Doctor Who Review: Praxeus

doctor who review praxeus jamie magnus stone chris chibnall pete mctighe jodie whittaker mandip gill

Seven billion lives. Separate, and connected, from the edge of the atmosphere to the depths of the ocean.

It says a lot about how little I trust Pete McTighe after last time that those opening lines had me worried the Doctor was suddenly going to start advocating Malthusian population control measures. But she didn’t! Sure, the framing monologue itself was rubbish – it’s only nominally connected to the actual content of the episode itself, probably more befitting a butterfly-effect narrative a la The Pyramid at the End of the World – but, given the Doctor didn’t explicitly come out in favour of anything actively evil this go around, we can probably call it a wash.

I joke, of course, but that sort of “well, yes, but” despite itself sentiment largely prevails across the episode – a story which, caveats aside, is actually I guess probably one of my favourites of the Chibnall era, and certainly of this series. Which I can’t say I was expecting after Ker-blam! (There’s an obvious comparison to be made between another debut episode I disliked, and the same writer’s subsequent offerings that I rather did, but I’ll elide that for the moment. Points if you can guess what I have in mind though, I suppose.) Anyway, damning with faint praise or not, I was reasonably fond of Praxeus. As with Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror, I imagine I’d be inclined to be more critical of it any of it any other year – for the moment, though, there’s a lot to appreciate about an episode that manages to get the basics right.

For the most part, Praxeus is an episode that’s comfortable in itself, one of the first episodes that feels like a ‘year two’ piece in a meaningful sense. Where Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror or Orphan 55 might quite easily have found a spot in a twelve-episode Series 11, there’s a sense about Praxeus that some lessons have been learned. The growing pains are gone: it balances the large guest cast that is, for some reason, a staple of the Chibnall-era better than most; it’s more assured in its exposition (no small feat – contrast the Doctor just showing up in each location, accompanied only by the TARDIS sound effect, with the level of hand-holding needed to explain each sci-fi contrivance in any other given episode); it manages to be touch on modern concerns, and indeed actually be about something, without relying on awkward, almost extra-diegetic proselytising. There is, perhaps, something to be said for McTighe’s own showrunning experience here – he’s a writer who, if nothing else, very much knows what he’s doing.

(Which, incidentally, raises an interesting question about Chibnall’s cowriting credit. McTighe is exactly the sort of experienced screenwriter that Russell T Davies wouldn’t have rewritten at all – a Steven Moffat, Matthew Graham, Stephen Greenhorn, and indeed Chris Chibnall type screenwriter – so it’s not, presumably, simply Chibnall being more inclined to take a credit for the work his predecessors did unrecognised. At the same time, though, there are no obvious moments – or wider, arc-related signifance – that stands out about Praxeus; it’s a fairly easy bit of archaeology to assume that Chibnall wrote the scenes with Captain Jack in Fugitive of the Judoon, and provided at least a steering hand on the Jo Martin scenes. So, anyway: curious.)

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Granted, though, that comfort obscures some flaws. Sometimes, clarity is sacrificed for momentum – not a huge problem when it’s fridge logic plot details like how exactly Adam texted Jake, but rather more so when it’s a question of emotional clarity, like Gabriela mourning her friend’s death right up until she seemingly just sort of forgets about it. The environmental message is fumbled somewhat when the blame is placed on an alien pathogen rather than human action. It’s difficult to care about Jake’s almost-sacrifice, given how trite and contrived that trope so often is. The direction lets the episode down, never quite managing to really push the idea that this is what a particularly frantic day looks like for the Doctor, trying to be everywhere at once. Jodie Whittaker is mostly on autopilot; every Doctor has an episode like that, and she more or less manages, but there are a few moments where it really stands out. When she eventually leaves the part, I don’t know that we’ll be sad her tenure is over, but that rather that it never really began – I can’t quite think of what we might point to as Whittaker’s Dalek, The Girl in the Fireplace, The Doctor’s Wife, or Heaven Sent. That’s a shame, really, no matter how you look at it.

Yet I’m finding it hard to summon the enthusiasm to stick the knife into Praxeus particularly. Yes, any other year, this episode is going to be something like The Idiot’s Lantern or Knock Knock – the middle of the road piece where, you know, there’s certainly something to be said of them, but they’re never going to be the most compelling, or most polarising, of their respective series. It’s the 6/10, ‘pleasantly surprising when you rewatch it a few years later but nothing special’ episode. Which is fine! Not every episode can be Love & Monsters or Hell Bent – and I’ve been deliberate in choosing episodes that I know some people will have quite different opinions on. No, it’s not great that it looks like Praxeus is going to be one of the highlights of Series 12 is, almost by default. But I wrote a review bemoaning the wider state of Series 12 a few weeks ago; I don’t need to write another. (Especially because I suspect I eventually will, so the longer I can put that off, the better.) I suppose, had Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror and Praxeus been swapped in the running order, I’d have been decidedly more positive about the former, and more inclined to criticise Praxeus.

