3 out of 5 stars

This week, writer Ed Hime’s “Orphan 55” turned out to be a divisive episode of Doctor Who. If you recall, in Series 11, Hime gave us “It Takes You Away”, an atmospheric story set in the Norwegian forest about a blind girl, left alone at home awaiting the return of her father. It was an effective contemplation of grief capped by an extraordinary scene where a sentient universe takes the form of a talking frog. Yes, that episode. So, I might as well put my cards on the table straight away: I thought “Orphan 55” was an interesting failure and like it more after repeat viewings.

The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her companions arrive at Tranquillity Spa after Graham (Bradley Walsh) collects enough coffee machine coupons from the Bandohzi Herald for a free holiday. But the resort isn’t as tranquil as its name suggests; a set up with shades of “The Macra Terror” (1967), “The Leisure Hive” (1980), and “Midnight” (2008). After all, Yaz (Mandip Gill) reckons it might get The Doctor out of her “mardy mood” which, judging by her response, is one unlikely to lift after the previous week’s revelations about Gallifrey.

Tranquillity Spa mustn’t expect a five-star review from Trip Advisor but this episode of Doctor Who, trying to tackle disaster capitalism and our present climate catastrophe, had most of the requisite ingredients for an enjoyable experience. Just not in the right quantities or with enough effectively arranged qualities. Teleported to the Spa (showing off the Spanish location shooting at Mount Teide and the Auditorio de Tenerife), our heroes are greeted by Hyph3n (Amy Booth-Steel), an alien holiday guide who seems to have borrowed John Candy’s Barf makeup from Spaceballs (1987) and originates somewhere near Birmingham. This and other tonal oddities, such as the green wigs sported by inept engineer Nevi (James Buckley) and his son Sylas (Lewin Lloyd), may have been deliberate aesthetic touches by the production team. Perhaps, given the benefit of the doubt, it was an attempt to emulate that corporate false cheeriness you’re greeted with by your customer guide when you find your travel agent is about to go bust, your plane’s developed a technical fault and you’re stranded at the airport. Or is it perhaps the case that the majority of the budget was allocated to making this week’s monsters?

With a reduced runtime this week (each half of “Spyfall” was an hour-long whereas this is 47-minutes), it’s important to get the story up and running and introduce all the characters. And this is something of a problem with “Orphan 55” once the story establishes the Spa is under attack and has its own security team, led by granite-faced Kane (Laura Fraser), to deal with incursions. What we’re presented with, initially, is a gated holiday community that, on the inside, maintains an illusion of calm blue skies, shimmering lagoons and palm trees. We’ve just about got time to sketch in the supporting characters and establish their relationships.

There’s Vilma (Julia Foster) and Benni (Col Farrell), the ‘Saga holiday couple’, 46 years unmarried. Benni, living out his last years dependent on oxygen, sees this as the right time to ask for Vilma’s hand but his proposal’s interrupted by Yaz’s arrival. After an altercation with a multi-platform ‘hopper virus’ contracted from a sick vending machine, Ryan (Tosin Cole demonstrating he’s capable of amusing physical comedy) bonds with fellow victim Bella (Gia Ré). She claims to be a hotel critic but warms to Ryan’s friendliness after he fails to pretend to be a “surgeon for pilots” and denies he’s chatting her up. When the Spa orders its customers to muster points after the compound is breached, Ryan spots one of the security team brandishing a gun and encourages Bella to join him and investigate.

The Doctor, concerned the Spa is being targeted with weapons like the hopper virus and worried about the alarms, corners Hyph3n and demands to know what’s going on. She’s intrigued by a “linen cupboard” that requires an excessive amount of security access and uses that trusted method of entry—the psychic paper—to gain entry as a resort inspector to discover it is, in fact, a deadlocked armoury. Kane’s suitably aggrieved security has been compromised but The Doctor’s more concerned the virus has affected the Spa’s defences: “why would you need to defend a holiday spa with an ionic membrane?” Creatures have broken into the Spa, attacking the resort’s customers. But, like the spa, is all this as it seems to be?

