With any ongoing narrative, it’s easy to think about each episode or series, or producer era in terms of like or dislike. I hate Moffat, some declare, others loved Amy and Rory. OK. These declarations are personal judgements, informed by individual preferences, biases and understandings, hence debating them is endless and circular. People don’t change what they like because someone presents reasons not to and vice versa. I do know what I like, and if you’ve visited before, you may have detected what I like too. Yet for my purpose in examining Doctor Who, ‘like’ doesn’t matter as much as answering the question: what can I learn as an audience member and as a writer?
So what did I learn in The Tsuranga Conundrum?
Character is story: The Doctor is still The Doctor – excited and poetic when coming across tech, science and new stuff. This time it was the ship’s drive.
Still with the ego. The Doctor is still The Doctor, thus the ‘chapter’ about her escapades is a ‘volume’ she must point out.
The Doctor, while still working out who she is, gets schooled by the emergencies around her. Sure the TARDIS is her home, but the health and transit of patients is a higher priority and this is a Doctor who listens when she is told.
The Doctor: You’re a medic, I’m the Doctor.
Mabli: A doctor of medicine?
The Doctor: Well, medicine, science, engineering, candy floss, LEGO, philosophy, music, problems, people, hope. Mostly hope.
Lessons learned: Hot on the heels of Ryan reading his father’s letter inviting him home, Ryan and Graham are faced with an alien man giving birth to a son he might surrender. Sure didactic and heavy-handed, but it gets Ryan declaring what he needs in a father (or father figure) without giving Graham any satisfaction. This is both infuriating and entertaining. But the dynamic needs to develop soon between Graham and Ryan.
Graham gets to be the nurse that his wife Grace was. Although she nursed cancer patients, not birthing situations…but again, his loss is present.
Yaz’s skill may be in not making crises and issues about her. Recovering in a medevac ship, armed to take out a gremlin, Yaz again turns her focus on Ryan, getting him to discuss the death of his mother.
What we haven’t learned
Details without explanation:
Is the 67th Century neo-Roman, otherwise what gives with the Latin names?
Why is the Whoniverse Star Trek with sentient aliens basically being human?
Needs more development:
There is nothing about how Yaz’s faith or professional skills inform her behaviour, as opposed to how Ryan’s dispraxia and grief informs his.
There is nothing about how Yaz deals (or doesn’t) with the questions about her sexuality raised by her mother.
How should grief manifest beyond spoken references to Grace? We saw this best at the start of the spiders episode with Graham at home, where he was haunted and lonely, and waiting for something (the five-year all clear mark for cancer?). However, as a Companion he is doing not waiting, but his grief should disrupt this doing. Graham, all-wise, helpful, and kindly and a bit too needy for Ryan, needs to demonstrate grief as action/inaction. Or he needs a dark side. Or another side. A Far Side. Suddenly I want Gary Larson to write an episode of Doctor Who.
I keep feeling each episode is a side quest, while off camera, greater adventures are happening. Each episode retrieves a clue or important plot point for an arc we are yet to comprehend because none of these things are resolved. For example: the initials on the suitcase, the TARDIS going missing too often, two mentions of the Stenza, the disappeared Storm Cage criminal. The writerly me wants to draw the pieces together: an energy eating space gremlin is deployed in the defeat of the genocidal warrior Stenza people in league with Storm Cage dude.
Counting the beats
Chris Chibnall wrote the episode 42 and this episode is similar. There was a complex and building crisis affecting control of the ship while stuff happened to those on board. There are roles for nurses, and The Doctor’s health is compromised (less so this time). Pods are jettisoned and both episodes feature deaths of crew members, while the TARDIS is out of reach. The ostensible threat of each, a Sun attacking because it was being ‘fusion scooped’ and a cartoonish energy eating Pting thing are ‘bad’ but are actually neutral. This doesn’t mean they are not dangerous, as both kill, but to survive. Structural similarities are fine, but how they differ in detail is interesting. The ship in 42 has groups working in isolation but they are connected through their goals and knowledge and the intercom. The stress is palpable amongst all of them. In this episode The Doctor feels the stress while Yaz and Ryan have time for leisurely reflection. Meanwhile patient subplots are skated over. The sibling rivalry, the secret health issue of the sister, the resentment of the brother towards the Consort, the reason for hospital ships to carry bombs – none get enough attention. In contrast, in 42 we find the captain’s subplot caused the main plot. Here, the cause and effect isn’t direct. Stuff happens.
Things I didn’t need to learn
The solution to the Pting was so obvious that I suspected The Doctor was wrong about the bomb. A part of me wanted the Pting to hunt the life energy of a pregnancy / new-born / android. How would The Doctor save the ship then? Chuck the pregnant dude into an airlock? Make the Consort volunteer to consume the bomb before being eaten by the gremlin?
Deconstruct your biases:
Once again a Woman of Colour unnecessarily sacrifices herself. If the brother could’ve flown the ship as an Engineer why didn’t he just do it? Instead he watches his sister knowingly fatally compromise her health, out of what, politeness? Only when she dies does he realise that he too is a Cicero who can fly the ship as he literally steps into her shoes. The more I think about this, the more it annoys me. Grace, very nearly Rosa Parks, General Cicero…watch out Yaz.
Deconstruct your biases even more:
Medics, alien dad to be, the racers, the companions. They are all set up to be good. Or at the very least neutral or average. Who are bad? Giant spiders, a metal chewing space gremlin, a time travelling criminal and the blue betoothed Stenza.
I don’t want this pattern: characters who look more like the Companions and the Doctor tend to equal good, or neutral. Beings who look non-human equal tend to be evil or at the least, lethal. The spiders and the Pting aren’t evil but chaotic lethal. The individual who defies this pattern is the time travelling Storm Cage dude.
In the middle sit Trump-lite and a PoC interplanetary race convener. They aren’t evil, but they are careless, selfish, and disinterested in the plights of others. There is potential for reckoning or redemption for both or either.
I’ve stumbled across what this series is missing: reckoning and redemption.