Doctor Who: 12-06 “Praxeus” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
Oh, to be a Doctor Who story following on from a status-quo changer- it’s a hard knock life, being humble old filler. Our sixth episode of Series 12, Praxeus, has the unenviable task of following up a game-changing gambit. Although flawed and somewhat naturally not living up to the set standard as it doesn’t follow last week’s revelations, Praxeus is still a mostly captivating return to status quo- as the TARDIS crew disbands across the world to discover what connects a missing submarine, some very angry birds- and possibly a talking cat.
Chris Chibnall’s era has often struggled to find its fully-formed voice. Even the greater triumphs of Series 12 have felt like a melting pot of the calling cards of proceeding showrunners Steven Moffat and Russell T Davies, with time-twisty narratives or a location-hopping sense of adventure. Chibnall’s actual show-running logistics are smart in ways, however- Praxeus was shot in the first production block alongside Spyfall, so shares a sense of internationality.
Returning Kerblam! writer Pete McTighe (with a Chibnall co-writing credit) takes us to our third Chibnall era rule of three globe-trotting tales, including Resolution. The script and returning Spyfall director Jamie Magnus Stone bring a sense of serial continuity to the pacing of the narrative and stylistic choices, with our opening gambit being very alike Spyfall’s- even with loud location titles. It helps make The Doctor’s bookending speech about being “separate but connected” feel more at home- consistent elements even if the story is wholly different. It’s a lively start, as an astronaut barrels helplessly out of the sky and ah, some teenager shoplifts.
Following Tesla, we again don’t start with Team TARDIS- rather the wildly differing lives of our guest characters that are about to be connected through weird circumstance, starting with astronaut Adam Lang (Matthew McNulty), and empathetic, sabbatical-taking policeman Jake Willis (Warren Brown), an estranged couple. Jake still deeply loves the missing Adam, darting into action after receiving a mysterious text from him (how did this happen, though?) Connection is a key theme throughout, if Thirteen’s speech didn’t make that clear already. Different still are the lives of travel vloggers Gabriela (Joana Borja) and Jamila (Gabriela Toloi, the first Brazilian actress in Who history), camping amongst a once-idyllic, now-polluted river (yet they still camp there!?) At night, Jamila is attacked by our avian friends, and we’re off to Madagascar via Hong King, as the mystery ticks along.
Another shrewd Chibnall production success was introducing anamorphic lenses to the show to aid a more cinematic look, even if sometimes that aid isn’t used well (whether that be a shooting or colour correction issue). Praxeus though, truly makes use of the planet-spanning locales. Purple neon-lit Hong Kong contrasts distinctly to the golden sunset, distant mountains of Madagascar- as do interiors like the obscure, black tarp net design of the Indian Ocean Praxeus colony. The TARDIS itself continues to feel more spacious (Ryan and Gabriela chatting, scored by those lovely Hollie Buhagiar vocals, is cute), and now has a neat crystalline antidote creator- I love oddly specific TARDIS extras.
The titular infection is a marvelous design also- truly itchy imagery. Birds twitch unnaturally and get dissected, with wings covered in disease, playing into bird flu fears- it’s all not advisable to eat your tea while watching. More disgusting still is the effect on people, a grim bit of body horror- with crunching SFX mixed with full-on possessive body contouring, leading to an explosion. Blimey. Oddly, the pathogen isn’t spread by this dispersal, however, it’s a striking visual- and the tropes when exploring the hospital are effective, whooshing wind and flickering lights aplenty. The birds, while not quite Alfred Hitchcock, are adequate thrills, with an intense sequence chasing the gang, ramming into the TARDIS at force with full choir. They’re a slightly better threat than “spiders, but big!” from last series, anyway!
Praxeus is another lively Series 12 outing, but one that manages to usually give its characters enough to do. Gabriela feels like a possible companion- headstrong, adventurous, capable and cautious. The running gag of her shock at no-one knowing her vlog felt very “Chibnall’s idea of millennials” though- maybe a missed opportunity for Ryan to mention his prior vlogging to her there? The two have a more natural connection than Ryan did with Bella in Orphan 55 anyway. Just like McTighe’s first Who story, Praxeus succeeds by splitting the main cast up (again)- driving each of them into action and making them directly useful to the plot, which gives the competing narrative threads propulsion before they coalesce. It’s some of the most personality the crew has had, even if poor Tosin Cole still struggles with some line readings.
