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Doctor Who: Orphan 55 (Review)

“He’s moving at thirty-seven klicks an hour.”

“That doesn’t sound like my Benni.”

Like It Takes You Away in the previous season, Orphan 55 provides a something close to a workable model for the Chibnall era as a whole. Unfortunately, Orphan 55 doesn’t quite get there.

One of the strange paradoxes of the Chibnall era is that it often seems like the guest writers have a stronger grasp on its core themes than the showrunner. After all, Demons of the Punjab was perhaps the best single argument for Chibnall’s passive and observational characterisation of the Thirteenth Doctor, a far stronger argument than that articulated in Rosa or Arachnids in the U.K. or any of the episodes with Chibnall’s name on the credits.

“Game over, Doc.”

Orphan 55 draws from an impressive array of influences across the history of Doctor Who, providing a fascinating intersection between “holiday camp gone wrong” episodes like The Macra Terror and Delta and the Bannermen and “future of Earth” episodes like The Ark in Space or The End of the World. Indeed, the positioning of Orphan 55 as the first standalone episode after the premiere is quite canny; it fills what would be the “New Earth” slot on a Russell T. Davies season. However, it offers a much grimmer prognosis. This is appropriate for a much grimmer age.

Like so much of the Chibnall era, Orphan 55 is built around the general impotence of the Doctor. The Doctor is a fictional character, and so cannot save the world. The Moffat era dealt with this question in a more abstract and metaphorical sense in episodes like Extremis, demonstrating the importance of Doctor Who as a story and the Doctor as an idea. The Chibnall era tends to respond to this challenge with dull literalism. The Thirteenth Doctor spends an inordinate amount of her run confronting systemic or societal problems with which she refuses to engage.

A green message.

The Thirteenth Doctor’s passiveness when confronted with monstrosity is one of the more horrifying aspects of the Chibnall era as a whole. In The Ghost Monument, the Doctor refused to hold Ilan to account for the horrors he inflicted on the participants in his race. In Arachnids in the U.K., Jack Robertson just walked away from liability for mass murder in his hotel. In Rosa, the Doctor stage managed the oppression of Rosa Parks, even forcing her companion to be actively complicit in systemic racism.

While the Chibnall era is clearly trying to make a larger point about how the Doctor cannot save the world because she doesn’t exist, this often becomes a bleak and depressing study of how the public imagination can no longer conjure better worlds into being. Demons of the Punjab managed to make the best argument for this approach through careful construction, tying its historical injustices to Yaz’s personal history. Orphan 55 pulls off something similar, primarily by setting the action long after the world has failed to be saved.

Shattering expectations.

It has been suggested that environmentalism might be the key recurring theme of Chibnall’s second season as showrunner. This makes a great deal of sense in pragmatic terms. Chibnall has largely avoided offering too pointed a commentary on overtly political problems like Brexit or Trumpism. This is somewhat disappointing, because it means that the show’s strongest engagement with the defining British political issue of modern times is somewhere between Empress of Mars and The Eaters of Light.

The Chibnall era might be wary of weighing in on this debate for the same reason that the BBC has been painfully ineffective as a public broadcaster in dealing with the insanity. Chibnall has overseen the first female regeneration in the history of Doctor Who. Despite offering the most explicitly conservative interpretation of the show since the mid-eighties, the show has found itself being subject to criticism for being too “politically correct” or too “woke.” It is possible that Chibnall’s reluctance to engage with the big issues of the day may be in response to that.

On the surface, environmentalism offers a fairly safe subject. It is undoubtedly political, in that it will require massive political will and incredible sacrifices in order to save the planet. However, the issue is also fairly ambiguous while also being broadly accessible. Nobody is arguing that mankind should kill the planet, after all, even if there are arguments about how best to save it. “We should save the planet,” is the sort of generic statement everybody should theoretically get behind, in a way that “maybe Britain shouldn’t leave Europe” isn’t. It’s political, but it can be framed safely.

