Review by Paul Mount
Written by: Chris Chibnall & Pete McTighe
Directed by: Jamie Magnus Stone
First Broadcast: 2nd January 2020 – BBC One
What connects a missing astronaut in the Indian Ocean, birds behaving strangely in Peru and a US naval officer who washes up on a Madagascan beach? Team TARDIS investigate…
Doctor Who’s really not doing itself any favours this year. Although a significant improvement in many regards to the worthy but rather dull eleventh season, season twelve is now starting to suffer from a frustrating and debilitating stop-start syndrome. Several episodes this season have managed to work up a real head of energy, momentum and mystery which is then dragged down by some lumpen, misshapen filler material that saps all the life and enthusiasm not only out of the programme itself but also out of the actual experience of watching it (never mind reviewing it.
Much as Doctor Who fans love a story arc and the sort of gradually-unfolding mysteries and intrigues showrunner Chris Chibnall has implanted into the series this years, the knock-on effect seems to be that the episodes in between those stories that move the larger arc forward are thumb-twiddlers, episodes that, at best, pass the time without frightening the horses.
Welcome, then, to Praxeus which, much as the frantic and foolish Orphan 55 sucked the sheer joy out of season opener Spyfall, sweeps the giddy rush of excitement engendered by previous episode Fugitive of the Judoon and delivers us fifty minutes of Doctor Who that just sits there in the season like a contractual obligation, an episode which exists because it has to be there, and there’s a budget to be spent.
Directed by Jamie Magnus Stone, Praxeus, visually, shares many of the hallmarks of part one of Spyfall which he also helmed. We kick off with strange things happening in several different locations across the world; a British astronaut’s capsule is out of control and plunging back into the Earth’s atmosphere, birds are behaving strangely in Peru and in Madagascar the Doctor drags an American submarine officer out of the surf.
As in Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror, the Doctor and her “fam” (oops) are already on the case, scattered across the world investigating these strange phenomena and even the Doctor is unable to identify the unifying factor that connects them all. It turns out that it’s actually the current series’ determination to deliver neatly-packaged little finger-wagging homily every now and again. This time, it’s a clumsy little warning about plastic waste and how we really shouldn’t be clogging up the environment with our rubbish because it could have (and yes, is likely to have, if it isn’t already) terrible ramifications for our ecosystem.
I’m not, however, convinced that wrapping up this “warning” in a story about aliens crashing on Earth and using our surplus of detritus to find a cure for a lethal extra-terrestrial virus is really going to hammer home the environmental danger of waste pollution to a Sunday night TV audience. Last season’s clunky Arachnids in the UK made its point about toxic waste quite clumsily but it did so without suggesting that nasty (or, in this case, desperate) aliens might use toxic waste for its own purposes.
Praxeus might have been a far better and far more effective ‘cautionary tale’ if it had suggested that the waste itself was the danger and not simply a conduit for some unlikely sci-fi virus hokum.
But the problems for this story don’t begin and end with a mishandled central conceit. The first twenty minutes or so of the episode bounce along fairly agreeably as the plot unfolds and the mystery deepens and the current show’s globe-trotting scale continually gives the show a welcome and refreshing cinematic edge. It really is remarkable how many disparate foreign locales South Africa and bits of South Wales can resemble; however, dressing up a Cardiff alley with a few Chinese lanterns is stretching a point in trying to evoke the sense of backstreet Hong Kong.
By the halfway mark, the episode is so crammed full with supporting characters all jostling for attention (to the detriment, as ever, of the overstuffed Team Tardis trio) that it’s hard not only to care about any of them but also difficult to maintain much interest in a plot that’s busily hurtling all over the world without much real narrative focus. Praxeus is “all over the place”, in every sense of the expression.
Scurrilous internet fan scuttlebutt (what other sort is there?) had been suggesting, with some plausibility, that this episode would see the return of classic 1970s lizards-in-string-vests monsters The Sea Devils and indeed, here’s a storyline that, perhaps across two episodes, could have delivered a far punchier environmental message by suggesting that we’re polluting the world’s oceans to an extent that’s not only endangering marine life but also – here’s the palatable sci-fi bit – other creatures that we’re blithely unaware of, but which need to be considered anyway. Praxeus choses instead a muddy narrative about a toxic alien bacterium attaching itself to micro plastics and the virus being potentially spread across the world by birds ingesting the virus from the poisoned waste.
Once this is established the drama and tension of the episode seems to drain away and we’re left with a going-through-the-motions episode as, inevitably, the Doctor is hurriedly able to concoct an antidote which is then spread across the world via the fuel cells of the relaunched but damaged alien spaceship. Everyone lives happily ever after but the world is still choking with human waste and debris, so the moral of the story is…?
