The Dregs of Plastics: Doctor Who Season 12 and the Problem of its Environmentalist Message

6 July 2020
By Ming Panha

The BBC Youtube channel uploaded the last part of “Orphan 55”, the third episode of Doctor Who Season 12, to explain, as they claim, why their fans called The Doctor “Space Greta Thunberg”. Of course, “Orphan 55” obviously is a warning for climate system failure, as the story reveals that the space resort constructed illegally upon an orphan planet (meaning a planet where the elite class leaves because of the collapse of life-sustaining environmental system) is actually the earth, in the future. The Dregs, “aliens” which roam the wasteland of the planet, are transformed humans, who could not leave like the elites and now adapt themselves to the environment by breathing Carbon Dioxide in and Oxygen out like trees. Doctor even remarks, “They are attacking us like angry trees!” In the end, of course, the Doctor, Yazmin, Ryan, and Graham survive. The story ends with the Doctor explaining why there is still time to change the future and listen to scientists, as the earth they see is actually one of the possibilities.

Then, in the sixth episode “Praxeus”, Doctor Who gives out another message about plastic consumption. The Doctor and the team unravel the mysterious disease, which is caused by an alien pathogen, Praxeus. Praxeus eats up plastics in birds and takes control of them. Later, The Doctor reveals that the reason why humans are infected is that humans are filled with microplastics. Then, The Doctor’s lecture starts, “[Microplastic] is in the air. It’s in your food. It’s in your water. Humans have flooded this planet with plastic that can’t be fully broken down so much so that you’re ingesting microparticles whether you know it or not. You’re poisoning yourself as well as your planet”. The story ends with the Doctor finds the enzyme in a dead bird, which fights against the alien bacteria. Then, she makes a vaccine and spreads it around the world to kill Praxeus.

Both episodes are very effective in teaching about our environmental crises. “Orphan 55” even ends emphatically with the Doctor’s message to warn us to preserve the world before climate catastrophe happens. The Doctor’s last order, “Be the Best of Humanity, or…” ends with a short footage of a Dreg snarling, showing its glaring white teeth. “Praxeus” has rather given hope that the planet can return to its “normal” state, and yet emphasises that plastic pollution is everywhere. Suki Ching, an alien character who tests Praxeus on humans, explains that she selects the earth as her lab to find the cure for Praxeus because “the planet is saturated” with plastics. Ching’s planet, eaten up the alien bacteria, is similar to Orphan 55, as they prophesy the earth’s future if humans do not save their planets.

Yet, what I do find problematic about these messages is that the message is too hopeful about the preservation of the earth and the act of cleaning it from pollution. “Praxeus” even suggests that Mother Earth is so clever that she manages to overcome Praxeus with two strains of enzymes in the bird from Peru. We need hope, of course, in our mission to campaign against disastrous human-made action, but this hope, given in these two episode in Doctor Who, suggests the separation of the human from nature, and also implies a pastoral blue earth, a concept which can lead to demonisation.

The Dregs, in “Orphan 55”, are a great example of such demonisation, which helps beautify the pastoral, imaginary beauty of earth even more. As the story shockingly reveals that Orphan 55, a polluted planet where an illegal space resort has been built, is actually the Earth in the future, the episode doesn’t show any attempt of sympathy or understanding with the Dregs. Though the Doctor does explain that orphan planets are polluted planets where all the elites have fled, the end of the story does not discuss economic inequality, which supports consumption, breeds forth pollution, and leaves the lower class in an unhealthy environment. The Dregs, which somewhat resemble the Morlocks in H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, are the poor, who slowly transform their body to survive in a hostile environment. The end of the episode shows the Dregs as a part of the terrifying landscape, a warning for the “human” audience. Don’t do that, or you’ll turn into them.

The lack of sympathy for the terrifying Dregs suggests a classist, environmentalist discourse, which ignores the economic inequality and dreams of redemption for the already-polluted earth. Despite The Dregs’ hostility and fearfulness, they, along with the humans, can create, scientifically, a perfectly symbiotic world because The Dregs breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen. The Doctor survives lack of oxygen by breathing the Dregs’ exhaled oxygen, and even speaks, though ironically, to the caged Dregs that we have created perfect ecology. The Dregs threaten the holidaymakers at the resort because of their anger against the human elite class. Instead of reconciliation, this episode turns down its suggested possibilities of co-existence.

The Dregs should have been embraced with sympathy and thankfulness. They give human lessons about environmental problems not because they are threatening, but they represent the anger of the subaltern in the world lacking eco-justice. In this anthropocentric plotline, The Dregs have to be demonised in order to create a powerful environmentalist warning. If the plot moved on from their obsession with the humans, the episode could show the connection between the social and the ecological, a disappeared link which questions the simplification of environmental problem by putting the blame only on the humans without context. The story chooses to suggest a simplistic message on environmentalism, which separates humans from nature and hides socio-economical inequality. “Orphan 55” also fails to speculate the more-than-human co-existence between humans and The Dregs at the end.

“Praxeus” is good at emphasizing that the world is saturated with plastics, and, similar to “Orphan 55”, it warns human beings about their interconnection with the environment, as their careless use of single-use plastics leads to the saturation of microplastics in human bodies. Though “Praxeus” is good at showing that the human body is not free from environmental pollution, “Praxeus” is still obsessed with the image of the blue pastoral earth, where seven million (human) lives are saved from a terrifying alien pathogen. The Doctor has managed to create an antidote against Praxeus and kill them off, without eradicating microplastics from human bodies. However, if we see the symptoms of Praxeus turning human flesh into hard, white scales upon the skin as an exaggeration of microplastics within human bodies, the Doctor and Jake’s heroism against Praxeus means they can somehow get rid of the metaphorical exaggeration of microplastics.

The story ends like a happy ending, with two gay husbands reunited and the world saved; The Doctor speaks, at the end, in a voiceover that the earth is saved. Saved? From what? Though the story attacks the overconsumption of single-use plastic, it speaks nothing of the solution to at least decrease the use of plastics, not to mention a critique of consumerism in relation to plastic waste. Instead of showing the frailty of human bodies, immersed in the environment, the story shows that there is a cure, a method to clean, the blue earth. I’d prefer the end with Adam Lang, cured from Praxeus and yet bearing marks of the disease and making fun of those marks. Perhaps, superhero movies are not the right genre to talk about the environment if it still ends a little too hopefully like this.

I’m quite impressed to see Doctor Who discussing environmental problems more, and yet this speculative series can even become more speculative in order to imagine the more-than-human world and the problematic co-existence between species and objects. It has to admit that it cannot ignore the social when they discuss the ecological because they influence each other.