Doctor Who: 12.06 Praxeus
There's an ironic timing of this week's episode, dealing with a deadly global pandemic when the threat of the Chronovirus is still very real. Praxeus was the second episode this series with a strong environmental message, though one not delivered anywhere nearly as heavy handed as Orphan 55. Plastic pollution of the oceans poses a very real threat and the perfect basis for a Doctor Who story, told through a strong villian or threat.
In fact, plastic in the oceans is a great set up for an Auton story - a twenty first century companion to the killer shop dummies and dolls of the 70s, but sadly they just got a passing reference this week (though Big Finish did tackle the Autons in a great plastic pollution of the seas-based story Sargasso last year). Even better, an ocean-based threat was the perfect opportunity to feature the long-awaited return of the Sea Devils. Is it too much to ask for some Sea Devils?
Joking aside, the episode lacked a strong villain to really drive the story, making it a bit of a jumble of ideas as the TARDIS team hopped from one part of the planet to another. However, the threat was certainly palatable, particularly in light current real-world events. The titular Praxeus was a disturbing and effective threat. Killer flocks of birds and teeth-like infections that dissolved its victims. Where the episode indulged these moments of horror, it worked to the strengths of the story.
Praxeus also delivered some evocative imagery. There was certainly a grandeur to the episode too, some gorgeous location shooting bringing to life the beaches of Madagascar, the jungle rivers of Peru and the back streets of Hong Kong. If you take little else from this episode, it certainly looked beautiful.
After the tease at the end of the last episode, the TARDIS crew were largely absent for the opening, the episode focusing instead on two of Praxeus's key characters as the hook into the story. Travel vlogger Gabriela (Joana Borja) discovers a Peruvian beauty spot polluted by rubbish - a little on the nose considering the theme of the episode - and looses her best friend to a particularly vicious flock of birds. Teaming up with Ryan, we follow her across the globe as she teams up with the Doctor's companions. You'll either find Borja's performance engaging or irritating, but there's no denying her enthusiasm for the role. Personally I found her delightful and there was good chemistry with both Ryan and Yaz, proving to be a quasi-companion to both companions.
Warren Brown delivers a strong performance as former police officer Jake Willis heading to Hong Kong in search of his estranged husband, Matthew McNulty's Adam Lang, a British astronaut that has crashed to Earth and finds himself captured and subject to alien experimentation. The heart of the story is the race to save Adam as the Doctor seeks a cure to the alien pathogen and Jake's attempt to break down his emotional barrier. There was a rather lovely scene on the beach with the Graham, tapping into his own loss and it is great to see Jake go from reluctant hero over the course of the episode, starting it chasing a shop lifter and ending it saving the world as he pilots the alien craft into space to release the cure. At the same time, there is an arrogance and moroseness to his character that is never truly lost and makes him a far more believable human being.
The issue with Praxeus, despite the lack of a strong villain, was the over abundance of characters. Even the companions suffered again, having already been transported off screen last week for an exposition encounter with Captain Jack. Ryan got a nice little sub plot early on with Grabriela but gets reduced, alongside Graham, to asking questions on behalf of the audience so that the Doctor can explain. Yaz however, was served far more effectively, getting to play Doctor to Gabriela's companion and investigating alien technology and transporting to an 'alien' ship. Like moments of Spyfall Part One, we got to see her police skills finally in action.
However, even this was fighting for screen time with Jake and Adam's relationship and the Doctor's search for a cure. Thapelo Maropefela is a strong addition as Aramu, but largely serves as cannon-fodder for the killer birds. Molly Harris's Suki Chengh has some nice moments as the Doctor's assistant, but feels somewhat lacking when it comes to the villain stakes; a stronger character might have sold the moral dilemma of using Earth as a petri dish to find a cure for her own race. The best moments are reserved for Jake and Adam and there's a real triumph in astronaut's survival and Jake's courage to save the planet.
Praxeus ends up as something of a mixed bag, albeit at a higher caliber than most of series eleven. It looks stunning, the globe-trotting giving it an epic feel, while also feeling nicely back to basics after the big revelations of last week. There are a solid bunch of characters, some I suspect might return, given Chris Chibnall's hand in writing the episode and I would certainly welcome it. And finally, it's an episode with another strong moral message that is sure to keep us all awake at night. Sometimes, real life can be more terrifying than any monster Doctor Who can conjure up...