My take on this episode may surprise you.
I'll start by saying that I really wish that we could have gotten “Praxeus” in place of “Orphan 55”. If “Orphan 55” had to happen at all, it would have been better for fans to have seen “Praxeus” first as evidence that Series 12 can do better “message” stories than Series 11. But there's more to it than that. In my review of “Orphan 55”, I said that that episode had failed to prove that Series 12 could manage great stand-alone stories outside of big fan-pleasing episodes tied heavily to Whovian continuity. While “Nikola Tesla's Night of Terror” was a very solid, but not gripping, stand-alone, “Praxeus” has the distinction (in my eyes, anyway) of proving that the current season of Doctor Who truly can deliver a high-quality story without relying on any ongoing arcs. Under different circumstances, I think it could have been well-received across the board…but thanks to the timing of its release, it's pretty clear that that's not going to happen.
The Quick & Spoiler-Free Verdict
“Praxeus” is a tightly-plotted, exciting tale that uses the three companions perhaps better than any Thirteenth Doctor story thus far and examines a relevant ecological theme without turning into a sermon. While one or two characters get lost in all the action, and the sci-fi technobabble occasionally trips up the storytelling, the episode manages to remain interesting and to subvert audience expectations. The best non-arc-related installment of Series 12 so far.
What I Didn't Like
While I'm actually a fan of the very scientific bent in the Thirteenth Doctor's characterization, I do feel that it occasionally leads to scenes which run the risk of making the audience feel lost. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for not underestimating the intelligence of viewers, but as was the case with “Tesla's Night of Terror”, there were moments when the science of “Praxeus” got a little too dense. This causes issues when details of the plot rely heavily on the minutiae of that science.
Also, though I liked the side characters in this story, there were perhaps a few too many of them. The redshirting of Aramu was painfully obvious; the rest of the cast practically bid him a wistful farewell before his death scene. Astronaut Adam Lang's plot thread was a little superfluous and rushed, and seemed only present to give Warren Brown's character Jake Willis a reason to be a part of the story. Granted, Brown did a great job in this episode, but perhaps there should have only been one character in this subplot, not two. Adam and Jake's domestic squabbles felt more like a distraction from the main storyline than a worthwhile part of the episode. I get it; the whole point of Praxeus was tying three seemingly unrelated incidents together, but while it sounds good to have three different things going on, I think two would have been ample.
One last thing, which may or may not actually be a criticism. I do find it a little odd that every single episode this year has been set on Earth. That's unusual for Doctor Who. Even Series 11 alternated between alien and terrestrial settings pretty regularly. Now, there may be some kind of arc-related reason for this, so I'm not actually complaining yet…but still, given that the next two episodes are also going to be more or less Earth-bound (apparently), I'm starting to wonder what the thought process behind this was.
What I Did Like
Initially, I thought that we were going to get a “Doctor-lite” episode this week…and I was actually okay with it, since the companions were excellent right from the beginning. Splitting them up and giving them separate missions like this was a brilliant idea, especially since pairing Graham and Yaz finally gave us more of the fun dynamic between them that we saw only a little of in Series 11.
Of course, the Doctor did finally make her entrance–which I loved, by the way. Please give me more of Thirteen running around like a lunatic and yelling in Yorkshire; it's classic. Jodie Whittaker's performance was more on the comedic end of the spectrum than what we've seen from her in previous episodes this year, but the quality of the writing this week was strong enough to make all those funny moments feel worthwhile. Plus, there were a few instances of greater intensity from her as well, especially in her scenes with Yaz. I feel like Yaz and Thirteen have something closer to the traditional Doctor/companion dynamic than either Graham or Ryan have with the Doctor. Just like Clara before her, Yaz is beginning to mimic the Doctor–which, as we know all too well, could end in tragedy. You can see that the Doctor is conflicted between fostering Yaz's independence and protecting her from harm.
So yes, getting to the elephant in the room, the main theme of this episode was plastic pollution. That's a very relevant issue to be discussing, especially in a sci-fi context, but it could have easily gone wrong given the track record of the Chibnall era up until now. Fortunately, it didn't–in my opinion, anyway. The ecological theme was woven cleverly into the story so that it made sense to be talking about it, and it didn't completely rule the storytelling this week or make things predictable. The villains were not evil capitalistic humans; far from it. Even the pollution itself wasn't the actual antagonist of the story, it was just something which the true antagonists exploited. The effects were VERY creepy and well-done here, too.
I have to give a shout-out to Gabriela Camara's excellent performance as Joana Borja in “Praxeus”. She's an extremely likable character with a great knack for sparking off the weirdness of the Doctor and her companions' daily existence. I would be happy if she became a recurring character in future, or better yet, a companion.
Also, while we didn't have any overt references to the big arc stuff going on in Series 12, there was one continuity nod that I really liked. I was so glad that the Doctor name-dropped the Autons. Mainly because last year, there were multiple occasions when certain familiar alien species should have been mentioned in certain contexts, but weren't. It would have been ridiculous for the Doctor to not even think of the Autons while trying to sort out the mystery infection.
I get the impression from what I've seen on social media so far that fans are evenly divided in their opinions on “Praxeus”, and I can understand why. The frustrating thing is that even aside from the poor quality of the last environmental-themed episode we've had this year, there really shouldn't have been two episodes of that nature anyway. It's redundant, and inevitably feels like overt preaching. It annoys me that Chibnall conscripted the two standout writers from Series 11 (Ed Hime, who wrote “Orphan 55”, and Pete McTighe, who co-wrote “Praxeus” with Chibnall) to craft two filler episodes that not only revolve around a message, but roughly the same message. Hime's skills were buried under the weight of his episode's sermonizing this year, though his skills did shine through in a few good scenes here and there. Fortunately, McTighe's talents were given more of a chance to flourish in “Praxeus”. But regardless, I would have liked to see these two guys get a chance to create something more in line with what they wrote in Series 11–great sci-fi stories that didn't try to teach anything at all.
I wish I could say that “Praxeus” was a win for Series 12, but I can't ignore the fact that the bad timing of this story is a massive strike against it. In and of itself, it's not a bad episode. In fact, it's a major improvement on the problems of Series 11, and I personally enjoyed it a great deal. But this is an inopportune moment for the show to double down on anything that even feels preachy. The big reveals last week were equal parts exciting and controversial for the fanbase. What we needed this week was a story that everyone could rally behind. In the wake of “Orphan 55”, “Praxeus” can't help but divide the fans further. Which is a shame, because there's a lot to like in the episode regardless.