*****TARDIS-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!!*****
The latest episode of Doctor Who, “Praxeus”, is written by current series’ showrunner Chris Chibnall & Pete McTighe, and was directed by Jamie Magnus Stone. Once again, as we’ve seen many times in the Chibnall-era, global locations are used to impart some international scope to the episode, with various locations passing for Peru, Madagascar and Hong Kong. While the expansive scenery is appreciated, it only serves to enhance an otherwise middling mashup of a story, which is sort of a cross between Michael Crichton’s “The Andromeda Strain” and Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”
The story opens with a malfunctioning Soyuz capsule, suffering an off-course reentry to Earth, with lone British astronaut Adam Lang (Matthew McNulty) aboard. His hotheaded, bitter ex-cop husband, Jake Willis (Warren Brown) watches news of his husband’s perilous reentry from a pub TV, when he receives a cryptic message from Adam telling him that he’s in Hong Kong and he needs his help.
In Peru, YouTube travel vloggers Gabriella (Joana Borja) and Jamila (Gabriela Toloi) come upon a former idyllic river that is their destination…but it has become overcome with trash and plastic. For some reason not made clear in the narrative, the two set up camp right in the midst of the garbage (?) and decide to spend the night. Wandering off alone when Gabriella’s snoring keeps her awake, Jamila wanders off… and is attacked by flocks of angry birds.
On a remote part of the coast of Madagascar, unusually well-equipped researchers Suki Cheng (Molly Harris) and her partner Aramu (Thapelo Maropafela) are alerted by the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) who lands the TARDIS, where she screams for help…there is a US Navy crewman named Olsen (Tristan de Beer) from a missing submarine washed ashore.
The man gives a cryptic warning about ‘something’ that invaded his submarine, and has infected him. He gives this warning shortly before the barnacle-like infection on his hand rapidly encrusts his entire body, and forces the young man to explode right before their eyes. After that traumatic circumstance, the Doctor properly introduces herself to the two young researchers.
The following morning in Peru, Gabriella awakens and searches for the missing Jamila, when she runs into the Doctor’s companion Ryan (Tosin Cole), who is investigating the odd behavior and deaths of the birds around the trash heap near the river. Receiving an alert on her phone, Gabriella realizes that Jamila was taken to a local hospital.
She and Ryan team up to find her. Going to the apparently abandoned, “Walking Dead”/“28 Days Later”-style hospital, Ryan and Gabriella find Jamila, who is lying dead on a table, but with the same encrustation as the US sailor in Madagascar. Her corpse briefly rises and gasps, but is rapidly encrusted and explodes, just like Olsen. Ryan uses a hidden comm device to summon the Doctor, she arrives and tries to piece together a pattern to his emerging pandemic…
Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, Jake has tracked Adam’s phone signal to an apparently abandoned warehouse in Hong Kong. Trying to kick down the door, he meets the Doctor’s companions Yaz (Mandip Gill) and Graham (Bradley Walsh) met him with a universal skeleton key.
The three of them partner up and find the missing astronaut Adam, who is strapped into an alien apparatus, as part of some sort of experiment.
The Doctor, Ryan and Gabriella take the TARDIS to Hong Kong, where they meet up with Yaz, Graham, Jake and his rescued husband Adam, who are fleeing from gas-masked aliens who fire upon them, before Jake steals one of their weapons, thinning the alien numbers, and providing cover fire for their escape (still thinking like a cop…).
After fleeing the warehouse with their lives, Yaz realizes that a piece of alien tech she threatened to destroy during their retreat might be important to the gas-masked beings (shades of “The Empty Child”, but not as creepy). The Doctor knows Yaz is right, and agrees to “one hour.” Gabriella, without a travel partner now, agrees to join Yaz. The two of them sneak back in and learn the device was a trans-mat device, which the two women use to determine where the aliens come from.
Materializing inside what appears to be some kind of alien base, Yaz and Gabriella find part of the missing US submarine the Doctor was tracking.
Taking the TARDIS back to Madagascar (the location budgets must be huge in this current season), the Doctor and Suki begin doing lab work on the infected astronaut Adam, while his concerned husband stays with him. Adam and Jake were separated before Adam took his spaceflight, and Graham later plays de facto marriage counselor for them, realizing quickly that Adam suffers a massive inferiority complex when he’s with his husband. Graham essentially tells him to get over it, and be grateful for the love they share.
In a short time, the infected birds arrive and attack Aramu, killing the young researcher. Their lab under siege, the Doctor soon realizes that the disease which is killing the birds (and Adam) feeds on micro-plastic residue, though she quickly rules out the Autons (the plastic-based life form encountered several times on the classic and newer series). The virus feeds on micro-plastic residue in all living beings within Earth’s ecosystem; the tiny bits of plastic we (and animals) ingest in water, food, etc. The ecology message of the episode is timely and extremely relevant, even if delivered with a subtlety of an asteroid impact.
Moreover, the Doctor also realizes that Suki, the scientist with whom she’s been working closely, is one of the aliens they fought in Hong Kong. Suki’s people, including Suki herself, are infected with the virus and were using the Earth, with its heavily contaminated ecosphere, as a testing bed in order to find a cure. Suki grabs the Doctor’s newly discovered antidote, which was used to cure Adam, and teleports away with a portable version of the same teleport tech that Yaz and Gabriella used earlier.
