It’s becoming increasingly obvious from one episode to the next that this current iteration of Doctor Who is very much its own thing. Sure, from time to time it echoes or harkens back to the Doctor Who of old (or even much more recent seasons), but texturally and narratively, Chris Chibnall is shepherding a version of this show very much defined by his own sensibilities, just as Davies and Moffat did before him. Coming off six seasons of Moffat’s flashier, fanciful brand of storytelling, it’s often a jolting experience.
I begin with these thoughts because I’ve been reading commentary from close friends over the past weeks and I’ve received missives from folks who are concerned that this version of the show isn’t quite up to recent standards. How far can Doctor Who shift its mission while still being Doctor Who? For an answer to that question, check out the 1996 outing with Paul McGann, which often feels like exactly what it is: an American-made TV-movie-of-the-week … and yet somehow it is still absolutely, recognizably Doctor Who.
How long has this vision for the show been racking around inside Chibnall’s brain? While he was churning out scripts for his two predecessors, was he thinking, “If it were my show, I’d do it this way … ” Chibnall’s scripts from those years, while competent, were not, for the most part, fan favorites, though in hindsight one can see the genesis of this new show in them: the emphasis on character and the lack of clear-cut villainy are both prevalent in a number of those stories.
Both of those traits again dominate “The Tsuranga Conundrum,” an episode that only barely engaged me on the first viewing; on the second I found a lot more to like about it. Problem is, few people bother to give episodic TV multiple viewings, so it’s a gamble to create something so subtle that it might not be fully appreciated on its initial viewing. Here, we kick things off on a massive heap of space garbage, but before we can even settle in, Team TARDIS stumbles across something called a sonic mine. It’s unclear exactly what happened between the time it detonated and four days later, when they woke up, but the way the Doctor stumbles around in agony (notably, far more so than her human friends), it must have been messy. Thank goodness for 67th-century medicine.
The Doctor’s immediate panic over losing the TARDIS again is a noteworthy development, exacerbated by her recent loss of it and the process it took to get it back. It is not uncommon for the Doctor to lose the TARDIS, but I can’t recall an instance in which she (well, he, at the time) was this insistent on getting back to it. Frankly, this is the reaction I’ve always had to losing the ship. It feels much more real than the easy come, easy go attitude of Doctors past. Of course, she soon finds out she’s four days away from it on a med ship traveling through space. This is all explained to her in kind by Astos (Brett Goldstein), one of only two medics on the ship. Astos doesn’t live long, which is a pity because Goldstein is a most magnetic guest star, and his connection with the Doctor was instantaneous. I could have watched an entire episode with just the two of them and been quite entertained.
But the Pting had to enter the picture and change everything. As with the spiders last week, we again have a critter that isn’t inherently evil but rather a slave to its instincts, and in this case its instincts are to eat the ship and absorb energy. It’s a funny little creation, credited to a writer named Tim Price who worked on the season long enough to rack up this lone credit. And it is a bizarre turn of events to have a creature concerned with eating most anything except the life-forms it comes across. I don’t get the impression that Chibnall is all that interested in the sorts of monsters that Doctor Who traditionally relies on, which is perhaps the single biggest shift in his version of the series. It is difficult at this stage to even imagine how he might write a Dalek.
There’s an emphasis on tenderness and empathy on Doctor Who these days that I don’t recall having seen on it before to this degree. This entire episode was made up of little moments, and that’s what I noticed on that second viewing. We’re all trained to view Doctor Who as this bombastic show with big noises and big monsters (not Game of Thrones big, but expansive in its presentation), and along comes Chris Chibnall delivering something completely different. “I’m going to give you people who are learning to care about one another and the universe around them,” he seems to be telling us.
Dying war hero General Eve Cicero (Suzanne Packer) and her complicated relationship with her brother Durkas (Ben Bailey-Smith), an engineer (“I fix the things pilots like my sister tend to wreck,” he says) provide the central emotional thrust of the story. Mabil (Lois Chimimba), the sole medic after Astos’s death, must keep it together in a situation she’s not prepared to deal with. Yoss (Jack Shalloo) is a pregnant man, which in another version of Doctor Who might be a throwaway gimmick, but here provides Ryan with a necessary release of the pent-up feelings he has about his own father. Even the android here has layers. Indeed, the ways in which all of the regulars bounce off of the guest cast make for quite a marvelous little dance.
A fine example of the way this new Who works is in the scene in which Eve must neuro-pilot to save the day. In someone else’s version of this scene, we’d see the ship make its way through the asteroid field, but not here. Everything plays on Eve’s face and on her hands and fingers, because it isn’t about navigating an asteroid field as much as it’s about one last chance for Eve to do what she does best, and for her to experience the feelings that go along with that.
It is entirely possible that Jodie Whittaker gives her best performance yet in this episode, and she is most definitely at her most Doctorish — for example, in her response to Mabil, when she asks if she’s a doctor of medicine: “Well, medicine, science, engineering, candy floss, Lego, philosophy, music, problems, people … hope! Mostly hope.” She then says something that has got to be among the most brilliant, important lines ever written for this show: “Whole worlds pivot on acts of imagination.” That just about wrecked me. That is why Chris Chibnall is in charge of this series. Whittaker runs the gamut of emotions throughout this hour, commanding the screen all along the way. Whether it’s her love of her friends or her mission to save these strangers or her idolatry of science, she just nails scene after scene: “It’s beautiful: Antimatter powering the movement of matter, bringing positrons into existence to move other forms of life across space. I love it — conceptually … and actually.”
If the crux of the story is getting through that asteroid field, disposing of a bomb, and excising an alien demon, then why is a scene with Ryan talking about finding his mother dead on the kitchen floor so much more memorable than all that other stuff? I’m not sure Chibnall has found the perfect balance for his vision of the series yet. It’s a work in progress. The experiment will surely yield an uneven season, but of one thing I am certain: This version of Doctor Who is a direct answer to the world around us, and I think its aim is to make us better people. Or, as the episode puts it, “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.”