Doctor Who is inherently a cheesy and sentimental show — despite its sci-fi label, it’s about as far from the hard science and technological imaginings that the genre offers. The series has always been about a quirky time traveler who saves the day with compassion. Doctor Who is often at its best when its leaning into its big, overwrought emotions and delivering a humanist vision of sci-fi and, yes, when it lets the Doctor save the day with love.
“Praxeus” is an explosive, big-budget episode that feels like Doctor Who is firing on all cylinders in both action and emotion. But once the globe-trotting excesses fade away, a potent ecological message shines through.
Beware the Birds
Doctor Who taps into its inner Hitchcock in a riff on The Birds with “Praxeus,” which hinges, you guessed it, on swarms of attacking birds. But while the reason for the bird attacks in the classic Hitchcock film was kept a terrifying mystery, Doctor Who is not subtle in its ecological message. These birds swarm areas with high volumes of plastic pollution, including a once-beautiful river in Peru where two traveling vloggers camp out for the night. But when one of the women (Gabriela Toloi) disappears in the middle of the night, her longtime friend and traveling buddy Gabriela (Joana Borja) is distressed, until Ryan appears out of nowhere to warn her to not touch one of the dead birds.
But Peru is not the only place where the birds are acting strangely. The Doctor is investigating strange activity in Madagascar when she comes upon a body that washes up at a beach. With the help of a scientist, who runs a nearby laboratory, and her employee, the Doctor rushes to bring the man to the shore, discovering that that it was a naval officer whose submarine had been attacked by…something. Suddenly, a strange tooth-like shell starts to spread across the man’s arm, covering his entire body before exploding him into a pile of dust.
Meanwhile, Ryan joins Gabriela in looking for her missing friend at a nearby hospital, which they find to be eerily empty with a room closed off with caution tape and a “Quarantine” sign. Not to be swayed, the two of them enter the room to find Gabriela’s friend on an operating table, the same strange shell also covering part of her face. When Gabriela touches her friend’s body, her eyes fly open to reveal all whites, before the shell also covers her entire body and disintegrates her.
A Space Oddity
This is one of the most impressive-looking episodes of the Chris Chibnall-era, with the series finally making use of the bigger budget it had reportedly been granted. The globe-trotting introductions and the mysterious appearances of the Doctor and Team TARDIS in these one-episode characters’ lives are pulled off smoothly, and without the clunky character writing that Chibnall had shown in big ensemble episodes before. This episode runs as smooth as clockwork, and looks beautiful while it’s at it. One of the most incredible set pieces is the neon-lit Hong Kong street where an ex-cop Jake (Warren Brown) searches for Adam Lang (Matthew McNulty), an astronaut who had gone missing after his space module had come hurtling down to Earth. But his search is interrupted by Yaz and Graham, who are investigating unusual energy patterns around a mysterious warehouse.
Yaz, Graham, and Jake find Adam strapped to alien contraption in the middle of a locked room in the warehouse, but as Jake frantically rushes to free him, the group gets attacked by masked aliens. They make their escape, with Jake’s ex-cop instincts kicking in quickly enough for him to steal one of the alien’s guns and shooting back. But Yaz notices that the aliens grew nervous when she picked up a particular device in the room — which she and Gabriela volunteer to retrieve once the Doctor picks them up. The Doctor takes the fast-worsening Adam to the Madagascar beach lab, where Jake and Adam reveal that they are ex-husbands, whose relationship had grown strained over Adam’s prestigious astronaut career. While Graham gives a touching pep talk to Jake, the Doctor puts everyone to work solving the mystery and diagnosing Adam. Suki (Molly Harris), the scientist who runs the lab, is remarkably well-stocked for all of the Doctor’s tasks, offering medical instruments and scientific tools that wouldn’t usually be found lying around a one-person lab on a Madagascar beach. But the Doctor doesn’t think too much of that oddity at first, distracted by the analysis of Adam’s blood, which shows him to be infected by an alien pathogen — the same one that covered the other two victims in body-destroying shells.
This is Praxeus
Meanwhile, Yaz and Gabriela discover that the alien device is a teleporter, which transports them to a dark, cavernous alien outpost that contains the remnants of the washed-up submarine. They call the Doctor over to inform her of their discovery right at the moment that the Doctor discovers the root of the pathogen, which all goes back to Suki and her over-equipped lab. Suki’s true colors are revealed: She is an alien whose crashed ship was responsible for the Praxeus bacteria slowly taking over the birds through the plastic in their stomachs — filled up after years of pollution. Humans are susceptible too due to microplastics in the water, which Suki had been experimenting with in her lab. She coolly admits it all, thanking the Doctor for doing all the hard work for her, before teleporting away just as a swarm of birds crash through the windows of the lab.
The Doctor and Team TARDIS, with Jake and Adam in tow, make their way to Yaz and Gabriela’s location, which is revealed to be an alien construct miles below the Indian Ocean, underneath a sea of pollution. The masked aliens who had attacked them were in fact aliens who were infected with the same pathogen, for which they had been trying to use a cure. It’s not long before the Doctor finds Suki attempting to escape in her crashed ship, which had released the bacteria after the crew had searched long and hard for a planet on which they could experiment — essentially using Earth as their laboratory. But Suki, who had been scratched by a bird and received a double dose of infection, soon dies, despite the vaccine that the Doctor had concocted. But it had worked to save Adam, who had nobly offered himself as a test subject, much to Jake’s despair. Jake pays him back in turn with another noble sacrifice, piloting the spaceship that would be used to disseminate the cure – and explode on impact. But the Doctor is able to save him at the last minute in a classic moment of inspiring Doctor Who triumph: when love saves the day, everybody (mostly) lives.
Tidbits in Time and Space
- For all that this season has loved retconning the series, the episode has just confirmed a piece of Peter Capaldi era canon re: the Doctor having multiple brains.
- This is the second episode of the season where Doctor Who comes in with a pointed environmental message, but “Praxeus” pulls it off so much better.
- When Chibnall pens an episode, he usually gets preoccupied with the logistics and technicalities of it all, but this time he allowed the character relationships to drive the plot, turning out another highlight of the season.
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