Orphan 55

Story No. 316 Bennniiieeee!
Production Code Series 12, Episode 3
Dates January 15, 2020

With Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill
Written by Ed Grime Directed by Lee Haven-Jones
Executive Producers: Chris Chibnall, Matt Strevens

Synopsis: The TARDIS fam win an all-inclusive stay at a luxury spa. But something isn't right...


"Catastrophe Is Coming" by Jason A. Miller 5/4/20

The Series 12 two-part premiere was a master class in slow, luxuriant, storytelling, with Chris Chibnall getting two full hours to tell us about Spyfall (Parts One and Two). The next episode, Orphan 55, however, is a master class only in strident lecturing.

We were a bit spoiled, perhaps, that both parts of Spyfall were an hour long. Orphan 55, however, is a mere 46 minutes and is a beast-of-the-week story rather than a richly layered bit of story arc. There's a brief reaction shot in the first scene of the Doctor looking gloomy, presumably to remind us of the closing minutes of the previous episode, and then things hits the ground running rapidly, with no reference to the ongoing Timeless Child business. The initial plot conceit (the TARDIS crew wins a vacation to a tropical holiday resort spa) is exploded within literal seconds, as several exotically dressed extras are eaten by slavering beasts, who appear to be a cross between Giger's Aliens (slavering teeth within elongated jaws), the Haemovores from The Curse of Fenric (their origin story) and the Marshmen from Full Circle (rubber-costume-looking men slow-walking in formation out of the mist towards the camera; and they can be defeated by oxygen).

The Gigeresque look is no coincidence. The first half hour of the story, before the surprise reveal, is a mini-staging of Aliens. The resort has been intentionally placed on a dead planet, with an eye towards terraforming, much as LV-486 in Aliens was being terraformed before all those pesky Xenomorphs got in the way. The Dregs here - this story's Aliens stand-ins - are apex predators, and soon the Doctor and the few guest cast members who survived the first 15 minutes are in an armored truck heading straight into deadly territory. In a nifty bit of effective location filming, the production here takes a page out of the Planet of Fire playbook and uses one of the Canary Islands (Tenerife instead of Lanzarote) for both the spa-resort setting and the barren rocky planet surface.

The pace is frenetic almost from the get go; once we're out of the dome, a supporting character dies every two or three minutes, like a condensed version of the last third of The Poseidon Adventure. The script is witty, with tons of quips, and there's two frustrated romances (Benni's often-interrupted marriage proposals to Velma, and Ryan's often-blocked attempts to flirt with Bella). And you know that things will turn out all right for at least some of the guest cast, because the principal guest star is Laura Fraser - I'm glad to see she survived being poisoned by Walter White during the Breaking Bad series finale, next to which Orphan 55 is a positive opera bouffe - and another cast member is a plucky 12-year-old boy, this episode's version of Newt. But while the monsters are redolent of the vampires from The Curse of Fenric and the costumes from Full Circle, the script is not quite so poetic as either of those earlier two stories.

The big twist, without naming the direct spoiler, is one familiar to viewers of The Mysterious Planet, as well as a particular Rod Serling-scripted late 1960s parable about humans being enslaved by a lesser bipedal species. It serves to flip the story from an Aliens-esque thriller, to a story about the environmental crisis and the Sixth Extinction. Which, as I write this on a 64-degree-Fahrenheit day in the middle of January in New York, hits uncomfortably close to home. The discussions of how the planet Orphan 55 was given that new name are a bit ripped-from-the-headlines, and doubtless will cause J. Rightwing Fanboy to go into more spasms of rage about Doctor Who "getting political". On the subtlety scale, Ed Hime's script falls somewhere between eight (The Green Death) and eleven (The Doctor's Daughter) on the message-with-a-sledgehammer scale. What, you expected something else from the author of It Takes You Away?