Director Lee Haven Jones understands that, for monsters to be effective, one only need show glimpses of them before revealing them in all their glory. The monstrous Dregs are kept in and out of the shadows, with close-ups of their jaws and flashes of lighting emphasising their threat—recalling Ridley Scott’s handling of the titular creature in Alien (1979). The story turns into that familiar Doctor Who set up, the ‘base under siege’ scenario, as engineer Nevi struggles to get a nonfunctioning teleport working to evacuate the guests who are slowly being picked off by the Dregs  Or, to put it in blunt corporate-speak, as the computer reports numbers of “guests offline”. As the body count increases, chillingly emphasised by off-screen screams, brief shots of marauding shadows and Dreg close-ups, characters gain some substance. In the steam room Ryan admits he isn’t a surgeon and Bella, likewise, confesses she isn’t a hotel critic but an “unemployed nobody”. Nevi’s competence depends upon his son’s better knowledge of engineering. Vilma looks to Benni to fetch and carry after her, despite his dependence on oxygen.

Gathering the survivors together, The Doctor hurriedly constructs a new membrane to rid the resort of the invading Dregs. However, Vilma suddenly realises Benni isn’t with them. Yaz and Graham similarly raise concern for the missing Ryan. The membrane’s filter is activated just in time to save Ryan and Bella, eliminating the Dreg stalking them in the steam room. It’s here that we discover the Spa is an enclosed dome of luxury and indulgence, an illusion of spectacular comfort plonked down onto a bleak and hostile planet. This reminded me of Guy Debord’s interpretation of spectacle as “an affirmation of all human life, namely social life, as mere appearance”. The fake vacation spot presents a capitalist deception of “harmony, equivalence and placidity.” It’s a form of dark tourism, granting the customers of Tranquillity Spa false happiness built upon the disaster that originally befell the planet. As The Doctor notes to Kane, “you built this somewhere you shouldn’t, hoping no one would notice”.

Hime’s ideas gain further relevance as the story takes The Doctor and the Spa’s survivors out into the wilderness in search of Benni, who’s still alive because he has his own oxygen supply. With their own personal oxygen supplies, they take a truck (Graham’s not filled with confidence when he learns it was built by Nevi) out onto the surface of an orphan planet—one graded with too toxic an atmosphere to support organic life. The Doctor, expanding on Hime’s themes, explains that such abandoned, irradiated planets are what’s left behind in societies where “the ruling elite gets to evacuate and then signs off all responsibility for whatever they’ve left behind”. Those unable to evacuate the planet are left to die.

Hime suggests an analogy to our own lack of responsibility as, all around us, climate warming destroys the oceans, burns the land and pushes species to extinction. It’s apt that the creatures surviving on Orphan 55 are called the Dregs. They’re effectively the dregs of society; the remnants of a culture that chose to abandon them. Now, they’re seeking revenge on the elite that consigned them to their fate. It suggests something of the inversion of class divisions in Wells’ The Time Machine where the Morlocks, as an exploited class, have turned on their exploiters, the complacent Eloi, and reduced them to prey.

Kane confirms that a profit can be made from this planet-wide holocaust and the Spa is the first stage in terraforming and an investment in making the planet habitable again. She has to be bribed to find Benni when it becomes clear the Dregs have captured him and the truck’s tracer indicates he’s moving away quickly. Money is the only reason Kane would face a creature that, The Doctor realises, can adapt to nuclear winter and gunfire. We get our first clear look at these apex predators, suggesting director Haven Jones has been careful not to reveal too much of the Dregs because it’s sometimes obvious they’re just actors in rubber suits without obscuring shadows and mist. But they’re a decent design and in many shots look good, their numbers often supplemented by digital clones.

In the truck, we get some further character development as Ryan and Bella share their experiences. While Ryan’s mother died when he was young, Bella was taking care of her father until he died and she makes no bones about her animosity towards her dead mother. But before Ryan’s embarrassment at using the “conversation about dead parents” sinks in, the truck crashes as the result of a Dreg trap. The passengers have to abandon the vehicle and make for a service tunnel to return to the Spa.

