Lots of fans apparently disliked it, but, you guys, I think The Tsuranga Conundrum might be my favourite Thirteenth Doctor episode yet.
The Doctor and her friends are metal detecting on a junk planet, for unspecified reasons, when they accidentally unearth a dangerous sonic mine. After the ensuing explosion, they wake up aboard a medical ship – one that’s under attack by a single-minded and indestructible creature called a Pting. (It is adorable.) The problem is, the ship’s automated, crewed only by two medical staff looking after two other patients and two hangers-on; and if the computer systems at their destination, a big hospital space station called Resus One, discover the Pting, they’ll blow the ship up to protect everyone else. The Doctor must draw on the skill and expertise of everyone on the ship to solve these puzzles, keep everyone safe and well, and bring the ship home.
The Tsuranga Conundrum is an episode about imagination. Or, rather, re-imagination: its characters are repeatedly called upon to reimagine their relationship to the universe and their place in it. Graham and Ryan have to reimagine their notions of (their own) masculinity when they’re called upon to be birth partners to a pregnant man; timid medic Mabli is asked to reimagine herself as competent and brave; resentful brother Durkas learns by the end of the episode to reimagine his sister’s robot consort Ronan as a member of society in his own right.
But it’s not just the characters who are asked to engage in acts of reimagination. We are asked to do so, too, through the Doctor, who is the heart of this show. At the beginning of the episode, she engages in a frantic search for the ship’s navigation systems and a way back to her beloved TARDIS – her determination to take over and her focus on getting her ship back are both hallmarks of the Doctor’s behaviour in earlier incarnations. So when medic Astos forces her to see this behaviour as selfish – she’s jeopardising not only herself, as she’s still recovering from the effects of the sonic mine, but also the other patients on the ship, as she’s taking medical attention away from them – he’s also asking us to reassess our ideas of what Doctor Who should be, and who the Doctor should be. In fact, it runs deeper than that: he’s asking us to reassess who the Doctor actually is, or was. Have previous incarnations of the Doctor ever been as altruistic as the show wanted us to think they were, if they could behave regularly and unchallenged in a manner that we now see was selfish?
There’s a similar moment closer to the end of the episode, when the Doctor finally works out how to get rid of the Pting, and remove the threat of automated destruction, in one fell swoop. It’s a solution that requires an imaginative leap, a reframing of the problem: to see the Pting not as something to be captured or killed, but as a being with needs that can be fulfilled. This is, admittedly, less of a leap for the show as a whole: the Doctor has always asked aliens what they want, and tried to reach peaceful conclusions. It’s less usual after hostilities have apparently been opened, though; so once again we’re asked to reimagine the show’s assumptions about how its protagonist (and by extension we) should respond to aggression.
With The Tsuranga Conundrum, the series really hits its stride, I think. It’s a statement about what the new Doctor Who is: a show that cares about people and non-sentient beings; a show that will ask us to readjust our perspectives and reimagine the universe to include others; a show about hope, and kindness, and support. A show continually, productively reimagining it