The Doctor's closing speeches to the camera are among the least subtle writing ever seen on Doctor Who and veer more on the side of PSA rather than dramatic screenplay. But, again, it's 64 degrees outside on January 12th, so who am I to criticize the estimable Mr. Hime? I mean, there's much to criticize, and just because he happens to be correct, doesn't give him a free pass for the over-the-top messaging.

The supporting cast is good, the locations are evocative, and much of the dialogue is witty, so things don't really fall apart until the last 15 minutes. But apart from the relentless messaging, Orphan 55 is also not the Doctor's finest hour, in terms of scripting. Jodie Whittaker is a delight to watch, as usual, but the story requires her to jeopardize everybody by bringing everyone out of the dome (including the plucky green-haired boy), to jeopardize them once again by talking too much and thereby consuming all the oxygen and then to allow a couple/three characters to die by heroic suicide (either by failing to take any action to avert their course, or in one case by wandering off directly into peril, thus necessitating a rescue from someone who can't escape). Wandering off and talking too much... not the most Doctorish of attributes.

The story lost me by the closing monologue, nearly delivered straight to the camera. While the Doctor is correct, of course, it's all a bit heavy-handed, and I usually come to this show for an escape from the news headlines. Orphan 55 is akin to twelve catastrophic news articles all being pushed to my phone at once. I don't think history will judge this story too kindly. If any of us actually live long enough through the climate crisis to be able to judge it.

Infernal Qualities by Niall Jones 15/8/22

There are many ways of evaluating TV and film, but one that has become especially popular is the list. In particular, 'best of' and 'worst of' lists. While these lists often seem designed to be contentious, a quick Google search finds that many lists of Doctor Who's worst episodes come to an agreement: the worst episode is Orphan 55.

The reasons for the dislike are fairly clear. Many viewers found the story preachy and were unimpressed by the characters and dialogue. The episode's design and costumes also came in for criticism. Professional critics were slightly kinder, but many still had major issues with it, with the Doctor's monologue at the end proving particularly divisive. A response like this might suggest that Orphan 55 is an unusual episode, a uniquely poor effort that managed to alienate almost all of its viewers, a sort of modern-day Timelash. In a way, it is like Timelash, but not necessarily for the reasons you might think.

Like Timelash, Orphan 55 surprisingly and unsuccessfully borrows from the Jon Pertwee era. Ironically enough, Orphan 55 resembles one of the Third Doctor's most acclaimed stories: Inferno. Like Inferno, Orphan 55 is concerned with humanity's responsibility for the destruction of the Earth. The similarities continue: both present the Doctor as unable to prevent environmental catastrophe, despite their best efforts; both contain creatures that used to be human; both are interested in alternative realities and outcomes. The number of similarities between one of Doctor Who's most popular classic stories and one of its least popular recent episodes may come as a surprise, as it implies that the episode had the potential to be a success and that its failure isn't necessarily related to its environmental or political themes.

In my review of Oxygen, I make it clear that, unlike some of Orphan 55's detractors, I have no issue with Doctor Who engaging with politics. That said, I do think it's worth considering the extent to which Doctor Who is able to deal with a topic like climate change. In Inferno, the only way to save the Earth from the consequences of drilling into its core is to stop the project before it reaches its conclusion. The Doctor's excursion into a parallel universe makes the consequences of failure abundantly clear. The fact that this entirely fictional scenario, which has a single cause and is driven largely by the ego of one man, comes so close to defeating the Doctor doesn't bode well. By contrast, climate change is an issue that has built up for over a century and doesn't have one single cause. It's not just its complexity, however, that makes it difficult for Doctor Who to deal with; because it's a real-world issue, it cannot be solved by a fictional character. Unlike a Dalek invasion, or even a mad drilling project, it simply doesn't belong in the Doctor's world. To his credit, writer Ed Hime is clearly aware of this, and it makes sense that the Doctor can only engage with the issue after the fact. After all, a story in which the Doctor swoops in and saves the world from climate change would be crass and downplay the seriousness of the issue.