To be fair to Himes and to Orphan 55, the episode is relatively candid about the causes of climate changes and the consequences. “It’s societies that let this happen,” the Doctor tells Graham “There’s nearly always a ruling elite that gets to evacuate. And then signs off any responsibility for whatever they’ve left behind.” Yaz complains, “That’s messed up.” The Doctor responds, “Happens more than you think. This is Orphan 55.”

“Global warming, eh?”

There is implicitly some class commentary baked into the premise of the episode, with the wealthy elite managing to turn the long-dead Earth into a spa result. Of course, this premise is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the episode largely avoids class dynamics in its casting. Graham manages to get the crew to Orphan 55 using coupons, which Ryan very quickly discovers that Trixie is “long-term unemployed.” The other major characters all work at the resort as well. Benni and Vilma are the only clearly wealthy major characters, but are both presented as lovely and charming.

As such, the Doctor’s criticisms ring just a little hollow, particularly given the show’s long history of skewering the horrors of hypercapitalism and consumerism. Episodes like Planet of the Ood and Oxygen both touch on how creep and exploitation enable these systems of oppression. In contrast, Orphan 55 even seems reluctant to entirely criticise Kane’s efforts to terraform the planet for profit, because there’s no real causal connection between the exploitation that destroyed the planet and the one that built a holiday resort atop a graveyard.

There are moments when Orphan 55 comes close to making these sorts of connections. “They built a wall around the hotel,” Yaz yells at one point, drawing together two popular images associated with President Donald Trump – his infamous border wall and the hotels from which he is profiting. After all, it is Trump who is pulling out of the Paris Accord, and who is using his election to the most powerful office in the world to enrich himself. The Doctor deadpans of Kane, “Today, hotelier. Tomorrow, proud owner of Orphan 55. The best real estate in the galaxy.” It sounds familiar.

However, these connections remain largely abstract rather than clearly articulated. Indeed, given how hard Orphan 55 works to make its core theme apparent to the audience, its reluctance to frame these observations in explicit and literal terms feels somewhat underwhelming. It doesn’t help matters that Orphan 55 clumsily tries to spread the blame around between various characters, instead of asking the classic murder mystery question, “Who profits?” The logic applies as much to the murder of a planet as a person.

The end of the world as we know it.

Again, Orphan 55 deserves some credit for bluntness. “You want me to tell you that Earth’s gonna be okay, because I can’t,” the Doctor advises her companions (and implicitly the audience) in the closing moments of the episode. “Unless people face facts, and change, catastrophe is coming. But it’s not decided. The future is not fixed. It depends on billions of decisions and actions and people stepping up.” This is a very valid point. It is also very timely. There is a legitimate question at this moment in time whether Earth can be saved. Australia is burning and may soon be uninhabitable.

To be fair, Orphan 55 marks something of a departure with the rest of the Chibnall era as a whole. The Chibnall era has largely been anchored in a grim inevitability, a sense that things are the way that they are and that there is no point even trying to imagine a better alternative. This is the logic that leads the Doctor and the companions to not only abide systemic racism in Rosa, but to make themselves actively complicit in it. This perhaps explains the Doctor’s indifference to human monsters like Ilan and Robertson in The Ghost Monument and Arachnids in the U.K.

Throughout the first season, there was a sense that the Doctor and her companions were both entirely powerless to prevent any meaningful positive changes in the worlds that they visited and often actively complicit in the systemic injustices that take place. The first season often struggled to justify this seeming callousness, in marked contrast to earlier iterations of the Doctor’s willingness to step in to stop injustice and exploitation in episodes like Thin Ice.

Of the episodes in Chibnall’s first season, perhaps Demons of the Punjab came closest to making a convincing argument. The episode conceded that such passivity was inherently selfish rather than moral, with the Doctor wary of erasing Yaz from history. More than that, Demons of the Punjab made an argument for the importance of witnessing historical injustice, of allowing one’s self to recognise horror and brutality. Of course, the Chibnall era struggled with what flows from such awareness, struggling to make the leap from awareness into action.

We’re all screwdrivered.

