The fundamentals of storytelling and how ‘Doctor Who: The Tsuranga Conundrum’ fails to incorporate them

Tonight Doctor Who gave us The Tsuranga Conundrum. It stands out from every episode aired so far this series in one main regard: it’s bad and doesn’t function on any level. As usual the main cast of the show are able to elevate the material they’re given, however today they had very little to work with.The main thing that stands out about the episode is the baffling storytelling choices. I don’t mean that the choice of story chosen to tell is baffling, but that the way in which it was told is broken. I should also say that I do recognise that Doctor Who is a family genre show. It is at often times, including this episode, intentionally very silly. I hope that no one dismisses the points I explore because “Doctor Who is just a kids show” or “you aren’t supposed to take it this seriously.” I would instead assert that even trash TV (I’m not talking about Doctor Who here) has shows that understand the fundamentals of storytelling craft, whatever they might lay on top of that framework. That’s why some trash TV is eminently watchable and some is not.

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Generally speaking in conflict driven fiction the protagonist(s) have a goal and there are antagonist(s) or an antagonistic force preventing the protagonist(s) from achieving this goal. As the narrative unfolds the protagonist(s) will make gains towards their objective, but also suffer setbacks which they’ll have to make hard choices to survive or recover from and often these choices will result further setbacks down the road. By the end of the narrative they’ll have learned something about themselves, or their quest, that allows them to complete it. Or in some rarer cases they’ll have a critical flaw they don’t overcome, or learn the wrong lesson, or the antagonists are the ones that learn, and thus the protagonist(s) fail to achieve their goal.

In The Tsuranga Conundrum the goals and antagonistic forces are clear. The Doctor and her companions want to get back to the planet where the TARDIS is parked, however they’re on a medical transport that cannot divert its course (the ship is automated and will explode if messed with and there are some patients who need to reach their destination) and there is also a creature (called a Pting) on board that is eating the ship and left unchecked will result in the ship’s destruction. They have a clear goal and the potential obstacles are obvious.

The initial conflict of needing to return to the planet with the TARDIS on has a simple resolution: once they reach the space hospital they’ll be flown back. So that unfolds off screen after the episode has ended. The other conflict, the Pting eating the ship, is resolved by The Doctor removing the bomb in the ship, placing it in an airlock, waiting for the Pting to eat the bomb and then flushing them both out the airlock together. The Pting is discovered to be attracted to energy and essentially invincible: so its attraction to the bomb and its ease in absorbing the explosion all make sense within the rules that this episode establishes. The Doctor even mentions that the energy absorbed by the Pting will keep it well fed for a while just so the audience doesn’t ask why the Pting won’t be a problem again once they make the return trip off screen.

The problems in the episode come from the lack of obstacles within this story. When the Doctor removes the bomb from the ship she makes some stressed faces and the score and character reactions tell us we should feel tense, however nothing goes wrong in the process of the bomb removal. It takes a minute, but no obstacles have to be learned about to be overcome, it simply happens. The Doctor doesn’t make any hard choices that have compromising effects down the road. Before its expulsion the Pting is supposedly a problem because it keeps eating vital systems around the ship. Once compromised these systems only seem to result in the lights flickering and the occasional part of the ship being jettisoned. Neither of these things actively prevent the acquisition of any of the required elements involved in resolving the conflicts. The Doctor isn’t prevented from reaching the airlock because the damaged parts of the ship stop her in her tracks and the flickering lights don’t seem to have any effect on tracking or failing to track the Pting.

There are a few other plot threads beyond the main conflicts. On board is a man about to give birth and an old General with medical problems. We’re told that the damaged systems on board will make it difficult for the man to give birth, but then he just successfully gives birth. Yes, there is a drawn out scene of people looking stressed and doing things we don’t understand to make it happen, but like with the Doctor’s bomb disposal we’re told it’s difficult, but no one makes any hard choices. Eventually the ship is unable to fly its course automatically, so the old General steps up and the strain of piloting the strip causes her medical problems to take her life. Now, this seems to be a consequence of hard choices made in the plot, so for now I’ll put a pin in this topic and return to it later. I’ll just carry on with my general point from this paragraph: we’re told what she’s doing is hard, she looks stressed and then she does it.

Another odd plot point is that companion Yaz is assigned by the Doctor to capture the Pting. Yaz is given a blanket that allows her to touch the Pting. The ship is equipped with some non-lethal stunning weaponry that fires electric looking beams of energy. Yaz uses this to stun the Pting. She then gathers it up in the blanket and throws it down a corridor to keep it out of trouble. It’s weird that a being that can absorb huge explosions can be stunned by some form of minor electrical energy, but what’s weirder is Yaz throwing the creature down a corridor to keep it out of harm’s way. Why not just keep stunning it until it’s time to let it absorb the bomb? At no point does the episode establish that the stun weaponry has a limited charge or a similar limitation.

