This review contains spoilers after the squirrel.
12.3 Orphan 55
The story of a base under siege, where the Doctor and his companions stumble upon a group of human scientists or soldiers who are slowly being picked off by an invasive alien force, is almost as old as the show itself. Since Doctor Who returned in 2005 we’ve seen all sorts of takes on the idea – gangs of possessed Ood, sleep-dust monsters, sentient Martian water and so on – and this week’s Orphan 55 is a relatively straightforward addition to the list, albeit with one or two plot twists to help it fit more snugly within the current run of episodes.
This is no aloof group of beak-nosed scientists or disciplined UNIT grunts in danger from deadly monsters, but rather an assortment of holidaymakers visiting a resort known as Tranquillity Spa, which means the episode feels a bit more like Voyage Of The Damned than one of the classic-era ‘siege’ serials like The Moonbase. It’s also very, very speedy once it gets going, almost disorientingly so at times.
There’s certainly no shortage of running around to be had, with monsters nipping at the Doctor’s heels as she tries to keep everyone in one piece long enough to reach safety. The aliens themselves are suitably vicious even if their design isn’t particularly inspired, but ultimately this is an episode that delivers more or less what it promised in the trailer and nothing more, which means it’s unlikely to be at the top of anyone’s rewatch list however much they’re fans of Team TARDIS, but neither it is going to attract the infamy that Love & Monsters or Fear Her managed.
To say more requires a trek into spoiler country, so take it away, Daphne…
This week’s instalment comes to us from Ed Hime, who previously penned 2018’s It Takes You Away (a.k.a. The One With the Talking Frog), something of a Marmite episode that had no shortage of unusual ideas and high-concept sci-fi packed into a single story. As such, it’s slightly surprising to see Hime turning in a script that hews so closely to the closest thing Doctor Who has to a ‘traditional’ format – the Doctor, her companions, snarly aliens and the matter of survival.
There’s no negotiation to be had with the Dregs, nor has Tranquillity Spa been built on a sacred place of worship to provoke their attacks – they simply want to get in and do everyone a murder. (Of course, referring to them as “aliens” isn’t exactly accurate, but we’ll get to that later…)
The story swiftly introduces us to a handful of secondary characters, including Hyph3n (with a three), an alien with canine features who seems to be a nod to the cat-Nuns of New Earth but whose design can’t help but evoke Barf from Spaceballs. We’ve also got Nevi, who acts as handyman along with his son Sylas, visiting couple Benni and Vilma, and Bella. Notionally in charge of the spa is Kane, whose job falls somewhere in-between gung-ho soldier and corporate administrator, and her gun-toting sidekick Vorm.
Along with the Doctor, Ryan, Graham and Yaz, that’s a lot of people to pack out a story, and so – with the exception of the hidden relationship between Bella and Kane – these characters don’t really get much of a chance to develop beyond the first things we learn about them (Sylas is a tech whizz covering for his Dad, Benni wants to propose to Vilma, Kane is motivated by money, and so on.) Interactions between the pairings are kept to a minimum, too, so they lack the personality of, say, the expedition team in The Satan Pit. Perhaps if this episode had been another two-parter we’d have had chance to grow more attached to them.
Once the introductions have been rattled off, the Doctor – who adopts a “shut up and let me win” approach when the first attack kicks off – rebuilds the facility’s ionic membrane, which is apparently capable of physically expelling the Dregs from the spa. (All of the walls and other solid objects you’d expect to get in the way of this actually don’t, so that’s handy.) This puts her in something of a conflict with Kane over who gets to be in charge and what should happen next, but upon discovering that Benni has managed to flee the relative safety of the base and escape into the toxic wasteland that lies beyond its simulated horizon, the Doctor successfully orders a search and rescue operation.
It’s this journey out onto the planet’s hostile surface that makes up the middle chunk of the episode, and it’s an absolute whirlwind of events as the crew get into the truck, out of the truck, back in the truck, out of the truck again and down into an underground tunnel system where the Dregs lurk, all against the ticking clock of limited oxygen that means they have to keep moving.
