You’ve saved up enough to get a free holiday at Tranquility Spa, but you’re automatically transmatted away from the TARDIS. That’s bad. But the spa is gorgeous! That’s good. It turns out that the mysteriously named Orphan 55 planet the spa is located on is actually Earth and humans have destroyed it. That’s bad. You manage to save yourself and your friends! That’s good. But the Doctor gives all and sundry a lecture about climate change… That’s bad.
In his review of Orphan 55, the latest episode of Doctor Who Series 12, David Traynier argues:
“TV should be educating people about global heating and biosphere collapse: especially the children we’ve cursed. Doctor Who has always been political and was designed to be educational. The Green Death and The Curse of Fenric both walked across the ground that Orphan 55 galumphs over. But the hectoring here insults the intelligence of a 10-year-old, never mind an adult. The lesson should have come through the drama of finding out Orphan 55 is Earth, but the revelation has no punch. It’s submerged as the script ladles on the explanation, just in case we’re not getting it at the back.”
But what did the rest of the DWC think? We trapped some under a fake sky and quizzed them until they screamed “Benni” at the top of their voices.
A friend of mine, who enjoys his sci-fi, but doesn’t consider himself a huge Doctor Who fan, told me that he thought this was probably the scariest episode since Jodie Whittaker had taken over the role of the Doctor. I could see where he was coming from. The campsite under siege is a genuinely terrifying trope, the Dregs were well realised and scary, and the story’s twist is chilling – every time it is done. From The Twilight Zone to 2000AD, “it was Earth all along” is one of those science-fiction tropes that will never die. I was half expecting Yaz, Ryan, and Graham to sink to their knees and in their best Charlton Heston voice scream “Damn you! God damn you all to hell!” I felt all the elements to make this a genuinely scary hour of telly were there, but the way they were put together left me non-plussed. Nothing gelled. This was patchwork Who.
The story had no core strong enough to hold all the elements together. The world-building felt all over the place. I got no sense of the society that had produced the Fakations. Clearly, it was some form of dark capitalism that lead to one being placed on an uninhabitable planet. Societies like this tend to lead to folk wanting to overthrow them (particularly in Doctor Who). But we later learn that the revolutionary character (Bella) was actually not interested in improving society, but was out to get revenge on her mum (Kane) – who turned out not to be head of security as I thought but was the owner of the whole enterprise. Now I’m all for expectations being subverted in a narrative, but these felt unearned, confused, and one too many.
And then we get to the final scene, where the show essentially annihilates the fourth wall. A scene in which we, the viewers, are told that we had better change our ways or we’ll end up becoming the Dregs. It felt out of place and forced. As if someone from the BBC had asked the production team to include something about climate change, read the first draft, and then asked for something less ambiguous. I remember when I was young my Mum telling me to “Stop pulling that face. If the wind changes, your face will stick!” That last scene felt like that. I felt lectured.
The main issue wasn’t so much of the concepts; it was the pacing and imbalance of guest characters which made it difficult to achieve in 46 minutes overall. Four minutes short, not enough time for character development and a substantial resolution to the plot.
Just like the two-part opener, I didn’t expect there to be a handful of plot twists. But these ones were surprisingly clever, from Earth becoming the titular planet in the far future to the Dregs being mutated humans. From my perspective, their appearance and design are very much a combination of the Weevil, Abbaddon (from the Torchwood episode End of Days), and the Hoix. I know they look quite gimmicky and gross, but at the same time they are truly terrifying indeed, just as the cast found them during filming.
Seeing how climate change became one of the core factors was another highlight. Regardless of today’s political arguments, the Doctor’s closing speech couldn’t satisfy me enough, but also send chills down my spine. Yes, “billions” of decisions could result in a hypothetical, dystopian scenario like this one. It’s not a conspiracy theory, it’s just a way to express your views whilst incorporating subtle warnings. That’s what I perceive when it comes to writing fiction. And if the script were written differently, it should still have the scientific themes.
I’m going to shock everyone (and myself) here, but that was the first Thirteenth Doctor story I actually enjoyed.
Oh sure, there was plenty wrong with it – for me, the prime niggles were why the Doctor decided to take the whole guest cast on a dangerous mission with her, and Bella’s character motivation (“my Mum left me, so I’ll shoot her then blow up that lovely spa”). And that’s without mentioning That Monologue at the end – because even though Ed Hime wrote the episode, that stunk of Chris Chibnall’s lack of subtlety. It was appalling.
