The Doctor races against a deadly alien pathogen and some very nasty birds. 
Credit: Ben Blackall/BBC Studios/BBC America

After the breakneck plot twists of “Fugitive of the Judoon,” this week’s Doctor Who is going back to basics. “Praxeus” doesn’t have any unexpected cameos or staggering revelations that upset decades of Gallifreyan lore; instead, writers Pete McTighe and Chris Chibnall have delivered an hour of Who in its simplest form. There are the standard aliens to fight and dots to connect, forcing the Doctor to push the enigmatic Ruth to the back of her mind as she races to unravel the mystery behind an alien pathogen.

But just because “Praxeus” isn’t as flashy as its mid-season predecessor doesn’t make it a dud. The episode zips along at a nimble pace, ping-ponging from continent to continent for a whirlwind adventure. In Peru, Ryan is investigating a mysterious plague affecting the local birds, while Gabriela (Joana Borja) is looking for her missing travel blogger partner Jamila (Gabriela Toloi). Over in Hong Kong, Graham and Yaz’s hunt for a strange energy signature leads them to kidnapped astronaut Adam (Matthew McNulty) and his estranged husband Jake (Warren Brown). And on a beach in Madagascar, the Doctor meets scientists Suki (Molly Harris) and Aramu (Thapelo Maropefela), just in time to watch a marooned submarine crewman wash ashore.

Together, the Doctor and her fam try to figure out what these strange occurrences have in common. The missing link is the pathogen called Praxeus, which infects its hosts and causes them to develop a horrifying skin mutation before literally exploding into dust. Gabriela and Ryan track Jamila to an abandoned Peruvian hospital, just before she succumbs to the pathogen, writhing and twisting in terrifying fashion. (It’s one of the most unpleasant deaths Who has delivered in recent memory.) In a nasty twist, the reason Praxeus is flourishing on Earth is because it thrives on plastic. Our planet is literally littered with it, from the swirling eddies of trash in the Indian Ocean to the tiny pieces in birds’ stomachs. Even we humans are stuffed with tiny micro-plastics we ingest through our food and water.

Ultimately, the Doctor discovers that the pathogen was brought to Earth by an alien crew, almost all of whom have succumbed to the illness. One of the only survivors is Suki, who has been studying its effects on humanity in an attempt to develop a cure.

One of my biggest quibbles with Chibnall’s era so far has been the sheer number of characters in each episode. The TARDIS is already fuller than usual with not one but three regular companions, and each new adventure adds even more. The number of players and the large amount of plot to cover means that some of the episode’s emotional moments feel rushed: Gabriela witnesses Jamila’s deeply disturbing death and seems to recover almost immediately, while Adam and Jake work out years of marital conflict in a few minutes. Most mistreated of all is Suki’s assistant Aramu, who’s killed by Praxeus-infected birds and basically never spoken of again.

But even with its overstuffed cast list and slightly silly plot, there’s a lot to like about “Praxeus.” Jamie Stone returns as director after helming the season premiere “Spyfall,” and this episode has a similarly grand scale, hopping about from location to location. The entire hour looks gorgeous (and expensive!), from the crashed alien ship and the creepy Peruvian hospital to the picturesque Madagascar beaches and the neon-drenched Hong Kong alleys. The many new characters use their limited screen time wisely, and when Jake attempts to sacrifice himself to save Adam and the world, it’s a genuinely moving moment. Ruth and the mystery of the “Timeless Child” may be looming on the horizon, but “Praxeus” proves that in the meantime, the Doctor still has plenty of adventures to embark on and worlds to save.

TARDIS log notes:

  • For a brief moment, the Doctor wonders if Praxeus might be connected to another familiar plastic villain: the Autons. These killer mannequins are plastic brought to life by the ancient alien Nestene Consciousness, first introduced in the Third Doctor storyline “Spearhead from Space.” (They were also the big bad of the Ninth Doctor episode “Rose,” the extremely dated but extremely great premiere of the revival series.)
  • All of the companions have settled into the Doctor’s wild world, but Yaz has grown especially bold and more willing to rush into danger. I love how she almost takes on the role of the Doctor whenever the Doctor isn’t there.
  • The Doctor: “That’s why you smell of dead bird. I thought you’d changed your shower gel.”

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