Oddly, there’s a lot of oddly noticeable ADR here, where actors’ lines are added over footage during post-production. For whatever reason, many of the scenes around the truck’s exterior have their dialogue delivered in this way – and to help disguise this, those lines are ‘spoken’ by characters who are moving in and out of shot, have their back to the camera or aren’t on-screen at all, presumably so you can’t see their lips moving. Personally I found it quite jarring, but it’ll be interesting to see if other viewers mind it. (This week’s episode is ten minutes shorter than the others during Chris Chibnall’s time in charge, so it’s possible a lot of this sequence was cut for time and had to be reworded.)
Ultimately unable to rescue Benni, the Doctor’s entourage struggle through a Dreg nest in order to make it back to Tranquillity Spa and its much-needed oxygen. There’s an interesting moment where the Doctor is rendered unable to speak having exhausted her supply (“You talk too much,” Kane snarks) and a Doctor trying to keep control of a situation while deprived of her ability to speak is an idea that could probably spin out into a whole episode of its own. Here, though, it’s a problem that’s resolved a few moments later as the Doctor discovers that sleeping Dregs exhale oxygen; enough to completely refill her supply. It’s now that she, and we, learn the truth about Orphan 55, a planet given that designation after its original inhabitants were forced to flee.
Yes, Orphan 55 is Earth at some unspecified future date, and the Dregs aren’t aliens but the mutated survivors who were left behind to fend for themselves on a ruined planet. Humans, once again, turn out to be the real monsters all along, both physically and metaphorically. There’s an interesting bit of misdirection early on, where it’s implied that Benni might actually have somehow transformed into a Dreg rather than being carried away, and it’s enough to start you wondering if the whole species might in fact be mutated outcasts. In a way, that turns out to be true.
This isn’t the first time Doctor Who has presented the idea that the human race will one day evacuate the Earth, either due to an encroaching natural disaster or because of a man-made catastrophe. Episodes like The Ark in Space, The Beast Below and The End Of The World show that the human race is quite prepared to thrive out in the universe at large when it needs to. Here, however, the reason for the calamity is described overtly as “climate change” – as in, human-fuelled destruction of the ecosystem.
Doctor Who has always had a social conscience, one that stretches all the way back to the days when its remit was to educate as well as entertain. Rarely, though, has the show slammed the brakes on to directly deliver a monologue. In this case, it’s on the importance of tackling climate change in the here and now, conveyed by Whittaker, who might as well be looking directly into the camera while she speaks. Fans will certainly have their own opinions on whether the undeniable urgency of the problem justifies speaking so overtly to the audience, that’s for sure.
There are a few nice moments peppered throughout the story, like the realisation that Bella is afflicted by a hopper virus when we first meet her not because she fell victim to the infected vending machine, but because she was the one planting them in the first place. The Doctor obliviously plonking herself down between Ryan and Bella while he’s flirting is fun, too, and it’s the sort of awkward moment Matt Smith’s regeneration might have caused by behaving in a similar way. (Not that Ryan’s got much chance at a love-life, at least if Yaz gets her way.) Jodie Whittaker’s expression when Graham mentions wearing his speedos is also a treat.
The reveal that Bella is really Trixabelle is a neat twist to the base-under-siege tale, where the humans traditionally get betrayed by someone who’s seeking wealth or power. Here, it’s Kane’s greed and the ease with which she abandoned her family that has incited Bella to destroy Tranquillity Spa, though it’s hard to feel too much sympathy for either character given how much death and destruction Bella causes while taking her revenge.
That’s Orphan 55 in a nutshell: a workmanlike episode that’s big on action but struggles to make us really care about the people who are in danger. Whether they lived or died, the guests of Tranquillity Spa will soon fade into the long history of Doctor Who. Instead, it’ll be the final few minutes, and how the ending chose to deliver its message, that the episode will mostly be remembered for.