The sheer difficulty of dealing successfully with climate change in Doctor Who invites the question of why try at all. One answer is that it would be irresponsible not to, that it's too big of an issue to ignore. Doctor Who also has a venerable track record of dealing with environmental issues, stretching as far back as 1964's Planet of the Giants, so an episode about climate change wouldn't be entirely unprecedented.

The problem with using Doctor Who as a vessel through which to teach viewers about climate change is that viewers already know about it. The Doctor's lecture to her companions, asking them to listen to and act on scientists' warnings, doesn't add anything new or interesting. It might have just about worked if addressed to characters with whom the Doctor was in conflict, but, being effectively addressed to the audience, it comes off as patronising. The result of this is an impression that, while the story wants to address climate change, it doesn't know what it wants to say about it.

One issue is that it's not clear what the episode is about until near the end. Whereas Inferno makes its concern with hubris and the dangers of messing about with the planet clear from the very beginning, Orphan 55 spends around three-quarters of its running time as a frenetically paced monster-of-the-week story, before suddenly turning into a serious piece about climate change. The difference between the two types of stories being told puts pressure on the key plot twist to unite the two strands in a satisfactory way, which it fails to do. This plot twist should be surprising, but feel inevitable; unfortunately, it comes out of the blue and doesn't feel supported by the first part of the story. The fact that it's unoriginal, borrowing heavily from films like Planet of the Apes and Logan's Run, as well as from Doctor Who's very own The Mysterious Planet, doesn't help.

One particular problem that prevents the story from cohering properly is the Dregs, the creatures which threaten the resort. The revelation that the Dregs are humanity's future if it fails to address climate change should be a real gut punch, but it just doesn't make sense. In Utopia, the Futurekind are effective because they are visibly human. The idea that they are what we become when we give up on our humanity seems plausible and frightening. The Dregs, by contrast, are just monsters. Neither their appearance, nor their behaviour is remotely human, and it's difficult to imagine that they ever were. It would normally be churlish to criticise Doctor Who for not being realistic, but when it's dealing with an issue rooted so firmly in reality, it needs to represent that issue in a plausible way. Oxygen works as a critique of capitalism because, although its setting is unfamiliar, its presentation of capitalism is recognisable, enabling the viewer to accept the connection between the sci-fi horror story ostensibly being told and the political message being conveyed.

While this suggests that Orphan 55 fails as a story about climate change, the adventure story aspect is also quite lacklustre. One of the episode's biggest issues is that it is overstuffed with uninteresting and one-note characters. A key offender in this regard is Vilma. Her desperate search for fiance Benni should be at the emotional heart of the episode, but her repeated calling of his name quickly becomes annoying and side-tracks the plot. The father-and-son pair of Nevi and Sylas is also frustratingly one-dimensional, clearly intended to represent the inter-generational divide on climate change but failing to say anything interesting about it. The best supporting character is probably Bella, whose transformation from bereaved carer to violent terrorist is potentially interesting, but also abrupt and underexplained.

The large supporting cast also means that there's not much for the TARDIS crew to do. While Graham is as engaging as always, this mainly stems from Bradley Walsh's performance rather than from the writing. Yaz is also heavily marginalised, with one of her only roles in the story being to tell the Doctor something that she already knows. Ryan's romance with Bella puts him more in the centre of the story than usual, but it's not developed as much as it should be.

Despite all these flaws, there are some things to enjoy about Orphan 55. The Doctor is a much more proactive presence than in some other episodes, and Jodie Whittaker does get some good lines. In fact, her observation to head of security Kane that, 'if I had crayons and half a can of Spam, I could build you from scratch', is one the most memorable things that the Thirteenth Doctor says in three whole series. The location filming also works well, creating a convincing portrait of a desolate world.

While Orphan 55 doesn't quite deserve the title of worst episode, it is nevertheless a disappointment. The success of stories like Inferno and Oxygen shows that Doctor Who as angry political thriller can work, but the episode doesn't have anything coherent or interesting to say about climate change and largely fails as a piece of entertainment.