Friday, July 19, 2024

Characters Are in Focus in “Praxeus”

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Last week Doctor Who shocked viewers with “Fugitive of the Judoon” so both the Doctor and the audience get a bit of a break from the intensity as the second half of the season begins. “Praxeus” is once again co-written by showrunner Chris Chibnall and Pete McTighe returns to write for Thirteen once more. The result is an entertaining episode with a good concept that takes the time to develop the main characters and introduces likable new ones.

Alien pathogens

The eponymous plastic-loving bacteria is behind the main concept of the episode. Peru, Madagascar, Hong Kong, the Indian Ocean, the whole planet is connected by the infected birds who carry Praxeus. Alien bacteria is not a new concept in sci-fi but Doctor Who uses it to tell an intriguing story. There’s also, once again, a moral of the story, although it’s considerably less clumsy than “Orphan 55″ was a few weeks ago.

Thirteen’s era so far has been full of important messages about our society and how we do things, ranging from a half-hearted warning about technology in “Spyfall” to a poignant story about racism in “Rosa”. It’s never been particularly elegant or subtle in its handling of these topics. Admittedly, it shouldn’t have to be because what the writers are trying to say is, for the most part, important and relevant to our present. “Praxeus” makes it clear that pollution poses a great threat to the planet, alien bacteria or not. Again, not elegant in how it gets the message across but it is worth talking about.

It’s also a relief that the message doesn’t come at the cost of the story itself and, perhaps more importantly, at the cost of the characters. “Praxeus” manages to strike a balance that not many episodes in these last two seasons achieved. It combines an interesting concept with a story to tell and makes its case through compelling characters. Two of the best episodes of series 11, “Rosa” and “Demons of the Punjab” also managed to tell their story because they didn’t forget the importance of characters. If the failure of “Orphan 55″ was its ambition and lack of relatable characters to illustrate its point, the same mistakes are not repeated here.

“Praxeus” is not particularly ambitious in what it aims to achieve and that might just be why it succeeds. It’s a slower and quieter episode after last week’s bombshell and it doesn’t rely too heavily on the moral it’s trying to get across. That makes Praxeus the bacteria work as an idea, it achieves what it sets out to achieve. Alien pathogens that feed on plastic, including microplastics found in humans. It’s quite simple yet it works for this episode and makes for some ominous shots of birds circling in the sky and humans transforming from inside out. Because of this, the episode also avoids having a real villain for the Doctor to face. Well, as it turns out there’s Suki (Molly Harris) and her crew who brought Praxeus to Earth in the first place, but they’re somewhat sympathetic after the Doctor sees the whole picture.

Grumpy husbands and others roaming

Speaking of, there were plenty of interesting side characters this week, including Suki. It was delightful to see Thirteen geek out about science with someone, right before the betrayal came. But like I said, Suki isn’t a “true” villain. She was just looking for a way to save her own people and introduced alien bacteria to Earth in the process. The Doctor’s sadness when Suki succumbs to Praxeus feels real because of their previous scenes. We could have spent even more time with Suki but we had quite a large cast and four locations to deal with, and what we did get was enough to create a sympathetic if misguided and tragic character.

Another character we meet in “Praxeus” is Gabriela (Joana Borja), one half of “Two Girls Roaming”. The other half, best friend Jamila (Gabriela Toloi) dies early on so we don’t get to see too much of their friendship but Gabriela stays alive and helps the fam save the day. At first, it seemed like we were getting team-ups between Team TARDIS members and guest characters, and Gabriela got Ryan. This duo worked well, especially their scene sitting in the TARDIS, but then in an interesting choice, Gabriela decided to go explore with Yaz. This was significant in how it gave us a glimpse into where Yaz’s character is going and didn’t really do much for Gabriela’s character but it was an interesting dynamic nonetheless.

The two most impactful guest characters were husbands Jake (Warren Brown) and Adam (Matthew McNulty). Jake had a strong introduction as an overzealous security guard/ ex-cop and his relationship with Adam was explored in impressive detail, considering everything else going on. Brown’s Jake gets a quiet and touching scene with Graham before hell breaks loose and it’s one of the highlights of the episode. It’s a great moment for Graham, as someone who lost a spouse, to be able to give advice to a struggling husband. It’s also a fascinating insight into the lives of these two new characters that we’ll probably never see again yet we still care about them for these 50 minutes. It’s the combination of good dialogue, strong acting and a refreshingly casual but serious portrayal of a queer couple.