And, hey, there’s still a lot to like about Praxeus. Tosin Cole in particular had a good week, offering a more confident, mature take on Ryan – the slightly Doctor-ish, three-quarter length coat an especially nice touch to reflect that. It’s a neat premise too: I love it when Doctor Who is big, expansive, and worldwide, and outside of New Earth we’ve not really done alien viruses in the new series. The romantic plotline between Jake and Adam was surprisingly touching, too, and a welcome effort from an era that’s really struggled with its promised LGBT representation. And Bradley Walsh’s quiet, wordless smile on the beach in that scene with Jake is surely some of his best work on Doctor Who yet. Plus, a lot of the jokes are good too. So, sure, why not.

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Of course, it’s not just Tosin Cole and Bradley Walsh who did well in Praxeus – let’s just pause for a moment and imagine Mandip Gill reading the script for this episode, a single, solitary tear rolling down her face, overjoyed and (ironically) speechless that Yaz, finally, miraculously, at last has something to do.

Embarrassingly, actually (though you be the judge as to whether I should be embarrassed, or Chibnall et al) when Yaz displayed a hitherto unseen personality this week, I assumed it was a function of the plot – like, the computer panel was exerting some alien influence on her, and we were supposed to notice her sudden flash of independence and see it as cause for concern. Not so, thankfully, but it says a lot that, for a moment at least, that felt like the natural reading of that scene. So rare is it for Yaz to actually have something to do, and for Mandip Gill to play a line as anything other than earnest, that Praxeus arguably might well be a better story for the character than her nominal spotlight episodes, Arachnids in the UK and Demons of the Punjab.

Yaz has always been a bit of a problem companion – not particularly connected to Grace’s death, the catalyst for Series 11’s emotional arc, nor the big name actor everyone’s keen to write for (or, alternatively, who has a contractually obliged number of lines per episode) – and Mandip Gill, unlike Tosin Cole, isn’t a strong enough actor to make an impression despite being underserved by the material. At times, actually, she’s been such a non-entity it’s felt like there’s some merit to the occasionally vaunted idea that Yaz wasn’t part of the initial plan for Series 11 – either added later when Chibnall realised the gender balance of the regulars was a little off, or when Vinay Patel pitched a partition episode. It’s unlikely, of course (though perhaps notable that ‘Yasmin Khan’ shares a name with a prolific partition era historian), but it speaks volumes that the character plausibly could be excised without making much difference.

Little about Yaz’s role in Praxeus feels like it follows on from her presence in prior episodes – I mean, certainly, “independent and resourceful” is something you might expect of Yaz, given her introduction in The Woman Who Fell to Earth, but it hardly chimes with The Tsuranga Conundrum or Resolution. But then, you know, who cares? Praxeus feels like a glimpse into another universe – the middle of the road episode from a genuinely very good series, where Mandip Gill got to play this version of the character all the time. As it is, this middle of the road episode feels like something genuinely quite significant by virtue of the stories around it – and, after complaining so much about how little Mandip Gill gets to do, it’d perhaps be remiss of me not to celebrate Yaz finally starting to resemble an actual character.

Related:

Doctor Who series 12 reviews

Doctor Who series 11 overview

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Doctor Who Review: Spyfall (Part One)

doctor who review spyfall part one jodie whittaker chris chibnall sacha dhawan the master lenny henry wayne yip

I did say look for the spymaster. Or should I say spy… Master?

There’s something strikingly anonymous about this, as has been the case with much of Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who work.

When Chibnall was first announced as the new Doctor Who showrunner, I spent a while reading some of the interviews he’d given over the years, trying to pick up on some sense of his taste, the eras of the show he liked and disliked, anything that might prove to influence him. There was surprisingly little, in the end – the exception, of course, being that infamous video of teenage Chibnall on Points of View complaining about Trial of a Time Lord. I’ve never been able to bring myself to watch the whole thing – it’s too skin-crawlingly awkward – but, ironically enough, the excerpt I did watch acts as a fairly damning critique of his own first series, which, as we’ve established, never quite lived up to its potential.

Still, though. It’s not that having a history of hot takes about Doctor Who is a prerequisite for the job – at some point, it’ll probably become necessary to have a showrunner who isn’t a fan particularly – but that I never really got the sense that Chibnall had a particularly strong vision for the series. That, largely speaking, has been borne out on screen too: there’s something a little anonymous about it, a little impersonal. Compared to his predecessors, Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat, or the people who might once have held the top job instead of him, like Mark Gatiss or Toby Whithouse, it’s hard to get to grips with what Chibnall thinks Doctor Who is or what its for, or indeed what stories he’d like to tell with the show.

It feels, even now, fairly easy to describe what a Mark Gatiss-led version of Doctor Who would look like: quite traditional in many ways, motivated by a lot of Gatiss’ own idiosyncratic nostalgia, likely a few Gothic touches, so on and so forth. It’s much more difficult, though, to do the same for Chris Chibnall – even despite having watched a full series of the show under his stewardship. Yes, you can highlight the nods to the Davies era with relative ease, but it doesn’t feel especially as though Series 11 revealed much about Chibnall’s own individual concerns or interests – and Spyfall is much the same again.

doctor who review spyfall part one jodie whittaker james bond chris chibnall wayne yip lenny henry

It isn’t, for what it’s worth, anonymous in the same way that The Rise of Skywalker was: that was anodyne and hollow, cynically sycophantic in both content and construction. Spyfall is nowhere near so egregious – if nothing else, there’s actually a lot to like here, even if it is difficult to get to grips with it properly.