Despite all that, I could see that the episode was trying to be Doctor Who again. There were scary monsters – actual scary monsters, often in shadows, lumbering around, teeth bared, seen in brief snatches here and there. There was genuine threat. You didn’t know who’d make it out of it alive.
There are pants bits in there, and Jodie still doesn’t click as the Doctor (though she was better than previous episodes), but I recognised Doctor Who and right now, that’s a relief. That’s a brief glimmer for me. There’s still hope.
Maybe that was the message all along.
The Fam goes to Tranquility Spa where they meet some cardboard characters. There is a funny elderly couple. The female one can’t act. There is some sub-Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy whimsy. There is a Spa Guide who looks, in design, like a squirrel from a 1960s TV production of the Narnia Chronicles. There is a teenager with issues who makes bombs who isn’t called Ace. She wants to blow up her Mum. (This is all supposed to be engaging, but it is hard to care about one dimensional characters.) Just as the Fam settles down on holiday, the spa is invaded by monsters. For all I care, the monsters can eat the bloody lot of them, not excluding the Fam and the Doc. Then the Fam and some other guests get into a bus (shades of Midnight) and the bus is attacked. Then they go down some tunnels which have monsters in them (shades of Web of Fear). Then the Doc finds an underground sign – hang on, this is The Mysterious Planet/The Trial of a Time Lord. The alien planet is actually Earth! This really is The Mysterious Planet. The cardboard people do some technobabble. The Dregs breathe carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen (like Jabe in The End of the World, who also likes the Doctor’s carbon dioxide). Then they get teleported back to the TARDIS. Then the Doc gives an appallingly patronising speech to tell us what to think and that we must do something about global warming or this will be our future. This is sub-GCSE clap-trap that belongs in a general studies lesson for 11-year olds, not Doctor Who.
Orphan 55 is fine as a pitch. It is barely a first draft. The design is okay. We’ve seen that tunnel location half a dozen times in New Who. Jodie tries to do gravitas but she isn’t up to it. Who cares if Ryan gets a girlfriend? The Dregs look quite good.
Otherwise, this is a half-baked tale which nicks ideas from old episodes and fails to hang a story around them. Give us some characters we can care about, well written and well-acted enough to be believable human beings, and we will care what happens to them. What we are given is uninvolving and juvenile. The episode is an insult to our intelligence.
And that’s as positive as I can make it!
On balance, an exciting episode. A real sense of menace. I enjoyed it.
Accentuate the positives. The guest cast were excellent, especially Laura Fraser. James Buckley was much less annoying than I expected. The twists were just that: twists. Well directed and tightly paced. Initially keeping the Dregs half seen was a good idea.
The slightly less positives: more could have been made of the fact that the Dregs were the rightful inhabitants. One might argue that the Doctor at least colluded in genocide. A strong guest cast once again left Team TARDIS (especially Yaz) sidelined.What destroyed the planet? Nuclear winter or ecological collapse?
The Doctor’s diatribe on being environmentally aware was clunky and far more preachy than anything in Series 11.
A good episode. Just under 8/10.
Short review: Terrible
Longer: Doctor Who has a long history of stories about the environment going back to the 1970s. This is no excuse for what seems a heavy-handed eco-rant but perhaps it’s a contemporary spin in this world of school strikes and Greta Thunberg?
As to the rest, it looked good when it stopped being an Alien rip-off but the plot was wafer-thin, too many character with too little to do, and very random in places with Benni dying off-screen, the mother-daughter axis meaning (obviously) blow everything up, and much else.
The companions are almost invisible. One joke from Graham, Yaz there only to get angry, and only Ryan has the beginnings of a story in the incredibly rushed romance.
The mutants were called the Dregs and I’ll leave it to others to make the obvious jokes about this dismal episode. I expected a lot more innovation from Ed Hime
I’m suddenly reminded that Global Warming is still a thing. Again. (I knew)
But before I get to the major failing of the episode, I have to acknowledge how much better Hime is with character interaction than his boss. Well, characters, period. This may have been a rather simple A to B story and a typical base under siege tale at that, but ladies and gentlemen, not only was Graham his usual, delightful self but Ryan was a better utilised and funny moron, instead of just being a moron (the bats aren’t real), Yaz was doing things (!), and more so than any ep so far in her reign, Jodie was very much the Doctor. We had some gravity from Jodie again: that’s two weeks in a row. Either she’s stepping up a bit or I’m just getting used to her.
