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Doctor Who delivers a pointed message in a pointless episode

Illustration for article titled iDoctor Who /idelivers a pointed message in a pointless episode
Photo: Ben Blackall (BBC America)
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“Orphan 55” has all the components of a solid Doctor Who episode: An interesting sci-fi location, a quirky cast of supporting players, a creepy alien threat, and a big social message. Unfortunately, those pieces never come together into something greater than the sum of their parts. At best, “Orphan 55” feels like the outline for a better, more nuanced episode. At worst, it plays like a cheap paint-by-numbers knockoff of a classic base-under-siege adventure. After “Spyfall, Part One” and “Part Two” seemed to promise an exhilarating fresh start for Chris Chibnall’s era of Doctor Who, it’s especially frustrating to watch “Orphan 55” return to the too-often disappointing status quo of last season.

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At least it doesn’t waste any time getting us there! No sooner have the Doctor, Graham, Ryan, and Yaz landed on Tranquility Spa for a two-week all-inclusive vacation (Graham had a coupon) than Ryan catches a deadly Hopper Virus from a vending machine. Though the Doctor cures him easily enough, Ryan’s brush with danger kickstarts a non-stop action-adventure thrill ride. The TARDIS fam soon discover that Tranquility Spa is actually a “fake-cation” hologram dome built on a deserted planet called Orphan 55. When the defense system goes down, they must figure out how to get the surviving guests and staff off the planet before a Gigeresque native species known as the Dregs kills them all.

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“Orphan 55” certainly doesn’t lack for ideas, the biggest of which is that the inhospitable planet is actually a future version of Earth ravished by climate change and nuclear holocaust. The Dregs, meanwhile, are mutated versions of the humans left behind when the ruling elites evacuated the planet and washed their hands of all responsibility. In a post-Planet Of The Apes world, it’s not the biggest of surprises, and the episode is smart not to withhold the twist until the very end. Even though I’d already guessed where this was going, it was still effective to watch Graham and Yaz spot Russian signage on the wall of a service tunnel and come to the horrific realization of where they actually are.

Illustration for article titled iDoctor Who /idelivers a pointed message in a pointless episode
Photo: Ben Blackall (BBC America)
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Unfortunately, “Orphan 55” is so overstuffed with ideas that it doesn’t let that central one land with enough heft after the initial discovery. In one scene, Yaz is questioning where the Dregs came from and how they invaded Earth. The next time we see her, she’s just intuited that they’re the mutated remains of humanity. What should be the episode’s emotional fulcrum plays like just one more fast-flying plot point.

Instead of zeroing in on its central thesis, “Orphan 55” keeps shifting the focus back to its expansive, underdeveloped ensemble of guest stars. In addition to red shirts Vorm (Will Austin) and Hyph3n (Amy Booth-Steel), there’s doomed older couple Vilma (Julia Foster) and Benni (Col Farrell), conflicted father/son duo Nevi (James Buckley) and Sylas (Lewin Lloyd), and, most centrally, base leader Kane (Laura Fraser) and mysterious guest Bella (Gia Ré), who turns out to be her vengeful daughter as well as a brief love interest for Ryan. While any of these characters could’ve made compelling episodic players in their own right, crammed into one episode they just wind up pulling focus from one other and from the central climate change message.

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Bella and Kane suffer the most, if only because they have the most potential. Unfortunately, they never feel like anything more than character sketches. The reveal that Bella is processing her abandonment issues through hotel terrorism is extreme and unearned. And we never really learn much of anything about Kane, despite Fraser’s appreciable efforts to give the character a sense of depth. Ultimately, it’s hard to care about the big emotional moment where they sacrifice themselves to save the rest of the group, and Bella’s thumb-sucking goodbye with Ryan is just plain bizarre. When neither the companions nor the guest ensemble are well-served by an episode, something has definitely gone wrong.

Illustration for article titled iDoctor Who /idelivers a pointed message in a pointless episode
Photo: Ben Blackall (BBC America)
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Curiously, writer Ed Hime previously penned my single favorite episode from last season, “It Takes You Away,” which was a wholly original, emotionally rich outing. Admittedly, that episode suffered from an overstuffed quality too, which means that could just be a weakness for Hime as a writer. But “Orphan 55” also has some of the hallmarks of a more elaborate episode that had to be cut down in production or post-production. There are inconsistencies in how the Dregs act, how intelligent they are, and who they let live. (Kane inexplicably escapes two direct attacks, and the way the Dregs carry Benni around and let him speak to the other survivors is especially strange.) Those could just be flaws in the script, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were behind-the-scenes issues that resulted in some of that messiness too.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t moments that work. Having the TARDIS fam transport off the planet mid-battle is a cool dramatic choice. Coupled with the way this episode starts with the tail end of a unseen romp, “Orphan 55” conveys the sense that the Doctor and her companions are constantly leaping from adventure to adventure, without always getting the closure they crave. Graham tries to reassure Ryan that Bella will be okay with a halfhearted, “She’ll be fine, she’s with Kane.” But the idea that the TARDIS team won’t ever actually know exactly what happened is a haunting one.

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The Doctor’s big final speech about climate change and the importance of action is no doubt the kind of thing that will raise complaints about this era of Doctor Who being too preachy. As someone raised on Star Trek, however, I don’t mind when sci-fi shows get explicit with their metaphorical messaging. “In your time, humanity’s busy arguing about the washing-up while the house burns down,” is as perfect a description as I’ve ever heard for our current socio-political ethos, especially as it relates to the climate crisis. The problem isn’t the speech itself, it’s that “Orphan 55” doesn’t do enough legwork to earn it as a conclusion.

Indeed, maybe the most frustrating thing about “Orphan 55” is that it has so much squandered potential. There are so many untethered ideas and themes that seem like they should be in conversation with one another—like the way that Nevi and Sylas’ semi-dysfunctional parental relationship contrasts to the even more fractured one between Kane and Bella. There’s a whole episode to be made out of the fact that the Dregs and the guests of Tranquility Base can create a perfect ecosystem together because of the opposing ways in which they consume oxygen and carbon dioxide. Instead, it’s just used as a means to an end for an (admittedly cool) escape scene.

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Illustration for article titled iDoctor Who /idelivers a pointed message in a pointless episode
Photo: James Pardon (BBC America)

Despite what my grading indicates, “Orphan 55” isn’t necessarily a weaker episode than “The Ghost Monument” or “The Tsuranga Conundrum,” and, on the whole, I’d say it’s a stronger outing than last season’s finale, “The Battle Of Ranskoor Av Kolos.” But it feels extra frustrating to watch the second season of Chibnall’s era continue to make rookie mistakes, especially after the exhilarating rush of “Spyfall.” The nice thing about Doctor Who is that each week offers a clean slate, which means I’m still very much looking forward to a historical adventure with Nikola Tesla. I just hope that episode—and the rest of this season—remembers that more isn’t always more.

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Stray observations

  • We don’t get an explicit follow-up to the reveal of Gallifrey’s destruction, but Yaz mentions that the Doctor has been in a bad mood (a.k.a. “a mardy mood”) lately.
  • This episode immediately calls to mind “Smile,” “Oxygen,” and “Gridlock,” but the mix of vacation comedy and genuine horror really reminded me of “Voyage Of The Damned.”
  • While I wouldn’t say the Dregs are one of my all-time favorite monsters, I appreciate that they’re a largely practical design as opposed to a CGI creation.
  • Hyph3n’s humanoid dog look, on the other hand, was, uh, a little lacking.
  • “Sun loungers, last line of defense.”
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.

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