“An alien bacteria has come to this planet – and it found a feast.”
Gotta admit, I didn’t take to Pete McTighe’s last script for Doctor Who. Kerblam! (for such was its title, exclamation mark and all) was a fluffy romp that made a misjudged attempt at a Big Message. Trouble was, the Big Message seemed to go against the very ethos of Doctor Who – that big corporations like Amazon were cuddly and caring, while anti-capitalists who try to disrupt their profiteering are terrorists. It didn’t sit well with the show’s previous depictions of such scenarios.
So I didn’t have high hopes for Praxeus. But actually what we got here wasn’t too bad; it’s still no classic, but it was entertaining and occasionally intriguing. There was a Big Message here too, but this one seemed much more in keeping with the philosophy of the show – that humanity is poisoning the planet with non-biodegradable plastics, and they’re everywhere. Not just in the oceans, but in the very air we breathe and everything we consume.
The show’s recent environmental bent (actually nothing new, as any viewer of the Pertwee era could tell you) was less than well-served by the clumsy lecture at the end of Orphan 55. Here, though, it worked far better – the premise was central to the entire plot, but the point wasn’t laboured. No sanctimonious end-of-episode moralising here, the Doctor made the point economically in dialogue arising naturally from the scenes, and the actual plot spoke for itself on the issue. This was how to handle a Big Message without alienating the viewer or insulting their intelligence.
It helped that the rest of the episode was generally pretty well-drawn. The characters were well-written, the plot interesting and unpredictable, and those globe-trotting international settings (a common thing this year, it seems) gave a believable sense of this being a worldwide problem. Unlike all those UNIT stories of the 70s, which rather gave the impression that it was only the Home Counties of England that were in any danger.
So, we had plotlines stretching from Peru to Madagascar, from London to Hong Kong, all economically realised with what I assume were the same Spanish locations used to good effect in Spyfall. The multiple locations had another benefit too – they enabled the script to assign different regular characters to each location, meaning each got a reasonable part to play in the action for once.
And unlike other such exercises in trying to involve all of the admittedly large TARDIS “fam”, this one didn’t stick with the same teams throughout, instead swapping and changing every time the TARDIS popped up in a new location. Hence Yaz, initially teamed with Graham, ended up with guest character Gabriela; while Ryan, who had been teamed with her initially, found himself performing an impromptu bird autopsy with the Doctor. I was glad he acknowledged it would be a pretty sloppy job, rather than suddenly becoming an expert biologist because the script demanded it.
That said, this script didn’t exactly stretch the acting muscles of any of the regulars. They all seem (perhaps a little too) seasoned as international time-travelling troubleshooters by now, none of them seeming fazed by any of the bizarre events here. The unfortunate result was that their confidence meant there was little sense of jeopardy for them, relying instead on the guest characters for suspense.
Which could have been a bad idea if they had been sketchily drawn, but actually the guest characters here seemed more vulnerable, fallible and interesting than the regulars. It was good to see Warren Brown as copper-on-a-break Jake (though after his turns in Luther, Good Cop, and Retribution, he might want to worry about being cast as policemen for the rest of his career). Matthew McNulty, previously best known to me as Seth in Misfits, was also rather good as infected astronaut Adam Lang – who was also Jake’s husband.
I can see the diversity haters really disliking that – a gritty, impulsive man of action copper having a gay relationship with an astronaut. Fortunately the usual apoplexy-spewing comments on the Daily Mail (always worth reading for a good laugh) were more focused on what they saw as the preachy environmental message.
That also meant they missed the chance to complain (so far) that every other guest character was non-white. Which, given the settings, made perfect sense – it would have been weirder if they had been white. Joana Borja was a likeable audience surrogate as travel vlogger Gabriela – with the TARDIS crew now so accustomed to alien happenings, she was a useful character to ask for that all-important exposition.
Likewise, Molly Harris made a believable scientist as Suki Cheng, whose implausibly well-equipped lab (for a hut on a Madagascan beach) made perfect sense when the script revealed that she was actually the nearest thing the ep had to an alien baddie.
And even she was portrayed as misguided rather than actually immoral, the survival of her already decimated race depending on her (admittedly not well-though out) actions. The Praxeus bacteria itself wasn’t, strictly speaking, a villain either; it was just doing what bacteria do, trying to continue its lifecycle as effectively as possible. No, if there was a real baddie here, it was (once again) humanity itself, for its cavalier treatment of its natural habitat which provided the pretext for the whole plot. Again, though, this wasn’t laboured, and the point arose naturally from the script without needing to bludgeon the viewer over the head with it.
There were shades of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass stories throughout (not for the first time in Doctor Who). The infected astronaut bringing something dangerous back to Earth was reminiscent of the doomed Victor Caroon in The Quatermass Experiment, while the symptoms and eventual explosive fate of the Praxeus victims was very much like what happened to the ill-fated Planet People in the final 1979 story with John Mills. Still, if you’re going to nick from scifi classics, these are some of the best.
The plot was well-constructed, the clues and reveals arising naturally as the characters put the pieces together without the need for excessive exposition. What exposition there was, was reasonably parcelled out to the guest characters, which made perfect sense under the circumstances. That said, I do think the show is running a bit of a risk in portraying all the regulars as so experienced and capable they no longer function as audience surrogates. If they carry on appearing so all-knowing without explaining to the viewer what’s going on, this is going to turn into Sapphire and Steel 😊
The pacing was good too, unravelling the mystery being followed by a frenetic final act to try and resolve the problem. It was a measure of how well-written the guest characters were that Jake’s final self-sacrificial solution had me hoping (unusually) that he wouldn’t meet the heroic end the script was so clearly telegraphing for him. In the event, the Doctor’s last-minute rescue of him was heartwarming, though it did once again make me wonder how many other doomed characters she failed to save when she could have done that all along. Adric being one obvious example.
Quibbles of course; the Doctor’s powers have always been at the whim of plot requirements, so it’s a bit late to gripe about it now. Jodie Whittaker was back to ‘light and fluffy’ mode this week, despite having some serious points to make – there was none of the gravitas of last week’s performance, but thankfully none of the stern finger-wagging of Orphan 55 either. That said, I did find myself wishing the script had given her a little more in the way of righteous outrage to express, as we’ve found she can do that well – when it’s written well, of course. There was at least a little of this with her stern admonishment of Suki treating the Earth as a Petri dish to save her own doomed species, and Whittaker certainly delivered that well.
Overall, Praxeus was an interesting, well-written Who episode that entertained and intrigued without being exceptional. Nothing wrong with that, solid, original stories don’t have to be groundbreaking classics to entertain, which this certainly did. Indeed, after all the shocks and twists of last week, this was arguably the ideal kind of ‘standard’ ep to follow up with.
Mind you, I did feel that perhaps its placing so soon after the similarly environmentally concerned Orphan 55 might have been a little misjudged, leading to the impression that the TARDIS crew’s function is becoming to warn humanity about its own shortsightedness like the titular organisation in well-remembered 70s show Doomwatch. Not a criticism of the ep itself, but perhaps a later slot in the season might have dispelled that perception. Still, this certainly made me think better of writer Pete McTighe, to the extent that next time, I might actually be looking forward to an ep written by him.