Cicero (Suzanne Packer), her brother Durkas (Ben Bailey-Smith), medical staff Astos (Brett Goldstein) and Mabli (Lois Chimimba) and pregnant alien Yoss (Jack Shalloo) a lot of character as The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) runs about the medical ship. The Classic Series also offered memorable characters, but did it with a mannered pace which would no doubt drive some modern viewers nuts. And in briskly offering up characters — and smartly grouping them with various members of Team TARDIS — the episode earns its stakes as a Space Gremlin attaches itself to the ship and threatens all their lives.
So, yeah, the Pting is, essentially, a Doctor Who version of a traditional gremlin. As opposed to the Mogwai of the film Gremlins, these creatures emerged from WWII mythology as they became the apparent cause of freak mechanical failures in airplanes and other machinery. Gremlins ate the fuel lines, for example. In co-opting the myth, the show gets a pretty fun creature which still presents a very real threat to the characters. And, as many on Tumblr noted after the episode aired on the East Coast, the thing looked sort of like Disney’s Stitch, who is also a gremlin in his way.
Meanwhile, Ryan’s (Tosin Cole) dad gets another expansion as we learn some key details of Ryan’s early family life. Dad was never there and Ryan was left to discover his mother’s corpse after she died from a massive heart attack. Ouch. While it is very easily to empathize with Ryan’s conflicted feelings toward his father, he is becoming more and more of a monster. It suggests we will meet him before too long — Episode 10 maybe? — and, hopefully, he will be the monster of inaction; which would be new territory for the show. And back on the Ryan and Graham (Bradley Walsh) front, they’re so close to making the breakthrough that it was sort of disappointing that Ryan didn’t punch in this time. Granted, trusting any sort of father figure is going to be tough for Ryan, but the warmth Walsh brings to Graham’s relationship with Ryan makes one want to see Ryan go all in.
Of course, the strength of the Ryan and Graham story is leaving Yaz (Mandip Gill) a little short-changed. This is the danger of three characters traveling with The Doctor. One of them is always going to be stuck in the background. But considering next week’s story will feature Yaz prominently, there is still a chance the show will balance the characters successfully.
But one character we haven’t talked about enough is The Doctor herself. Whittaker brings so much confidence to the role — even when the character is suppose to lack confidence — that you would think she’s been playing the part for longer than five episodes. Sure, it’s broad sometimes, but that’s a baked-in aspect of the character. In very nearly all of their manifestations, The Doctor can reach for the rafters, but just as quickly bring it down to give a companion an important and quiet word of wisdom or support. At the same time, she can be dizzying, another good trait, and so essentially Doctorish that she just seamlessly blends into the narrative. And that’s something you definitely want half-way into a new Doctor’s first season. The fact we spend more time talking about plot, character and the show’s overall quality speaks to how right she was for the part.
Another correct choice was reverting back to the Classic Series standalone nature. While the characters continue to evolve in modern TV fashion, they’re doing it by going on distinct adventures without any connection from one story to the next. The Bad Wolf is not chasing them through time and it is just so refreshing to watch the New Series without a season-long runner. As it turns out, the Classic Series format works really well in 2018. Well, just as long as you cut down the stories from 100 minutes (generally) to a lean fifty.
Doctor Who airs Sundays on BBC America.