Tuesday 4 February 2020

Reviews in Space & Time: Doctor Who 12x06 - Praxeus

Doctor Who 12x06 - Praxeus

While audiences may still be reeling from the shocking events of Fugitive of the Judoon, the Doctor herself doesn’t have time to process the fact that everything she thought she knew may be a lie. The mysteries of the Timeless Child and an unknown incarnation of the Doctor take a back seat this week, as Doctor Who returns to its usual episodic shenanigans with Praxeus. Kerblam! writer Pete McTighe returns to pen the episode alongside Chris Chibnall, with the episode directed by series 12 staple Jamie Magnus Stone. It’s time to put those revelations to the side for now, because Earth is in peril once more.

In Madagascar......in Hong Kong...

Three separate events spread across three different continents. As the Doctor stumbles upon the death of an American submarine officer in Madagascar, Ryan helps travel vlogger Gabriela find her missing companion across a Peru strewn with the bodies of dead birds. Finally whilst tracking down alien signals in Hong Kong, Yaz and Graham not only find a missing astronaut presumed to be dead, but also his ex-police officer husband who’s travelled across the globe to find him. Connecting these three seemingly unrelated incidents is an alien infection, turning its victims into a crystal-like form before immediately disintegrating them. 

Earth is succumbing to Praxeus, and with the planet the perfect breeding ground there isn’t much time left. How did the virus come to Earth? And more importantly, do the Doctor, her companions and their new found friends from across the world have the means to stop it?

...and in Peru.The Birds

The problem with introducing overarching storylines to traditionally episodic shows like Doctor Who is the worry that can soon become far too reliant on them, or in the worst case scenario eventually even be defined by them. Despite their strengths and weaknesses as individual stories, episodes like Spyfall and Fugitive of the Judoon will ultimately be remembered for their contributions to wherever series 12 is heading in its finale episodes. Though there’s certainly merit in how arcs like these have helped shape Doctor Who for modern audiences, it can often lead to those episodes that don’t contribute to the wider story being forgotten. “Filler” is a term that’s thrown around all too often now. In its classic days Doctor Who thrived on these kind of stories, and in a lot of respects it still does now. Praxeus might not tear the script book up in the same way it’s predecessor did, but its more methodical approach leads to it succeeding in ways other episodes this series have failed. 

Praxeus does mystery well. While arguably the episode does take some time to get to the point, the use of multiple locations and spreading the cast across them adds a bigger sense of scale as to just how all these seemingly unrelated incidents could be linked. Praxeus is one of those rare times that the Doctor doesn’t have all of the answers, so her understanding of the situation comes as gradually as the audience’s. What also makes the story stand out is its decision to step away from a conventional villain, even though it tries to mask this intent through the appearance of the simple but eerie “Hazmat” suits. The eventual reveal is more of an ethical one than anything else, and though the Doctor is fairly damning of the situation (and rightly so), it does at least try to provoke a sense of desperation rather than outright evil. In some ways it’s the kind of episode that would have felt more at home in series 11 rather than with the more “traditional” sensibilities series 12 has shown thus far, but then again variety is something that Doctor Who has always thrived on.

The Doctor gets a thoughtThe Hazmats

Praxeus does topical well. Doctor Who has always been a politically and socially charged show, but using such topics to tell and/or enhance a story is a fine art. So while there was nothing inherently wrong with Orphan 55 suggesting that humanity’s abuse of the planet will eventually lead to disaster, many took umbrage with the way in which it was delivered. Praxeus delivers a similar environmental message with its denouncement of how microplastics have flooded the Earth, but the execution is worlds apart. While the Praxeus virus may have come to the planet by other means, the speed at which it spreads is entirely on us. The dialogue doesn’t shy away from this fact, but it is naturally ingrained into the story and presented in a way that urges the viewer to think about the repercussions rather than outright telling them. The story is entirely built around hypotheticals, but the scenario that allows it to happen is real – and realising that is the scary part. McTighe faced some criticism with Kerblam! for sitting on the fence with his takedown of big corporations, but his message here feels clear. Bonus points for also working in a clever little Autons reference too, even if it is a little disappointing that with all this talk of plastic in the ocean we’ve no idea how the Sea Devils feel about all of this. 

