Reviewed: Doctor Who — Orphan 55

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It began well: the throwaway tentacle, the holiday vouchers, and the resort-under-siege all recalled Russell T. Davies’ carnivorous silliness. The ensemble, too, was very RTD: ‘oh there’s a gun, let me tote it’ Kane; notmarried Vilma and her partner (I didn’t catch his name); the sullen teenager Bella; the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Brummie Hyph3n; and inept dad Nevi and smart lad Sylas, who are aliens because they have green hair. Might this be another Voyage of the Damned or Midnight? Hell, I’d settle for a Delta and the Bannermen (particularly if Hyph3n turned out simply to be a woman managing complex emotional problems by cosplaying as a squirrel).

Barf and Sylas
Hyph3n and the exotically alien Sylas.

I liked Yaz’s deflated ‘you already know, obvs’ look when she sees the Doctor stood by the hole in holodeck wall. I enjoyed Whittaker being Doctorish while Ryan fends off hallucinatory bats, and the Doctor’s riposte about being able to build Kane from scratch with ‘some crayons and a tin of spam.’ ‘Guest offline’ is a nicely macabre phrase, which deserved more prominence. Some people will object to the Doctor talking of alternative possible futures for the Earth, but let’s remember that the man who admonished Barbara for trying to change a line of history later stiffened Sarah Jane’s resolve by showing her a desolate 1980. 

Who has never looked better. The cinematography, sets, and location work were excellent, even if Whittaker was visibly trying to ignore the wind. The truck was superb, and the Dregs were a solid design, well-executed; although the repeated use of tightly shot cutaways disconnected them from several surrounding scenes. Their ‘reveal’ did seem muddled, though. First, they appeared in partial shot and then the next moment they were implied with shadow. It seemed to me that the editing was clashing with the direction. 

There were many annoyances. While once only a transmat ‘15 million times more powerful’ than average could snatch the Doctor, Rose, and Jack from inside the TARDIS (in Bad Wolf), now even Thomas Cook can do it. Still, I’ll forgive this contrivance to keep Orphan 55 a Mysterious Planet. I was also irritated as the Doctor suggested various disguises while holding up the psychic paper. It was a joke but it made no sense. The oxygen gimmick was another contrivance; this time to add tension, but the props didn’t sell it for me. How exactly were they absorbing the oxygen and why weren’t they breathing in lungfuls of CO2? Here was that rarest of things: Chris Chibnall skimping on exposition. And why did everyone go on the rescue mission? Why did the Dregs take Vilma’s husband and why did they take him with them when they attacked the truck? How does an unemployed carer build bombs and smuggle them on board a resort with such high security? Why would Kane blithely fire a gun that had just ‘failed’ by poleaxing Bella? I could go on but I won’t.

Under the Dome

But all of this I could overlook, if the whole enterprise wasn’t crippled by the same problems that have dogged the Chibnall regime throughout: perfunctory, narrative dialogue; impoverished characterisation; and condescending storytelling. There are no characters in the piece. At best, there are nodes within the plot. Who, for instance, is Kane? She comes across as the head of security rather than an owner or executive, yet we’re told she built the entire place to impress her estranged daughter. Nor is Bella a character so much as a function in a script outline: a resentful teenager who skips writing bad poetry and graduates directly to plotting multiple murder. We don’t see or feel her relationship with her mother, we are merely told about it. Likewise, what do we know about Vilma and her partner (whose name I didn’t catch)? They have one telegraphing exchange at the beginning and then exist only to become tragic. Compare them with Morvin and Foon Van Hoff in Voyage of the Damned to see how this should be done. Nor have the main characters escaped. Over a dozen episodes in, and I still have little idea of who Yaz is or her relationship with Graham. Ryan’s principal role seems to be to narrate the obvious. The Thirteenth Doctor remains, at best, a partial sketch of the Tenth. The scripts so far have allowed Jodie Whittaker little more than that.

We’re frequently given the idea of good dialogue rather than the thing itself. Of Kane and Bella’s estrangement, the Doctor quips, ‘is passive aggressive discussion not enough?’ That’s a placeholder for a joke but not the joke itself, which needed to be something specific like ‘can’t you do it with snide comments over the roast potatoes at Christmas?’ Too many moments are similarly schematic, like notes Ed Hime has made in the margin of his breakdown: ‘Ryan has heart-warming moment with Bella here,’ ‘insert Vilma’s moving sacrifice there,’ ‘Bella’s gun has some sort of failure but Kane saves her, here.’

One of the Dregs of Doctor Who

All the way through, the characters narrate the action and their feelings. I can forgive the Doctor doing her Vulcan mindmeld act again, but not ‘Need to understand one more thing now. Checking what’s in here,’ while she does it. By the time she’s info-V/O’ing ‘Yeah, I see you Dreg Leader, the alpha dog of the Apex predators… You call and your species responds. But we need to isolate you and that CO2 has just shown me how’ we’re firmly into children’s radio.

‘And now for a very special episode of Blossom.’ 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. The Doctor has no fewer than three speeches: hammering the point until it breaks right through the fourth wall and Whittaker exhorts the audience to ‘be the best of humanity’ before actually leading into a cutaway.

Orphan 55, like too many current stories, is confectionary rather than a solid meal. It lacks the rounded characters and well-turned dialogue of previous eras and, instead, we are given something impressionistic and cursory: like a rough outline of Doctor Who by someone who understands the structure but not the substance.