Here, the episode invokes several character cliches, a notable twist and hurtles headlong to a conclusion where The Doctor addresses the fourth wall to hammer home the episode’s political message. Doctor Who has often contained political and social commentary in its stories. We’ve had ecological and environmental dangers given an airing before, notably in “Inferno” (1970), “The Green Death” (1973) and “The Seeds of Doom” (1976), the ethics of nuclear war and its survivors explored way back in “The Daleks” (1963), the politics of immigration in “Turn Left” (2008), and the commodification of the air we breathe in “Oxygen” (2017), to name but a few. To complain Doctor Who is too ‘woke’ and that it’s never been so political is nonsensical. It’s about how well its messages are conveyed that’s the issue… and it’s arguable Hime’s didactic approach in the last scene is too on the nose.

This is fueled by the revelation—as The Doctor, Graham, and Yaz struggle down the service tunnel to make their escape from the Dregs—that Orphan 55 is actually a future Earth devastated by war and environmental collapse. On our way to this twist, we have toe-curling scenes with Vilma, who receives a marriage proposal from Benni outside the truck as it’s surrounded by Dregs. The episode starts to pile on incident after incident and it becomes too frenetic. Hyph3n’s killed by the Dregs, Kane’s injured but manages to get the survivors to a teleport to take them back to the Spa (and reveals to Vilma she shot Benni as per his instructions), and Bella is revealed to be a terrorist. She’s also Kane’s vengeful daughter and has planted bombs to destroy her and the Spa, qualifying her actions with the deathless line “she didn’t come to any of my birthdays”.

After they’ve teleported back to the Spa, she and Ryan argue about her bombing the building and he pleads that they should go back to rescue the others. Bella’s not interested in any dregs of society or their families, biological or logical, and she reveals she also planted the hopper virus in the Spa’s systems. Back in the tunnel, Yaz takes Kane to task about abandoning her daughter but Kane remains resolute. The characters’ morality is used to underpin, in microcosm, the episode’s messages about elitism, class, and social exclusion. The Doctor, Graham, and Yaz uncover a sign that confirms they are in Novosibirsk underground station in Siberia—rather similar to the revelation in “The Mysterious Planet” (1986) that Peri and The Doctor were in Marble Arch on a post-apocalyptic Earth or, indeed, akin to the twist ending to Planet of the Apes (1968). Vilma sacrifices herself to the Dregs and buys the others time to get out of the tunnel. The problem here is that Vilma is very much a one-note character, bleating incessantly about Benni, and we learn little else about her. Consequently, we don’t care when she makes her noble gesture.

As The Doctor and the others negotiate their way through a Dreg nest, she makes a further discovery: not only does she find that the Dregs breathe in carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen (“like a really angry tree”) but, through her mind link with one of them, confirms they’re not alien invaders… they’re the mutated remnants of humanity. Woken up by her intrusion into its mind, the Dreg attempts to strangle her but not before Kane returns to prevent it. Full of doubts about her role as both a parent to Bella and someone complicit in the dubious ethics of terraforming Orphan 55, she then charges off into battle and gives The Doctor an opportunity to escape.

Haven Jones’ direction and editing become restless as they prepare to blockade the Spa and fend off the Dregs. There are whip pans, quick cutting, and handheld shots that play on the desperation of the group… but it’s a lot of information to take in at the same time that The Doctor’s explaining to Ryan that they’re on Earth and the Dregs are his mutated descendants. In the middle of all this, we still have eroding familial relationships adding to the mix: Bella’s sudden introspection at the news that Kane didn’t make it back and Sylas’ strop about his father never listening to him. Hime obviously wants us to equate these generational conflicts with wider, global problems and the perception that an older elite is simply not listening to a younger generation concerned about their future. Which is fine but only if you’re willing to buy the banality that Sylas will stop acting like a wilful brat and help his dad Nevi fix the teleport (thanks to the coincidental presence of the hopper virus) and Bella will be reunited with her mother Kane, who did survive, to fend off the Dregs while looking longingly back at Ryan before he teleports away. It’s an interesting story that almost collapses by virtue of its stereotypical characters and plot devices, sadly.

