It’s always slightly alarming when real-world events catch up with your favourite television show. Especially when your favourite television show is Doctor Who, a sci-fi caper featuring an eccentric alien in rainbow suspenders.
There’s no getting around the ripped-from-the-headlines undertones to the Doctor’s latest adventure, in which she struggles to contain a mysterious pathogen with the potential to devastate humanity. The infection is called Praxeus and the symptoms are nearly as alarming as the Doctor’s fashion sense. They include headaches, an accelerated heartbeat and your skin turning into living rock and then exploding. Obviously not what you want, especially if you have a busy weekend planned.
Chris Chibnall and Pete McTighe who collaborated on the zippy and gripping script, can’t possibly have known that the episode would air the week the World Health Organisation declares the coronavirus a global health emergency. However, it quickly becomes clear that there will be no unnerving parallels to put you off your supper. The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) is soon getting stuck in battling aliens in gas masks and helping an astronaut rekindle his love for his commitment phobic husband. As she does so, the real world retreats comfortably from view.
Praxeus is more than a disease, we learn. It is revenge on humanity for the ravages we have inflicted in the environment. The pathogen is transmitted via birds who swallow detritus in the ocean. When spread to humans, it then actives the “micro plastics” swirling around our bodies. We’re all 24-hour plastic people, essentially, and Praxeus has adapted to make the most of that weakness.
This is slightly convoluted and basically an excuse to have the Doctor and her team be menaced by flocks of feral birds. Huge avian swarms are inherently creepy and it is clever of Chibnall and McTighe to exploit the unease we feel whenever we see hundreds of starlings change direction at once, as if obeying the same silent command.
The plague-in-waiting has been brought to earth by the aforementioned aliens in masks (they’re looking for a cure and are using the planet as a giant petri-dish). They have also kidnapped astronaut Adam Lang (Matthew McNulty). He’s spirited off to Hong Kong, where Whovian side-kicks Yaz (Mandip Gill) and Graham (Bradley Walsh) are investigating “strange energy readings”. There they bump into Lang’s estranged other half Jake (Warren Brown), a stressed police officer who has fallen into a funk while on sabbatical.
Vicious viral vibrations are similarly ongoing in Peru with an annoying travel vlogger falling victim to Praxeus. Her friend is, however, rescued by Ryan (Tosin Cole). In Madagascar the Doctor is, for her part, investigating the disappearance of a submarine. Just a single crewmen has made it out – and is quickly consumed by an aggressive growth of stone crystals before turning to dust.
The outlook is dire – and that’s before Yaz has beamed into the alien base beneath a “pollution gyre” in the Indian ocean. The idea of random junk and debris coming together in a huge whirlpool is one of the most disturbing things in the episode. So it’s slightly disconcerting to discover it’s a real phenomenon.
Still, everything works out in the end. The Doctor rustles up a virus to fight the pathogen. This is unleashed into the atmosphere via the alien spaceship after it is blasted back into orbit by our heroes. With that, the slightly preachy environmental message takes a back seat and the focus turns to the relationship between Adam and Jake, who literally kiss and make up.
To see a science fiction franchise lean into a same sex romance is obviously heartening. That is especially the case in view of the “will this do?” tokenism of the lesbian kiss bunged into the recent Rise of Skywalker. Blink and you missed it – unless you were in Singapore where Disney allowed it to be cut completely. The payoff is that Adam and Jake’s love blooms anew, humanity is saved from a killer bug, the aliens are repelled. And Doctor Who ticks all the boxes in a standalone instalment that ranks as one of the series' finest.
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