It’s monster-of-the-week week on Doctor Who. Having earlier tangled with gigantic Sheffield spiders and an intergalactic racist, the new series returns to one of the programme’s most hallowed traditions, as Time Lord (Jodie Whittaker) and chums pretend to be terrified by a deep space beastie which in reality possesses all the menace of a flat whoopee cushion.
The insatiable “Pting” should in theory strike terror into the heart of any self-respecting galaxy-hopping eccentric. Staying true to his promise to introduce only new monsters in his first season, showrunner Chris Chibnall has cooked up a ravenous devourer of inanimate objects and energy – a living recycling bin that could happily chomp its way through an entire starship.
But when the baleful beast is finally unveiled, it’s the biggest Doctor Who letdown since the £5 haircut Christopher Eccleston modelled for his Time Lord debut (though the disappointment is pushed all the way by the reports that Doctor Who will be skipping its traditional Christmas special this year). A cross between a yammering Minion from the Despicable Me franchise and a plasticine Chihuahua, the Pting is less xenomorph than xenodwarf and impossible to take seriously as an antagonist.
Chibnall does better interweaving comedy and pathos as Doctor and crew are rudely interrupted from a salvaging expedition on a rubbish-tip planet when they accidentally detonate a sonic mine. They wake on a hospital ship with creepy white walls. Here, they share breathing room with, among others, war hero General Eve Cicero (Suzanne Packer) and a heavily pregnant Yoss Inkle (Jack Shalloo) – an interstellar jack-the-lad who, after an ill-judged holiday fling, is about to give birth.
Cue knockabout comedy with Doctor sidekicks (Bradley Walsh) Graham and Ryan (Tosin Cole) helping the bloke have his baby (“I’ve watched every episode of Call the Midwife” says Graham, veins popping). There is also a side-serving of heart-breaking drama as General Cicero steers the ship through an asteroid field only to expire from the hyperspeed disease she’s kept secret (never mind, her under-appreciated brother, played by Ben Bailey Smith, is on hand to finish the job). As if that isn’t enough – and, really, it isn’t – the Pting invites itself aboard and embarks on destructive feeding frenzy.
The best thing about “The Tsuranga Conundrum” – “Tsuranga” being what the call the Red Cross in the far future– is Whittaker’s 13th Doctor. She is, at last, dialling down the eye-rolling and the children’s party wackiness and becoming a mysterious charismatic you truly would follow across the galaxy.
It’s a pity her most solid turn should come in an instalment that, with its joke-shop critter, feels like a Disney remaking of Alien (the Pting is ultimately blasted through the airlock just as HR Giger’s creation was in the Ridley Scott classic). But, of course, part of the deal with Doctor Who is that every so often it will spring upon you a monster that demands to be laughed out loud at. There will be better Doctor Who baddies – the good news is Whittaker is finally, definitively finding her feet as the Girl from Gallifrey.
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