Tuesday, 11 February 2020


Some fans, who have been watching since the original series, are wringing their hands over the turn of the series today, which is ramming home environmentalist messages every other episode. It lacks the subtlety of the original series, they say.

Apparently, none of these people remember the "subtle" environmental messages of Invasion of the Dinosaurs or The Green Death. Or even the Ninth Doctor berating the plastics and oil poisoning the Earth in "Rose." I'm first to agree that the handling of the eco message in "Orphan 55" was as ham-fisted as a bun vendor, bolted onto the end of a schlocky, poorly-scripted episode. "Praxeus" is altogether better; an episode that manages to be both pacey and atmospheric, with a rapidly moving script that still holds together, and an environmental message that drives the story rather than appearing as an afterthought. It's everything "Orphan 55" was trying to be. Indeed, with both episodes in the line-up and both serving a similar purpose, why wasn't the earlier episode just dropped? "Praxeus" would've have held up even better if the season hadn't already been tarnished with the "woke" brush by the sorts of fans who somehow managed to avoid the political connotations of every season of Doctor Who so far.

The script, by Pete McTighe (who wrote last season's "Kerblam!") and Chris Chibnall, is busy and complex, jumping from place to place quickly enough that there's little chance to get bored, but still keeping the story pretty clear. It's a deft sleight of hand; if you take a moment to think about the story, it really makes very little sense. There's not really any logical link between the lab in Madagascar, the other one in Hong Kong, the base beneath the sea, the submarine, the river in South America, or the ISS mission. They're simply places where things happen, different locations included to keep things visually interesting. There are some sloppy plot holes, too: where does Adam's text message come from?

But there are plenty of Doctor Who stories that fall apart when they're prodded by the logic stick. If you can carry it off for the episode's duration, and keep things entertaining, then you've done the job. And "Praxeus" does work. It handles a much larger TARDIS team than we usually find better than could be expected. Much of this is down to the canny decision to split the team up and have them explore different parts of the overall story, but the episode doesn't keep them apart for all that long. The Doctor drops in repeatedly before getting everyone together, along with a bunch of guest stars. It should be too much, but the characters are interesting enough (well, except Suki) and given enough to do, and so it doesn't feel as crowded as it is.

There's too little time spent in each location to make them feel truly distinct beyond the visual, but it's a fifty-minute episode. It's a short runtime in which to fully explore a single setting, so the writers do the opposite and throw in a bunch settings so there's no time to lose interest. Some of the visuals are effectively creepy, as well, with the uncomfortably haphazard Hong Kong lab and the island under the ocean providing grim, dark contrast to the sunny climes of Madagascar. The Praxeus effect itself is deeply unsettling, rather impressive for how simple it is. It's the same visceral unpleasantness as teeth-faced Tim Shaw in the last season - indeed, the brief glimpse in the trailer made me wonder if it was connected - and making the threat a pathogen sets the episode apart from the usual monsters and/or villains. However, we do eventually get a villain figure in the shape of Suki, who turns out to be a rather boring alien doctor instead of a rather boring human doctor. No disrespect to Molly Harris, who is quite likeable in the role, but Suki just isn't a very interesting character.

Far more successful are Gabriela, Adam and Jake. Joana Borja has a lot of charisma, and makes a fine one-off companion. She shares great chemistry with both Yaz and Ryan. In fact, it makes me wonder if they're trialing her for new a new regular role, which presumably would mean one of the three current companions would turf out. I also really like Warren Brown and Matthew McNulty as, I believe, our first married gay couple who are actual characters and not merely a joke. I love that they're both strapping, butch blokes with serious, manly jobs. They make a believable couple, even if one them is a flippin' astronaut. For a moment, it looks like we'll get a cliched "kill your gays" moment, but it's just the writers trolling us.

Not that everyone gets dealt with well here. Poor Amaru gets pecked to death by a Hitchcock flock and no one even asks after him. The regulars get good material, though, particularly Graham, who shows once again that he's the heart of the programme. Both Ryan and Yaz get to show what they're made of, leading their own investigations. If anything, their stronger than the Doctor this episode, who mostly gets to spout technobabble.

When it comes down to it, your appreciation of this episode depends on whether you consider an alien menace based on an environmental crisis to be a strong science fiction concept or a preachy sermon. Personally, I'm of the former opinion. This is a story where the environmental message is part of the storyline, not an afterthought, and frankly the Indian Ocean's giant garbage patch is both a horrible reminder of our abuse of the Earth and such a weird phenomenon that it's asking for a sci-fi story.

And I shouted "Autons!" at exactly the same time as the Doctor.

The Ratings War: UK overnights indicate only 3.97 million people watched "Praxeus" on broadcast. Dropping below four million isn't a very good sign, although it remained the fourth most watched programme of the day with 20% of the audience share. Ratings for previous episodes show around an extra million are watching after broadcast, but the weekly positions are dropping. The Sunday night position certainly doesn't seem to be working right now, and there's a lack of advance publicity which isn't helping either. There was some fanfare for "Fugitive of the Judoon," but it mostly seemed to be on Doctor Who related pages and sites, so it's preaching to the converted.

Pedantry corner: It's Malagasy, not Madagascan.

Star Turns: Warren Brown (Jake) is no stranger to Doctor Who, having performed a whole bunch of roles for Big Finish.

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