With Pete McTighe and Chris Chibnall’s “Praxeus”, Doctor Who returns to the globe-spanning adventure format established in “Spyfall“. Before the machinations get underway, The Doctor’s (Jodie Whittaker) voiceover calmly contextualises this as a genuinely global story, iterated over an image of our beautiful planet, and shares her concerns about the “seven billion lives, separate and connected” of its inhabitants. The focus on what we’re doing to this world (a theme handled in “Orphan 55” in a heavy-handed and didactic manner that repelled some viewers) feeds into a story, shown in the week where the news has concentrated on the coronavirus crisis in China, that explores the effects of a bacterium feeding on microplastic pollution.
“From the depths of the oceans to the edge of the atmosphere” foretells, in microcosm, the events of “Praxeus.” In a nifty moment of cross-cutting, director Jamie Magnus Stone (who helmed “Spyfall: Part 1“) takes us from astronaut Adam Lang’s (Matthew McNulty) crash landing to his husband Jake Willis’ (Warren Brown) attempt to apprehend a shoplifter, his aggressive instincts as an ex-cop getting the better of him and losing him his security job. The high achieving Adam’s struggle to land his ship is contrasted with Jake’s difficulty finding his role in society and, by extension, understanding his relationship with Adam. Meanwhile, in Peru, blogger Gabriela’s friend Jamila (Gabriela Toloi) is attacked by massing birds when they decide, unadvisedly, to camp for the night in a former beauty spot choked with plastic pollution.
Adam, missing presumed dead by news reports, texts the distressed Jake from a location in Hong Kong. Jake sets off to find him and, breaking into the building where Adam’s located, he meets Graham (Bradley Walsh) and Yaz (Mandip Gill). Looking for Jamila the following morning, Gabriela (Joana Borja) encounters Ryan (Tosin Cole), who warns her not to approach the bird that’s just dropped out of the sky and lying dead at her feet. Having given her companions errands, The Doctor has also done a spot of globetrotting herself. On the Madagascan coast (a beautiful use of location filming in South Africa), The Doctor calls for help from two scientists, Suki (Molly Harris) and Aramu (Thapelo Maropefela), to rescue a survivor of a missing submarine washed up on the beach. This is an interesting approach for how to involve the companions in the bigger story and it’s far more effective to give each of them a distinct part of the episode before reuniting them with The Doctor to tackle the episode’s looming crisis. They’re given specific things to do to further establish and develop them as characters.
Investigating the behaviour of the birds, Ryan tries to persuade a suspicious Gabriela that he had nothing to do with Jamila’s disappearance. “I do a lot of running,” Ryan explains as she frisks him and passes a remark on his trim physique. Great cardio exercise running from monsters and down lots of corridors every week but Ryan’s flaky about Gabriela and Jamila’s well-known travel vlog ‘Two Girls Roaming’. Equally, Graham and Yaz are nonplussed about the missing astronaut Adam, when Jake reveals that’s who he’s looking for, and are far more concerned about strange energy patterns in the building. On the beach, The Doctor, Suki, and Amaru attempt to help the dying submariner but he explodes after a strange disease envelops his body. It’s a suitably creepy moment of body horror.
Outlining the very structure of the episode, The Doctor notes, “there’s a connection between all these things… a missing submarine, a dead naval officer off the coast of Madagascar, birds going haywire in Peru, and active alien tech in Hong Kong.” Let’s not mention the talking cat in Ontario and concentrate on how these disparate elements are eventually brought together in an intriguing and fairly satisfying way. Ryan and Gabriela trace Jamila to an abandoned hospital, empty and deserted as the result of an imposed quarantine. Jamila’s succumbed to the disease we’ve seen kill the marine but Magnus Stone employs a juicy jump-scare to demonstrate that, although she’s dead, the disease is still attacking her. There’s a particularly unsettling shot where the disease engulfs her face and the inside of her mouth and throat. The Doctor comes to their aid but it’s too late and Jamila explodes into a cloud of dust.
The Doctor and her companions are perhaps often a little too hardened to the body count their adventures clock up… but Gabriela, after a quiet moment of remorse shared with Ryan in the TARDIS, seems to find it rather easy to carry on regardless and the emotional impact of Jamila’s demise takes a back seat as she joins the expansive cast of characters sharing this adventure. The problem is whether there’s enough material to go round and, while Jake and Adam get a fair amount of development and a resolution to their story, Gabriela and Amaru don’t get enough to do in a story that eventually runs out of steam. Suki, who just happens to run a well-equipped lab on the Madagascan coast, also sets off early warning signals and is, perhaps, an easy spot as the supposed villain of the week. Suki and Jake, not owning up about who they really are for their own reasons, maintain a theme running through the series about who can be trusted and how identities are constantly being masked and hidden.
There’s a lovely bit of comic business between Graham and Yaz where she turns his scanner the right way round to correctly lead them to the right door to rescue an ailing Adam from an alien machine in the Hong Kong factory. Protected by gun-wielding, gas-masked creatures, this action-packed sequence ends with Graham and Yaz aghast that Jake’s back up won’t be coming because, as Adam informs them, he’s an ex-copper (like Yaz, he’s “on a sabbatical”). Fortunately, Yaz and Graham’s back up, The Doctor, doesn’t let them down. Adam and Jake try to take in the ‘bigger on the inside’ concept of the TARDIS—always a winning moment—after Yaz decides to go back to the factory with Gabriela. Having figured out that one of the panels on the alien machine is valuable to the creatures and could be a vital clue to what’s going on, Yaz’s clearly delighted when The Doctor gives her blessing for the mission. It’s good to see that she’s finally given something specific to do and it’s by her own volition.