The highlight of the side cast is Adam and Jake’s turbulent relationship, built on Jake’s lack of communication and his life “dodging”. Jake’s insecurities feel real, with the conveyed imbalance of power, and his self-doubt leading to heroism is gratifying- and Thirteen thankfully proactively saves him, avoiding her being passive again and side-stepping the “Bury Your Gays” trope. Though I wish there was more to the roles for Brown and McNulty to do, their basic arc functions well enough within the sheer amount of everything going on, and it’s heartfelt. Plus, it’s bookended by a wonderfully daft and creative ship lift-off sequence- and a sweet, hopeful Doctor stating she’s always been a romantic. Sorry Adric, let this one slide.
Yaz has genuine life to her, finally. She gets to be confident, sarcastic, full of ingenuity- her wild (perhaps reckless…) determination is a blessing. More, please! She strikes out on her own, Thirteen fully trusting her. The look of care she gives as Yaz walks away *shows* more of a familial connection than a lot of the dialogue has prior. Yaz gets the most notable development, but everyone is relevant- Ryan collects the bird for examining and dissects it, while Graham puts his IV drip experience to use- and outside of his usual humour, he shares a beautiful little moment with Jake about living up to the expectations of those you love.
It’s not a particularly standout week for Thirteen, but it’s one of Jodie’s funnier (the talking cat gag is ace), live-wire and more alien performances, as she laser focuses on the danger- without time for questions or reminding Adam that a device would hurt (yet plenty of time to remind him he’s dying), even just apparating in one scene. Thirteen is even rather sarcastic and has some sparky words with her friends for once- as you know, real friends do. She also gets to science it up with Madagascar side character- and secret villain- Suki Cheng (Molly Harris), so it’s welcome to see her whizzing around the lab doing scientific jazz, despite the clumsy dialogue.
The snappier pace covers some plot holes- yet sacrifices emotionally resonant moments including mourning (Gabriela sure gets over her exploded friend quick), other than Jake’s attempted sacrifice. Suki’s reveal is rushed despite clever camera tilts, and the plot fails to tie together compellingly with a central theme- and the environmental theming is tenuous. The lack of a real “villain” means Thirteen only really gets to have a small, angry confrontation with Suki while trying and failing to save her, so it leaves things feeling rather hollow, even if the plot’s fulfilled. The virus aspect has an unfortunately chanced currency due to the Coronavirus outbreak, however, there’s another narrative reading worth mentioning, whether intentional or not- that a gay couple is part of a story about a mysterious and deadly virus and overcoming it, paralleling the AIDS legacy.
McTighe’s Kerblam! had an unfortunate political message, and while there’s a vaguely similar notion here in the way Praxeus centres on an external environmental antagonist, like Kerblam! suggested outsiders interfering with an oppressive system would be equally disastrous, it isn’t as problematic- but it is muddled, and what should be a straightforward point doesn’t land morally. It’s neat that we caused the aliens to be attracted here, not a force like the Rift, just human folly- but these real-world things like gyres and micro-plastics are incidental, not relating, factors here- rather than being part of an examining, chastising allegory, it just discusses, mentions these environmental issues. It’s very matter of fact and feels a missed chance for a truly killer metaphor, with too many multitudes of technobabble (the more outlandish of which is played surprisingly straight- peculiar to try and align this as a classic brand of Who nonsense if you’re using real science for it).
By centring Thirteen’s anger on the aliens and not how badly plastic pollution has affected us, it feels like a flimsy, extraneous story choice- pinning fault on the extra-terrestrials, rather than instilling positive motivation that we can solve things at home, tackling the source of this existential threat. The Doctor can’t step in in real-life. At least Thirteen confronted it head-on in Orphan 55– though hammer subtle- and was direct to the younger audience about how bad things could become.
In a way you must feel sorry for Praxeus, having to follow on from last week’s shocks. Judged on itself though, it’s a story with questionably passive eco-credentials, that contrasts with the blunt force of Orphan 55. What Praxeus has that the other didn’t though, is a relatively likeable guest cast (even if they don’t stretch much outside their definitions), a fast-paced- but not disorienting- zip about it, and solid usage for our regulars. It’s a typical Who mystery, and even if emotional beats are missed and the narrative doesn’t *quite* merge and land to the full, it’s commendable for the personality of the script and production, giving our main cast desperately needed verve, characterisation, and use (practically fist-pump worthy for Yaz!) Next week’s threat seems altogether more metaphysical, and a chance to dive more into our TARDIS crew’s lives and fears- and I am more than up for that…