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Doctor Who: Praxeus (Review)

Praxeus is business as usual for Chris Chibnall’s era of Doctor Who.

It’s always slightly fun when a showrunner takes a co-writing credit on an episode, because it implies heavy involvement in a particular aspect of the story. It’s always fun to speculate what that aspect might be. When Russell T. Davies took a rare co-writing credit on Waters of Mars, it seemed reasonable to suggest that he was (at least) heavily involved in the “Time Lord Victorious” stuff. When Steven Moffat took a co-writing credit on The Girl Who Died, it seemed likely that he worked on the Twelfth Doctor’s explanation of his choice of face.

Beach’s own.

Normally, it’s fairly easy to see what hand a showrunner took in a given script. Fugitive of the Judoon brought back Vinay Patel, who wrote one of the best-received episodes of the previous season in Demons of the Punjab, but paired him with Chris Chibnall. There were any number of elements in Fugitive of the Judoon that might have merited the heavy hand of the showrunner. The most obvious stuff is the subplot involving Jack Harkness, which is both isolated from the story and heavy on foreshadowing. That said, the Ruth!Doctor stuff was also a big deal.

This makes Chibnall’s credit on Praxeus seem very strange. On the surface, and even with the direct cliffhanger feeding in from Fugitive of the Judoon,there is nothing in the story that would seem to merit or necessitate the showrunner stepping in to work with writer Peter McTighe on the episode.

Net loss.

To be fair, there are several very obvious markers of Chibnall’s approach to Doctor Who. This is most obvious in the way that the episode is structured. In some ways, Chibnall is perhaps better at logistics than narrative, as denoted by his clever use of location work and his shift to anamorphic lenses. Praxeus is perhaps a fine example of this. It is more impressive as a piece of show running logistics than it is a satisfying story in its own right.

Praxeus aired as the sixth episode in the season, but it was actually produced as part of the first production block with Spyfall, Part I. Both episodes were directed by Jamie Magnus Stone and featured location work in South Africa to provide the stories with a sense of global scale. After all, Spyfall, Part I was supposed to be a gigantic homage to the James Bond, and so the international work felt appropriate. Praxeus is built around a global threat that unites Hong Kong, the Indian Ocean and Madagascar, with a stop-off in Peru along the way.

Even more than the pairing of Spyfall, Part I and Praxeus on the production schedule, there is something clever and effective in how Praxeus is actually structured in terms of filming. Chibnall might be a very good producer in a practical sense, but he is transparently drawing from one of the greatest in the show’s long history. During the show’s tenth season, with Carnival of Monsters, Barry Letts very cannily figured out that production of stories could be split across multiple units that would allow for more efficient and less hectic scheduling. It was a highly practical move.

The first fifteen to twenty minutes of Praxeus, taking up just over a third of the episode, are split across three separate storylines. This involves splitting the cast. Ryan travels to Peru to meet Gabriela Camara, following the death of Jamila Velez. Graham and Yaz journey to Hong Kong, where they cross paths with Jake WIllis and Adam Lang. The Doctor is busy in Madagascar, where she encounters Suki Cheng. Even beyond splitting up the primary cast, each of these threads requires set-up, which means that the regular cast doesn’t have to be immediately introduced.

Sub par?

This is a highly practical approach to storytelling from a production viewpoint. If the characters are split up, each individual cast member is required for less time. If the episode can delay the introduction of a regular cast member within each of these plots, then that cast member is needed for even less time. This is a very canny approach to production, minimising the demand on individual actors by splitting them up and allowing each to carry a separate segment of the episode.

This is probably the only way that a show like Doctor Who can manage the competing schedules of performers like Jodie Whittaker and Bradley Walsh. Whittaker has talked about wanting to spend time with her family, while Walsh is a veritable institution on British television. It is hard to overstate the logistical challenges of filming a series like Doctor Who, especially at the BBC. It places a phenomenal demand on everybody involved. It is to Chibnall’s credit that he has kept the workload manageable for actors like Whittaker and Walsh.

