Following on from Fugitive of the Judoon was always going to be a hard task. And Praxeus certainly had enough of a mystery to raise it to the bar the previous outing had raised. A missing submarine, birds going crazy in Peru and alien technology operating out of Hong Kong. Then there is a missing navel officer, astronaut and travel vlogger. From the opening moments, the mysteries are piled onto Praxeus and sets up a great premise for a story which sees the TARDIS gang having to split up to investigate. And like Fugitive of the Judoon, it had a memorable guest cast, and plenty of tension and suspense throughout, from the Exorcist-like scene in a hospital to The Birds-like moment in Madagascar. And what helped Praxeus stand out was that it was a stand-alone episode which doesn't feature any extended plot from the overall-arc, though the mystery and tension from the previous episode was annoyingly missing here.
Now I wasn't a big fan of this story but upon finishing it, my first thought was 'poor Orphan 55'. Overall, Series 12 has been a strong series but Orphan 55 really dropped the ball early on but compared to Praxeus, it really sufferers. Unlike Orphan 55, Praxeus actually manages to succeed in its message about the dangers of pollution and climate change and it allows the message to travel throughout the episode rather than just hammering it on at the end. And it proves that its possible to tell a small story with a larger than normal cast, the only exception being poor Aramu, who is killed and no one seems to notice!
What also helped Praxeus was that it focused early enough on what it was going to be about, in this case, Microplastics. I can't help but think that this story might have been a lot better had it featured the Autons or even better, the return of the Sea Devils, but it succeeds in turning the world-wide worry about pollution into a genuine threat. Trying to avoid Microplastics is impossible. Its in the water and the fish, transferred to almost every animal on the planet, though I doubt it would transform itself into the alien-virus it does here, its still meant to be a takeaway from the world's current plastic problem. And its another episode that doesn't really have a happy ending, in terms of the destruction of microplastics. The Doctor might have stopped the virus but even she can't stop humanity from polluting its planet.
At least the first two acts of this episode are quite unsettling. Like I said above, we've got homages to The Exorcist and The Birds, both are images that will go down as some of the more unsettling moments of this series, but where it stumbles slightly in terms of storytelling, it makes up for in character work. Writer Peter McTighe previously penned last series' Kerblam! and once again, he demonstrates a good ability at creating characters. The large TARDIS team has proved to be a problem for other writers but each character gets something helpful to do, from Yaz striking out on her own, to Graham creating an IV drip to save a man's life and Ryan discovering the plastic problem. And like the rest of the series, there is a large guest cast, but unlike some of the episodes so far, McTighe makes sure they all serve some function to the plot. And the Doctor wastes no time in delegating tasks to everyone.
Ryan finds travel-vlogger, Gabrielle on a plastic-strewn beach when her friend disappears, while Graham and Yaz meet up with English policeman, Jake, who is looking for his husband in abandoned warehouses in Hong-Kong. All the while, the Doctor finds the missing navel officer on a beach in Madagascar. All of the introductions are handled swiftly and none outstay their welcome. Plus McTighe and Chibnall aren't afraid to mess around with the initial team-ups as Yaz and Gabrielle waste no time in becoming 'the Doctor and companion', when they agree to go off on their own for much of the adventure.
I think that Gabrielle will easily enter the Doctor Who mythos as one of those characters who would have been great as a companion, mainly down to actress, Joana Borja's excellent performance. Between her love of travel and wanting to solve the mystery of the episode, it isn't hard to see another universe where this was her introduction story. But her character has some weak story elements too, mainly how quickly she got over the death of her friend. But if the Chibnall era has taught us anything its that that its impossible for a companion to not get over things quickly.
For me though, I think the heart of this episode lies with Jake and husband and astronaut, Adam. At about halfway through, the episode allows itself a moment to breathe with Jake and Graham opening up to the pressures of being married to something they think is better than them. For Jake, that's something that's slightly upset him, for Graham, Grace gave her life to save the day, though he blames himself as he believes he put her in that position in the first place. And while Adam does little than lie around and possibly die from the Praxeus virus, he does have some nice character moments both with Jake and the Doctor.
Following the initial broadcast, the characters and handling of Jake and Adam's characters was rightly universally praised. Since it returned in 2005, Doctor Who had quite a lowkey approach to LGBTQ+ characters, and though this episode twice plays with the idea that one of them might die, McTighe rightly avoids the 'Bury Your Gays' trope over television shows have fallen into and gave them both a happy ending.
Praxeus is far from a perfect episode. Who sent a text from Adam's phone to Jake? And what was the larger mystery surrounding Gabrielle's friends disappearance? The third act was much weaker, but it doesn't feel like a trade-off for the stronger aspects of the episode. Perhaps this is because of the questions it does throw up and it does have some meaty aspects for viewers to chew upon. The alien race using Earth as a testing ground for a Praxeus vaccine forces us to look at how we conduct scientific research, and the Doctor is quick to point out that everyone should be working together. The real downfall of this alien threat was that the scientists weren't trusting enough.
So following on from Fugitive of the Judoon was always going to be a tall-order, especially for a standalone episode. Between Doctor Ruth, the Master, Captain Jack, the Timeless Child and Lone Cyberman, this series has a lot to handle and wrap up. But looking at Praxeus on its own merits allows us to see what Doctor Who can do in terms of delivering a powerful message in a way that's handled correctly.