REVIEW: “Doctor Who” S12E03 – Orphan 55

orphan 5Ed Hime’s previous Doctor Who episode, It Takes You Away, was one of my favorite episodes of the previous season. I thought it had a perfect balance of character stuff and plot stuff and it was just a whole lot of fun to watch – especially with that whole bonkers idea of a sentient universe presenting itself as a talking frog. With that episode being as good as it was, I was definitely looking forward to what Hime would do in his second episode. I mean, there’s no realistic way it was gonna be quite as weird as his first, but I hoped it would be pretty fun. And, to be fair, it was very fun. Orphan 55 has a great premise, some great characters, a poignant message, and some truly scary monsters. It’s an extremely entertaining episode that’s let down a little bit by a very on the nose ending. (Spoilers follow!)

Season 12, Episode 3: Orphan 55 (written by Ed Hime, directed by director Lee Haven Jones) 
Having decided that everyone could do with a holiday, the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) takes Graham (Bradley Walsh), Yaz (Mandip Gill), and Ryan (Tosin Cole) to a luxury resort for a spot of rest and relaxation. However, they discover the place where they are having a break is hiding a number of deadly secrets. What are the ferocious monsters that are attacking Tranquillity Spa?

I really enjoyed the vast majority of this episode. It had a really great premise: The Doctor and her friends have just wrapped up another adventure (complete with a giant, severed tentacle inside the TARDIS, as you do) and Graham decides they should all take a holiday to Tranquillity Spa, making use of some coupons the Doctor had in the TARDIS. Upon arriving at the spa, the Doctor (ever restless as always) quickly uncovers a mysterious threat endangering all of the spa’s visitors. From there, it’s a base-under-siege story (more or less) as the Doctor and the other characters try to survive against the threat of the Dregs.

Doctor Who has a long history with base-under-siege episodes, and this one’s not particularly special. Which isn’t a bad thing. Base-under-siege stories are popular for a reason and Orphan 55 is a perfect example of why they work. In fact, Orphan 55 is everything I wanted last season’s base-under-siege episode, The Tsuranga Conundrum, to be. You’ve got a group of really interesting characters – primarily Kane (Laura Fraser) and Bella (Gia Ré) – mixed with some that are memorable-but-disposable – Benni (Col Farrell) and Vilma (Julia Elizabeth Fogle), a really creepy and threatening monster – the snarling, creepy Dregs, and a well-paced plot that reveals the information about what’s actually going on at the exact moments you want it to. While Tranquility Spa isn’t particularly claustrophobic, it still makes for a good setting for such a story – particularly with its barren wastelands outside of the spa, where the Dregs live – and the inhospitable environment outside of the spa helps maintain the tension in the scenes where the characters have to go after the Dregs. And once you’re in that environment, you really start wondering what planet Orphan 55 is, and then you quickly get an answer – and when you get that answer, you pretty quickly find out just what the Dregs are, too – and it’s all done in a very satisfying way that manages to maintain the tension even once you have the answers. Knowing what’s happening still doesn’t provide a way to stop it, so you’re still invested in how the Doctor will save the day. Which is exactly how a well-executed base-under-siege story should be.

There isn’t really much of a mystery happening in this episode. There’s a bit of one as the characters try to figure out why certain safety checks aren’t working, but that’s fairly quickly solved, which just leaves us with an episode focusing on how the characters react to this situation. Luckily, we have quite the cast of characters to focus on. Firstly, our core cast all get a little something to do. The Doctor gets a lot of moments to shine in this episode. We get to see her properly take charge but also be genuinely scared. We can see she’s still feeling the aftermath of that reveal from Spyfall, Part 2, and her friends are picking up on it (I really can’t wait to see this ongoing trust issue come to a head). Throughout the episode, the Doctor gets to do a lot of Doctor-y stuff and Whittaker pulls it off very nicely. Yaz still fades into the background a bit, but there are moments where you can see her police background shine through and Mandip Gill continues to be charming in the role, doing the best with what she’s got. Graham gets some stuff to play with, most notably in the moments when he thinks Ryan has been killed by the Dregs. And Ryan gets a pretty meaty subplot with one of the supporting characters, Bella. This is probably the best episode for Ryan we’ve had in a little bit and I really enjoyed Tosin Cole’s performance.

Speaking of Bella, she and her mother – Kane – are probably the closest thing the episode has to an antagonist that’s purposely being antagonistic (as the Dregs are just sort of mindless, mutated monsters) and their dynamic proves fairly interesting. Both Fraser and Ré do a great job here, but I wish there’d been a bit more time to go into their relationship, but what we got proved nice, especially as it contrasted with Ryan’s backstory. Then there’s Benny and Vilma, two fellow guests at the spa. They provide the episode with some nice emotion and some comic relief, but they are mostly disposable. The fact that you do feel a little sad about their deaths is a testament to Farrell and Fogel’s performances, though. And then there’s mechanic, Nevi (James Buckley), and his son, Sylas (Lewin Lloyd). Both of them do the best they can with what they’re given (including some truly awful wigs), but they don’t make much of an impression at all outside of their importance to the plot. You don’t hate them or anything, but you don’t really remember them either. Still, it’s a very solid guest cast and most of them bring something to the table, all of them mostly feeling like real people, even if we don’t get to see much of them. It was a very enjoyable cast to follow.