After all, it should be noted that Chibnall’s predecessors wrestled with these challenges and had to find creative ways around them. After his first season, Russell T. Davies made a point to include “Doctor-lite” episodes like Love and Monsters and Turn Left, which allowed David Tennant some light relief during a grueling production. Steven Moffat famously had to split his second and third seasons as showrunner, and would occasionally get creative about scheduling actors across various episodes.

To give Chibnall’s approach credit, it is certainly the least disruptive approach. The clever structuring of episodes like Praxeus means that the show will likely never require a “Doctor-lite” episode, because Praxeus manages that function without ever calling attention to itself. Eagle-eyed viewers with a keen eye on production logistics will probably notice the sleight of hand, but casual viewers would never spot anything unusual about how Praxeus employs the lead characters.

Time to split.

Indeed, it is tempting to wonder whether this is part of the reason why Chibnall wanted three companions in the TARDIS in the first place. Although the show actually rarely splits up its four leads, having the option to divide the characters so that each actor is only carrying one quarter of the production is a very tempting proposition. With enough frantic editting and narrative momentum, the audience will never actually figure out that this is just a way of lightening the show’s load. (McTighe’s earlier script for Kerblam! is also notable for splitting up its ensemble.)

This gets at another way that Praxeus feels a little bit like a Chibnall script. The first half of the episode is constantly crosscutting across three competing narrative threads in an effort to build momentum and excitement, recalling the propulsive style of The Woman Who Fell to Earth. The episode is clearly intended to feel like it is building and building towards something, with these various snippets of a larger narrative that gradually coalesce about twenty minutes into the runtime.

Of course, this gets at the way in which Chibnall’s polished production occasionally undercuts his storytelling. This scheduling technique is very practical and effective, but it doesn’t seem to exist to serve the narrative so much as to conceal a production reality. After all, very few people actually complained about the necessity for “Doctor-lite” and “companion-lite” episodes during the Davies era. The challenge of writing around the absence of one or both leads inspired some of the era’s best stories, including Blink and Midnight.

Praxeus seems like it was built to solve a production problem that didn’t actually exist, instead of to serve a narrative that is particularly compelling in its own right. It is worth comparing the structure of Praxeus to something like Fugitive of the Judoon. Both episodes are frantically paced, but Fugitive of the Judoon largely avoids the crosscutting and competing narrative strands that define Praxeus. While Fugitive of the Judoon does rather cynically shunt the companions into a nostalgia- and foreshadowing-driven subplot, it is a much more linear narrative.

Fine, China.

Fugitive of the Judoon builds from one idea to the next, a causal chain of events that build inexorably towards the reveal of Ruth!Doctor. It pivots sharply at various points, but it all flows organically. As a result, the first fifteen minutes allow the audience to get to know characters like Ruth and Lee and Alan, before the Judoon show up. This allows the world to feel lived in. Even if Alan is a two-dimensional cartoon, he exists to add context to the relationship between Ruth and Lee while foreshadowing certain later reveals.

In contrast, Praxeus is a jumble of competing scenes that cut dramatically from one to another in a way that undermines any sense of character or narrative development. There is no time to care about Jamila before she is murdered, because the episode is also simultaneously setting up Adam’s crash-landing and the sinking submarine. Praxeus often ends up reducing characterisation to blunt exposition and broad cliché. There is never a sense of who these people are or where they are coming from, because Praxeus is built around this crosscutting format.

Again, this is a familiar Chibnall technique. It was particularly obvious and jarring The Woman Who Fell to Earth, where the decision to stuff the opening half-hour with unnecessary plot complications largely felt like an attempt to disguise the fact that Chibnall was nowhere near as good with dialogue as either Davies or Moffat. Praxeus does something similar, never really developing any of its supporting cast into actual characters.

