Monday, 13 January 2020

Reviews in Time & Space: Doctor Who 12x03 - Orphan 55

Doctor Who 12x03 - Orphan 55

After all that excitement and series-wide arc teasing from Spyfall, it already feels like Doctor Who could do with a bit of a breather and a well-deserved holiday. But of course, no holiday ever goes according to plan in this show. Entitled Orphan 55, episode three takes the Doctor and fam to a far away holiday resort with a dark secret. The story was directed by Lee Haven Jones and written by Ed Hime, making it the first episode of series 12 to not have been penned by show runner Chris Chibnall.

Graham on vacationYaz meets Vilma and Benni

Finding themselves in need of a break, the Doctor and her companions are transported to the faraway Tranquility Spa resort. However they aren’t there long before they find themselves in trouble, as a swarm of monstrous creatures attack the spa and take one of its guests.

As the Doctor urges the spa’s staff to mount a rescue mission, the dark truth about the planet Tranquility Spa resides on emerges. Amidst the oxygen-deprived wastelands of Orphan 55, the Doctor’s companions ate about the discover a future they weren’t prepared for.

The Doctor senses troubleThe Dregs

Although there are plenty of episodes involving threats on a planetary scale, Doctor Who is a show that's always managed to excel at small scale terror. Some of its finest episodes are ones that feature a small number of people in terror, and the formula has been so refined over the years that any episode that involves a base under siege immediately feels right at home. Orphan 55 is a nice spin on that idea, bringing together a number of different concepts previously seen in Who in a package that despite not doing anything especially new delivers them in a satisfying way. The holiday spa setup proved to be a rather clever mask, acting as little more than window dressing while it hid the episode's true intentions.

To better understand Orphan 55 its worth jumping ahead for a moment to its big reveal and ending, which is sure to be point for many that makes or breaks the episode. As it turns out Orphan 55 isn't just an uninhabitable planet, it's Earth – ravaged by climate change, famine and nuclear war. Doctor Who has never been something to shy away from politics, but it's become especially true of the show during Chibnall's tenure. Though Hime gets perhaps a bit too heavy-handed in its message during the Doctor's closing speech, the haunting vision of the planet becoming a wasteland and its populace feral monsters is undeniably effective. But as well as being an interesting parallel to humanity's future as Haemovores in The Curse of Fenric, it was interesting to see the show strictly position this as a "possible" future that could still be avoided. Some might say that it goes without saying that Doctor Who always deals with alternate futures given the number of contractions there have been over the years, but rarely does the show (particularly in its current iteration) directly comment on it. Not only did it make for a more impactful message, but presents another facet of space/time travel that can be addressed again in future episodes.

Behind the wallsJames Buckley as Nevi

This acting as the core of the episode made it much easier to both accept and enjoy Orphan 55’s simplicity when it came to story and structure. The Doctor and company arrive at the spa and things almost immediately go wrong, giving less time to the Tranquillity Spa side of things and more towards problem solving and running away from the monsters. On which note, the Dregs are the kind of terror Doctor Who has been missing for a while now. Admittedly there might not be much life for them outside of this very episode, but sometimes a good one-off monster can be just as effective as a recurring one. Even without the knowledge of the big reveal they are monstrous, unintelligible creatures that are constantly adapting. This the Doctor in a situation we very rarely see her in – one where she can't win. From a technical standpoint it's also lovely to see the Dregs realised with some gorgeous prosthetics and practical effects – an area where modern Doctor Who has repeatedly managed to shine in.

The episode was far from perfect though, with problems more pressing than whether or not the climate change message was too forced. Once again there's a problem of the companions not really doing anything (even if Ryan has a somewhat serviceable story) throughout the episode, with poor Yaz almost completely superfluous other than the strange notion that they're about to play up a romance angle between her and Ryan (on top of the other romance stuff Ryan had going on here). The guest cast was also too big for any of them to have a satisfying story, leaving them as best to have patchy storylines and at worst be unceremoniously offed. Actors like James Buckley were completely wasted on forgettable characters, while Julia Foster gave a hilarious (if excruciating) performance where she just seemed to shout "Benni" over and over again. Bella's motivations for destroying Tranquillity Spa and causing this whole mess in the first place were unbelievably weak, as was the resolution between her and Kane. While Ryan gets melancholic about having to leave them behind and the Doctor waxes lyrical about how humans are destroying the planet, everyone conveniently forgets that they're in a time machine that could have gone back to save them.

Laura Fraser as KaneGia Ré as Bella

In Doctor-watch this week there was no hints of Gallifrey or the mysterious "Timeless Child", but she certainly wasn't in the best of moods. Her companions have noticed it, and there was a lot more of the confrontational judging that's less common with this Doctor than with her previous incarnations. Is this still her road to becoming more "Doctor-like" or is it something a little more? There also felt like there was some contention as to when exactly the Doctor realised what the Dregs were – when confronted by Yaz the Doctor swore it wasn't long before they did, but it's also the kind of secret you can imagine the Doctor trying to keep. Until now the Doctor and her companions have been a fairly tight knit "fam", but now that she's revealed who she is to them distrust and cracks forming in the relationship could be a very interesting road to take the series down.

Perhaps continuing 2018’s trend of the non-Chibnall episodes being some of the strongest the series had to offer, Orphan 55 is a marked improvement over Spyfall and features all the hallmarks of a strong Doctor Who episode. Despite some poor pacing and ham-fisted dialogue it’s the kind of story that would have fit comfortably with any of the Doctor’s previous incarnations, but undoubtedly feels most at home with 13. Next week it’s back to the past and another history lesson in Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror. Whether or not this is where the Cyberman plan to show their face is yet to be confirmed, but with a guy like Tesla showing up it’d be a bit of a waste if they didn’t.

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