Orphan 55 offers a firm rejection of this philosophy, with the Doctor assuring her companions (and the audience) that “the future is not fixed.” This is very much in keeping with the philosophy that “time can be rewritten” that ran through the Moffat era. More than that, it’s a commendable and worthy message to send to the younger members of the audience. After all, Doctor Who is a family television show. Who wants to tell children there is nothing they can do to prevent environmental collapse? Indeed, that messaging might even make people give up and accelerate the damage.

The Chibnall era has consciously pushed Doctor Who back towards its original objective of educating its audience, particularly the younger children watching. This is commendable, even if the results are sometimes inelegant. However, part of what is frustrating about episodes like Orphan 55 is its reluctance to engage in specifics. There is something very commendable in the Doctor stating bluntly that the planet is doomed and that she cannot save it. More than that, Orphan 55 makes explicit an important part of the Doctor’s impotence. If she cannot save the world, it is up to the viewer to step in.

However, Orphan 55 also seems like a little bit of a cop out on that point. Most superficially, it refuses to explicitly confirm that Kane and Bella died on the planet surface. Ryan offers a halfhearted suggestion that Kane and Bella might have survived. It seems to be an obvious lie, but why not explicitly state it? More than that, the Doctor just materialised inside a machine that can go anywhere in time and space. She could at least use it to nip back to Orphan 55 and check, if the episode isn’t going to actually explicitly acknowledge the deaths of Kane and Bella.

Orphan 55 also tries to share complicity between Kane and Bella, with the Doctor observing that “mankind is fighting over the dishes while the house is burning down.” This seems like of a misrepresentation. Indeed, the younger generation has been incredibly active in trying to raise awareness of issues like climate change. Greta Thunberg is the most famous climate activist on the planet. The most high profile climate protests are the “climate strike” organised by school students.

The Bella of the fireball…

The episode offers a false equivalence between Kane and Bella. Sure, Kane abandoned her partner and her daughter to exploit a dead planet for profit. However, Bella is presented as a spoiled child throwing a temper tantrum. Bella is not here to protect native species. She is not here to stop exploitation. She is not here to draw attention to the fact that mankind is repeating and erasing its past mistakes. “I’m here to burn this place down,” she bluntly states to Ryan. That is her sole motivation as a character.

This comes perilously close to an endorsement of “bothsidesism”, suggesting that both older and younger generations (and the political right and the political left) are equally to blame for the chaos unfolding. This is self-evidently nonsense. Nevertheless, in case the audience thinks that there’s any ambiguity on how Orphan 55 feels, the Doctor even pauses to sternly lecture Bella, “You caused this mess, and now you’re going to help clean it up.” And, to be fair, as the episode is written, it is Bella’s fault. She is wrong to try and blow up the resort for no reason.

As such, Orphan 55 seems weirdly like an appeal to moderation and civility while confronting environmental collapse. This feels both disingenuous and counterproductive. Given the current political climate in places like the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union, it will take genuinely radical politics to prevent Earth from turning into a wasteland. However, Orphan 55 often seems to suggest that everybody just needs to lower their voices and calm down.

This isn’t quite as bad as the problems baked into Kerblam! Most obviously, it seems like Himes is at least aware of the reality of where the blame for this crisis lies, even if the episode struggles to articulate that through plotting and characterisation. Orphan 55 is a lot messier than It Takes You Away, which is slightly strange of itself. Many writers tend to hone their work over multiple scripts, refining ideas and themes. It seems like Orphan 55 is continuously tripping over details that It Takes You Away neatly executed.

Kane and able.

As with It Takes You Away, Himes builds Orphan 55 around a generational conflict. It Takes You Away was one of the defining stories of the previous season, clearly articulating the deep-set anxiety about failed parental (and particularly paternal figures) that ran across the ten episodes. Erik was perhaps the season definitive failed patriarch, a man who abandoned his dependent daughter to monsters he planted at the boundaries of the family farm, all so that he could retreat into nostalgia’ comforting embrace.

These patriarchal anxieties were a consistent thematic throughline across the season, most obviously articulated in the absence of Ryan’s father, which paid off in Resolution. It was also a fitting theme for the first season of Doctor Who with a female lead. However, It Takes You Away was the season’s best articulation of the theme because it actually allowed the Doctor to hold Erik to account. The Doctor actually called Erik out on his selfishness and his recklessness, acknowledging he was completely useless and couldn’t even save himself. It was a breathe of fresh air.

