Even In Muddied Waters, Doctor Who’s Message Is Clearer Than Ever

Even In Muddied Waters, Doctor Who’s Message Is Clearer Than Ever
There’s something up with the birds of planet Earth... (Image: BBC)

If anything is clear even this early into Chris Chibnall’s era of Doctor Who, it’s that this is a version of the show deeply fascinated by its past commitment to social and political commentary—from the get-go, Doctor Who has used alien invasions and experiments gone wrong to comment on the world around us. This week was no exception, even if it brought with it some unfortunate baggage in the process.

“Praxeus” is an odd episode. And not just because it feels like we only just had “Orphan 55” deliver a brutally stark warning about humanity’s laissez-faire attitude toward the ever-impending climate disaster that having another ecologically-themed threat feels like a peculiar do-over. It’s made odder by its immediate relation to last week’s shocking, table-flipping continuity antics in “Fugitive of the Judoon,” which gave us some wild revelations about the history (or future, it’s always hard to tell with Time Lords) of the Doctor as we know it.

“Praxeus” is an otherwise relatively run-of-the-mill episode of Doctor Who, and that it’s burdened with the baggage of coming in the wake of an episode that didn’t just delight us with big surprises but left us reeling with a million questions that this episode couldn’t (and arguably shouldn’t have to) answer, is perhaps unfair. But after such huge, character-changing revelations for the Doctor, it’s hard not to feel that specter hanging over this episode.

Slot this episode anywhere else in the season and it would still have exposed a few lingering problems this era has quite yet to grow out of, but those cracks might not have seemed as frustratingly stark. Even as it maintained a commitment to social commentary that has come to define this iteration of Doctor Who—which, try as some fans might to plug their ears and forget everything from “The Green Death” to “The Seeds of Doom” are stories that exist, is in line with the show’s long and persistent history on this front—“Praxeus” found its messaging about microplastics and environmentalism dragged down by a messy structure and an equally stark realisation: Doctor Who still doesn’t really quite know what it wants to do in having three companions along for the ride.

The Doctor and unfortunate marine are about to discover the deadly effects of Praxeus. (Image: BBC)

Set amid an international conspiracy involving mysterious bird deaths, a missing U.S. Navy sub and British astronaut, weird goings-on in Hong Kong, and two gruesomely explosive deaths in Peru and on the Madagascan coastline, the story weaves a web of intrigue that, at first, seems like it’s perfectly suited for Doctor Who’s current set up of four main characters (not to mention the fact that said characters can zip across the world in a time-travelling phone box). It does this by splitting up the Doctor, Ryan, and then Yaz and Graham, as they spread out across the Earth to try and figure out how all these disparate events are connected makes sense. Not only do we get to see the level of trust the Doctor has in her friends that they can go on these missions without her, it lends Doctor Who a refreshing sense of expanded scope. In more budget-constrained times, you might imagine all of this taking place in some obscure village in the UK countryside next to a Conveniently Sinister Secret Research Facility, or something. Even if it primarily plays out via the medium of location-designating title cards flying across the screen every once in a while, it’s nice to see Doctor Who spread its wings beyond its typically British lens.

But in practice, it also means the episode just spends way, way too long dragging out the mystery of what is really going on. And without the Doctor and her friends having each other to bounce off of (instead interacting with an awkwardly large number of supporting characters, who feel less like characters, and more like walking excuses for someone to say “please tell me and the audience what is going on”), its initial set up throwing a bunch of storylines at us at once just feels frustratingly unclear.

Ryan, Yaz, and Graham feel especially underserved in this process—particularly Yaz, who has already been consistently underserved by last season’s focus on the emotional arc between Ryan and Graham over the death of Grace. Here, she promptly vanishes for a third of the episode as she desperately tries to prove herself to the Doctor even more, staying behind in Hong Kong with one of the episodes’ temp-companions, vlogger Gabriela (Joana Borja), in what essentially amounts to another big reminder that Doctor Who is about to either kill her off for recklessly trying to attempt to be more like the Doctor á la Clara, or write her out because Yaz, like the audience, is growing more frustrated that her place in the TARDIS fam feels increasingly ancillary.

