Our Editor is always up for second opinions and wide-ranging views about Doctor Who. Following the less-than-resounding praise for Orphan 55 in the response since it was broadcast, I wondered how my appreciation of it might change in the light of that conversation. Well, I read all the interesting comments from you lovely readers, and finally challenged by Rick, I dared to rewatch. And you know what? It was better the second time around. Not only was I forewarned about the preachy bits so I could duck and cover, I had time to notice all the fun little references that show just how much of a fan Chris Chibnall is.
The opening scene inside the TARDIS was a lively use of space, including Graham’s reference to the (‘upstairs, or was it downstairs?’) flexibility of the TARDIS. But I would like to see that, not be told about it, have those interesting hexagonal flats move. Explore the interior a bit.
The spa looks as though it was a cold, gloomy, windy day and the lighting director had a hard job making it look sunny and inviting. I’m enjoying the new angle that drone-filming allows; crane shots were always expensive and limited – this allows chase action from above. The quarry and underground sets are classic Who to a T. Kudos to the location hunters.
The explosion at the end was good: the gang’s escape not quite as cool as the Seventh Doctor leaving the exploding Big Top without batting an eyelid in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, but nicely done.
People have complained about the pacing which starts zippily enough but drags to a grinding halt at the end, but there is a steady progress from comedy to tragedy. Relax and enjoy the humour; the world’s ending. And in case anyone finds the clash of humour with potential geocide odd, as a climate activist I’d say that if we don’t keep our sense of humour, the human race won’t be worth saving though the rest of nature very much is. If we don’t talk of climate change in funny programmes as well as deadly serious ones, we’ll give up in despair. Keep your chin up, or it’ll end up covered in teeth.
Their holiday starts with a lovely bit of visual humour, messing about with the worm-virus; Doctor being Doctory, with some great choreography between her and Ryan. Vorn with the gun is hilarious – a spoof version of security with guns everywhere; you almost expect him to mutter ‘Hut, hut, hut.’
Jodie Whittaker’s scattergun delivery slowing down to ‘let me in or I’ll bark at you’ works. The humour continues with her referring to the deadlocked room with armoury as the honeymoon suite; the ‘you, Madam, are too handsy’; and ‘if I had crayons and half a can of spam, I could build you from scratch.’ Like her predecessor naming the Dalek Rusty, she names the Dreg leader ‘Wheezy’ (like the Dwarves; she’s going to collect the set).
But in amongst all the humour Jodie Whittaker has begun to take charge. She tells Kane what to do on many occasions, ‘I need you here… not out there shooting at things,’ and reluctant as she is, Kane obeys. ‘Now, Kane!’ Yeay! Her approach to the Dreg leader is very Doctor; they’re the indigenous life-form now, so she tells them to use reason and become smarter than the beings that made them.
People see the Tenth Doctor in her, but I see the Eleventh more often; thankfully, we’re finally beginning to see the Thirteenth.
The Fam is split up again, but they do okay alone. They aren’t just standing around waiting for the Doctor to do something.
Graham potters aroun,d becoming everyone’s Granddad (calling Sylas ‘Cockle’!). He’s still the most natural character and actor.
After her sleuthing in Spyfall, Yaz makes a better carer than police officer. Like teachers and nurses, they have to be all things to all people.
Ryan deciding to follow Vorn with a gun rather than run in the opposite direction is a sign of the Doctor’s influence. For good or ill. I hoped he’d grow into a more Jamie-like character, a mix of loyalty, humour, and bravery. He gets his own companion, who asks him ‘what just happened?’ then faces down her pointing a gun at him later – another hint of the Seventh Doctor there. He could have been the Xander of Who; falling for a string of dangerous females. She plants bombs then complains ‘we’re all going to die here!’ Maybe she is a metaphor for willful planet-destruction.
Brilliant directing of these monsters at the start: hint, threaten, glimpse, but don’t reveal. Even the snot-monster dripping at Ryan and Bella was good. By the time they attack the truck in full view, their joints show, they pose and almost beat their chests, or lumber around without much menace.
We could be kind and say that children need to know that monsters are always less scary when you can look them in the face in daylight. And to that end, can I point out the bolt that fastens the arm on?
Oh, you already saw that. Okay.
Nice corridors. Sorry, but I’m a bit OCD about corridor design. Like those first Dalek city asymmetrical corridors, they have character. Rather more than the 2D too-many-characters-in-one-episode. Which means that dialogue establishing them is rushed – ‘you’re not a mechanic – you’re a child’; ‘he likes to show up without warning’; and ‘this place is way better than Mum’s house.’ It’s all too fast: good writing lets those things slip in as the story proceeds, to make you feel like you’re getting to know them and care about them, not just have a crash-course introduction to their family arrangements.