In genre fiction one must establish rules. What does this technology do? What are its limitations? You want your protagonists to have opportunities and tools, but not be overpowered. How they get around those limitations or use them to create new opportunities is part of the storytelling. It creates more hard choices and leads to more consequences. A lot of the writing shortcomings I’ve just criticised over the last few paragraphs have interrelated fixes.

Firstly, have things (the bomb) out of reach due to the damaged ship. Maybe the characters have to go through sections without air, thus requiring a space suit. Maybe the Pting has eaten all the suits but one, so only one person can go. So The Doctor goes to get the bomb alone. Meanwhile Yaz has to take the Pting out of commission. All that is on board that fits the task is some futuristic heart paddles which The Doctor has to rig up to fit the task (before she sets off for the bomb’s location obviously). As they’re not designed for the task they’ll blow out after the first and only usage. (Perhaps this results in damaging other equipment attached to the same power system, which is what makes the equipment for a safer birth procedure harder.) Yaz will have to wait until the last moment to stun the Pting so that the Doctor has enough time to get the bomb before the Pting destroys the ship. Whilst they wait the Pting damages more systems until only one airlock is working and it’s an impractically long way away from the Doctor. Due to more and more systems being destroyed, Yaz is forced to stun the Pting immediately. Then the Doctor gets to the bomb, but it cannot be removed as the power is down in that section as a result of the rigged up heart paddles overloading the power in some areas. So the Doctor has to wait for that to be fixed at the other end of the ship, whilst next to a bomb, waiting for the Pting to inevitably wake up, this time with no defence against it! Then it does awake! It makes a beeline for where Yaz and the gang are! So now the Doctor has to remove the bomb double time! She succeeds, but now the Pting is after her and the bomb! It nearly catches her on her way back to the airlock and ruptures her suit in the attack! Now she has to abandon the space suit as it’ll slow her down and she’ll run out of breath! The airless corridors are too long for her to hold her breath! So she has to go outside the ship and get to the working airlock from the outside before she dies in the vacuum of space! She gets back in! But she’s hurt from the ravages of open space and so she faints! The Pting eats the bomb and is about to exit the airlock! Thankfully all the companions arrive, they bluff the Pting with the fried heart paddles long enough to pull The Doctor out! They shut the airlock and blow the Pting out into the abyss!

With the possible exception of the suit-free space walk, there’s nothing here that’s not within easy budgetary possibilities based on the episode we were given.

Based on what I said earlier you might be wondering why I also describe the General’s death and the pregnant man’s respective plot threads as being poor or dysfunctional. After the General dies her brother immediately steps into the pilot role and any potential consequences are immediately negated. It’s also the fact that the way the pregnant man and the General are introduced is odd. They don’t function as protagonists or deuteragonists along with the Doctor and her companions because their ability to interact with and affect the main story doesn’t become a reality until the near the end. They’re introduced as background characters well beforehand, but they don’t intersect with events. They’re like the characters in video game RPGs that you talk to if you want to access side missions, but they won’t come into effect until you talk to them. So you have no narrative reason to feel connected to their stories, but in additions to this you have no reasons to care about them at all anyway.

Not everyone needs a story to be a tightly wound and well plotted thing. It’s a perfectly reasonable reaction for people to enjoy a piece of fiction if they just like the characters they’re spending their time with. The problem is The Tsuranga Conundrum assumes we care about these people, it doesn’t tell us why we should care about them. They aren’t provided any real personality traits and they aren’t given a metaphorical cat to save. Another approach would be to have the regular characters we already care about have affection for the newer characters. The pregnant man does ask Graham and Ryan to act as emotional support whilst he gives birth, but he also declares the only reason why is because they’re men and he wants male support specifically. Ryan gives says some inspirational things to the man to encourage him, but he could have been saying these things to anyone. There was nothing personal and specific about the speech. In fact it tied into a threadbare plot concerning Ryan’s feelings about the death of his mother and the following abandonment by his distraught father. Ryan was just exorcising his own demons here, not connecting genuinely with the pregnant man. The General is only given a personal connection to her brother, who we also have no reason to care about.

