The Doctor Who team have engineered a bit of a problem for themselves. Last week, they treated us to a taste of a startling new Doctor with a stronger personality, a nattier costume and a glorious Tardis harking back to the unbeatable original… We want to see more. But then this week… oh! We’re back to that again.
But Praxeus is, in itself, disappointing. It’s co-credited to showrunner Chris Chibnall and more importantly Pete McTighe, whose satire on Amazon, Kerblam!, was one of the stronger episodes in series 11. I’d hoped for something similarly scintillating. Though Praxeus generates an intriguing mystery at the start with the dead birds, the avian attacks, the deadly infection, it soon starts to dither and plod. So much so that gifted composer Segun Akinola has to resort to burble-muzak, shimmering under every scene, to disguise the air of enervation.
Like the previous episode, there’s a discernible Russell T Davies vibe. Which is no bad thing, normally. Multiple locations. Large diverse cast. A core relationship under threat. But whereas Russell T managed, ingeniously, to sketch a character as a fully believable person within moments and with a few lines of dialogue, that doesn’t happen here. I come away from Praxeus knowing little about any of these people nor caring about them, whether they live, or calcify and shatter. Who were the vloggers Gabriela and Jamila? Were they mates or an item? The scientist-turned-alien-villain Suki is instantly forgettable. Who was her associate Aramu who died on the beach, unremarked and unmourned?
The closest to interesting characters are suspended cop Jake and British astronaut Adam – rewardingly, if unsurprisingly, a married couple. Their dysfunctional relationship and its imbalance of power bring a bit of humanity into the proceedings, but the actors Warren Brown and Matthew McNulty look like they’ve just met on set that day. Kudos, though, to McTighe and Chibnall for foregrounding a gay male couple (Doctor Who has majored on lady-love since the reboot) and allowing them a proper snog. No big deal. No issue. As it should be.
Praxeus hops around the world: Peru, Madagascar, Hong Kong… Ambitious, but I didn’t get a true sense of any of these locales. We’re six episodes into series 12 and it’s noticeable now that, like RTD’s early seasons, the Tardis is rarely leaving Earth. Skyfall flirted briefly with a dark dimension (and Gallifrey); Orphan 55 turned out to be a devastated future Earth. What seems like another world in Praxeus is a crash-site under the Indian Ocean. Novel setting, drearily rendered. Can we have some alien planets soon?
What does Praxeus have going for it? Well, like the Nikola Tesla episode, there’s an extensive five-minute set-up before the Doctor and her gang show up. The multiple settings mean that the quartet are split up, act independently and get a fair share of the action. Yaz starts to feel like a proper companion when she insists on remaining in Hong Kong to investigate solo and brave danger.
But there can be little tension if the Time Lord is able to contact all her acolytes via a tiny comms device and then jump to their location and rescue them so swiftly that they don’t even bother to show the police box materialising. I hanker for bygone days when the Doctor could not steer the Tardis and would lose track of his companions. Why fret if she doesn’t even break sweat while rescuing Jake from death? “I can save him, just, if I materialise around him in the millisecond before the ship breaks up.” (That didn’t help the fifth Doc’s companion Adric in Earthshock!)
The plot taps into our concerns about pandemic (timely), pollution and microplastic particles getting into the food chain, but I don’t buy into the alien pathogen, its need for plastic, the alien threat, the control of the birds, or the deaths (horribly realised though they are).
I just don’t feel Praxeus. A mystery with no tension, little to coo at or chuckle at, not much to chew on.