Orphan 55 features a similar dynamic between Bella and Kane. Bella bonds with Ryan over the death of her father. When Yaz teasingly asks “yeah, Ryan, what are you talking about?”, Ryan responds, “We both have dead parents.” As with Hanne in It Takes You Away, Bella is clearly intended as a mirror to Ryan. Both characters even first meet sucking their thumbs while dealing with a “hopper” infection. Bella cared for her dying mother, and has taken the trip to this leisure resort to confront her absent mother.

However, Orphan 55 softens Kane in a way that It Takes You Away refused to soften Erik. “So you left her and the dad, and never got back in contact?” Yaz accuses Kane at one point. “I was only doing this to give to her,” Kane replies. The episode seems to treat this as something commendable and excusable, that Kane’s only problem was that she never actually told Bella that she was leaving to participate in the exploitation of the toxic wasteland that was once Earth. It’s a rather awkward moral stance; it’s not the negligence that is the problem, just the lack of communication.

Where there’s smoke…

This is a shame, because there is a lot to like within Orphan 55, and a lot of little touches that help it steer clear of the worst possible reading of its approach to Kane and Bella. Most obviously, the episode juxtaposes the broken relationship between Kane and Bella with the healthier dynamic between Nevi and Sylas. Nevi is bumbling and well-meaning, but clearly deeply unqualified for his job. Despite being a kid, Sylas has a much better understanding of how the world works. “You never listen to me,” Sylas complains – justifiably, as the episode demonstrates.

It is a nice bit of nuance, and a detail that prevents Orphan 55 from seeming as reactionary as something like Kerblam! Although the characterisation of Bella feels spectacularly misjudged to underscore a troubling theme, there is something quite appropriate about the importance of Sylas at the climax. Sylas saves everybody. The kids are alright. Similarly, there is something very touching in Vilma’s own considered sacrifice, her willingness to offer her life in order to buy the younger characters a chance to make things right. It’s a very humanist piece of writing.

Similarly clever is the episode’s approach to monsters. The Chibnall era has often struggled with the idea of monsters, perhaps in part due to its desire to offer a more passive iteration of the Doctor. The eleventh season got things right on a couple of occasions, most obviously with the aliens in Demons of the Punjab. That mostly-pure-historical episode centred on a race of monsters who had given up being monsters in order to become witnesses and observers – a clever mirroring of the show’s shifting approach to the Doctor.

It Takes You Away also very cannily and very cleverly avoided this issue by offering a “monster” who could be “overcome” through empathy and compassion. The Solitract was an existential threat to the entire universe, but the Doctor was able to reason with it by extending a hand of friendship. It was a story that relied on a more passive and pacifist Doctor in order to function. Orphan 55 does something relatively similarly with a much more traditional template.

Sylas Greenhair is people.

Orphan 55 begins as a “base under siege” story, with “the dregs” laying siege to the holiday resort. This is a narrative that could easily become troubling or unsettling, a horror story about hostile outsiders plotting a sinister invasion. “The ionic membrane’s forced those things out,” the Doctor boasts at one point, which sounds like a technobabble slogan for border controls. However, Orphan 55 pulls a very neat trick with the (admittedly inevitable) twist that Orphan 55 was Earth all along and that “the dregs” aren’t really monsters. They are humanity.

It is a very neat and clever narrative sleight of hand, in large part because it twists classic colonial anxieties back on themselves. “The native species want you and your guests dead,” the Doctor warns Kane, evoking the nightmare of colonialism. However, that nightmare is often rooted in uncomfortable racist assumptions, equating “natives” with “savages” in the style of a John Ford Western. Himes’ script is far cleverer than that, hinging on the plot point that Kane is effectively recolonising Earth.