But above all else, Praxeus is the episode the finally gets a grip on how to manage a large cast. The announcement that the 13th Doctor would be travelling with three companions may have been exciting, but the show’s ability to utilise them all has been sorely lacking. Even development amongst themselves is a problem, it gets even worse when you begin factoring guest cast members as well. Fugitive of the Judoon even went as far as to effectively write them out of the story so it could focus on other characters. But for what feels like the first time this whole series, all three companion plays a role here and it’s brilliant to see. Yaz gets to go off on her own adventure, Ryan helps save the day and Graham is there to offer some advice to the crestfallen Jake. Though Yaz’s background in the police is still being sorely underutilised (just one offhand) reference in an episode that features another police officer, but it’s a huge step up from the bare minimum she’s been previously given. Because of her previous side-lining this new headstrong nature feels a bit like it’s come out of nowhere (or even somewhat suspicious), but it makes perfect sense for her to start stepping up at this point to do her own investigating. Ryan’s involvement feels a little more close to home, but the Doctor is only able to properly assess the situation thanks to actions he took on his own accord. Admittedly Graham does much less by comparison, but on top of playing a key part in some of the low key moments continues to have some of the best comedic lines in the show. To give all three companions a purpose in the episode is impressive enough in itself, but to give them three separate purposes? That’s quite possibly a first.

Yaz investigatesSuki Cheng

That doesn’t just apply to the main cast either, since the episode also does a similarly good job of handling its guests as well. Praxeus rather boldly adds a further five prominent characters to the mix, and manages to do a reasonably good job with four of them. Poor old Amaru unfortunately gets the shaft though - not only unceremoniously dying off-screen but also none of the characters even acknowledge it. So it certainly isn’t perfect, but it still feels a big step up from what we’ve previously seen this season. Adam and Jake add personal stakes to the story, Gaberiela a fresh injection of that sense of wonder that comes travelling with the Doctor and finally Suki offers up that all important dose of mortality. The “everyone lives” (except technically they didn’t) ending is one of those ones that makes you question why the Doctor hasn’t done a similar thing previously, but in the moment itself it’s a sweet ending that shows that the Doctor is indeed an old romantic. Again, everyone served their purpose and no one felt wasted. Well, almost no one.

Praxeus also shines on a technical level too, exemplifying the more cinematic qualities Doctor Who has embraced in its past two series. The days of Wales doubling as everywhere else in the world are well and truly gone, as the series makes full use of its clearly enhanced location budget. Though truthfully it was filmed in Cape Town alongside Spyfall rather than the places stated in the episode, there’s nevertheless the perfect juxtaposition between the openness of blue-skied beaches and claustrophobic, neon lit passages of manmade creation. Praxeus is filled with so many great individual shots that it’s hard to pick a favourite, yet it you were to take random screencaps and show them to someone out of context they could very easily look like they come from different episodes.

Adam LangJake Willis

Following on from Fugitive of the Judoon was never going to be an easy task, and by completing ignoring its lingering story threads it feels like many fans wrote off this episode before it even began. However Praxeus will no doubt go down as the underrated gem of series 12 so far. This was episodic Doctor Who at its best, telling the kind of story the Chibnall/Whittaker era has quickly become known for without any of its glaring flaws. It presented a strong environmental message without doing it at the expense of the story, and more importantly had the perfect grip on its cast and made sure none of them were wasted. Right now its timing and placement might not seem like the best, but when the dust has settled hopefully history will look back more fondly on Praxeus. But don’t expect any answers in the next episode either, because it looks as though a healthy dose of horror is on the menu in the delightfully eerie sounding Can You Hear Me?.

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