Jake Willis is perhaps the most obvious example of this, being played by the most prominent member of the guest cast. Warren Brown isn’t Stephen Fry or Lenny Henry, but he is a recognisable face on British television owing to his involvement in shows like Luther and Strikeback. As such, having Brown in the show is a big deal. He deserves a meaty role. Indeed, the script seems to recognise this structurally, in that the thread that comes to focus on Hong Kong actually takes a sizable detour into developing Jake’s background and daily existence.

Having a blast(er).

Unfortunately, Praxeus struggles to come up with a compelling angle of Jake Willis. He feels appreciably less realised than either Ruth or Lee in Fugitive of the Judoon, and it is debatable whether either of those characters were real people rather than just an elaborate facade. Indeed, the closest that Praxeus comes to affording Jake a personality is effectively an homage to City of Death. Like Duggan, Jake is a cop who prefers to use force. Praxeus even builds to a gag with Jake similar to what City of Death does with Duggan.

In City of Death, Duggan’s right hook is a recurring joke up until the point that it just happens to become exactly what is needed to save the planet. In Praxeus, Jake’s love of excessive force a punchline up until the point that it becomes useful. His brutal tackling of a shoplifter gets him fired from a part-time job while he is “on sabbatical”, while Yaz and Graham first meet him while trying to force his way into a locked building with no success. The gag then fizzles out rather than building to a punchline, as Jake actually gets to kick a door in just a few minutes later.

To be fair, Praxeus does attempt to offer a little more by way of characterisation later on. However, this is ultimately revealed through a clumsy exposition dump. Graham literally sits down beside Jake on the beach, only for Jake to bluntly reveal every important facet of himself while neatly outlining his character arc to the audience. It is terribly unsatisfying, and a waste of an actor who deserves better material. It’s damning that Jake is the most developed member of the guest cast, and still feels like a script description rather than an actual person.

That said, Praxeus does represent development for the Chibnall era in a very real and tangible way. Jake and Adam are married, which is lovely. The Chibnall era has been commendably diverse in terms of gender and race, but somewhat less progressive in terms of sexual orientation. More than that, the Chibnall era has a history of killing off its gay characters, even in stories where the bulk of the cast survive. Angstrom has a dead wife in The Ghost Monument, while a supporting character announces their sexuality before getting murdered in Resolution.

Where there’s a Willis…

The ending of Praxeus sets up the prospect of a heroic sacrifice from Jake, as he pilots the ship into the atmosphere to disperse the antidote. It’s a familiar refrain within the Chibnall era, cheap emotional leverage involving a supporting character sacrificing themselves to save the regular cast and other lives. The most recent example is the death of Kane and Bella at the end of Orphan 55, buying time for the Doctor and the rest of the survivors to escape into the TARDIS.

Perhaps demonstrating some growth and maturity from Chibnall, Praxeus allows the Doctor to realise that she is standing in a machine that can travel through space and time. Rather than leaving Jake to die, the Doctor whirls into action and snatches him away from death with seconds to spare. It recalls the “everybody lives!” endings of the Moffat era, and demonstrates a slightly more proactive approach than the Thirteenth Doctor has usually taken towards unnecessary death.

Of course, the moment isn’t perfect. Praxeus wallows a little too much in Jake’s self-sacrifice, playing it a little too earnest and sincere, before kicking it into reverse. There is no sense that the script is mocking or deflating Jake’s self-centred machismo, merely that it wants to have its cake and eat it with regards to Jake’s attempted suicide. More to the point, Praxeus underplays the Doctor’s intervention. It might have been more effective to have the Thirteenth Doctor acknowledge a rejection of her past passivity, to give her a moment similar to the Ninth Doctor’s “everybody lives!”

Interestingly, the problems with characterisation in Praxeus carry over to other aspects of the script. The Chibnall era has an issue with exposition, which is particularly marked in contrast to the Moffat era. Steven Moffat was a writer who actually enjoyed articulating and demonstrating high concepts; consider the skill with which the show played with monsters like the Weeping Angels of the Silence. In contrast, the Chibnall era has a marked lack of imagination.