This presents colonialism as something approaching an ouroboros. It is not a historical force, but instead a driving ideology that does not need new worlds to conquer. In the nineties, the cyberpunk movement imagined those worlds as virtual playgrounds. More recently, works like Hell or High Water have suggested that the horrors of colonialism may simply be turned against those who once wielded them; a reflexive hypermodern hypercapitalism manifest destiny that turns the settlers into the dispossessed.

With this clever touch, Himes neatly sidesteps a lot of the potential problems with the classic “base under siege” story, the driving fear of a “them” that is threatening to invade an overwhelm an “us.” In the world of Orphan 55, colonialism has accelerated to such a point that there is no meaningful distinction between the “them” and the “us.” As Yaz helpfully explains to Ryan, “the dregs” are ultimately “us, mutated.” As such, Orphan 55 contributes to the modernisation of the sort of classic Doctor Who story templates to which traditionalist fandom hews.

Who nose?

There are other endearing aspects of Orphan 55. As with It Takes You Away, it marks a welcome return of the more camp stylistic elements of Doctor Who. The basic plot channels the show’s long history of “cursed holiday camp” stories including The Macra Terror, The Leisure Hive, Delta and the Bannermen and Midnight. Despite the “prestigification” of Doctor Who, there is something reassuring in how comfortable Orphan 55 is with the more low-key special effects like the make-up and “excellent tail” on “Hyph3n-with-a-three” or Sylas and Nevi’s bright green hair.

Of course, “the dregs” are an impressive monster, a welcome reminder of the production value of modern Doctor Who. They are shot very effectively as well, with the episode largely withholding full body shots for most of the runtime; offering intense close-ups of eyes and jaws, or silhouettes in steam and behind glass. However, there’s also something impressive in the wide shots. In the wasteland, “the dregs” seem to have been rendered in computer-generated imagery – perhaps to avoid leaks. This gives them a stylised quality, like claymation or stop motion. It’s very effective.

Indeed, Orphan 55 feels unashamedly like a continuation of the Saward and Cartmel era aesthetics that informed a lot of the future-set stories during the Davies and Moffat eras. The plot of Orphan 55 even feels like an eighties action movie, with the set of characters venturing into battle against a hostile alien species inside an armoured vehicle directly evoking Aliens. (Indeed, “the dregs” also abduct their food.) Even the heavily militarisation of Kane feels like part of that aesthetic, harking back to stories like Earthshock or Resurrection of the Daleks.

The Chibnall era can occasionally seem just a little bit too self-serious, stripping out a lot of the silliness that should be baked into Doctor Who. There’s something incredibly charming and goofy in the various little touches of Orphan 55, from the implication of an unseen adventure with a “deep space squid” (reference to Watchmen?) or Graham’s shrewd exploitation of a “collect six coupons, get a free holiday” offer. It is hard to resist Graham standing on an alien world, calming insisting, “Gotta get your coupon’s worth, Doc!”

Squid happens.

Similarly, there are a lot of clever little touches in characterisation. The relationship between Vilma and Benni is surprisingly effective, particularly the black humour of his “two questions” that he is “embarrassed to ask […] together.” Similarly, there’s a sense of developing sister-brother dynamic between Yaz and Ryan, with Yaz’s simple teasing of Ryan over his flirtation with Bella, which is much more efficient than the entire conversation between the pair in Spyfall, Part I. Similarly, Ryan’s whole awkward flirtation is the best material Tosin Cole has had in a while.

It helps that Orphan 55 has assembled a pretty solid guest cast. Laura Fraser is an impressive casting coup for the series, the Scottish actor coming direct from her work on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, relishing her chance to play a no-nonsense foil for the more passive Doctor. Similarly, there’s an endearing dynamic between The Inbetweeners veteran James Buckley and His Dark Materials recurring guest star Lewin Lloyd, a compelling gentleness that serves as a nice contrast to the episode’s rougher edges.

As with It Takes You Away, there is a sense that Ed Himes understands the structures and rhythms of the Chibnall era. Chibnall is a writer who seems surprisingly influenced by the show’s original serialised incarnation, with episodes like The Ghost Monument, The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos and Spyfall, Part II often feeling like classic four- or six-parters crammed into forty-odd minutes of television. Both It Takes You Away and Orphan 55 are structured in a similar way – a series of escalations and cast/location transitions – but with a greater degree of elegance and skill.