It’s better than a lot of series 11, certainly. The spy pastiche is a clever milieu to ground Doctor Who in, especially for what is at least nominally a New Year’s Day special; it’s a fun bit of genre-hopping, and crashing Doctor Who into a James Bond movie is self-evidently a good idea (much as I might’ve wished it had a slightly more coherent understanding of which sort of spying it was trying to be about – laser shoes are fun, extra-judicial assassinations are not). If nothing else, it’s more effective than its most obvious Capaldi-era antecedent, The Return of Doctor Mysterio, finding a lot more fun in the spy pastiche than Doctor Mysterio did with its comic book equivalent. Spyfall is well directed, too, featuring the debut of Jamie Magnus Stone, who’ll be returning once more later in the series. That said, though, it still feels wanting at times. For all the fun that Stone, Segun Akinola and Lenny Henry are clearly having with it, the episode is often oddly disconnected from the genre it’s aping – to the point that it drops out of the genre entirely in the middle, pausing to introduce the alien of the week without making a great deal of effort to tie the two plotlines together.

Spyfall seems, in short, as though it’s simply assembling a ticklist of tropes and signifiers into a series of set pieces, rather than presenting any meaningful perspective of its own. Yes, the episode gestures at the malign influence of multinational tech companies, but that never really registers as genuine critique or commentary. Undeniably, it’s better than Ker-blam! last year, but in the end it’s just throwaway: there’s no sense that Spyfall wants to be about something. Here, then, is how Chibnall’s Doctor Who feels anonymous and impersonal. Not because it’s constructed, especially – though it is much easier to pick up on Chibnall’s populist interests than his creative ones – but because it doesn’t especially feel like it has anything to say.

Which isn’t to say it’s bad, exactly, because it isn’t. Indeed, Spyfall is an episode of Doctor Who that feels properly at ease with itself in a way the series hasn’t for quite some time; it feels like the show has found its footing again, found its sense of humour. There are some genuinely nice touches – I loved that bit with the Doctor working on the TARDIS like a car at a garage – but those nice touches punctuate something that, as a whole, continues to be difficult to get to grips with.

doctor who review spyfall part one sacha dhawan master o missy michelle gomez chris chibnall wayne yip waris hussein

What’s perhaps most telling, with respect to questions of Chibnall’s vision, is that cliffhanger.

Series 11 studiously avoided references to the past, or the return of old monsters. That, I’m inclined to say, was probably Chibnall’s best instinct. This year, though, we’ve got the return of the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Judoon, and now the Master – and it’s surely not out of the question that there might be more we don’t know about yet. It’s such a complete turnaround it’s hard not to wonder what prompted it: genuine desire to engage with and reinvent old favourites? A belief that, actually, Doctor Who should always feature old monsters, but not immediately after introducing a new Doctor? Or perhaps throwing things at the wall to see what might stick?

Certainly, it feels early to be bringing back the Master. Yes, it’s been the better part of three years since The Doctor Falls, but in terms of the show itself, it’s only been about twelve episodes – there were forty-four episodes between John Simm’s last appearance as the Master in The End of Time and Michelle Gomez’ first in Deep Breath (or fifty-five, if you’re more inclined to count her first appearance as Dark Water). It feels early because it is early. Bringing the character back so soon – and, indeed, bringing the character back as a man, despite how exciting it might’ve been to see, say, Indira Varma or Ruth Wilson in the role – is, I think, reason for pause. So too is how much of a throwback the character seems here, worlds away from where Michelle Gomez’ arc as the Master ended. It speaks to a limited conception of the character on Chibnall’s part, if nothing else.

Nonetheless, I’m immediately inclined to like Sacha Dhawan’s Master. I like Dhawan as an actor – he’s one of the few male actors I’d be interested in seeing as the Doctor – and he acquits himself admirably here. It’s a great performance, with an impressive, erratic physicality to it; it’s also more than strong enough to hide some of the sloppiness of the reveal itself, Dhawan making it look like the Master is desperate to reveal himself to the Doctor, obscuring how contrived that dialogue about sprinting really is.

Ultimately, then, Spyfall suggests a stronger series its predecessor. It has a lot of the same flaws, yes – Mandip Gill still seems to be struggling to find a note for Yaz beyond earnest, and I wish they’d tried to tie her fear she’d died to her rarely mentioned faith – but there is a degree more confidence to it, there is a degree more wit to it, and I had a degree more fun with it. The real question, I suppose, is if we’ll ever get a clearer picture of Chris Chibnall’s vision – and what that vision will prove to be.

Related:

Doctor Who series 12 reviews

Doctor Who series 11 overview

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