Like The Doctor’s opening narration, Adam also reinforces the notion a global view of events is connected to separate individuals (and to Jake, in his case) with his own description of watching the turn of the Earth from the ISS and how that “just changes how you see everything.” It reflects the troubled “we’re separated… we’re married” relationship between Jake and Adam as Graham helps them get to the lab in Madagascar. While The Doctor sets out to find out the cause of Adam’s illness, Amaru reminds us that there’s a problem with the sudden massing of birds over the beach. Unfortunately, his idea to keep an eye on them results in his imminent demise.
Yaz and Gabriela find the alien instrumentation from the factory. They discover a teleport station after they see one of the creatures they previously fought with using it. Yaz, feeling emboldened by The Doctor’s trust in her, decides to follow it. Before they do, Yaz discovers the factory is one of three triangulated locations and one is in Madagascar and is a big clue to why Suki has her lab there. After being transported to an undersea base, the interaction between Yaz and Gabriela is welcome. Yaz briefly substitutes as The Doctor and as Gabriela’s dead best friend, and they become the “two girls roaming” of the titular vlog. The heart-to-heart between Graham and Jake functions in a similar way, allowing The Doctor’s companions to become better involved with other characters caught up in the adventure. Their chat reveals Jake’s turmoil as a man and a husband who feels unable to “do emotions”, commit to his relationship or enjoy foreign travel. “Quite the catch, then” suggests Graham. But the bigger problem is how he can possibly be the equal of someone as impressive as an astronaut and accept the love that Adam gives him. The only way he can deal with it is to punish Adam by wallowing in his own unreliability. As Graham points out, it’s Jake that’s punishing himself for not being worthy. It’s well-acted, well-written material that the series depends on to flesh out characters and their emotions.
The dead bird Ryan dissects is full of plastic and The Doctor reasons that an alien pathogen is feasting on the plastic and taking over living organisms. With the mention of plastic there’s the suggestion this could be Autons, with an undersea base as a location there is an inkling that the Sea Devils might be up to something (actually a Sea Devils story about the dangers of polluting the sea would be a good one to do) but in the end, as the story draws to a close, it’s a bacteria that latches onto the microplastics we’re polluting ourselves and the planet with. This gets a little convoluted when The Doctor discovers that the alien pathogen is under assault from enzymes that can be isolated and made into a virus. Not only that, she also discovers from Yaz that Suki is the villain of the piece and that she’s been experimenting with an infection called Praxeus. After being discovered, she teleports away and it all gets a bit Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) when the massing birds burst into the lab and attack them.
The Doctor tests the virus on Adam. As he’s linked to the TARDIS, if the cure works, it’ll manufacture more. Meanwhile, Yaz and Gabriela are reunited with the TARDIS crew and The Doctor is particularly impressed: “Look at you, going off on your own and not getting killed!” While Yaz is convinced they’re in an undersea alien colony, The Doctor disappoints her by revealing they’re actually under the Indian Ocean and a huge gyre of plastic pollution. Suki, rather than being a total villain, is actually the last crew member of a group of aliens who travelled to Earth in order to find a cure for Praxeus after it devastated her own world. But they crashed and released Praxeus into the Indian Ocean. Granted, she’s used Earth and humanity as a “petri dish” to cultivate plastic loving Praxeus and experiment on it but The Doctor, rather than blame the misguided Suki, reasons with her that as scientists they can work out how to use the cure and get Suki and her ship back into space. Suki, having tested a virus adapted for humans on her own non-human body, explodes. You win some, you lose some.
So, it’s time for a really cheesy 1980s reference and apologies for this. Perhaps they should have called this episode “Yaz and the Plastic Pollution” where the “only way is up” using Suki’s ship and its organic fuel cells in order to deliver the anti-Praxeus virus into the Earth’s atmosphere in enough quantity. Jake nobly sacrifices himself to prove to Adam that he’s stopped dodging life when the ship’s autopilot fails and, for a moment, we almost seem to be heading to a retrograde ‘bury the gays’-style ending. Fortunately, The Doctor materialises the TARDIS around Jake in time for a lovely reunion with a recovered Adam and abandons that worn out and harmful idea. It’s a fitting, positive ending for two LGBTI+ characters. Getting together with Gabriela at the end of the episode even suggests a possible spin-off, ‘Three Idiots Roaming’, for Jake and Adam.
“Praxeus” shows how an ecological crisis, something Doctor Who’s been telling stories about since 1964’s “Planet of the Giants”, can be successfully wedded to a gripping story and rounded characters without it coming across as too didactic. It’s also quite positive about human beings proactively working together to solve world health problems, given the current issues with trying to contain the coronavirus. The episode benefits from a well-written script, structured carefully to give everyone a moment in the spotlight—even if it gets crowded with so many supporting characters and exhausts itself by getting bogged down by a rationale for the existence of Praxeus and how to cure it. Pete Tighe is fast becoming a reliable writer who seems to understand what makes the series tick. Even though its body horror content is scary, the episode’s biggest problem is the lack of an identifiable villain (Suki is one of several misguided alien scientists) or a truly threatening monster (massing birds doesn’t work so well). That said, it’s a very solid, interesting episode, beautifully shot and well-acted and that, contrary to opinion, offers something of a respite from the mythology heavy “Fugitive of the Judoon“.
Cast & Crew
writers: Pete McTighe & Chris Chibnall.
director: Jamie Magnus Stone.
starring: Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill,