This week’s Doctor Who, ‘Praxeus’, was a globetrotting adventure with Yaz and the Plastic Population (one for the ’80s kids, there).
For a show about time travel, it’s ironic that Doctor Who can sometimes be a victim of poor timing. With scripts and filming done months ahead of transmission, who would ever know that a story involving a lethal virus with a potentially global spread which has a connection to Asia would end up unfortunately being so relevant? It’s not the first time that an episode has ended up being inadvertently topical by the time that it airs, but it’s certainly one of the worst examples of it being perilously close to untransmittable due to the nature of its subject matter.
So, following directly on from the huge revelations of last week’s episode, Team TARDIS are plunged straight into a global threat, with the quartet split up across the planet, between Hong Kong, Madagascar and Peru. Along the way, there’s a pair of roaming bloggers, a Police Officer who’s fallen from grace, a lost military submarine, a missing astronaut, and the threat of plastic pollution. With so many seemingly unrelated elements thrown into the mix, ‘Praxeus’ felt less like an episode of Doctor Who, and more like a particularly bizarre game of Consequences. It certainly seemed like a little simplification would have gone a long way.
It’s starting to feel like the global threats are beginning to crop up so frequently, they need to start being a little more local. For a show which didn’t even do any location filming until its second season back in 1964, the amount of overseas shooting is now verging on the ridiculous. In the same way that Cardiff started doubling for virtually anywhere else in the country when BBC Wales took over the programme in 2005, it appears that South Africa is now standing in for pretty much anywhere in the world outside the UK (or even, at times, off Earth altogether). One wonders if they have a hefty discount from the South Africa Tourist Board, not to mention a decent number of Air Miles by now.
Of course, it might seem a little churlish that a show once reputed for its low budget and seeming cheapness is now splashing some cash around and trying to look expensive, in a worldwide TV marketplace where glossy visuals are almost de rigeur nowadays. However, it only helps if this jetting about actually serves the story, and other than some vague chatter about triangulation, there really didn’t seem to be the need to have the action dotted all around the world in the way that it did here; instead, it just felt like an effort to look glossy for the sake of it, and making the story fit the locations, which is never a great way to go about things.
It’s surprising that Doctor Who has decided to get on its soapbox about environmental concerns twice within the same series; not that it isn’t an important issue – and increasingly so with each passing day – but it seems odd to have the same topic crop up again, just a handful of episodes apart. What’s even more curious is that there’s no attempt to link the two stories – it feels as though the message for both would have been more effective, not to mention reinforced, if ‘Orphan 55‘ had led into ‘Praxeus’, and had some common thread to connect both stories. Perhaps if the Doctor had to travel back to the present day, in order to avert the potential outcome seen there, as the Praxeus virus would be responsible for creating the Dregs seen in the distant future?
Fortunately, the message wasn’t delivered in a more heavy-handed way than was necessary; we certainly didn’t need it to be more hectoring or browbeating than how it actually ended up being on screen, despite how central the eco concerns were to the story being told. It’s a pity that it fell into the overused category of there not actually being a bad guy, which has been done to death over the last few series; it did seem like we were moving away from the trope of the situation being created through mishap, or technical malfunction, yet here we are again, this time with the lethal worldkilling virus having been brought here by mistake, rather than as part of some insidious alien plot for conquest.
It’s actually quite unexpected how much the production team got away with in showing the extent of the virus’ effects on screen, as it was a great deal more visceral than you might expect to see early on a Sunday evening. Not that it’s a bad thing by any means, as the show does need to push the envelope and put the kids (and some of the adults) firmly back behind the sofa. The en masse avian attacks were strongly reminiscent of Hitchcock’s The Birds, and that’s no bad thing to evoke that so strongly – as the old saying goes: talent borrows, genius steals.
The sheer horror of the victims’ transformation and ultimate demise also had a quite remarkable amount of body horror to it, and will certainly have given some of the nippers a sleepless night. In that respect, it’s job done. Another thing this episode also tried to do was reestablish its LGBT+ credentials, as it’s recently come under fire for killing off its non-heterosexual supporting characters. Here, we had a gay married couple who both managed to make it through to the end, defying all expectations; however, the lack of chemistry between the pair hobbled any efforts at representation, to the point that – other than having them kiss at the end – they may as well have been estranged brothers.
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All in all, ‘Praxeus’ has been something of a jumbled mish-mash of ideas, which feels as though it had extra unnecessary elements thrust upon it, possibly by co-writer Chris Chibnall imposing himself on Pete McTighe. Left to his own devices, it appears McTighe can deliver, as he not only provided one of Series 11’s highlights in the form of ‘Kerblam!‘, but also penned some witty and engaging trailers for the current Blu-ray season-by-season boxed set releases of classic Who. Hopefully, this was just a blip, and he’ll have a chance to shine again, without the apparent drag factor of Chibnall’s input. Perhaps it’s actually the other way round, and McTighe was the weak link here. Either way, co-writing doesn’t seem to suit him.
It’s an awful shame that the inevitable comedown from the high of ‘Fugitive Of The Judoon‘ had to be even more pronounced by following it with a tale which was just so overwhelmingly lacking in any real flavour, despite being so overstocked with ingredients. Not quite a turkey, not quite a hash, but sadly indigestible for the most part, just like the microparticles of plastic mentioned in the story.