~Spoilers ahead! ~
12.6 Praxeus – Pete McTighe & Chris Chibnall
Story & Review
Praxeus is a story that I don’t have lots to say about. It’s an episode that, despite a few nitpicky holes, has internal logic but ultimately it’s not that exciting.
Splitting Team TARDIS across three continents, Africa, South America and Asia, the mystery that ignites the story is that of a US Naval submarine, a crashed astronaut and unsettling black birds acting strangely. The episode opens with two deaths by what we will soon discover is an alien disease: praxeus. The bacterial infections covers the body with hard shards of growths before the infected spasm and turn to dust. Borrowing from the horror genre, the looming black birds, the design of the disease, and at one point, the scene of an empty hospital, works well.
It’s when Ryan and the Doctor are reunited (along with a few extras of the week: travel vlogger Gabriela, astronaut Adam and his ex-police partner Jake) that we discover what the connection between the disease and the birds are: plastic. The bacteria latches onto plastic and birds are full of them, mistaking plastics for food. This is in turn infecting human bodies due to micro plastics in the water.
This theme of plastic pollution is woven through from the start of the episode where Gabriela and her friend Jamila camp at what was supposed to be a beautiful riverside location in Peru but is covered in rubbish. Where the environmental message of Orphan 55 hit you with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, here plastic pollution is part of the story. Beyond the line where the Doctor states that humans have polluted the world with plastic, there’s no call to action, no demand that we reduce the plastic, nor that this is some sort of karmic punishment for the pollution we’ve cause.
Humans have flooded this planet with plastics that can’t be fully broken down, so much so that you’re ingesting microparticles whether you know it or not. You’re poisoning yourselves as well as your planet. An alien bacteria has come to this planet, and it found a feast.
This blog post in fact argues that the underlying message is almost the opposite of Orphan 55 in that humans don’t need to act, the Earth will heal itself. (Which is exactly the kind of mixed up messaging you might expect from the writer on Kerblam!.) I do think that the episode’s reliance on imagery and iconography related to plastic pollution is where the subtle messaging comes in. From cutting open a bird and finding it full of plastic to the thousands of bottles on the gyre of plastic pollution. The unusual narrative opening and closing of the episode makes sense if contextualised with the wide, sweeping shots of the planet. Reminiscent of a David Attenborough documentary, the episode takes a page out of Blue Planet, a programme that had a genuine positive environmental impact on its viewers.
The episode is reasonably neat; there is a plot twist in Suki, the scientist, being a humanoid alien and there’s emphasis that the true horror of the episode is that the planet was temporarily used as a petri dish but it’s not particularly lingered on before the Doctor creates an antidote and releases it out to the world, saving the day.
Graham and Yaz exploring the warehouse in Hong Kong and Graham not being able to read the gadget he’s been given
GRAHAM: Hey. Hey. Whatever is giving off those weird readings is on the other side of that wall. Is on the other side of this door.
YASMIN: You’re welcome.
Not much in this episode, though the gun that Suki wields looks similar to the one that the Ruth-Doctor had last week. Coincidence? Intentional? Lazy set design? Time will tell.
Monster of the Week
The obvious one here is the alien infection Praxeus but where the Doctor expresses her disgust at using the Earth as a human petri dish is more telling. The enemy is the unknown humanoid aliens represented by Suki. We never find out who they are and again, this is either omission or a future reveal.
Any episode following Fugitive of the Judoon, if it didn’t continue the lore-busting storyline we got last week, was going to be disappointing. But this episode was bland on its own accord, feeling low stakes throughout. We flit from location to location, keeping a fast pace but there is very little tension. It feels like the idea of the plastics came first and then the story was built around it.
Despite the attempt to put across the global nature of the spreading of the disease, this series does a poor job of doing so. Where RTD had classic newsreels followed by scenes of panicked humans in different parts of the planet, this story is set across three continents but we only see a handful people infected. There’s mounting tension that Adam will die, but no real sense of what is happening on the rest of the planet and as such no real urgency in getting the cure.
The mystery aspect of the story, though technically fits together, isn’t a well-written one. When watching the episode a second time, there is no pleasure in rewatching and looking for clues because there aren’t any. We’re just told the connections as they are revealed to the Doctor.
There are parts of the episode that feel a bit sloppy too – how did Adam text Jake his location when strapped up, infected, in an astronaut’s suit? We never find out whether Aramu was part of the same species as Suki and the plot doesn’t care either, because he is killed and then forgotten about. And let’s not talk about how Ryan and Graham pretend to have never heard of the word as basic as pathogen and that Ryan just touches the disease early on.
Yaz’s dialogue continues to state the obvious but this is an episode that gives Yaz actual characterisation. She’s keen to go exploring on her own, she’s a little bit reckless, she’s sullen that she didn’t discover an alien planet. It took a few series for Moffat to get Clara’s character right and then to get Twelve’s character right too. (And, actually, Clara and Twelve’s character dynamic took a little bit of time.) So if we’re finally getting there, I am glad.
Overall, quite a forgettable episode.