Doctor Who: 12-03 “Orphan 55” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
If Doctor Who has anything approaching comfort food, it would undoubtedly be the base under siege story. A staple since the 60’s Patrick Troughton era, they have become a part of Who DNA, carrying right through the revival with modern classics like The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit. After a bombastic, confidence-renewing opener, you’d think something so traditionally Who would carry the momentum, not least if penned by one of Series 11’s standout writers. Disappointingly though, our third episode of Series 12, Orphan 55, does little to continue to assuage prior fears- rather re-surfacing some.
Proceedings start promisingly- a nice lived-in TARDIS moment, a dirty visual gag about space squid mating season (combined with the later gag about pulling out the Hopper virus, I know what type of jokes Ed Hime likes) and Graham happily saunters into frame having won the gang a free holiday courtesy of the sci-fi equivalent of those vouchers families used to get in the paper. One top Doctor reaction to him wearing speedos later and they’re off to Tranquility Spa- a gleaming “fake-cation” resort covering up dark secrets.
The threat is teased early, and events quickly go south- a shame as I liked the extremely brief time we spend with the suitably retro-futuristic designs and charmingly naff costumes as we meet our side characters, including the tail-sporting hotel worker Hyph3n, the green-haired mechanic pair of James Buckley’s Nevi and son Sylas, the mysterious potential Ryan love interest Bella and older couple Vilma and Benni. Despite the threat being established rapidly, the build-up continues to have a sense of creeping dread, something Hime is ace at. I’ve made no secret of how much I adored It Takes You Away last series, with its strange, metaphysical concepts and heavy emotions. It also had an engaging mystery which Orphan 55 shares.
Ryan’s enjoyment is cut short as he contracts the “platform-hopping” virus and we get a great, funny little segue way into continuing tension as The Doctor cures him and alarm bells are a-go. It feels natural still, despite my wishing we’d eased more into it, and the effective build-up is felt most keenly in our teases of the creatures- the Dregs- who despite feeling like a hodge-podge of other iconic pop culture monsters, are an initial force- throwing debris, taking out guests, picking them off in steam-filled chambers of horror. They’re shot perfectly, to begin with, only glimpsed in dark close-ups, flickering lights, and shadow, which becomes irritating when that’s the *only* way they’re shot eventually.
In what feels like record time The Doctor’s snooping discovers the trouble and we meet the brains of the operation in the not-linen cupboard- the part hotel administrators, part military Kane and Vorm. Laura Fraser’s Kane is interestingly initially- not letting much on, guilt in her eyes, conflicted but powerful. Her sparring with The Doctor, while she tries to deduce information, works well (that “I could build you from scratch” line is an excellent barb). Kane continues to be relatively intriguing in moments, but Orphan 55 is so jam-packed that we don’t get much insight into our side cast outside our initial discoveries about them, like Kane’s greed. Returning Spyfall- Part 2 director Lee Haven Jones, unfortunately, brings across some of the same pacing problems that episode had.
That’s how Orphan 55 works in a microcosm- a lot of things on its plate, but too much to bring them all together satisfactorily. Even the second act build-up is promising, with an ominous peering shot outside the hotel walls leading into our space-marine low-down on how the oxygen tech works before Team TARDIS (and apparently everyone still left alive) head out to save the snatched Benni from the dreaded Dregs. When en-route however, everything turns rather muddled, with evident re-structures somewhere in the creative process- falling into a routine of escaping, sacrificing, escaping.
Tonally it’s a bit all over too- Benni’s fate could’ve been horrifically dark for Who, yet it comes off funnier- as does Kane writhing on the floor, her matter of fact delivery of “it threw me”. The worst offender though is after The Doctor’s dramatic announcement that the truck is heading straight into Dreg Central- next scene we’re having a calm sit-down chat with Ryan and Bella, draining the tension. It’s frustrating- I liked their chemistry and Tosin Cole is good at awkward humour (even if I’m still not fully sold on how comfortable he is in the role), but simply swapping those moments directly around would’ve worked.