I thought the monsters were properly scary as well — yet another ep where there was actual danger, but again Hime knows how to balance things fairly well. No, he’s no Moffat, or Mathieson, or even Gatiss but he acquits himself pretty well here, much like he did last year with It Takes You Away. That opening was brilliant with the tentacle and the coupons, and I thought Ryan’s run-in with the vending machine was pitched just right. Seemed a bit of a coincidence that the team showed up at the same time Bella was executing her plan but eh, I’ve learned to be happy with middling success. In the end, this was a Twilight Zone ep with the Earth twist. That would have been fine, but then, not once, not twice but three times, we had to get the lecture about Global Warming. This is going to make a lot of fans angry again and it’s deserved. Since repetitive hitting over the head is all these writers know, I’ll repeat — you only have to say it once, and you don’t have to be so condescendingly obvious about it. And this is all aside from the fact that everyone is already aware of the issue and either doesn’t believe it, doesn’t care about it, or are already concerned and knowledgeable about it. Either way, hitting us over the head each week is tiresome and takes away enjoyment. 6/10.
INT. RAINBOW HOUSE. DAY
[On an unimpressive CRT television, the Rainbow personnel – GEORGE, ZIPPY, BUNGLE and GEOFFREY – are watching the closing credits of Orphan 55.]
GEORGE: Ooh, that was wonderful, Geoffrey! So exciting!
GEOFFREY: Yes, it was, George, wasn’t it?
BUNGLE: Yes! All those aliens and things blowing up! Ka-BOOOOM!!! But I did wonder, Geoffrey –
GEOFFREY: What did you wonder, Bungle?
BUNGLE: Why did the Doctor take everyone with her to go and rescue Benni? Wasn’t it dangerous for them all?
GEOFFREY: Well, I expect it would have been quite dangerous for them to have stayed, wouldn’t it? All those creatures running around trying to gobble them up. I know what you mean, though. I thought they might have put something in about that.
GEORGE: Perhaps we just couldn’t hear it, Geoffrey. They do talk awfully fast, don’t they?
BUNGLE: Yes. Still, at least there weren’t any frogs this time.
ZIPPY: Huh. Well, I thought it was rubbish. All those stupid monsters!
GEOFFREY: Didn’t you find them scary, Zippy? I know George did. [George is clutching at his blanket and whimpering softly.]
ZIPPY: Why would I find them scary when I share a bed with this lot? And the ending was boring.
BUNGLE: It was supposed to be warning us about climate change, Zippy!
ZIPPY: I already know that, Bungle Bonce. I still thought it was silly. Why did they have to go on and on about saving the planet?
GEOFFREY: Well, because it’s important, Zippy! We’ve only got one planet, haven’t we? We’ve all got to work together to take care of it.
ZIPPY: I do take care of it!
GEORGE: Is that why you always throw your crisp packets over the garden wall?
ZIPPY: I don’t!
GEOFFREY [brandishing a selection of cellophane wrappers]: Oh, yes you do. I found three of them there this morning!
ZIPPY: Yes but – well… [He harrumphs and rests his head on a floppy hand.]
BUNGLE: It’s funny, though. I don’t remember seeing Yas this week. What was she doing?
[There is a thoughtful silence, with gratuitous head scratching and chin-rubbing, as the four of them consider this.]
GEOFFREY: Oh well, never mind. I expect she was there somewhere. The Doctor needs to have someone standing around looking gormless.
ZIPPY: Yeah. You’d know about that, Geoffrey.
GEORGE: Oh, Zippy. You’re such a tw*t.
BUNGLE: Well, I do know one thing. I don’t think I’d want to go on holiday to a place like Tranquility Spa.
GEOFFREY: Oh? Why not, Bungle? Are you worried about furry things that look even less realistic than you do?
BUNGLE: No! I haven’t got any swimming shorts that fit me!
ZIPPY: You walk around the house stark naked!
BUNGLE: Well, yes, but I put my pyjamas on at bedtime, don’t I?
GEORGE: That engineer was funny, wasn’t he? His little boy knew much more than him. I felt like that was trying to tell us something, but I can’t really work it out.
BUNGLE: Ooh, Geoffrey! Rod, Jane and Freddie know a song about dysfunctional family relationships, don’t they?
GEOFFREY: Yes, you’re right, Bungle. Do you know, I think I’ve got a cassette somewhere. I’ll see if I can fish it out. But before we listen to it, I think we’d better say goodbye, don’t you? [Through the fourth wall] We’ll see you again soon. Take care of yourselves. Goodbye!
The Spock’s Brain Award is bestowed by fans of Trek to the worst episode of each series. It goes to the story revealed by a poll to be the absolute pits of the voyages of, respectively, the Enterprise, the Enterprise-D, Voyager, the Enterprise NX-01… (you get the idea). The Spock’s Brain Award was created by the writers of a book called Star Trek 101 (published in 2008) and was named, as you may guess, after Spock’s Brain, which was a very, very bad episode of the third series of the original Trek.