It’s a bit of a rubbish monster.

It’s notable, for example, how many Chibnall scripts are even titled with exposition. Praxeus is an example of itself, a name that doesn’t mean anything to anybody who hasn’t watched the episode and which will mean nothing to anybody who has forgotten the name of the alien pathogen at its core. It is a nonsense name, much like The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos, in that it provides no information that makes any sense outside the context of the episode. (Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror is fun to say, and Orphan 55 is at least an intriguing combination of words.)

Like a lot of Chibnall’s scripts, Praxeus leans heavily on technobabble. To be fair, Chibnall’s Doctor Who pitches itself as a return the show’s original educational mandate, with a heavy emphasis on science and research. Praxeus makes this explicit, with the Doctor asking Ryan for a favour involving a dead bird. “Could you dissect it for me?” she asks. “You must have done it at school.” Later on, Graham asks for a definition of a “pathogen”, one of the most literal expressions of the companion’s traditional role of providing an excuse for exposition.

This is commendable of itself, but the problem arises in how the Chibnall era approaches this return to the educational mandate. Scripts like The Tsuranga Conundrum effectively rely on the characters spouting complete nonsense with a few vaguely scientific words thrown into the mix. At one point in Praxeus, actor Molly Harris is asked to deliver the line “if we isolate and boost the enzyme, them splice them, we’d have one supercharged virus” with a straight face.

Obviously all eras of Doctor Who rely on nonsense. However, the Davies and Moffat eras at least tended to acknowledge that these concepts were nonsense, often framing crises and threats in terms of narrative or story logic, rather than pretending that they could be extrapolated from actual science. After all, “the Nightmare Child” or “the Silver Devastation” might be complete nonsense, but they are infinitely more evocative uses of language than “Ranskoor Av Kolos.” (Even something like “Trenzalore” scans better, and includes compound words like “lore.”)

A machine that goes [TARDIS noises].

As with the switch to anamorphic lenses or the dropping of the cold open or the use of location shooting, the use of pseudo-scientific technobabble in the Chibnall era often feels like a panicked attempt to be taken seriously, to put some distance between Praxeus and other episodes of Doctor Who that would be deemed more frivolous. The use of this sort of language, delivered by talented actors with very earnest faces suggests that this is all very “serious business” in the way that the Tenth Doctor wandering around with “a machine that goes ding” simply is not.

One more minor Chibnall era trope in Praxeus is the cheapness of the jokes about social media. Gabriela’s sole defining trait as a character is to function as a joke about millennial social media, constantly referencing “Two Girls Roaming” only to realise that none of the other characters have heard of her. It’s very much in keeping with jokes like the cutaway internet gag in Resolution, and is slightly less vaguely new-media-phobic than the ambiguous “he does something with computers and it’s evil” characterisation of Daniel Barton in Spyfall, Part I and Spyfall, Part II.

Of course, all of this might be reading too much into Chibnall’s writing credit. It is entirely possible that Praxeus is intended as a secret “arc” episode, a narrative that initially appears relatively self-contained but which will reveal itself to be crucial to the overarching narrative. After all, it’s notable that the eponymous pathogen transforms its hosts in a way that recalls the Stenza as introduced in The Woman Who Fell to Earth. The make-up design is certainly similar.

It is notable that Praxeus leads into Can You Hear Me?, which features a guest appearance from Ian Gelder. Gelder provided the voice of the remnants in The Ghost Monument, on a world scarred by Stenza experiments. It was Gelder’s voice that first mentioned “the Timeless Child”, which is being set up as a major arc. As such, it seems entirely possible that the deadly pathogen in Praxeus might be intended to fit within a larger arc involving monstrous biological experimentation, the Stenza and the Timeless Child. It is all to play for.

Face-off.

