The fifth episode of New Who season eleven, The Tsuranga Conundrum, was… erm… yeah… not good. It had a lot of potential, and there were some enjoyable moments, but all the good stuff it had going for it was let down by a laughable monster, and a cast of characters who were all there to provide brief, unearned, tiny, shrunken, redemption stories. I’m a Who fan, so I enjoyed it, but I can well imagine that somebody less invested in everything related to the Doctor might find their attention wandering. I’m going to talk about why that is, so be warned, after this point there comes a bunch of spoilers.

Be warned, now comes the first spoiler: the monster.

The episode was working extremely well – not perfectly, after all this is Doctor Who – but very well. I loved that the Doctor and her companions were on a junk planet, looking for something, but that idea could have been better fleshed out, in my opinion. The Doctor spends a few minutes explaining antimatter at one point, which has no bearing on the plot beyond the fact that the monster is attracted to energy, so why not cut most of that and have the Doctor talk about why they need whatever the hell it was they were looking for. It was too perfunctory, but I still liked it. The idea of a planet covered in space junk is so evocative, it is exactly what sci-fi should be about. I will be illustrating this post with random junk planet concept art that I found from round the Internet to show how this could have been done right.


Unfortunately the junk planet visuals were super disappointing. A junk planet in a sci-fi setting should have the carcasses of spaceship hulls ranging out of it, robots half submerged in it, and a bunch of other inventive stuff.


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This junk planet, however was covered in piles of pipes, metal sheets, and cables. It was less interesting, even, than a junk yard here on Earth, in our modern times. Junk yards have old cars, washing machines, and all kinds of strange things poking out of them, with beautiful, makeshift buildings, crushers, and tall cranes, sorting through the jagged mess. This environment could have set the tone for the rest of the show, but instead it just sat there, inertly, before we are whisked off to a whole new location – but without the TARDIS – eeks.


The new location is much better, a sterile, white, hospital ship that feels real, and large, and unique. The story could have really taken off here, and things started out well. An intruder is detected breaking through the shields of the hospital ship, and tension starts to mount. The Doctor and one of the characters are in an automated control room when this happens, and we see a dot representing the intruder move through the ship, but this is where what little tension had built up starts to drain away.


The Doctor talks about how the intruder is moving very quickly, and we see the dot scampering around the schematic of the spaceship. Immediately it became obvious that this threat, whatever it was, is not a real monster, like a Cyberman or a Dalek, because they don’t scamper, they move slowly and are a real threat. The Doctor goes looking for the creature, along with one of the medics from the hospital ship, and the tension mounts, a little, when the creature tricks the medic into an escape pod, launches it, and blows it up. Okay, I thought, this may be a real threat after all, but then we see the creature, and it is ridiculous. It is a tiny little thing, that has only an animal level of intelligence, like a gremlin. In fact, very, very much like a gremlin. Too much like a gremlin.

According to Wikipedia:

A gremlin is a folkloric mischievous creature that causes malfunctions in aircraft or other machinery. They have large strange eyes, and small clawed frames that feature sharp teeth. The slang term originated in the Royal Air Force in the 1920s. The concept of gremlins was popularized during World War II where crews blamed gremlins for otherwise inexplicable accidents which sometimes occurred during their flights.


To make this small creature frightening we have to be told in an exposition dump that the creature can not be killed, can not be harmed by weapons, except to be stunned for a few seconds, has poisonous skin, and can eat its way out of any confinement. We are not told why this might be the case – this is not an energy creature or anything – except that this is obviously necessary to spin this thin story out for the length of the show. But the creature is still not in the least frightening. It is easily stunned the only time the Doctor’s companions engage it, and other than that leaves them all completely alone, to wander the spaceship unmolested, or ignores them, apart from some hissing, when it is encountered. If not for its magical invulnerability, it could be easily dealt with by being stepped on with a sturdy boot.


But even with the creature being given its inexplicable, magical powers, there still isn’t enough there to last an entire episode, so a few more story elements get thrown in. We get a man who is pregnant, simply so we can spend some time with Ryan, as he comes to grips with his absent-dad backstory, yet again. We also get a pilot, who learns to value her brother, as the spaceship is taken off automatic for no good reason other than to give these characters something to do. The brother builds a pilot interface, and the sister uses it. There is also a young nurse who is introduced as indecisive, and there is a perfunctory plot where she is given encouragement, and gets a bit more confident, but basically doesn’t change much at all. It is super patronizing and not at all interesting.


It’s all a big shame because I was looking forward to this episode. I was expecting it to be something like The Ark in Space, where a space station is threatened by an enemy, and there were echoes, I guess. It is just that the choice of monster was such a letdown that it was impossible for the writer to build any tension, or any real sense of threat. And without that, it was hard to care about the other bits of business – all the plot padding and feels – necessary to hit the show’s run time.


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