Actually, I don’t think Spock’s Brain is the worst of Star Trek: TOS. That accolade must surely go to The Way to Eden, in which a bunch of space hippies come aboard the Enterprise and do hip and kerrr-AZEE and mellow things. There is a grinning oaf among them who has forgotten to put his shirt on, plays his space guitar, and sings fatuous songs about something or other; cool space chicks accompany him in his horrifying dirges. Indeed, their spacecraft seems not to have a shirt to share among any of the male members of its crew, for they are all bare chested. And groovy. Said grinning hippy calls Kirk “Herbert”, which indicates that he is not a fellow cool, hip or trendy personage. “Herbert” appears to be a space hippy synonym for “Bumface”.
You can guess where this is going.
I think we should present The Spock’s Brain Award to our own favourite show. Perhaps we could rename it; The Delta and the Bannermen Award or The Underwater Menace Award both have a nice ring to them. Thing is, we might have to award it more regularly than Trek fans do; there have, after all, been so many worthy contenders for it, especially since the advent of Bubble’s adventures.
An outstanding potential nominee would be, of course, that gargantuan pool of effluent that was on the telly last Sunday.
Amazing to find another writer as bad as Chris Chibnall, but there we are. Step forward, Ed Hime! You managed to surpass the rubber frog you gave us two years ago! That took some doing! Well done!
I could go on to dissect the episode and analyse why each element was without merit but I honestly can’t be bothered. And, until we come up with a better name for the prize, The Spock’s Brain Award goes to [drumroll and dramatic pause…]
Congrats, Ed. You managed to write something even worse than The Way to Eden. Really very well done. Herbert.
Taken as written, in other words, we do not yet know that this fate of the Earth was not caused by the Time Lords, it could be a re-run of The Trial of a Time Lord [The Mysterious Planet] with the Hoix from Love & Monsters/The Pandorica Opens, and Torchwood‘s Exit Wounds thrown in to save having to invent a new look for a monster.
For the third time out of three episodes, the brand-new look TARDIS Console Room has but a fleeting role; however the telemat cards were fun. I assume Nevi and Sylas are the comic relief but with so much death around, I thought it totally out of place and in fact most of the characters seemed out of place – very few had any clear role than when prompted to say a few solo lines. The episode collapsed to me when the Dregs appeared; it was so like the Hoix, I was just laughing!!
This time I found the science truly baffling: how can the Dregs separate the oxygen from CO2 without expending a huge amount of energy? Maybe that is evolution for you. And talking of oxygen, what happened to the Doctor’s respiratory bypass system or perhaps the author was unaware of this?
Yet again, the ending is poor… Almost everybody dies!
Final Verdict – episode three – unoriginal, weakly acted, and not a lot going for it.
I admit that I had read a few comments on the DWC before I watched Orphan 55 and therefore I expected it to be awful, but I actually enjoyed the episode. Yes, there were a few holes in the plot/set-up and, yes, there were a couple of eye-roll moments (the vending machine reveal), but the visuals were pretty cinematic, the episode was fast-paced, action-packed, and the Dregs were well realised.
I always refer to Whitaker’s Doctor as lightweight, but her Doctor gets scared and is vulnerable. It looked as if she might suffocate rather than use some Time Lord physiology trick. The sight of her being dangled by her throat with legs flailing was quite grim. It was a million miles away from the “I’m the Doctor, you’ve already lost” attitude that got so tiresome a few years ago.
However, the sanctimonious tone, which keeps rearing its head, is getting a bit annoying. In Orphan 55, we have Kane being scolded for the mercy killing of Benni to the point of suggesting that she should have let the Dregs kill him instead. Although we are not shown how the Dregs kill, judging on their ‘Geiger’s Alien’ style appearance, Benni’s demise wouldn’t have been very pleasant… Another Arachnids in the UK moment maybe.
Regards the Doctor’s climate change speech, I didn’t think it was as bad as I expected it to be from previous comments, but just consider this…
Doctor Who production office: “Let’s do a story highlighting climate change.”
Also the Doctor Who production office: “Let’s fly our production team to Tenerife to film it.”
(Harry Hill’s TV Burp style sideways look into the camera).
Some people hated Orphan 55; others liked it. But which camp is better? There’s only one way to find out…! Ahem. Or maybe not.
Next time: Tesla vs Edison. But who’s better? There’s only one way to find out…!