Praxeus is one of those episodes of Doctor Who that feels pretty eerie in hindsight. Airing just a couple of months before the beginning of this global pandemic thing you might have heard about, it’s the story of a disease sweeping the planet, that’s impact is exacerbated by our modern culture of mass consumption and industry, bringing people around the globe together to face it.
Part 1: Allegory on Another Planet
McTighe’s previous episode, the universally loved and barely even controversial Kerblam!, last series, was Doctor Who’s most recent entry into the sci-fi staple of ‘What If Contemporary Political Issue in Space?’ tackling questions of automation, monopolisation, fatal labour conditions through its Amazon stand-in, the all-in-one unistore of Kerblam! whose moon-mounted mega-warehouse is the setting of the story. As is traditional, the veil here is intentionally paper-thin, with recent headline horror stories presented as an actual horror story, wherein the wellbeing of the floor workers is so unimportant that their disappearances go unnoticed and unspoken to as not clog the cogs of the machine and slow production. This is contrasted with the company’s manufactured, plastic, fitter, happier, outfacing corporate persona, embodied by the stuck-smiling Kerblam Men who grinning, faceless represent the corporation who don’t dirty their feet in the actual workplace, and strictly control the time and behaviour of the workers while dispensing all the little platitudes that they have to to be legally considered ‘polite’.
The episode is also, flatly, evil in its conclusion, resolving that the violence worth worrying about is coming from murderous labour activists, and that while the corporation could stand to be a little nicer, it’s not fundamentally in the wrong and there is no need for fundamental change, apparently, instead, advocating for a scaling back of automation and an expansion of the indentured servitude program.
But this has all been said a million times before, and will be again forever. Kerblam! is crazy wrongheaded, what else is new? What more needs saying in the year of our lord 2021.
Well, I think this speaks to a problem in these kinds of stories in general.
It’s easy to read Kerblam! as malicious, and this could well be an uncompromised expression of McTighe’s views (just look at his power-mad use of the Collection Boxset trailers to, one by one, make every Classic companion a CEO. I’m disgusted! Digusted, I say!) but even then, the conclusion of this episode is still too confused to be properly politically comprehensible — even the simplest reading that “murder to make a point is wrong” is contradicted by the Doctor’s support of the Kerblam! computer doing exactly to Kira what Charlie is to other workers. And the root of this confusion is a failure of allegory.
Kerblam! is the first and currently only story of the era to not just be set on another world, but to actually be set within its culture and politics, which is surprisingly rare for Doctor Who in recent years, with the revival’s 40-50 minute runtime far favouring space stations, recently colonies, and abandoned places, which all have much fewer moving pieces. And the world of Kerblam!, this corporate warehouse moon in service-orbit around the planet Kandoka (good name), is essential to holding the premise together, but otherwise elusive. An Amazon allegory as direct as this naturally requires a world that resembles ours, but the exaggeration that makes this satire forces it to divorce. See how Lee Mack’s character describes a familiar, emotionally resonant situation:
LEE MACK’S CHARACTER: Twice a year, I splurge on an economy shuttle. Rest of my wages I put away for her education. I do this job so she doesn’t end up like her dad. […] At least I’m working. Unlike half the galaxy. Suppose we’ve only got ourselves to blame. Whilst we were busy staring at our phones, technology went and nicked our jobs.
And compare to the exposition that lays the ground for the sci-fi satire side of the equation:
DOCTOR: What I don’t understand is, why does Kerblam need people as a workforce? These are automated and repetitive tasks. Why not get the robots to do it?
KIRA: Kandokan labour laws. Ever since the People Power protests, companies have to make sure a minimum ten percent of the workforce are actual people, at all levels. Like the slogan says, real people need real jobs. Work gives us purpose, right?
These two moments set out contradictory explanations of why the world of Kerblam! is as it is: Kira’s explanation suggests that the only reason there are still human workers is our existential need for “purpose” that labouring fulfils, nodding at a post-scarcity societal set-up, knocking against Lee Mack’s portrait of financial desperation. One relates to the real-world, where the other justifies the extremities of the allegory that make this an episode of Doctor Who, and together, they undermine the idea that there’s any material reality on which the story’s world is built. The central political drama of the episode — whether or not automation is the equivalent of workers being picked off by the monster of the week — is nonsense without that understanding of the politics outside the warehouse, because while the episode is focussed on the practices and policies of Kerblam!, these aren’t things that can or will ever be fixed by or within a corporation, but are larger, problems resulting from the structure of a society we don’t know anything about, and so the episode simply doesn’t have the scope to talk about them.