Realizing where she’s gone, Yaz directs the Doctor and the TARDIS to the alien lab we saw earlier, which the Doctor quickly realizes isn’t an alien planet…but rather a spaceship at the bottom of the Indian Ocean. The aliens have been spreading the virus around the floating patches of garbage in the Indian Ocean in order to test various methods of containments, which hadn’t worked. Suki then succumbs to the virus and explodes, like the others.
The Doctor has an idea of loading the bottles of antidote into the spaceship’s fuel cells, in order to quickly spread the antidote across the planet. Upon repairing the damaged spacecraft, the Doctor realizes the autopilot of the ship doesn’t work. Jake, who wishes to redeem himself in the eyes of his husband, volunteers to fly the dangerous one-way mission, since his astronaut husband is too weak from his recent illness. Reluctantly the Doctor agrees, and Jakes takes the ship into the stratosphere, where he releases the antidote in multiple passes, just as the ship breaks up around him. The Doctor materializes her TARDIS around Jake just as the ship disintegrates around him…just in the nick of time.
Jake and Adam reconcile, and the Doctor confesses she had to try and rescue Jake because she’s “a romantic.” The TARDIS drops off Jake, Adam and Gabriella in Madagascar, where the three vow to travel the world together, getting Jake out of his funk, and giving Gabriella two new traveling partners for her vlog.
While I very much admired the series tackling yet another timely ecological issue, this time global plastic contamination, it does so in the same heavy-handed and obvious way that “Orphan 55” attempted to tackle climate change, though “Praxeus” is more successful. Yet, for some reason, it was still somewhat…underwhelming.
Another is that there are a few too many ancillary characters, and as a result, the focus of the episode feels a bit scattered. The ill-fated Jamilla could’ve easily had been nixed, and the episode could’ve focused solely on Gabriella as a lone travel vlogger. Likewise, Suki’s dead-meat partner Aramu really served no purpose other than to be killed by a flock of birds. He could’ve easily had been written out as well, with the tighter focus on the TARDIS fam, Suki, Adam and Gabriella, which is what the story pares down to anyway.
Part of the issue for me was that this plastics-feeding virus would’ve been a perfect opportunity to bring back the Autons, who are too-quickly ruled out as suspects in this mystery. They could’ve been a new version of the classic foes, perhaps assuming different shapes (?). That said, the plastics virus and its effects on the birds felt like a hammered together mashup of Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and Michael Crichton’s “The Andromeda Strain”, though not as effective as either of those two obvious inspirations.
Speaking of the plastics virus…it also makes absolutely ZERO sense that the virus would only feed on micro-plastics within a host body… that’s a bit like a hungry person passing up a fully-loaded buffet table in favor of a few measly crumbs on the kitchen floor. Why? The oceans and landfills of Earth are dangerously overflowing with non-biodegradable plastic waste, which would make an endless smorgasbord for a modified, human/animal-safe version of this virus. If the Doctor could synthesize a cure for Adam in a matter of hours, modifying the virus would be a relatively simple matter of gene editing…something routinely done in genetics labs today.
And if the virus fed off of plastics, why couldn’t the Doctor synthesize a version of it that could feed off of the massive islands of plastics and other human garbage currently adrift in the oceans? Maybe the Doctor could’ve been part of the solution on that one? But nope. Once again, as we saw with the failed Amazon.com directed-satire “Kerblam!”, this newer Doctor seems more content with maintaining an unhealthy status quo rather than upsetting the apple cart, as did all of the Doctors before her (yes, even the oh-so-kind Doctor Five).
This, once again, brings me to an issue I’m still having with this incarnation of the Doctor, and this is not an attack on Jodie Whittaker (whom I’m sure is doing what’s asked of her by the writers/directors)….we don’t really see much of the Doctor’s wrath, anymore. Even in some of her goofier previous incarnations, there was always an undercurrent of danger about the character. When push came to shove, the silliness dropped like a mask, and you felt the primal power of this ancient entity come to bear on his adversary. Classic Doctor Tom Baker, with his large Harpo Marx eyes and wild grin, could become terrifying when pushed too far, as would David Tennant (see: the endings of “Runaway Bride”, “Family of Blood” or the “Waters of Mars”). Christopher Eccleston had a maniacal laugh that chilled one’s blood (“Dalek”). I’ve yet to see this very important trait of wrath within Whittaker’s Doctor. Even when she saw her home of Gallifrey destroyed, her attitude felt more melancholy when it should’ve been more “The Master will pay dearly for this!” I wish Whittaker’s Doctor was a bit more dangerous. That’s a vital ingredient missing from Chibnall’s reign.
Summing It Up.
While nowhere near the disaster that was “Orphan 55” or last year’s dismal misfire “Kerblam!”, “Praxeus” is a lukewarm (if very scenic) story that halfway succeeds in tackling a very important current issue, but without thoroughly thinking it through. As a result, the resolution feels half-assed, and this middlingly-entertaining mashup episode rings with a few echoes of missed opportunities. Not bad, not great… as the old Stealers Wheel song goes, “stuck in the middle.”