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DOCTOR WHO Faces a Frustrating Little Monster…Known as Plot

DOCTOR WHO Faces a Frustrating Little Monster…Known as Plot

The following recap contains spoilers for the Doctor Who episode “The Tsuranga Conundrum”

We’re halfway through series 11 of Doctor Who. We’ve had the meeting of a historical figure in “Rosa,” we’ve had the monster of the week with “Arachnids in the UK,” and the space jerk doing what space jerks do plot with “The Woman Who Fell to Earth.” And now with the seemingly named-to-be-forgettable “The Tsuranga Conundrum,” we can finally also check off the “base under siege” box.

Who’s brand of this plot usually involves some sort of spaceship or station, imperiled in such a way that leaves it out of our heroes’ control. There’s an assortment of one-off characters, loads of corridor running, and a monster. At its best, base under siege can give us some of the most enduringly popular episodes of the series, like the classic serial “Ark in Space”; or give us social commentary, like “Oxygen,” last season’s takedown of extreme capitalism. Unfortunately, it’s a plot device that often lends itself to some of the most filler-feeling stories of the show, and equally unfortunately, “Tsuranga” is auto-piloted right into that space.

Waking up on a hospital ship after a near-fatal accident, the Doctor and her friends must help keep the ship from being devoured by an adorable CGI space monster or blown up to prevent the creature from doing more harm elsewhere. Like a lot of the episodes this season, the story is chock-full of good ideas. There’s a terminally ill hero pilot who uses a neural interface to fly a ship. There’s a pregnant man from a species with a heightened gestational development phase. The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and friends open the episode looking for spare parts on a “junk galaxy” made up of thousands of trash-covered planets. And attacking the ship is a cute but dangerous little monster that feeds on inorganic materials.

These are all cool, interesting ideas and most of them could make for great inclusions into a Who story. The problem with “Tsuranga,” and what’s shaping up to be an issue with most of the episodes in Chris Chibnall’s first season as showrunner, is that each of these things feels paradoxically under- and overdeveloped at the same time. They’re all competing for our attention with each other, on top of the details of relationships between the characters, emotional arcs building into a labyrinthian story whose corridors the viewer finds ourselves hopefully running through.

The episode’s monster, the PTING, is certainly gunning to unseat series four’s Adipose as the Doctor Who monster most likely to be turned into a plush toy. I’m all for cute-but-dangerous monsters, especially on a show that’s ostensibly still supposed to appeal to children, but the issue with the PTING is that it just never feels like a major threat, for reasons completely unrelated to its cuteness. There are just too many long stretches of the show where the space critter disappears from the story, the more pressing concerns to the ship being the threat of explosion or the asteroid field outside. There’s jo much happening that the creature is almost forgotten about when we’re not directly looking at it.

There is so, so much that is working for this show. The humor is hitting pretty well, the acting from Jodie Whittaker and her trio of companions is top notch. The production quality is often cinematic and the new special effects are a long way from the alien suits of 2005, and all of that is great. But if this first half of series 11 can be looked at as a whole, the lack of development has been a consistent problem with the antagonists as a whole, and by extension the plots they bring with them. So far only “The Ghost Monument” has felt like it hit that desired blend of plot and character that the show thrives in best. The machinations of “Tim Shaw,” Krasko, the spiders of Sheffield, and the PTING all feel like things that Chibnall just doesn’t care enough about to make the audience care either.

I’m excited that we’re getting all these touching moments between the leads and regular meditations on things like the importance of family, but when the most interesting things happening in each episode are the ongoing bonds between the characters, it has to make you wonder why Chibnall was so gung-ho about insisting that this season would be full of stand-alone stories. Right now it feels like he wants to have his episodic cake and eat it with a serialized spoon, and neither is adding up to a satisfying meal.

The next four episodes in a row are all written by a writer other than Chibnall, representing the entire back half until he returns for the finale. It’s often the case with Doctor Who that episodes not penned by the current showrunner end up being some of the most defining stories of a given season, such as “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances” in 2005, or “Mummy on the Orient Express” in 2014. While Chibnall’s notes are always going to be there in the margins of any script, it may just be that a multi-episode stretch with fresh eyes on the pages is exactly what this show needs, to churn out plots that this cast and production quality deserves.

Images: BBC

 

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