Reviewed by Paul Mount
WARNING: Spoilers Ahead
Written by: Ed Hime
Directed by Lee Haven-Jones
First Broadcast: 12th January 2020 – BBC One
The Doctor and her friends discover that the luxury resort where they are holidaying is hiding a number of deadly secrets. What are the ferocious monsters attacking Tranquillity Spa?
There are no two ways about it: Orphan 55 is a bit of a mess.
The second Doctor Who script from Ed Hime (who gifted us last season’s bizarre It Takes You Away, aka The One With A Frog On A Chair), this story demonstrates quite starkly two quite unique properties apparently built deep into the show’s DNA. Orphan 55, like many episodes before it, is big, bold and ambitious way beyond even the fairly generous means of 21st century Who; but it’s also another example of Doctor Who shooting itself squarely in the foot – sometimes both feet – by delivering an episode that seems to wilfully throw away the goodwill engendered by preceding episodes that suggested a real volte face in the show’s creative fortunes.
For me, Orphan 55 is to season opener(s) Spyfall what Revenge of the Cybermen was to Genesis of the Daleks back in 1975 and what The Twin Dilemma was to The Caves of Androzani in 1984. After the audacious thrills and spills and twists and turns of Spyfall, Orphan 55 is a dispiriting disappointment; almost at a stroke, it seems to set aside all the promise displayed by its predecessor and lift its audience back into the stodgy mire of Jodie Whittaker’s first season (albeit it with a bit more pace and some decent nasty monsters) and we can’t help fearing that lessons haven’t been learned after all.
The set-up is promising, if a little derivative, evoking many classic “base under siege” Doctor Who stories, most particularly 1967’s The Macra Terror in which the second Doctor found himself in a holiday camp-like human colony in the future under attack by the Macra, giant gas-guzzling crabs.
Here, via a tortuous and largely unconvincing plot device which sees Graham (Bradley Walsh) win a free holiday on a paradise planet, the Doctor and her fam (keep gritting those teeth!) are teleported down to a beautiful, peaceful resort called Tranquillity Spa where they look forward to some well-deserved downtime.
Well, they look forward to it for about twenty seconds. Almost immediately – and this is the episode’s first fatal problem – things start to Go Wrong. Ryan (Tosin Cole) is infected by a “Hopper Virus” from a dispensing machine, while in the bowels of the resort alarms are clamouring and staff are tooling up to fight off some worrying encroaching menace.
We’re given no time to let our new environment sink in (the striking bleached architecture of the Auditorio de Tenerife was utilised as the exterior of the Spa with the rocky foothills around Tenerife’s volcanic Mount Teide representing the barren wastelands seen later in the episode) – or to come to grips with the (quite large) supporting cast, before we’re pitched into another breathless, pell-mell run-around which, all too often, can’t even adhere to its own poorly-established narrative guidelines.
There’s no significant breathing space here, barely any moment we’re not asked to run away, jump aboard a bus, jump off a bus, jumped back on a bus, climb down into tunnels… and run, run, run.
It’s genuinely headache-inducing stuff, dialogue delivered in a garbled rush with some vague affectation at delivering edge-of-the-seat ‘disaster movie’ thrills. But this is no Voyage of the Damned (2007), Doctor Who’s previous turn around the disaster movie deck – and let’s remember that, despite featuring a supporting appearance by Australia’s pop princess Kylie, Voyage of the Damned really wasn’t that much cop, but it was The Towering Inferno compared to Orphan 55’s The Swarm.
Ed Hime’s shopping list of twists and surprises land like wet mud. Tranquillity Spa isn’t a real holiday resort, it’s a ‘fakation’, a fabricated environment on an ‘orphan’ planet, a world devastated by its inhabitants (you can guess where this is going) and abandoned by its rich elites, leaving survivors of global warfare and environmental abuse to turn into hideous carnivorous creatures called Dregs.
The greatest twist of all barely even qualifies as a twist. In a scene lifted almost verbatim from, of all places, 1986’s Trial of a Time Lord, the Doctor and co discover that Orphan 55 is actually… Earth!
