❉ Doctor Who showed itself uncannily prescient with a stylish tale about a global pandemic…
“Jodie Whittaker is completely at home now as the Doctor. You know that’s happened when, without thinking about it, you find yourself enjoying every scene she’s in.”
In the same week that the first cases of the Coronavirus were reported in England, Doctor Who showed itself uncannily prescient with a stylish tale about a global pandemic, writes Robert Fairclough.
“Separate and connected.”
Four weeks ago, we were treated to the well-intentioned but shambolic Orphan 55, which delivered a warning about the pollution of the Earth in the Doctor’s closing speech that was so unsubtle, I’m surprised that there wasn’t a flashing neon sign above her head screaming, “YOU’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!!” Praxeus, with a similar theme, was better in every single way: tightly constructed, with well rounded characters, well paced, novel, and stylishly directed. In fact, the two episodes were so poles apart in quality that Praxeus could have come from an entirely different series.
It’s not surprising that the story was good. Pete McTighe – co-authoring with show runner Chris Chibnall – wrote Kerblam! for Jodie’s premiere year. Alone of all the episodes in that first series, McTighe’s satire on the internet retailer Amazon had clever twists which wrong footed the audience, together with a warning about how the modern world was developing woven intelligently into the narrative.
McTighe took those strengths to new heights here. Briefly: humanoids infected with a disease called Praxeus found a “perfect living laboratory” in the Earth; the pathogen flourished in plastic, and as our world was saturated with it – from pollution in the oceans to microplastics in food and water – it was the ideal place to release Praxeus and see if an antidote could be developed, as the human population was equally contaminated with microplastics. Naturally, things went wrong: the aliens’ spaceship crashed, bacteria leaked, transforming plastic-eating sea birds into killers, while energy pulses disabled a capsule returning from the International Space Station.
All this was slowly revealed through a jigsaw-puzzle narrative that was the most experimental piece of storytelling attempted so far in Jodie’s era. It succeeded beautifully, in a succession of apparently disconnected scenes and locales that immediately engaged the attention: a spacecraft plummeting towards the Earth out of control, a store detective trying to arrest a shoplifter in England, a polluted beauty spot in Peru…
As the episode unfolded through switches to the other locations of a warehouse in Hong Kong, a beach in Madagascar and the crash site of the humanoids’ spacecraft beneath the Indian ocean, the story revealed that, on the Earth of 2020, everything may be geographically separate but is ultimately connected. That concept related to both the proliferation of plastic – poisoning the environment and the food chain – and the very human story of the relationship between the crashed astronaut, Adam Lang (Matthew McNulty, understated and dignified) and his store detective husband, Jake Willis (Warren Brown, believably intense).
Lang was go-getting and pioneering, while his commitment-phobe, travel-averse spouse was guilty of only “touching life” (a wonderfully poetic phrase). It was fitting, then, that Jake saved the day by fully engaging with the crisis, tracking down Adam and piloting the aliens’ damaged spacecraft to distribute the antidote to Praxeus. The latter was set up with a witty piece of dialogue, as Jake examined the controls: “Up, down, left and right… Adam Lang, your job is so easy.” (Mind you, Line of the Week went – again – to Graham; listening to Jake list the deficiencies in his own character, he replied with a twinkle, “You’re quite the catch, then?”)
What I particularly liked about this episode was that Team TARDIS really are now Team TARDIS, splitting up to investigate different strands of the mystery. An underplayed, but pleasing, point is that they’re now experienced enough to recognise teleports, operate alien software and insert an intravenous drip. After being unfairly backgrounded in the preceding episodes, it was good to see Yaz taking the initiative and discovering the aliens’ base; her disappointment that she hadn’t discovered an alien planet was a nice touch. It’s worth noting that, so far, McTighe is the only scriptwriter who’s given the four leads enough to do.
Jodie Whittaker is also completely at home now as the Doctor. You know that’s happened when, without thinking about it, you find yourself enjoying every scene she’s in.
As you’ve no doubt gathered, I really liked Praxeus. It was a great script brilliantly realised, with some strikingly surreal visual moments – the US submarine in the aliens’ ‘base’, the horrible deaths of people infected by the pathogen, the grotesque, hazmat-suited aliens, the attacking swarms of infected birds (a sure-fire homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film). Director James Magnus Stone really made you believe you were in Peru, Hong Kong and Madagascar – even though all the locations were shot in South Africa – and I’m keen to see what he does with episodes nine and ten.
A couple of criticisms: Joana Borja’s spirited travel vlogger Gabriela Camera started off as a great our-point-of-view character as she encountered first Ryan then the rest of the Doctor’s friends, but ultimately became a passenger in the story as well as the TARDIS. Significantly, the way the misguided alien scientist, posing as the human scientist Suki Cheng (Molly Harris), functioned in the narrative strongly reflected the misguided Charlie Duffy (Leo Flanagan) in Kerblam!: like him, she first hid in plain sight, then revealed all to the Doctor in her ‘lair’, and was finally hoist on the petard of her scientific meddling. Then again, so much in the story was radically different that this really is a very minor criticism.
Once again, Doctor Who showed itself to be uncannily in tune with world events, as a story about a global pandemic was transmitted in the same week as the first British victims of China’s Coronavirus epidemic have been reported. It’s also a sign of how much Praxeus affected me that, afterwards, I found myself wanting to know more about the effect of microplastics on the human body, a subject that I previously knew nothing about and now find rather alarming.
This is why, as an eco-parable about the threat to the environment, Praxeus ultimately scored over Orphan 55 – it appealed intelligently to the heart, the head and the senses.
❉ Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to We Are Cult, ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘Infinity’. He is the author of books on the iconic TV series ‘The Prisoner’, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’.