On the other hand, despite all my criticisms, worse scripts have become good TV episodes and movies. What pushes The Tsuranga Conundrum into the territory of being truly awful is its direction and editing. The direction in this episode is generally quite off-kilter. The 180 degree rule is broken frequently. There are excessive close ups even for a TV show. The blocking even undercuts a joke about Poirot when the camera angle and movement doesn’t fully display the visual element of the joke. The worst directing issue of all is the sheer lethargy of how the scenes unfold. The camera shakes a lot and the cuts are frequent (which is how the 180 degree rule is often broken). There’s nothing wrong with a slow burn tension piece, which this is intending to be, but it feels like the director is trying to borrow the directorial techniques of J.J. Abrams without understanding them. Abrams will edit rapidly and shake the camera to create a sense of movement that gives the action a sense of propulsion even when little is happening: think of Kirk and Bones running through the corridors of The Enterprise in Star Trek when all that is happening is Kirk needs an injection and wants to talk to the Captain. The editing, pounding music and exuberance of the acting gives it such propulsion. However the tension in this episode of Doctor Who should be about the slow dread of death as it crawls towards you. The fear not of dying, but of being in a situation where death is becoming more and more certain, but you have too much time to think about it, but not the ability to immediately prevent it. The more functional directing choice would be to use longer takes as to stay with every individual emotion of the characters as they worsen. If we care about the characters and they’re terrified and feeling powerless, we will feel the same way.

I did note that the score for the episode was also lethargic, positively dreamlike even. I actually quite liked it. It read as an attempt by a composer trying to give something entirely lifeless more of an identity. If it’s going to be lifeless and nonsensically plotted, I might as well have the music give it the feeling of a non-sequitous dream.

As I round this out I’d just like to mention a couple of bizarre creative choices that weren’t related to my core criticisms. The first is there was a character in the first act called Astos who the Doctor spends a good ten minutes with. He’s the primary medical doctor on the ship and is the one that provides The Doctor with information about what’s going on and why they can’t just drop her off at the TARDIS immediately. This is done as a big dialogue delivered exposition dump (what happened to show, don’t tell?) He then gets killed when a part of the ship detaches itself. This is the end of the first act and is the event that announces (to the characters anyway) the arrival of the Pting threat. So his death doesn’t actually affect the plot in any way either, but also makes the time spent with him odd. I wonder if this was an attempt at a Psycho styled twist of killing a seemingly important character, but it doesn’t work because we also don’t care about him. In fact leading up to this his refusal of the demands of The Doctor (which are well justified) are blocking the initial plot (returning to the TARDIS) from progressing: that is until a new plot literally crashes into the ship once it’s needed. This entire section of the episode is driven by The Doctor being uncharacteristically selfish and arrogant (even for The Doctor) just to provide an in-universe reason for Astos to do his laborious explain of what’s happening. The Doctor realises she’s being awful and then her arrogance never returns to the story in any way.

The second unrelated bizarre creative choice is how the episode opens. As we enter the story The Doctor and company are on a scrap planet and The Doctor is looking for junk for her technology loving hobbyist ways. In and of itself I do like this scene and it adds a nice piece of context to The Doctor’s life. On the other hand, within this particular story it creates some dissonance. In the scrapheap The Doctor and co encounter a “sonic mine” which goes off and immobilises them until they’re rescued by the medical ship off screen (also in real life it’s the “sonic” part of actual existing mines that make them incredibly lethal, but whatever). The Doctor has a brief line saying that some unspecified cruel people just leave those about the place just because. This sonic mine issue never comes back up again nor these cruel people leaving them. It does provide The Doctor and her companions with some temporary injuries (some limping) that as you have already guessed: does nothing to hinder their progression towards their goal. It’s a frequent occurrence on Doctor Who that the TARDIS detects an emergency or some unspecified danger about to emerge somewhere and then forcibly lands The Doctor in that location for them to investigate. Why isn’t that how this episode begins? I understand that the TARDIS needs to be cut off from the action to prevent its use in the narrative as an escape vessel, but why not have it just fall out of the ship that’s detaching its own parts?

I chose these two asides as a way to round out this piece because they’re both microcosms of why The Tsuranga Conundrum doesn’t function. Everything that happens stretches out the action without consequence whilst creating a series of logical issues that detract from the overall experience, all whilst attached to plot elements that are never heard from again.

I’m sorry this was so long, there was a lot more to unpack here than I realised when I first began typing. When the fundamentals of writing go this wrong there is a lot of work to be done in assessing it all. I didn’t even get into the sonic screwdriver being disabled and it not mattering, nor two of the guest characters who were even more inconsequential despite the episode insisting they had a story.

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