It would be easy enough to restructure Orphan 55 as a four-parter for Tom Baker or even Peter Davison. The first episode would take place at the spa, the second episode would feature the invasion, and third would feature the mission into the wilderness and the fourth would be the great escape. Indeed, the actual plotting of Orphan 55 feels remarkably loose – the “ionic membrane” works until it is convenient for it to blow up, the mission to rescue Benni is a shaggy dog story that culminates in his off-screen death – but Hime maintains enough tension and momentum to keep the episode just about working.

Aliens nation.

Indeed, Hime proves something of a deft hand at one of the big recurring problems with the Chibnall era as a whole. Chibnall is terrible at exposition, often just having characters deliver blunt monologues about nonsense that eat into the episode’s runtime – episodes like The Ghost Monument, The Tsuranga Conundrum and The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos are heavy on telling rather than showing. In contrast, Orphan 55 is mercifully blunt in articulating its technobabble stakes. Explaining the breathing gadgets, Kane states, “Green’s good, orange is bad, red is dead.”

There’s arguably even some solid theme work in Orphan 55. Yaz notes that the Doctor has been acting a bit less joyful than usual, following her discovery of the destruction of Gallifrey in Spyfall, Part II. It is interesting to wonder if potential tension between the Doctor and the companions is being seeded. More to the point, there’s a clever piece of thematic mirroring here. In Spyfall, Part II, the Doctor was confronted with the (seemingly inevitable) destruction of Gallifrey. In Orphan 55, her companions are confronted with the (seemingly inevitable) destruction of Earth.

To be fair, there is a sense that Chibnall is borrowing quite heavily from the playbook established by Russell T. Davies. In The End of the World, the Doctor chose to work through his own pain at the loss of Gallifrey by bringing Rose to the destruction of Earth. It was a very pointed choice, both in terms of character and theme; the Doctor was effectively (and perhaps unconsciously) confronting Rose with his own sense of loss. Orphan 55 does something similar, albeit a bit more inelegant. After all, it is Graham who brings the gang to Orphan 55, not the Doctor.

Orphan 55 isn’t quite the smash success that It Takes You Away was, but it is demonstrably a more ambitious episode. It lacks the smoothness and confidence that made It Takes You Away such a breakout hit, lacking commitment and follow through to its biggest and boldest ideas. Still, despite some sizable missteps and a disappointing timidity on the points that actually matter, Orphan 55 still has its heart in the right place. It comes closer than a lot of the Chibnall era to justifying a version of the Doctor defined by passive observation at a time when the world needs heroes.

Nevi surrender.

The only problem is that Orphan 55 struggles to clearly identify its villains.

5 Responses

  1. This episode has convinced me I’m wasting my time waiting for it to get better. I love sci fi for escaping into the future but now we must be beat order the head with weak stories to show just how woke Dr Who has become.

    • Really? “Woke”? I mean, heavy-handed I get. Clumsy I get. But have we really reached the point where “maybe children should be concerned about the sustainability of life on Earth?” is a “woke” plotpoint? The Chibnall era is comfortably the most conservative that Doctor Who has been since the mid-eighties, during the Saward era.

      • I remember you tweeting about ‘Battlefield’, which called into question the black-and-white nature of WW2. Never seen it (can’t stand classic Who), but that sounds far more left-wing than anything in the Chibnall era so far.

  2. Commentary on the human condition and opinions on current issues are certainly nothing new. But the “Chibnall era” (pretentious much) goes beyond that to preach incessantly. Even that might be OK, but decent storytelling gets thrown aside in the process.

    • pretentious much

      I mean, it’s a fairly standard way of delineating the long-running television show by reference to its guiding creative vision and aesthetic. There’s a world of difference between Survival and Rose, The End of Time, Part II and The Eleventh Hour, Twice Upon a Time and The Woman Who Fell to Earth. Using that simple two-word descriptor makes it clear which of those visions of the fifty-odd-year-old series I am discussing.

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