This week’s Doctor Who, “Praxeus,” was the polar opposite of last week’s “Fugitive of the Judoon.” Pete McTighe and Chris Chibnall don’t seek to change all of history or all of Doctor Who. Instead, they deliver a damn good standalone story packed with mystery, action, romance, and an actual resolution.
Doctor Who (Series 12)
Jamie Magnus Stone (director), Pete McTighe and Chris Chibnall (writers)
Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, and Mandip Gill (cast)
February 2, 2020
Last season most stories felt small-scale and personal whereas this season has leaned instead towards “cinematic” globe-trotting adventures. “Praxeus” is no exception, with the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and company (Mandip Gill, Tosin Cole, and Bradley Walsh) traveling between multiple continents and countries to investigate the mysterious disease called Praxeus. A large guest cast moves the main characters through a story that feels fresh and intriguing but not disorienting. There are a few different baddies, and each has a creepy and memorable design, from gas mask scientists to frenzied birds to the uniquely disturbing Praxeus victims.
Last week, I said I couldn’t remember if Jack Harkness was the first openly queer Chibnall character, but he might well be. A close friend and fellow queer Doctor Who fan corrected me: Jack wasn’t the first queer character in the Chibnall era, but he was the first to live through a story. That said, I was terrified throughout this story — not because of the story’s mystery, but because the central guest characters Adam (Matthew McNulty) and Jake (Warren Brown) are a married gay couple, and the story alternates between one of them being in peril throughout, as the Doctor and company help both men try to save their husband. Both McNulty and Brown deliver compelling passionate performances, making them one of the best couples in Doctor Who history. There’s actual queer romance and representation at the heart of this story in a way that warmed my heart. I shouldn’t have to be thankful that none of the queer people in this story died horribly, and I’m not thankful for that. But it was genuinely exciting to see Jake and Adam kiss and embrace as the story concluded. Wholesome queer representation like that is still all too rare in television, not just Doctor Who.
Both Mandip Gill and Jodie Whittaker really shine in this story. Yaz has more agency in this story than ever before. She goes off on her own, gets her own guest companion, discovers new locations and clues, and makes her own choices even in spite of the Doctor. She also experiences a wide range of emotions, from horror to excitement to frustration and disappointment. Yaz feels like her own Doctor, and it’s heartwarming to see her character grow in the way she should. In other stories, her actions are often sidelined to highlight the Doctor or the central mystery, but McTighe and Chibnall balance multiple plots and characters here in a way that leaves her feeling like a major character in her own right, not just a “companion” for the adventure.
The Doctor rightfully condemns the ultimate villain Suki (Molly Harris) for testing on humans without their consent, but still seeks to end the pandemic. Suki accidentally dies by her own hand, not thinking before her excited consumption of the antidote. This neatly wraps up the story and gives a partially tragic end without making any of our heroes look bad. It’s like a Star Trek: Next Generation ending, where the story sets up a problem and neatly resolves it within 45 minutes. Every story doesn’t need that, but it works well here, and it’s a welcome surprise in a season filled with prolonged arcs and mysteries.
Too often, Whittaker’s Doctor has been either too cruel or too passively forgiving towards her villains, in stories like “Arachnids in the UK” or “Kerblam!” Here, the Doctor is neither cruel nor cowardly, and acts out of a genuine interest to save humanity as a whole, not ignoring the larger ramifications. The Doctor and the story both acknowledge Suki’s point that humanity has an over-reliance on plastics that leaves us vulnerable, even if the real threat isn’t coming from aliens and astronauts. Still, this story is just as much a parable about plastic or the environment as it a lovely gay romance, or a story of the Doctor and her friends outwitting an evil alien foe. In that way, “Praxeus” feels wonderfully current and seamlessly constructed. Everything works, for once.