doctor who - orphan 55

Having recognised they rely on carbon dioxide to breathe, The Doctor rationalises that ‘Wheezy’ (the alpha male Dreg) needs them alive and they need him alive if they’re all going to keep their lungs inflated. However, the proposition that it is also the younger generation that will save us is a welcome one and that’s carried home in The Doctor’s negotiation with Wheezy, where she says of the Earth and humanity, “the people who used to have this planet could have changed, but they didn’t. They lost everything. Be smarter than what made you.” Having teleported back to the TARDIS, it’s interesting to see how shaken Ryan, Yaz, and Graham are. It’s not often that the consequences of humanity’s actions impact on such characters and clearly their trust in The Doctor has been dented.

The Doctor reassures them that what they’ve experienced is “one possible future” but she can’t give them a guarantee that “Earth’s going to be OK.” That final scene suggests Earth’s future is mutable and is linked directly to human action or inaction and, therefore, it’s not entirely The Doctor’s responsibility to protect the planet. The Doctor has previously shown companions a number of possible futures, a consistent history where The Doctor’s been at pains to remind us that humans are resilient and will survive any number of calamities. In “Pyramids of Mars” (1976), The Fourth Doctor showed Sarah, who reasoned that the world did not end in 1911, the 1980s she’d just come from as a devastated wasteland, suggesting this was a possible future if they left the alien Sutekh to his destructive revenge. “Turn Left” also depicted an alternate timeline, one where The Doctor died fighting the Racnoss and was unable to save the Earth from the invasions and disasters that followed. However, both of these situations were resolved by The Doctors and their companions.

The Doctor states the Earth won’t survive when “humanity’s arguing over the washing up while the house burns down. Unless people face facts and change, catastrophe is coming. But it’s not decided.” There is still time for humanity to change course. Whittaker delivers her lines in close-up, almost directly to camera—bar slightly altering her eye line to acknowledge she’s talking to her companions. There are no reaction shots of them, however. Her next lines show that the camera’s pulled back, includes Graham edging into the frame, and she’s moving her head from left to right as reaction shots are cut in. For Whittaker’s final lines, it’s a head-and-shoulders shot, she almost looks into camera, uninterrupted, as she asks her companions and, by extension, us in the audience, to “be the best of humanity” and, after a pause, “or…” and the scene ends with that concluding shot of a roaring Dreg. It’s probably the most direct message we’ve seen on Doctor Who for some time—-that we will become the monsters responsible for our own destruction—and, yes, it’s unashamedly using the medium to that effect and, presumably, why there have been accusations of the series continuing to be ‘woke’. For all that heavy-handedness, it’s an earnest and important scene.

Visually, “Orphan 55” is of a high standard and the locations, sets, VFX, and creatures are noteworthy. The editing tends to be choppy and the last half of the episode rarely pauses enough for us to take everything in. Similarly, while Hime’s script delivers on the themes I’ve covered and should prompt debate, it also has to function as a Doctor Who adventure. There are monsters, aliens, narrow escapes, and explosions, but there’s a tendency towards overusing well-worn conventions and character types. Given the reduced runtime this leads to issues with balancing these elements and where shorthand scripting fails to make characters emotionally resonant. They tend to become cyphers. Whittaker, Walsh, Cole and Gill continue to develop and Whittaker is particularly strong in “Orphan 55”, with less reliance on pausing to explain the plot and more opportunities to be her own Doctor. Again, Gill doesn’t get a lot to do in terms of action but it’s still rewarding to watch Yaz’s reactions to The Doctor. These are telling a story about trust in and of themselves.

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Cast & Crew

writer: Ed Hime.
director: Lee Haven Jones.
starring: Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill, Laura Fraser, Gia Ré, James Buckley, Julia Foster, Amy Booth-Steel, Will Austin, Col Farrell & Lewin Lloyd.