While it is hard to position Praxeus in the context of the season’s larger arc, it does tie into the larger themes. Like Orphan 55, Praxeus is a parable about mankind’s treatment of the environment. This makes sense for a version of Doctor Who as avowedly apolitical. After all, “maybe mankind shouldn’t destroy the environment?” is a vague enough statement that it’s possible to wade into the debate without causing the kind of backlash that a more overt Brexit metaphor might provoke. (Of course, environmentalism is and should be political, but media covering it largely obscures it.)

This is the part of Praxeus feels most in keeping with McTighe’s work on Kerblam! On the surface, this is a very Doctor Who idea that would feel at home in earlier iterations of the show, especially the Davies era. There is something that is infiltrating the modern world and making an innocuous object seem threatening – like satellite navigation in The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky or wifi in The Bells of St. John. Indeed, murderous plastic is a Doctor Who trope going back to Spearhead from Space. (“Autons!” the Doctor gasps. “Can’t be Autons. They don’t work like that.”)

However, like Kerblam!, Praxeus is so delighted to be playing with standard Doctor Who tropes that it completely bungles what should be a very simple and straightforward point. It seems logical that Kerblam! should amount to “Amazon is evil”, but it somehow ends up arguing that “the system is not the problem.” Similarly, Praxeus would seem to be built around the idea that “pollution is bad and people should stop polluting the planet”, but somehow bungles that moral thesis to the point of unrecognisability.

Abstraction is the problem here. The threat in Praxeus is not pollution itself. It is not even a direct result of pollution, like the giant maggots in The Green Death. Instead, pollution ends up being largely incidental to the actual plot of Praxeus in a way that undercuts any attempt a cohesive moral point. It turns out that the alien menace in Praxeus moves through plastics, and Earth is so full of micro-plastics that it has been invited to an all-you-can-eat buffet. “Alien bacteria has come to this planet and it has found a feast.”

“Yes, father. I shall become a TARDIS.”

As with Kerblam!, there is an obvious problem with this set up. The pollution is incidental to the plot of Praxeus, just like the horrific exploitation of labour is incidental to the plot of Kerblam! After all, there’s no moral calculus to the arrival of the eponymous pathogen. The Thirteenth Doctor mentions the Autons, an entire alien species that would presumably be highly susceptible to the threat posed by Praxeus, and it would be unreasonable to blame them for just happening to have a biological make-up that renders them susceptible to the pathogen.

After all, Doctor Who is full of alien threats that regularly show up and weaponise objects from everyday existence. To read Praxeus as an environmental metaphor, one would have to interpret Blink as a cautionary tale about the dangers of closing one’s eyes, Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead as warnings about the threats posed by books, or The Bells of St. John as a Luddite appeal to reject wifi. This is not how parables and metaphors work. Praxeus might discuss environmental issues, but it never argues that pollution is an existential threat.

Praxeus is explicit that the eponymous pathogen and the alien scientists are the real threat to the planet. “We travelled across three galaxies to find the perfect living laboratory,” Suki insists, victim-blaming on a planetary scale. The Doctor is having none of it, and quite rightly. “Destroying one race to save the remnants of your own,” the Doctor chides Suki. Suki’s methods would be completely immoral if mankind had taken proper care of the planet, and her methods are still immoral even allowing for the damage that humanity has caused to the environment.

“Yes, father. I shall become a Stenza. Maybe?”

Indeed, Praxeus aggressively undercuts any environmentalist reading. Orphan 55 was explicit in imploring the audience to take action. The Doctor’s closing speech might have been clumsy and inelegant, but at least it articulated the existential nature of the threat in a way that children could understand. Instead, much like Kerblam! casually shrugged off horrific abuse with the understanding that the system worked, Praxeus suggests that the Earth itself is trying to fight off the threat posed by the eponymous pathogen. The planet will heal itself.