I don’t quite buy the ‘all she wants is money’ characterisation of Kane. If we’d had time to find out her past, her motivation, we might have some sympathy. Bella’s dad died, after she was his carer – her mum ‘made Nevi look like parent of the year’ – Yaz asks ‘what is wrong with you?’ but we never find out.
As to Benni and Vilma, the least said the better: they weren’t playing real people, just two halves of a plot-device.
Thank goodness for Nevi and Sylas, who made more of their limited screen-time: The Doctor says, ‘Sylas, you’ve been brilliant’, and you have to agree. Cute, well-acted, and very cheap to cosplay.
The DNA filter is not-so-unreal sci-fi; we are building medicines tailored to particular DNA characteristics, so why not security barriers too? The barrier reveal somehow made me think of The Truman Show – do you really want to go outside?
But aren’t all holiday spa resorts safe, gated communities protected from real life? That leads nicely into the ‘if you can’t evacuate, you die’ speech, before the eco-stuff got too preachy.
At the close you may find it helpful to imagine one of the other Doctors saying those bits, swiftly, darkly, half to the companions, half to themselves but never half through the fourth wall.
‘This Vehicle is Compromised’
Every time I heard ‘this vehicle is…’ it made me smile. Sadly the ‘…reversing’ never came.
The grunge interior to the truck is a welcome contrast to the whitewashed sepulchre Spa. But this part drags. And then it starts to go downhill. They leave the truck, go back to the truck, leave the truck, and ‘should never have left the dome’, says Hyph3n – surely she and the others should have stayed home and left a small squad to find Benni? – just before being dragged to her death, by the Dregs of humanity. (Actually I’d like to say that the elite who chose to burn the planet and leave the rest to die were the dregs of humanity, and those too poor to leave might have been decent human beings before mutating. But I’ll be accused of preachiness, so let’s move on).
The Doctor was not the last out, so Hyph3n died. As we hadn’t found out why she needed to cosplay a cat-person-in-sci-fi-esque uniform or spell her name with a 3, I’m not sure anyone cared she’d gone. Re. cosplay, it’s beautiful that even before she gives the Doctor the ‘on Tranquillity spa, we don’t judge people’ speech, the Doctor has already accepted her need to self-identify as a cat; on first meeting, she compliments the tail while not mentioning the – er – ‘hat.’
It starts to get really preachy with the ‘don’t ignore science’ talk (from people whose grasp of oxygen is, to be kind, selective), the ‘foodchain collapse, mass migration, and war,’ beautifully nuanced by Graham saying ‘I can’t hold this much longer’ about the Dreg-blockade, and maybe the thoughts in his head. Maybe his ‘It ain’t the aliens that’s gonna kill me, it’s worrying about you’ is another echo of his generation’s concern for their grandchildrens’ futures.
I’ve pointed out elsewhere that Sylas “you never listen to me” Greenhair represents the school climate strikers trying to make those with power take responsibility: he’s not a plot device; he’s a walking metaphor, but played well. I wish they’d done more of this metaphor stuff and less spelled out for the hard-of-thinking spiel.
In fact, if I’m allowed to be meta for a moment, Orphan 55 is a lot like the Tranquility Spa dome: a slice of all-inclusive, good-natured, relaxed escapism, rudely crashed by lumbering reminders of Real Life.
While we were wondering how flames could burn without oxygen, we missed the effects of oxygen deprivation on Yaz: the Doctor points out to Yaz that she can’t speak because she’s out of oxygen, her monitor has gone RED = DEAD. And Yaz calmly wanders on leaving her behind… eh?
Oh, and I missed this on first viewing; I complained that a virus could pass through a vending machine but not a crisp packet, and wondered why they have a cheap vending machine in a luxury Spa anyway. But then they use it to barricade the air duct. It’s a money-saving two-in-one plot device!
And finally, I love the fan service: for Spyfall, I complained the Kasaavin were like the insubstantial figures in Invasion of Time who turned out to be dexterity-challenged Sontarans who tripped over pool furniture. In Orphan 55, we get ‘Yes! Sunloungers; our last line of defence!’
So then: Orphan 55 has a few more saving graces than upon initial viewing… but I’m in no hurry to watch it again.
This is the start of a new DWC featurette: The Caption Competition, and boasts a considerable No-Prize.
‘Graham’s speedos – everyone look away!