On its surface, “The Tsuranga Conundrum” bears more than passing resemblance to a certain 1979 Ridley Scott horror classic: The Doctor and her friends are drifting in space aboard a ship that’s been invaded by a murderous and seemingly unstoppable alien. There’s even an android, a male pregnancy, and an alien who gets thrown out of an airlock. Hell, the only thing this story is missing is a fluffy orange cat. But where Alien is all thrills and gore, “The Tsuranga Conundrum” is a far more low-key story. A Pting may be dangerous, but it’s no Xenomorph.
So, let’s talk about the newest monster in the Doctor Who universe. Looking like a cross between Disney’s Stitch and a Funko Pop, a Pting is a tiny, deadly alien that’s virtually indestructible. It can live unharmed in the vacuum of space, it’s poisonous to the touch, and it’s impossibly fast. Worst of all, it’ll eat anything you put in front of it.
The Doctor, Yaz, Graham, and Ryan come face to face with this tiny menace when they’re picked up by a medical ship after a salvage expedition gone wrong. Led by medics Astos (Brett Goldstein) and Mabli (Lois Chimimba), the ship is a floating Red Cross, picking up and healing patients from around the galaxy. Currently on board are a heavily pregnant man named Yoss (Jack Shalloo) and the ailing General Eve Cicero (Suzanne Packer). But when the Pting locks on to their ship and starts swallowing everything in sight, killing Astos in the process, it’s up to the Doctor and her friends to figure out how to stop it and keep everyone alive.
Doctor Who villains run the gamut from the bone-chilling (the Cybermen, the Weeping Angels) to the profoundly silly (the Slitheen, the Adipose) — and the Pting lands soundly in the latter camp. (Expect to see a lot of Pting plushies and merch available for sale as we head into the holidays.) We’re five episodes into the Thirteenth Doctor’s run, and I can’t help but wonder when we’re going to get a really good villain. The Remnants were creepy, and last week’s giant spiders were unsettling, but Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor has yet to come up against a truly memorable villain, someone (or something) that can match the Time Lord.
Although most of the episode is spent dashing around the ship and spouting technobabble about antimatter, there are a few lovely character moments: Packer is particularly moving as the general battling a deadly illness and struggling to keep it from her younger brother (Ben Bailey-Smith). The pregnancy plot involving Yoss is also pretty silly, but it allows for an emotional sequence where Ryan reflects on his complicated relationship with his father. (He also opens up to Yaz about his mother’s death when he was 13.)
But ultimately, it’s Whittaker who salvages the episode. When the Doctor first wakes up aboard the ship, she’s so desperate to get back to her TARDIS that she doesn’t even stop to realize that there are other people on board who need to get to their destination, too. For the first time, she’s forced to take a back seat and let others take the lead — from Astos exploring the escape pod to General Cicero piloting the ship home. It’s the first time we’ve seen a hint of darkness and selfishness in this Doctor, underneath all the heroics — and I’m guessing it won’t be the last.
Odds and ends
- As the Doctor explains to Mabli, she’s a doctor of medicine, science, engineering, candy floss, LEGO, philosophy, music, problems, people, and hope. “Mostly hope.”
- If you look closely at the console when the computer tries to identify the Pting, you’ll spot some familiar Who aliens, including an Ood, a Cyberman, a Weeping Angel, and a Slitheen.
- Graham puts his love of Call the Midwife to good use when he helps deliver Yoss’s baby. Meanwhile, the Doctor is a big fan of Hamilton and has seen “all 900 casts.”