The elements to make Orphan 55 work are there in abundance, but they struggle for prominence and lack development- the revealed family dispute between Bella and Kane is half-baked despite featuring a classic base-under-siege betrayal (but just *why* is Kane doing all this for her, again?) Bella uses such reckless abandon also that it’s tough to feel sympathy. The number of disposable people the story must serve stops their story’s effectiveness, leaving their eventual reconciliation feeling hollow even if isolated it’s a nice beat. Nevi and Sylas’ story too could’ve tied into the story more, as good as their running gag is. And while the older couple starts endearingly, poor Vilma actor Julia Foster gets little other than continued cries of “BENNI!”
While Jodie Whittaker puts in another assured performance, becoming the role wonderfully- her upbeat authority is fantastic to watch, as are her scattered moments like rattling through names with her physic paper- our other usuals are mixed. Ryan has a neat little arc, Graham gets some excellent comedy (and a cute moment where we’re reminded of their familial relationship) but not much else. Poor Yaz’s highlights though are ruining a proposal for a soon to be a dead couple and catching up to the plot late.
Even the Dregs don’t avoid it- if we compare them to say, Metalhead from Black Mirror– a similarly bleak world that withholds creature explanation- Orphan 55 only really hints at inconsistent, undeveloped backstory rather than small teases. They’ve developed in “generations”, and there’s a nifty moment where their leader shows intelligence in a duel of wits with The Doctor, alongside hints of possible future co-existence. But that’s largely abandoned in favour of using them more as a cautionary tale coda.
The story’s crux is the Earth twist (even if the TARDIS should’ve translated Russian)- humans were the real monsters all along!- And while unexpected to me at least, it isn’t given much time to soak in as soon they’re running away from the Dregs again (unneeded really, all they do is lumber about) en-route to another self-sacrifice. We’re no strangers to future destroyed Earth of course- see The Mysterious Planet way back when- so messing with timelines doesn’t bother me. It is just one possible future after all, and we’ve had precedent. Leaving Bella and Kane at the end bothered me more than that did!
This really could’ve worked properly as a two-parter. A repeat viewing brings the missed opportunities into light- with genuinely exciting and intelligent character beats like using The Doctor’s talkative nature against her giving way too quick to Kane’s pointless self-sacrifice when everyone but Thirteen is already out (and even if it is a sinister visual in the smoke, how are there fires in this oxygen-deprived area!?)
As we barrel towards our conclusion, Thirteen ordering people into position, it feels like a second part set-up- yet with an explosion and some late drama, we’re back in the TARDIS, leaving two people for dead. Arguments about whether they could (or should) go back for them aside, having Ryan point out that they’ve just left them there makes that seem quite wrong. It leaves it all feeling uncompleted (even if it maybe is an idea to have a similar, better fitting grace note like this at some point- not every story can be wrapped in a bow!)
Whether by script, budgetary or any other problem, there was a chance to dive in more- there are teases of deeper theme exploration with mentions of the ruling elite ditching the lower classes, a chance to express our current environmental problems. Kane’s terraforming gentrification plan could’ve been a great metaphor for how capitalism would be willing to exploit resources even after massive devastation, yet it’s equally avoided. Maybe you could argue Who doesn’t have to be so intelligent, but when we’ve had stories like Oxygen pulling off a fantastic tale rather recently it feels a missed chance.
Even our coda is clumsy, the sure-to-be-controversial speech from Thirteen. The “fighting about the washing up, while the house is on fire” analogy is spot-on, yet nary a mention of corporations the heavy blame lies for the climate crisis. Who has always had social sensibilities, and this should never stop, yet the didactic delivery feels like perfect ammo for certain angry types. There’s an undeniable urgency though- an upsetting pertinence given the Australian fires. Maybe having one of children’s favourite characters addressing and validating the growing fears of their generation justifies that direct delivery.
Orphan 55 is ultimately the plain Victoria sponge of Doctor Who stories- it does a job, yet it could’ve been so much more. I enjoyed my first viewing (as I usually do with this show, sue me!) But a repeat viewing laid bare how clunky and often disorienting it is- the elements are present to make it work but too numerous to weave into a re-watchable or memorable story. Put simply, a whole lot is going on, yet this was also an issue in Ed Hime’s first story and that came together far better. Maybe eventually we’ll find out what didn’t make the cut or if there was a more developed initial vision, but this is a disappointing misfire as is with another assured Jodie performance- we’ll have to wait for next week’s Nikola Tesla and alien scorpions to hopefully pick up the baton and kick-start Series 12 again.