REVIEWED: SERIES 12 (EPISODE 3) | WHERE TO WATCH: BBC iPLAYER
[Warning: this review contains spoilers.]
After Chris Chibnall impressed us with his energetic opening story, we now enter that interesting middle stretch that Doctor Who series have, where each episode comes from a different guest writer so tone and quality vary from week to week. This time it’s the turn of Ed Hime, who delivered the unconventional and very marmite-esque It Takes You Away last series (the one with the talking frog).
It’s a surprise, then, that Orphan 55 begins conventionally for Who – the Doc and co. arrive at a posh holiday spa on an unknown planet, only to find it under attack by vicious monsters. A classic base under siege story, then. But the story takes a turn when they explore a ravaged wasteland outside the spa, only to discover that the maniacs finally really did it, they blew it up – this planet was Earth all along! Turns out climate change has ruined Earth, and the episode ends with the Doctor warning her companions – and us, though Jodie Whittaker manages to turn her head a little away from the camera – that this is one potential future for the planet, but humanity has chance to save itself.
Let’s address that big twist first. One irritating aspect is that it adds yet more confusion to Doctor Who’s takes on Earth’s future – the planet gets destroyed more regularly than Gallifrey – and on time travel. The Chibnall/Whittaker era alone has generally taken a conservative approach to messing with time, with the Doctor making sure history stays on track with regards to Rosa Parks, the partition of India, and even wiping Ada Lovelace’s memories for the sake of putting things back neatly, so now to have it made clear that time can veer off in any direction is a rather large spanner thrown into the works in service of making a point.
But this show’s inner logic has always been a shambles anyway, and it is a good, relevant point, so the twist is more interesting to talk about politically. We want to be clear about one thing: there are lots of people on social media complaining, as they did with Rosa last series, about this episode being “preachy” and “woke” – this review does not agree with those complaints. Doctor Who has always got involved in the issues of the time, not least 1973’s Jon Pertwee serial The Green Death, which also explored the environment and pollution. Here, the Doctor’s right that the planet is under threat and the show is right to point this out. Indeed, it’s commendable that the message Orphan 55 wants to leave us on is that it’s not too late for humanity to change its fate, an optimistic edge that could well encourage young viewers to get involved in environmental issues. But the problem is in the execution.
See, it would be great if Doctor Who did a story about Earth being destroyed by climate change. But this episode is not about that. Two small bits are about that – them finding the clue revealing that Orphan 55 is Earth, and the Doctor’s sledgehammer of a speech at the end, which, like Lenny Henry’s ‘data privacy’ speech in Spyfall, sums up themes that the story has avoided actually exploring.
There’s nothing about the characters and their interactions that taps into this theme. Hime could have explored how corporate interests lead to the climate being neglected, through the character of Kane and her exploitation of this ruined world, but sidesteps that by muddling her motivations and having her outcast daughter just as blandly unsympathetic. He could have thrown in some class satire through the spa guests and their attitudes to the issue, à la Voyage of the Damned, but instead we get an old woman yelling “Benni” every few seconds. At least there’s a drinking game in there.
A big part of the problem is that the episode is too bloated with characters for it to be able to focus on any one point for longer than the minimum to move things along; having too many companions has been an issue since Whittaker and gang joined, but Orphan 55 exacerbates that by having too many guest characters as well. Hime’s struggle to juggle these is evident in the basic mechanics of the plot, with characters running in and out of scenes for little reason – “I’ll just go and explore on my own, then” says the Doctor, before we cut to the Doctor and Ryan exploring together – and by the madness of all eleven of the episode’s cast squashing themselves into the vehicle on their inevitably doomed mission to find Benni. It’s on this mission, too, that the plot really falls apart at the seams – if anyone can explain what happened to Benni, please let us know.
The other problem with Orphan 55 is that, after Spyfall kicked this series off with style and excitement, the action and visuals here don’t live up to that. While the Alien and Fallout influences are a good starting point, and the design of the Dregs is nicely feral, every action scene has a strong sense of corners being cut because they blew the budget on the first two episodes, right down to the bizarre disconnect created by there being very few shots that contain both the monsters and any of the people; resultantly, it never feels like there's any danger.
Ultimately, then, while we want to commend Orphan 55 for attempting to take on the issue of climate change, it’s a theme loosely tacked on to a wonky plot and an irritating set of characters, and a step down in quality for Series 12.