SERIES 12, EPISODE 6 | WHERE TO WATCH: BBC iPLAYER
[Warning: this review contains spoilers.]
The current series of Doctor Who is pulling out all the stops to tell stories on a global scale; first we had trips to California and Australia in Spyfall, and now this week’s episode sees Team TARDIS investigating alerts of an alien pathogen spanning three continents. Who knew you could do so much on a BBC budget?
We jump back in after the end of Fugitive of the Judoon as the Doctor has sent her team off on their own sub-plots: Ryan is sent to Peru, where he and vlogger Gabriela encounter dangerously infected birds; Graham and Yaz team up with a cop searching for his lost astronaut husband in Hong Kong; and the Doctor finds an infected sailor washed up near a mysterious lab in Madagascar.
The biggest talking point here, like in Orphan 55 from earlier this series, is the environmental message – the alien virus feeds on the plastics than litter the ocean. Unlike in Orphan 55, though, which didn’t really have anything to say until one final tagged-on lecture, this theme is utilised across the various elements of Pete McTighe and Chris Chibnall’s script; it’s developed with every beat of the team’s investigation, it’s directly linked to the ‘monsters’ of the infected birds, and it gives us some creepy – but all too real – settings in the river and ocean gyre infected with masses of plastics. This is how Doctor Who should deal with current issues – not simply shouting a point at us but making the point through integrating it into the story.
This more tightly woven script, with its cutting between multiple settings, as well as Segun Akinola’s seemingly constant but never overbearing score, allows for this global-scale adventure to be about as fast-paced an episode as Who gets; fast enough to stop you questioning the intricacies of the plot, that’s for sure (hang on, what was that submarine all about?). There’s plenty of action, most notably the vicious swarms of birds, though it is a slight disappointment that the alien conspirators uncovered towards the end are yet another race who look exactly like humans – a trope that became irritating across Series 11 but which Series 12 had avoided up until this point, and perhaps a missed opportunity, given the plastic theme, to bring back the Nestene Consciousness for a more exciting climactic confrontation, though its Auton servants do get a mention.
The decision to split up the cast across their various subplots means that, unlike several recent episodes, everyone gets something to do here – there’s much less of the three companions standing around and taking turns to ask “What’s that, Doctor?” In fact, they get so much to do that Yaz feels out of character through not being completely passive; her rash decision to go back into the building where they’ve just been attacked, and her excitement at thinking she’s found an alien planet, fit her original character brief but little of what we’ve seen of her over the past series and a half. Nevertheless, we’d be happy to see more of this adventure-seeking Yaz over the next few episodes; her beginning to see herself more as an equal to the Doctor, and possibly making poor decisions in the process, could be an interesting route to take the character from here.
The standout guest stars of Praxeus are Warren Brown and Adam McNulty as Jake and Adam, the married couple dealing with Jake’s commitment issues as the chaos unfolds. This gives us one of the more touching subplots of the series, most notably the powerful scene in which Graham gives some fatherly advice, with a subtle reference to Graham’s own marriage which shows that this show hasn’t forgotten Grace yet while reminding us what a fantastic actor Bradley Walsh can be when given the right material. This investment in Jake and Adam adds a lot of tension to the episode’s final act, in which it genuinely feels that either of them might not survive; it’s a punch-the-air moment when the Doctor manages to pull Jake from his crashing spaceship, especially because the LGBTQ representation in Chibnall’s Doctor Who so far has been limited to cameo characters who’ve been very quickly killed off (Who can forget the security guard from Resolution? Oh, you had?).
Some of the other guest characters don’t get quite the same quality development; Gabriela (Joana Borja) is in shock after the death of her vlogging partner Jamila (Gabriela Toloi) but one conversation with Ryan seems sufficient for her to forget about this entirely, and her skipping off at the end without mention of her loss seems rather insensitive, while the Madagascan Arumu (Thapelo Maropefela) is also quickly forgotten. Another case of Chibnall’s Who having too many characters for them all to shine, but at least, in this case, some of them do.