This is a frankly dangerous narrative, arguing that the planet can fight back against this sort of existential threat. Sure, the planet needs the Doctor’s assistance in Praxeus, but is dealing with an alien threat. There is no real opportunity to process how fundamentally broken the world has become and how quickly the damage that humanity have caused to their habitat might become irreversible. Orphan 55 argued that mankind was arguing about the dishes as the house burnt down, while Praxeus argues that the dishes will clean themselves anyway.

In this context, the emphasis on an alien threat is strange. The Moffat era worked hard to rework and reconfigure the idea of the “monster” within the framework of Doctor Who, most obviously in stories like Listen and Twice Upon a Time. To be fair, some of this did carry over to the Chibnall era. Most notably, The Tsuranga Conundrum and Demons of the Punjab both make a conscious effort to avoid casting their “monsters” as inherently evil. Orphan 55 went even further, arguing that the real monsters were humanity themselves.

Still, the Chibnall era has occasionally fallen back on the idea that what is alien is inherently hostile. Resolution even characterised its monstrous Dalek as a “refugee”, while the Thirteenth Doctor was inherently wary of aliens appearing in Spyfall, Part I and Spyfall, Part II. There is something vaguely uncomfortable in the way that Praxeus positions the threat to the environment as rooted in an external actor, similar to how Kerblam! suggested that the worst thing that could happen would be for somebody to interfere with the system. (Even if the system is literally murderous.)

A hostile working environment.

That said, Praxeus is consciously trying to engage with the zeitgeist. The “alien birds” circle the characters like one of the most iconic images from the first season of True Detective. Chris Jordan’s photographs of dead birds filled with plastic have become the most evocative images of the modern environmentalist movement. The episode repeatedly emphasises the horror of birds as potential carriers for an infectious pathogen, tapping into fears around so-called “bird flu.” This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, one of the commendable aspects of the Chibnall era has been its efforts to keep Doctor Who relevant.

The episode’s frantic pacing serves to conceal a variety of narrative and emotional gaps in the storytelling. The decision to reduce Gabriela and Jamila to a one-note joke about vloggers with an inflated sense of importance seems particularly callous given that Gabriela just lost her best friend. At one point, Amaru is attacked by a swarm of Praxeus-controlled birds, but nobody even seems to notice his absence from the rest of the episode. Praxeus never makes it entirely clear if Amaru is human or if he is a member of Suki’s species.

It often seems mean-spirited to point out plot holes in a show like Doctor Who, especially in episodes that are designed to work as fast-paced thrill rides. Nevertheless, the episode never explains how Adam manages to send Jake his location. The image of a patient trapped inside an astronaut suit is drawn from The Impossible Astronaut, which is a surprisingly large touchstone for the season, but even that episode explained how Melodi was able to use the suit to send a distress call to President Nixon. In contrast, it seems highly unlikely Adam was given a phone to let his husband know where he was.

The biggest problem with Praxeus is trying to tie these various threads into a single compelling and engaging narrative driven by a central thesis. Instead, Praxeus is a shrewd piece of production but a hollow piece of story.

4 Responses

  1. The threat implicit in Praxeus, which is the only reason why the characters are affected by the virus, is that there is plastic inside humans. Which only ended up there because of plastic pollution.

    • Yep, but the pathogen could just as easily move through, say, water. And nobody would argue that there was a problem having too much water.

      • It could, but it didn’t.

      • Yes, but then what’s the point? How is it an environmental metaphor? Again, the pathogen doesn’t evolve in plastic. It isn’t a result of plastic. To pick an obvious antecedent, it isn’t like the maggots in The Green Death, where there’s a causal link between its existence and the plastic. It’s an invasive species that just happens to move through plastic. If there wasn’t pollution and waste, if mankind disposed of plastic safely and reasonably, the pathogen could just as easily move through mannequins or industrial processes or medical equipment or any number of the uses of plastic that aren’t actively harmful to the environment.

        The real takeaway from Praxeus is (the entirely reasonable) “don’t conduct biological experiments on a sentient species”, when it seems to be aiming for “pollution is bad.”

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