Automation, labour rights, private ownership, violent activism are all separate, but connected, from the moon’s packing stations to the vague status of the planet below. Context is vital to talking about any of them coherently because if their world is anything like ours, the causes and effects of these issues both exist on an unrelentingly global scale.
The other side of that, of course, is that you’re then left trying to tell a story with the breadth of the whole anthropocene, and that’s no easier.
Part 2: Global Scale Storytelling
Global scale storytelling is a through-line of S12, which started with the international, interdimensional invasion of Spyfall, and follows with an episode set in post-apocalyptic Siberia, then one about a Serbian inventor in America, and still yet to come we have segments in ancient Syria, Geneva, Ireland, and then it’s bookended by another world-spanning thriller in the special. Over the series, too, we have this recurring image of planetary destruction, and the dangling threat of planetary deconstruction, through the Gallifrey series arc/finale teases, reflected in the other episodes. And I know that “going to different places” and “the possible end of the world” are very much the bread and butter of Doctor Who, but it’s especially pronounced here, between Orphan 55, Can You Hear Me?, and Praxeus. Last series, too, had a refreshing geography in the stand-out vistas of Desolation (only nice thing I’ve ever said about The Ghost Monument, write it down) to the Punjab region, Norwegian fjords, and wherever those single scene cut-aways in Resolution were supposed to be set, and this time around, those have developed into a style which sees TARDIS continent-hopping within a story as a regular feature. With this broadening scope is a broadening of thematic focus, too.
There’s an interesting clash of perspectives going on here, where the series is well aware of the international connected-ness of its issues, for example in Spyfall‘s historical recurring echoes of fascism and Ascension of the Cybermen‘s universal refugee story, but fails to draw these out to any substantive, systemic conclusions. More than fails; refuses. As we mentioned, Orphan 55 and Tesla’s Terror both set the burden of these issues on the shoulders of individuals. Spyfall declares that “darkness never sustains” as if the defeat of the Nazis was a historical inevitability that we need not worry ourselves with the practical details of. Again, amateriality rears its head. But here we see a version of it that might well work.
Praxeus is a global story about two men, which begins with a short conjecture that everything and everyone on the planet is interconnected, set up by last week’s extremely lame “alerts across multiple continents,” hook (in the era’s tradition of extremely lame “seven whole distress signals from one planet” hooks) and by introducing apparently disconnected characters across the planet, but which quickly collapses down into a sweet relationship vignette about the perspective difference between Adam, the Astronaut, and Jake, the guy who can’t hold down a job at a supermarket. The Earthbound setting makes the environmental and global political conditions self-evident and largely internally consistent (in so much as real life is ever internally consistent) and allows the vastness of the topic to be reduced down to their clash of personalities, making the story of global ecological collapse into one of personal responsibility.
And this isn’t the end of the world. Well, it is, but, I mean, it’s not a terrible thing to do. There’s no attempt at an actionable, political answer to the world’s problems, but there was never going to be, because that’s just not what this version of Who does. Instead, there’s a uncomplicated statement of personal responsibility in Jake’s personal failings, and his decision to do right by his husband and the world, not out of his fear of losing his love, but out of selfless, reckless bravery for humanity’s sake. From his suicide-mission spaceship, Jake sees the world the way Adam does, and is Affected by the Overview from which all the world is so clearly one being.
As per, there’s no diagnosis of the root cause of plastic pollution, and so no true action call to stop it, but there’s value in this version of the story, too. Of course none of us are ever going to be in the position we can give our lives to save the planet, but that’s just the Epic TV version of sacrificing some smaller part of your life to keep your neighbours safe, and I image we can all relate to that, world over. And this is where politics starts. It would be nice for this era to be a little more radical and decisive, but selfless abandon and battle-cries of love are a good place to begin working upwards from. Globality doesn’t have to be big. So maybe it’s okay that we don’t start thinking about world building yet.
The small moments here are universal, and radical in their own rights. When Jake’s self-sacrifice-spaceship is about to explode, the Doctor just saves him, not by any clever set-up or narrative trick, but by just deciding that she will, flipping like a coin from:
GABRIELA: You can save him, right?
…to saving him, not by any reveal or revelation, but just by the decision that she can, revoking the era’s run of buried gays and just plainly
That’s the universality going on in this story, discarding materiality to focus on that one idea: that you can always help someone. Bravery doesn’t have to be punished, and that as hard work as it might seem, bettering the world is better for everybody. It’s always possible to just do that good thing, and if the rules of the story you’re in say it’s not, do it anyway. Everybody knows that everybody dies. But not every day. Not when the Doctor can stop it.
Why doesn’t she do this every week? Well, for that we’ll need to answer an age-old question.