Written by Peter McTighe (who authored last season’s Amazon-is-bad romp Kerblam!) and Chris Chibnall, Praxeus appears to be a case to too many cooks spoiling an already weak broth. The episode is crammed with so many breathless ideas and characters and locations that eventually it just falls apart and collapses under the weight of an idea it’s really too trite to tackle with any real sensitivity.
For the third time this season an episode also delivers a twist in which a supporting character turns out to be – gasp – someone entirely different to who we thought they were. Following O/ The Master and Ruth/ the Doctor we now have Suzi Cheng (Molly Harris), a medical researcher with a lab on a beach in Madagascar who turns out to be a survivor of the alien race devastated by the bacterium. This is a gimmick that’s just about worn out its welcome in this series.
Elsewhere, we meet ‘vloggers’ Gabriela and Jamila, who are disappointed to find that their beautiful proposed campsite has been turned into a rubbish tip. “We can’t spend the night here!” gasps on of them. Nevertheless, they do spend the night there – and Jamila is promptly attacked and infected by toxic birds. She’s later found in the quarantine zone of an abandoned hospital, when Gabriella teams up with Ryan who’s already on the scene at the behest of the Doctor. Jamila is turning crystalline and, in a nice bit of body horror, she explodes into dust.
Fortunately, Gabriela gets so wrapped up in running around with Ryan and eventually meeting up with the Doctor and everyone else who’s tagged along, she quickly forgets about her best friend and fellow vlogger who died in pretty horrible circumstances. Similarly, when Suzi’s fellow researcher Amuru is attacked by birds just prior to their lab being compromised (in a couple of scenes which briefly recall the spirit if not the style of Hitchcock’s classic The Birds) no-one stops to mourn him or even miss him. He’s just bird-fodder ready to thrown under the grinding wheels of the script’s need for incident and action.
Rounding off the main cast we have Jake (Warren Brown), a former police officer on a sabbatical and working as a security guard in a supermarket and his astronaut husband Adam (Matthew McNulty) who is in trouble and who sends a desperate text message asking for help which leads Jake to Hong Kong and an encounter with the Doctor and company.
Diversity and representation remain hugely important issues and particularly in Doctor Who these days, but these two are surely the least convincing gay couple in recent television history. There’s no on-screen chemistry between the two, who genuinely look as if they briefly shook hands at the read-through before stepping onto the set a few days later. Thankfully though, the script resists the urge to kill one or other of them off – the internet would have turned incandescent – and they’re left with a happy ending that sees them reunited, their personal differences tritely resolved, and left to enjoy a future travelling the world (regardless of the fact that Adam is still a ’missing in action’ astronaut) with vlogger Gabriela, her best friend a pile of dust but now entirely forgotten.
By the time the episode reaches its final act, it’s pretty much run out of steam. The story has said what it needs to say, however ineffectually, and there’s never any doubt that the Doctor will save the day and despite the array of locales there’s rarely any sense that there’s a tangible threat to the wider world. A few visual flourishes aside there’s little here to catch the eye; the ‘aliens’ are off-the-peg men in rubber suits wearing gas masks firing laser pistols, the undersea alien base made out of recycled rubbish and bits of old netting is hugely uninspiring, but Stone does the best he can with what’s on offer and at least makes the episode look flashy and expansive despite the hollowness of its content.
There’s little left to say now about Jodie Whittaker and her toby jug family. Jodie does what she does and is clearly having a great time, Tosin Cole offers little in the way of tonal variety or expression as Ryan, Bradley Walsh’s Graham is just on board now to crack weak jokes but finally Mandip Gill’s Yaz is starting to become a little fleshed out and there are some signs here of her becoming a little more independent and single-minded, not just agreeing with the Doctor and trailing around in her wake like a spare part – but willing to take a few chances and do her own thing now and again. Chibnall’s plan to recreate the warm ‘family’ dynamic of the Hartnell era just doesn’t work, though, because it can’t in a series as fast and frenetic as this where the story is over and done with in just under fifty minutes.
At its best – in its first fifteen or twenty minutes – Praxeus presents an intriguing mystery but at its worst it’s dull, unengaging and rather predictable, full of too many one-note characters and attempting to deal with an important and problematic subject matter that deserves something a little more thoughtful than this random collection of bottom-drawer sci-fi thriller clichés.
Disappointing but hopefully just a brief (and final) wobble in a series that, so far, is still raising the bar from its previous un-involving few seasons.
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