Yaz, Graham, and new friend Jake go hunting for clues. (Image: BBC)

It’s only when it’s revealed that the threat of the week and the actual connection between these disparate events is the titular alien virus—which feeds off of the microplastics taken in by Earth’s populations, animal or otherwise, so proliferate in the 21st century that they’re in our food, our water, and even the air we breathe—brought to Earth by alien scientists in an attempt to experiment on its effects to save their own dying race, that “Praxeus” really feels like it’s running on all cylinders. Which would be less of a problem if this reveal wasn’t roughly two thirds into the episode—so by the time the Doctor is racing to save the day, fixing up a cure for Praxeus and getting it dispersed into the atmosphere with a little help from her new friend, former cop and astronaut husband Jake (Warren Brown), everything has to come to an immediate halt.

The cure that was taking so long to figure out? Pumped out by the TARDIS off-screen in a matter of moments. Jake’s seeming heroic sacrifice to take the alien ship into the Earth’s atmosphere after the autopilot malfunctions? Brought up and dealt with in the space of about a minute. And then it’s all over; the Doctor and her friends don’t really have anything to say about Earth’s pollution crisis other than “well, that’s bad” before they get back into the TARDIS, fingers crossed that the three people they said that to can somehow impact global change by the next time they’re landing on Earth.

It’s a shame because without the muddled storylines the episode uses to lay out its needlessly complicated premise, this is the sort of messaging Doctor Who can and does excel at, and even mostly did so here in spite of itself. The problem of microplastics isn’t just very real, but plays on excellent Doctor Who tropes when it comes to mysterious threats—it’s something we are all familiar with, it’s a wake-up call about our own impact on the world in which we live, and it’s also a threat that is ever present, just out of the corner of our eye (it’s in the air! it’s in the water! it’s in your microwave meal!).

In comparison to the starkness of the messaging in “Orphan 55”—which was, at least, stark for character-driven reasons, given the Doctor herself was going through some personal turmoils, a great example of a prior episode impacting on an otherwise-unrelated story that felt distinctly lacking here—this naturalistic approach to moral messaging is the sort of thing Doctor Who shines at. It’s a shame that while the episode’s ultimate message was clear, not much else about it actually was.

The Doctor, probably very glad that no one asked her about her ongoing existential crisis this week. (Image: BBC)

Assorted Musings

  • Oh hey, look! An episode with a romantic subplot that just so happened to revolve around two gay men—our missing ESA Astronaut, Adam (Matthew McNulty), and his commitment-phobic husband, the aforementioned Jake—and like, the Earth didn’t implode or anything! How refreshing to get a subplot where the queerness of these characters was both actually explicit and yet also not the sole defining aspect of their characters! They were just…there! In the plot! Existing! And having relationship problems! And snogging each other when appropriate! How lovely. And depressing that in 2020 this is still something that feels so utterly, distressingly rare. Thanks, Doctor Who.

  • So between this and her near-fatal encounter with the Kasaavin in the premiere—with the Doctor literally specifically calling out a congratulatory nod that Yaz did something incredibly reckless, teleporting off in chase of an alien threat alone and unsupported but somehow did not get herself killed!—it really, really does feel like this season is setting up Yaz for a really bad exit. On the plus side: Oh yay, Yaz finally gets something to do! On the downside: Oh no, Yaz is building towards an exit out of the show, whether it’s via death or peacing out because the risks of death are too real!

  • Given the amount of downtime while the Doctor was investigating Praxeus or trying to figure out a cure for the virus, it does feel really weird that Yaz, Ryan, or Graham were never just like “So, what about this whole alternate Doctor you never knew existed until last week, what’s that deal about?” “Fugitive of the Judoon” ended with a “Praxeus” cliffhanger that made its threat feel much more immediate than this episode actually was, so it feels very odd that we didn’t get any nods to last week’s bonkersness here.

  • Given this season’s sudden dive into self-reference, this episode’s random shoutout to the Autons was very cute, but at this point, given everything going on with the Master, Judoon, Jack, and the Cybermen, I very much appreciated that it was just a callout. But hey, also another reminder that this is far from the first time Doctor Who has called out modern society’s over-reliance on plastic pollution! Geez, it almost is like this show’s got a history of socio-political commentary, isn’t it?