I feel like the episode needed another five minutes towards the end to properly wrap everything up. Like Arachnids in the UK, the episode just sort of… ends. Here, the Doctor, Yaz, Ryan, and Graham are teleported back to the TARDIS, leaving Kane and Bella to deal with the Dregs. On the TARDIS, Ryan asks if they’ll be okay and the Doctor doesn’t really answer and moves on to the ending monologue of the episode (which I’ll touch on momentarily). It all just feels a bit too quick. The actual resolution to the threat is well done, but there’s no time to actually reflect on that resolution. No chance to make sure the characters are okay. Why couldn’t the Doctor take the TARDIS and save them, for example? Why didn’t anyone even ask her to? Aside from the episode needing to wrap up and get to the part where it tells the audience what the moral is. I just feel like with an extra few minutes, the episode could have had a bit more time to fully wrap itself up while still giving that final monologue the time to exist. But, as such, it all feels a bit rushed and a touch underwhelming. It’s not a bad ending, just a jarring one.

Like many good Doctor Who stories, Orphan 55 definitely has something to say about the current state of the world. And, for most of the episode, it does a pretty good job at stating it in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s beating you over the head with it. About a third into the episode, the Doctor realizes that Orphan 55 is actually the name of the planet – named as such because it was orphaned in the wake of nuclear holocaust – and you get the inklings that the theme of the episode is gonna be something about people destroying planets. Fast forward a bit and the Doctor finds an old piece of metal with some Russian written on it, and everyone collectively realizes Orphan 55 is literally Earth and the Dregs are literally the mutated descendants of whatever humans didn’t die in the immediate nuclear fallout. That’s a really interesting thematic idea, especially given the real-world context of multiple countries moving ever-closer to nuclear war while large parts of the world are literally on fire. And the episode does a lot with that idea, trying to find the humanity within the Dregs and emphasizing the notion that we are responsible for what happens to our world – and to Orphan 55 in the show – and that we should do something about it. It’s very well executed for the vast majority of the episode, with the Dregs and the barren wasteland of Earth a suitably frightening vision of what our future might be, and I think it was a great twist for this otherwise-normal base-under-siege episode.

However, where I think this gets a little clunky is in the last minute or so of the episode. The Doctor and her friends have been teleported back onto the TARDIS and either Yaz or Ryan (I forget which) basically asks when the Doctor knew this was Earth and how this could be true. And the Doctor tells them in a very on the nose response that this is just one possible outcome for the planet Earth – what happens if humanity doesn’t do anything to stop the damage we’re doing. And it all just feels a little too blunt to me. It doesn’t feel like she’s actually talking to Ryan/Graham/Yaz at that point but is talking instead to the audience. And then it’s accompanied by a really jarring cut back to a Dreg on the planet as the Doctor says “Be the best of humanity. Or…” and it just didn’t work for me.

I understand the need to not beat around the bush with messaging sometimes and saving the planet is a very important message to get across right now. I just felt like the episode had already gotten across that message fairly well without the Doctor needing to literally tell everyone what the message of the episode was. To me, it felt like a writer not trusting their audience to understand the themes of the episode. I’m not sure who it’s for – the people who already agree with what the Doctor is saying don’t need to hear it again and the people who don’t agree aren’t suddenly going to agree because the Doctor has said it. I’m not saying Doctor Who shouldn’t have overt messages – I’m just saying that I thought this message was already pretty overt throughout the rest of the episode and that the monologue wasn’t actually needed to get the point across. And if something isn’t needed to get your point across, it might be better not to include it. To be clear, I’m not condemning the episode for having this message (I agree with the message), I’m just saying I thought the delivery and execution was a bit less-than-stellar.

All of that said, the episode isn’t hampered much by that. Not only was the rest of the writing and acting really good, but the visuals were incredible. If I didn’t know this was a BBC show, I’d think it had the budget of a Netflix show. Clearly, this team has figured out a way to utilize its budget in ways that make it look more expensive than it is. The design of the Dregs was genuinely creepy – so creepy that I was actually impressed Doctor Who got away with such a design. Often, the shots were lit in such a way to keep the Dregs in shadow, though when they did step out in brighter light, their design held up very well. Unfortunately, some aspects of the episode’s editing didn’t quite land. The editing felt a bit choppy sometimes, with the most obvious example being the very last shot of the episode, that hard cut from the Doctor in the TARDIS to the Dreg growling. It was just very jarring and didn’t really serve the story very well. There are a few other examples of that throughout the episode and it’s kind of a shame because it does undermine the very solid script at times. It’s not all bad though, and mostly you’re just impressed by how good the episode looks and you don’t really notice the weird blocking or jarring editing.

All in all, Orphan 55 was another very solid episode of Doctor Who. It had some great atmosphere, a great setup, very good pacing, a threatening monster, and a poignant message. Nearly all the elements worked together very well to create an excellent base-under-siege story. This isn’t Doctor Who being particularly risky or adventurous, but it is still very enjoyable. While I thought parts of the ending were clunky and needlessly blunt concerning the deliverance of the episode’s message/theme, I do agree with the theme and I felt its ideas were primarily well-executed. I wish shows would trust their audiences a bit more and not feel the need to perfectly spell out an episode’s theme like this, but I guess Doctor Who is aimed at a younger audience, so it might be necessary. Regardless, it’s still a very enjoyable episode filled with some great moments and some truly impressive imagery. If this is the standard of quality for this season, I’m definitely into it.

4 out of 5 wands.

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