Doctor Who XXXVII/11.5: The Tsuranga Conundrum

Tsuranga-eve-doctorA few weeks ago I suggested that the placing of Doctor Who on Sunday nights confirmed it as the established national religion in the eyes of BBC One. The Tsuranga Conundrum might confirm this, with the Doctor finding herself in a society which not only knows her – the first time this has happened this series – but regards her as a priest or a saint. I’m not sure what the episode’s Book of Celebrants thinks a celebrant is, but if it’s a book for celebrants in the sense of those who can officiate at religious ceremonies or comparable rites of passage, then perhaps both the Doctor and General Eve Cicero are exemplars around whose deeds sermons can be based. The society which built the Tsuranga and Resus One presumably has a faith in which military heroes can be saints, but this doesn’t seem an excessively militarised society. The details are underdeveloped, but it’s possible to imagine the 67th century culture in which the Doctor and friends find themselves as a pluralist one where there are different ways to lead an ethical life and people share each other’s rituals. The Doctor is not the celebrant of the incantation for Eve Cicero which closes the episode, but instead that role falls to an android about to die who has been insulted in earlier dialogue. This might seem too much in the vein of  1980s/1990s Star Trek for some, but it underlines the concern of Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who with the overcoming of social divisions and unnecessary prejudice. While once again the threat is not vanquished but set loose, in the context of the religious theme this looks less like an untied loose end than a chance at redemption. One feels Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King would have approved. Yet the Pting’s nature means that its good is to consume energy without relent or remorse; so, then whose redemption are we talking about?

Elsewhere, it looks as if Doctor Who is continuing a tour of precinct drama genres, with The Tsuranga Conundrum embedding the TARDIS friends in an episode of a hospital series. Suzanne Packer, so long a stalwart of Casualty, is a marker of this identification, but confounds the expectations being courted by playing a patient rather than a member of medical staff. General Cicero is still part of the resolution, but before then her consort’s illicit procurement of adrenalin blockers provides one of the indicators of how flawed the Tsuranga system is. The Tsuranga is understaffed and over-reliant on automation. Its systems lack adequate back-ups. Its procedures are incapable of making decisions with the necessary finesse at a distance. This must have chimed with those viewers who work in outposts of thinly-spread businesses, reliant on support services who might as well be on a different planet.

Taken together as medics and patients, the inhabitants of the Tsuranga form a staple of British postwar mythology, the plucky crew of a vessel facing gremlins in the works. Eve Cicero fills the role of the Battle of Britain hero, her brother that of the youngster or the long-overlooked colleague who finds the confidence to rise to an emergency. Chibnall’s Doctor Who looks to underlying forms of story, much as the Doctor accepts that a path to enlightenment is just that even if it involves taking up arms against a threat – guns can be someone else’s solution in the right context, perhaps one involving a significant risk of self-sacrifice.

Last week I said that Doctor Who under Chris Chibnall could feel hollow, and was taken to task. Perhaps it would be better to say that it pulls its punches in the interests of maintaining a broad coalition of viewers in divided times, after a long period of self-conscious cleverness. Perhaps this is a Doctor Who mindful that a sizeable chunk of the British audience seemed to say a couple of years ago that they had had enough of experts. Despite this, although we meet the Doctor atop a pile of space debris, instructing her hapless friends who are armed with metal detectors, the insubordination (from Graham) is mild and doesn’t directly point out that the Doctor taking charge and dictating is part of the format of the series in the way that a scene in a pre-Chibnall season might have done. Instead, it’s left to the unfolding of the episode to make the contrast, as the still-recovering Doctor attempts to take charge of a situation without having the information she really needs. The Doctor’s fallibility is positioned in such a way, though, as to ultimately emphasise her authority, but it has to be earned through the gathering and application of knowledge and management skills. When the Doctor invokes Poirot, she’s not doing so to stun the assembled with an incredible deduction expressive of her genius, but instead to urge the pooling of skills.

Otherwise… the regulars shared the action out well, with each turning up just as I was missing them; Yaz is here the Doctor’s right hand and prize pupil with the men having their own adventures in obstetrics. The Pting – a relic of a lost version of this story by Tim Price – was beautifully set up and remained a real and serious threat despite its embrace of absurdity. It also gets to live, and benefits more clearly from the relativism which shaped the fate of the spiders in Arachnids in the UK – the assumption that the Pting wants to kill people is mistaken, as it devours energy channelled through non-organic sources; organic life forms barely register in its grasp of the universe. The programme again returns to co-existence between barely compatible worldviews. As in Rosa, the process of education is a long one and not to be glibly solved in fifty minutes of television. Jennifer Perrott’s visualisation of the script worked extremely well; the series of portrait shots in heavily polarized scenes were noticeable as were the varied distances from the group in collective shots depending on the comparative integration of the ensembles.

In other words, I enjoyed it, and while I thought some characters and background could have done with a little more polish, this was involving television and revealed more about the series’ overall concerns under its new regime. Only five episodes left, however.

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