|Production Code||Series 12, Episode 6|
|Dates||February 2, 2020|
With Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill
Written by Pete McTighe and Chris Chibnall Directed by Jamie Magnus Stone
Executive Producers: Chris Chibnall, Matt Strevens
|Synopsis: Team TARDIS investigate birds acting strangely and a British astronaut.|
Outbreak by Jason A. Miller 1/7/20
Praxeus premiered on February 2, 2020. The timing could not have been worse. The first documented case of COVID-19 occurred on December 31, 2019, and was first documented in the UK on January 31, 2020 -- 48 hours before Praxeus hit our screens.
On the night that it aired, I had little if any knowledge of coronavirus, but in the three weeks between the episode's airing and my finalizing this review, it's become a major international story, if not a pandemic. COVID-19 has led to misinformation, fear, irresponsible public health decisions worldwide (hello, United States of America) and racial/racist backlash.
No, at the time that Praxeus aired, I was more interested in how it might follow on from the misleading title, and shocking twists and turns, of Fugitive of the Judoon. After having been outsmarted by Fugitive, I was willing to follow Praxeus, pretty much anywhere and not try to outwit it. I tried not to read too much into the fact that Chris Chibnall had again given himself co-writer credit, as he did with Vinay Patel on Fugitive, and this week to Pete (KerBLAM!) McTighe.
Seen in season-arc light, however, Praxeus pretty much defies analysis. There's no hints of following on from the themes and revelations of the previous story. Instead, as with the previous Jamie Magnus Stone-directed episode, Spyfall Part One, we open on three seemingly unrelated crises: here, a crashing space capsule, a shoplift and two travel bloggers finding avian trouble in Peru. The location chirons are in the same Pertwee Season 11 episode title-font favored in Spyfall, but things only start to make slightly more sense when the TARDIS fam splits up into three to investigate the three crises: Ryan in Peru, Graham and Yaz in Hong Kong, and the Doctor herself in, let's say, um... Madagascar (with Cape Town doubling for all three locales). The Doctor hops three continents and discovers mysteriously marked human bodies that quickly explode into sand piles and gas-masked aliens whose masks seem indistinguishable from their faces.
When there's no major twist halfway through the episode, as had been the case for most of this season, I questioned just what about this script required Chibnall's co-writer credit. It's a standard, if vividly told, alien-infection story. There's a wide cast of minority supporting actors, my favorite being Molly Harris. Ms. Harris plays a marine biologist in Madagascar who's lab's broad scope impresses even the Doctor. There's an estranged gay married couple, to whom Graham plays expert therapist, and there's a South American travel blogger who becomes the second female guest actor this year to lust after Ryan.
The twist, if there is one, comes at about the two-thirds mark, and comes across as a lite version of the environmental preaching of Orphan 55<!-: this time, it's the microplastics accidentally ingested by humans and birds that activates the titular alien virus-> (the Doctor briefly hopes that it's Autons, and, yeah, I was hoping that too, as opposed to what we got).
The ending, at least, is optimistic, as the indomitable human spirit, as always, saves the day. The Doctor seems a bit overwhelmed, letting one supporting character get killed without ever seeming to notice what happened, but heroically saving another character at the literal last minute. The deaths by Praxeus virus are horrific, but humanity is at least rescued<!-, thanks in part to research done by slightly amoral alien scientists, and thanks in part to the TARDIS' previously-unknown ability to manufacture antivirals in mass quantity->.
Praxeus is, in the end, a fairly disposable beast-of-the-week story. It clubs you over the head, as did Orphan 55, with climate crises caused by environmental pollution, but, unlike Orphan 55, it's got a slightly more optimistic take on human nature. It's got an unsentimental body count, and a Doctor who gets duped by the bad guy ("I'm a sucker for a scientist"), seeming to save the day only by accident. The Cape Town locales are gorgeous. Coming, as it does, after the propulsive and potentially game-changing Fugitive of the Judoon, Praxeus is an interesting little piece, but comes at the wrong time in the season arc, at a moment when nobody in fandom is particularly interested in non-arc stories.
And you can't talk about Praxeus without coming back to coronavirus. Obviously the release of the episode was completely coincidental to the outbreak of COVID-19, but the Praxeus virus' deadly scope and its seeming origin in a Hong Kong laboratory (run by a character bearing a Chinese surname, played by an actress of Asian descent) bears unmistakable connections. The story places its alien scientists in something of a villainous light, although they're more amoral than evil<!-, but the TARDIS serving as a deus ex machina for the cure to Praxeus, in light of what COVID-19 is currently doing, seems like a bit too easy a solution->.
Doctor Who has done virus-outbreak stories before, the gold standard being