We knew it was too good to be true. ‘Fugitive of the Judoon’ managed to do enough right last week to give me a shot of excitement for a show that’s been disappearing for a while now, and whilst I didn’t expect a masterpiece from ‘Praxeus’, I still found myself disappointed at the show’s need to get back to its pre-existing problems.
It’s another globe-trotting adventure this week as three people all succumb to a similar fate – one in Madagascar, one in Peru and one in Hong-Kong, where a British astronaut returning from the International Space Station has gone missing. ‘Spyfall: Part One’ director Jamie Magnus Stone is back in his wheelhouse here, and manages to make good use of the vast on-location shooting (is this the most back-and-forth location work we’ve ever had on Doctor Who?). The TARDIS fam have split up, much like writer Pete McTighe’s previous episode ‘Kerblam!’, and the old mystery inc. method actually does a lot of good for the enlarged ensemble. That is, until the episode adds even more expendable characters to fight over screentime and relevance.
Ryan stumbles upon Gabriela (Joana Borja) in Peru after her travelling companion goes missing, presumably after being feasted on by the strange pattern of birds above them. In the middle of a polluted wasteland he finds a dead bird infected with the same bone-like pattern on its skin as the victims that are popping up around the world. After finding Gabriela’s friend Jamila on a slab nearby, her patterned-skin reminded me of the Tooth Child from Channel Zero. As it spread across her body and her eyes went white, the following convulsions and explosion made for a rather harrowing death for the show. It’s just a shame that they couldn’t piggyback off of this dread to form any tension for the rest of the episode.
Meanwhile in Hong-Kong, cop Jake Willis (Warren Brown) is kicking ass and taking names in scenes ripped straight out of a procedural cop drama whilst looking for his missing astronaut husband Adam Lang (Matthew McNulty). It’s a nifty side piece with enough neon street signs to distract from the disappointingly generic ‘bad guys’ in gas masks (no, not that type) that are firing at Jake and the gang once they show up. They find Adam connected to a strange alien system and struggling to compact the toothy infection, but as Graham and Jake lift him back to the TARDIS, Yaz tells The Doctor she’s staying for an hour longer to grab the mysterious alien system thing alongside Gabriela as it may help them in finding out what’s going on.
Yaz continues to be the most developed character throughout this entire run. Some of her leadership skills and tenacity from her police work are actually showing through. There’s even a small moment where The Doctor jokes about handing out gold star awards and Yaz quietly cheers to herself – it brings to mind Jenna Coleman’s Clara and her development quite a bit as she slowly begins to develop a need for adventure. Let’s just hope Yaz can keep a lid on it unlike her. Mandip Gill’s smiles and gleeful air-punches are enough to rival Jodie Whittaker’s at times too. It’s just a shame that these sudden rushes of ambition come at the cost of any other form of characterisation.
The TARDIS lands back in Madagascar where scientists Aramu (Thapelo Maropefela) and Suki Cheng (Molly Harris) are researching the strange bird behaviour from a laboratory on the beach. The Doctor sets Adam up in their laboratory, which is odd considering that we all know the TARDIS has far superior equipment and power, and begins to research into the infection. Again it’s another oddly timely narrative for a world that’s currently obsessed with the coronavirus and are suggesting it may be the next plague. Suki’s work and research involves filtration of plastics across Earth, but her lab is far too well-equipped for such a makeshift operation and The Doctor soon becomes suspicious.
Back in Hong-Kong, double act Yaz and Gabriela notice one of the gas mask guys teleport away and choose to follow him, only to believe they’ve been sent to an alien world. Yaz is of course thrilled at the opportunity to discover someplace alien, and the two end up creeping around cracked corridors and plastic for the remainder of their solo adventure. It’s a small sidestory of course, but ‘Praxeus’ goes back and forth so many times that it’s hard to care about one of the plot threads.
The Madagascar gang discovers that the virus attaches easily to plastics, and that the strange behaviour of the birds is because their entire bodies are filled with microplastics. Yes, that’s right. We’re leaning hard into the pollution angle just weeks after ‘Orphan 55’ managed to stop all elements of narrative to deliver a lecture on it. It’s better utilised here for sure as it’s actually a part of the plot, but it still feels odd and a little preachy thanks to the memories from just episodes away. Suki and the gas mask gang are revealed to be remnants of an alien species destroyed by the virus already, using Earth as a feeding ground and pumping it full of more microplastic to attract the infection. And of course, this is followed by an explanation that all of us are filled with microplastic thanks to the food we eat and the liquids we drink – humans are doomed not only in terms of the virus but in general it seems.
Outside Aramu is attacked by the circling crop of birds and reduced to nothingness. The birds themselves are a nice idea, though it’s strange to think that the whole episode never even once attempts an iota of the suspense that Alfred Hitchcock so gleefully revelled in. There’s one actual bird depicted immediately followed by a swarm of obvious CGI, and as they break into the lab once Suki teleports away it’s disappointing that there’s no real sense of danger. This is most likely due to the presentation and direction too. Episodes this season may be grand in scale but when it comes to action they all seem to lack a sense of pacing – everyone escapes to the TARDIS safe and sound as they go back to Yaz’s location which just happens to be where Suki’s teleported.
As Adam’s virus spreads further, his only hope for a cure is with Suki, who has taken The Doctor’s prototype antidote with her and used it on herself. Only once the fam show up we’re treated to being told a whole host of extra facts like: the antidote is only for humans, Yaz’s exciting alien world is actually a huge host of plastic at the bottom of the Indian Ocean and Jake has trouble with his emotions. Whilst the last one actually works thanks to some sensitive performances (Bradley Walsh’s Graham continues to steal the show even when he’s not doing anything useful), the rest is fired off so quickly that the actors involved might as well be reading the script to us in a podcast without any of the accompanying visuals. Showrunner and co-writer of the episode Chris Chibnall seems to have put so much emphasis on the show’s long-standing problem of deus-ex-machina that they’re starting to become notoriously bland. There’s no attempt to make the reveal of all this information visually interesting, and much of the time these exposition dumps come at the assumed climax of an episode and end up robbing them of any feeling of excitement.
When Suki succumbs to the virus and explodes herself it’s hardly surprising, and of course Jake offers a self-sacrifice by flying the exposed ship away to be destroyed (the autopilot is broken, oh no!). Guest star Warren Brown gets some nice moments here alongside his husband, and the remorse of not being able to deal with his emotions is a meaty role – another one that the guests this series keep getting rather than the main characters. The Doctor uses the antidote on Adam and cures him and bid farewell to Jake as he flies off to save the Earth… because we don’t question him flying a spaceship either (that’s not a new problem, after all).
But wait! The TARDIS manages to fly in for the millisecond before the detonation and save Jake so that he and Adam can continue to be together and it’s smiles all around.
I think I’m becoming too cynical. ‘Praxeus’ features some nice ideas and noble character work. It even manages to find a narrative purpose for its economic message, but the sense of clunkiness in the writing robs the episode of everything. The sense of awe and wonder, even when globetrotting now, is gone. I’m hoping this feeling goes away and that more of the series’ arc will come into play next week. I’m not even sure if this is a purely personal response to the show either, as trying to make sense of the audience response to Doctor Who is like dipping your toe in piranha-infested waters. I don’t want to be one of the ever-growing negative voices and I’d love to love the show again. I’m just finding it harder and harder to do so.