It really is great to see two husbands on-screen and for their problems to be so relatable. It’s not the tragic story of discrimination and homophobia, them being queer is not the issue. Instead, their marriage has problems like any other would and they grow during the course of the episode just like the other characters. More so, actually. They arguably develop more than most of the characters who only appear in one episode. All of this shouldn’t be revolutionary for two gay characters and it isn’t but there’s still something great about seeing Jake and Adam find each other again. They even survive the events of the episode, after a scare for both of them. Apart from Jack and Ianto in Torchwood (which is technically a different show), this is the first example of such representation of two gay men that I can think of in DW. It’s wholesome and I’m here for it.

The only issue I have in terms of guest characters in “Praxeus” is Arumu’s (Thapelo Maropefela) treatment. He started off with potential but was soon cast aside as the one to keep an eye on the birds and sure enough, he’s the one they get to when they attack. It just seems like a waste to get rid of one of the characters so lazily. It also raises questions as to whether he knew what Suki was really doing or what his deal was. When you have this many new characters, some won’t survive and that’s fine. It’s a shame that Jamila was killed off so early on but it served a purpose. With Arumu, it just feels like the writers didn’t have anything for him so they had him on birdwatch until it was time to die.

The fam at it again

Despite the attention that the side characters got, or perhaps precisely because there was a bigger focus on character, Team TARDIS got a bigger focus than in previous weeks. The Doctor herself got a well-deserved break from traumatic events relating to the Time Lords and it was good to see Thirteen like this again. Not that I mind that series 12 is pushing her but there’s something so pure about Jodie Whittaker going on about a talking cat in Ontario. This is still Doctor Who so there are some people she can’t save but it’s a decidedly triumphant moment when she manages to catch Jake with the TARDIS.

As for her companions, the fam finally gets more well-deserved screentime. It was quite understandable that they were sidelined last week but it’s good to spend more time with them and to do so through guest characters. As mentioned, Ryan’s small scene with Gabriela was a definite highlight. In general, Ryan seems more capable and confident than he used to be and more comfortable taking the lead. He has the tendency to be reduced to “the funny one” but Ryan’s used much more efficiently when he’s both witty and an active member of the team. He still has his banter with Graham but gets to be more than that.

Graham usually balances between funny and heartfelt better than Ryan and he had that once again. I underestimated Bradley Walsh when he first started playing Graham but he’s been excelling. Like I said, his conversation with Jake is one of the best scenes and does as much for him as it does for Jake. I also appreciated that he and Yaz started the episode together. The Sinclair-O’Brien banter is delicious but it was great seeing Yaz and Graham in action, and we got the single funniest moment of the season so far out of this pairing.

Yaz herself is quite possibly the most interesting of them all. As the one who most fits the traditional idea of a companion, we’ve been waiting to see where her arc is going. It seems as of “Praxeus” that she’s taking more and more risks to impress the Doctor, to be like the Doctor. In fact, her adventure with Gabriela played out as Yaz got a companion of her own. The Doctor trusts her and her instincts are strong but one can’t help but wonder where all of this is going. There have been small but potentially important pieces of foreshadowing regarding Yaz. It’d be more than unfortunate if she were to meet a gruesome end but it does seem like she’s heading… somewhere.

“Praxeus” is far from being as monumental an episode as “Fugitive of the Judoon” was but it doesn’t need to be. It’s a more character-focused story with a simple premise that achieves what it sets out to do. I suppose Praxeus itself could have been more complex or threatening but as it is, this is a perfectly fine standalone episode. It gives our main characters space (and time) to breathe and introduces some new faces. It’s beginning to look like Chris Chibnall is better as a co-writer for standalone episodes rather than doing them on his own, which is good news since he’s also contributing to the upcoming “Can You Hear Me?”. Co-writing with Chibnall is Charlene James and they’re taking us to medieval Aleppo. A good sign since historical episodes of the Thirteenth Doctor have been working out so far.

Images courtesy of the BBC

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