An astronaut’s shuttle veers wildly off-path, a blogger goes missing in a Peruvian beauty-spot turned rubbish-dump and in Madagascar birds are behaving very strangely indeed. Even the Doctor and her ‘fam’ seem baffled as they divide and conquer… each heading to the site of the occurrences to try and establish answers or some sort of pattern. As a series of terrifying deaths seem to be the only link between the global events, it becomes a race against time to find out what is behind the fatalities and why a possibly alien force is using Earth’s pollution for its own benefits…
There have been complaints that Doctor Who is becoming the depository of ’causes’ and ‘issues’. That in itself is a silly accusation as the show has always touched on matters of the day and the human race’s involvement and complicity in the way they handle those. The true problem is not the issues, but the now-frequently hand-wavery, slipshod way such elements are being thrown at the screen without any real quality threshold: a checklist to name-check rather than a plot that engages. Praxeus is primarily concerned with all the plastic in the oceans and the wider environment and that’s a perfectly reasonable thing to pivot a story around, but for some reason it feels like writer Pete McTighe (with an apparent assist by Chibnall) have thrown a jumble of things together and then found a reason to link them, rather than the reverse.
And yet again, the action whizzes around with far too many people going to far too many pointless locations as if the crew were paying for production through frequent flyer miles. There’s no reasonable need or logic to having any of the events happening in Hong Kong (or the thrown-together street meant to simulate it with a few lanterns and neon signs) never mind having Jake apparently make the day-long trip in a matter of televisual seconds simply to run into a generic warehouse set – why not London, Cardiff… or even Sheffield? There’s also the continuing disparity between journeying to those far-flung locations (more of South Africa standing in for Peru, Madagascar etc) while quite obviously cost-cutting elsewhere. While the contagion of the title is the cause of some nifty CGI fatalities, the supposed ‘bad guys’ run around in, quite literally, rubber costumes – the hazmat suits looking cheap and the filtration masks not remotely as scary as their The Empty Child cousins. The story once again separates the main cast to disguise the lack of real use for them, unapologetically sending them off around the world without any real due care and attention (when Yaz says she wants to hang around downtown ‘Hong Kong’ and investigate a warehouse that’s already proven dangerous, the Doctor should say ‘Are you recklessly stupid or something?‘ but largely shrugs and vworps off in the Tardis allowing Yaz to be, well… recklessly stupid). Tosin Cole is given a few one-liners but continues to deliver them with a furrowed brow of confusion and the sense he’s just woken up from a dream about algebra. It’s not entirely his fault, the show has yet to give him much more than exposition duties and a vague medical condition that only gets referenced when needed and ignored when inconvenient. Once more the MVP award goes to Bradley Walsh’s Graham who seems to effortlessly manage comedy and pathos as needed. An initial faux-pas over following directions is played for laughs but the wistful, silent smile he gives when Jake asks him: “Can you imagine what it’s like to be married to someone that impressive?” speaks volumes more than any of the other dialogue – as it’s clear Graham knew that all too well before his wife’s death way back in last season’s premiere).
Whittaker (a great actress with the right material) continues to be lumbered with a script that is 75% inner monologue writ large. To be fair, all the Doctors have a habit of thinking-aloud, but in recent times it’s been a substitute for actual conversation and the verbal equivalent of a get-out-of-jail-free card when a solution is found. It makes reversing the polarity of the neutron flow almost quaint)
The fact that Adam (Matthew Macnulty) and Jake (Warren Fox) are a gay married couple might once have been edgy, but thankfully it’s not treated as anything different from a heterosexual couple. By the end of it they also have blogger Gabrielle (Joana Borja) to hang out with (one can almost hear Big Finish already negotiating for their spin-off audio adventures ). There’s an argument to be made that they’re all more fleshed out than the main companions – though Gabriela Toloi’s Jamila and Thapelo Maropefela Aramu have thankless ‘surplus-to-requirements’ slapped to their collateral damage foreheads and join the pile of the season’s discarded day-players.
The episode is entirely filled with technobabble and some of it clearly nonsensical. The text that Jake gets from Adam – that sends him travelling across the world on the thinnest of whims – is never explained: just how did Adam get from the middle of the Indian Ocean to Hong Kong and how does he have access to Google Maps while being tied to a machine and still in his astronaut suit? The Doctor says that birds are the quickest way to spread a contagion across the planet (and while avian flu seems to be the source code for that, it’s not really as fast or as true as the episode wants and needs it to be in a week when we’re worried about the Coronavirus) and at its climax , the solution is easily manufactured by the Tardis and the cast all assume important essential duties on an alien space-pod with only the briefest of lines suggesting they shouldn’t have a clue what they’re doing. . Moffat’s tenure often required a suspension of disbelief in how things got resolved, but here it’s the entire episode that’s baffling. It’s all wibbly-wobbly, scripty-wipty…
We’ve said that in previous reviews that older fans may simply have to concede that Doctor Who is gearing towards a younger audience with its current run, but that’s not entirely true. From the Spyfall‘s equally-loose globe-trotting aspects, to last week’s mythology-heavy elements (which might have worked better if these two episodes were reversed in order as there’s not a single mention of the canon-roars of a week ago), from the kid-friendly pacing of some episodes to some quite chilling mortuary moments in this week’s story, the current Doctor Who seems to have no consistent idea what audience it’s reaching for, swerving wildly between mining the past and ignoring it… and likely to frustrate even the most loyal fans. Which is a shame… because all the necessary ingredients are there somewhere, it’s just in the mixing and preparation, the half-baked concepts and the undue focus on the flourishes that seem to be sabotaging the run so far.
Doctor Who remains must-see tv – but it isn’t trash-talk to say that week by week it’s more by sheer loyalty rather than quality. I have no desire to see Who fail, but it has got to decide What it wants to be…