So the story, such as it is, rolls on and on. People we have no investment in are killed (entirely and irritatingly bloodlessly) by the Dregs (although whatever happened to Benni, geriatric partner of the equally-geriatric Vilma is bafflingly blundered by a script that doesn’t seem to want to decide what’s happened to him) and, as the episode thunders to its can’t-come-soon-enough conclusion, visitor Bella (Gia Re) turns out to be the long-abandoned daughter of security chief Kane (Breaking Bad’s Laura Fraser, incredibly). It also transpires that the Spa has been compromised by Gia and lives have been lost and put at danger purely because Bella has abandonment issues and wants to get her own back on her recalcitrant mother.
Do me a favour.
Dancing around the edges of all this rather dreary melodrama is Inbetweeners star James Buckley in a green wig as engineer Nevi who actually offers nothing of much worth to the plot, apart from a moment where his son Sylas (His Dark Materials’ Lewin Lloyd) wanders off.
There’s an explosion, some quite nice scenes of lots of Dregs lurking about in the shadows, before the damaged transporter is fixed, allowing the Doctor and the other survivors to escape Orphan 55 – although Kane and Bella are reunited (aww) and stay behind to fight off the Dregs.
Back in the TARDIS, and as we all anxiously await the roll of the credits so we can put this one behind us and hope that the teaser for next week’s episode looks a bit better the Doctor decides that now is the time to deliver an irritating little homily about global warming, environmental awareness and how, even though Orphan 55 was apparently only a “possible future” it’s the job of all of us – each and every one of us – to protect the planet and save it from ourselves. If not, well, we could all turn out like Dregs…
It’s hard not to eye-roll such an abjectly clumsy, clunky little lecture; we’re back in Season 11 again, when Executive Producer Chris Chibnall felt that we needed hammer-heavy reminders about the evils of racism, sexism, misogyny, putting the bins out a day early and all points between. Whittaker’s little rant here, animatedly delivered as it is, serves more to remind us that our showrunner and his writers still have an agenda powering their stories and that they really would rather that we didn’t just sit down and watch an exciting space adventure full of aliens and boo-hiss bad guys. No, we need to learn, to grow, to become more socially aware and infinitely more diverse.
Doctor Who has often told stories with a bit of a message, but never like this, with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. In 1963, the first Dalek serial, The Daleks, served as a reminder of the (then-still recent) evils of Nazism and a timely warning about the threat of nuclear warfare (the Suez crisis still being fresh in people’s memories), 1973’s The Green Death dealt with perils of pollution but did through the prism of giant maggots in coal mines and 1974’s Invasion of the Dinosaurs delivered an ecological parable far more effective and evocative than the rather temper-tantrum stuff we’re force-fed nowadays.
It would be remiss for a show like Doctor Who not to have “something to say’ now and again, but the persistency with which we’re being finger-wagged is becoming tedious and it’s undercutting those moments when the show should be soaring as an adventure series and undervaluing those moments when the show is genuinely meaningful and not busily ticking important issues off a checklist.
Worst of all though, it’s more fuel for the fires of the internet lamebrains who will be renewing their calls for Chris Chibnall’s ritual evisceration and for Jodie Whittaker to be stretched on a rack until she squeaks (or quits) with ever-increasing foam-flecked vigour.
Orphan 55 just doesn’t work on any real level. It’s vaguely visually entertaining (although director Lee Haven-Jones, who delivered some strong visuals in Spyfall Part Two never seems to get to grips with the scale of the story and its cast. The Dregs – touted as one of the scariest Doctor Who monsters ever – were really just men in grey bodysuits and they could have been much more terrifying if we’d seen them do anything other than snarl and roar and muster in large numbers.
The striking locations do make Orphan 55 look like an blasted, desolate environment (but clearly not, as we’re told, a dead one… there are too many shots with flourishing trees dotting the location in plain view) and Jodie Whittaker continues to finesse her performance, rising far above most of the material she and the cast are given.
Overall, Orphan 55 is a bit of a clunker, a disappointing and worrying return to recent ways we hoped the show had left behind and with viewing figures continuing to slide (and the British press circling like hungry vultures) we can only hope that something a little better awaits during Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror…
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