Doctor Who gets down to business as usual this week after that epic two-part opener, as Orphan 55 places the Doctor and the ‘fam’ in a luxury holiday spa under threat from monstrous creatures, in a story that swiftly proves to be a frustrating example of how right and wrong Chibnall-era Who can be.
At first glance, Orphan 55 has plenty going for it. Writer Ed Hime offers up a neat sci-fi take on the idea of fakecations which shows promise, whilst the initial attack by the horrifying Dregs on the unsuspecting holidaymakers is directed in a way that ekes out plenty of tension and horror. Unfortunately though, events dovetail fast, descending into endless back-and-forth chases and missed opportunities.
That’s not to say Hime’s script doesn’t have moments of brilliance, because it does, but the execution sucks the life out of said-moments pretty fast. The editing is particularly messy throughout, with a lot of key action either badly assembled or missing altogether – character fates are told to us but not seen, whilst certain action scenes feel disjointed and lack a natural flow.
Other technical aspects are better – the prosthetics team excel themselves once again with design and creation of the monstrous Dregs, a proper drooling, unsettling visage that fits right at home in the realms of tea-time horror. Unfortunately, the script and direction do little for them, as we barely get to see them do anything beyond lumber around, roar or smash a few glass windows. Younger viewers will likely go to bed terrified, but for us grown-ups who like to be scared too, there’s not much to chill the blood.
The disappointing thing about Orphan 55 is that it should do exactly that and not just in terms of its monsters. As we discover halfway through, the planet Orphan 55 is actually actually future Earth, ravaged by global warming and nuclear war, whilst the Dregs are mutated humans, adapted to live in the radiated, sun scorched terrains. This is a prime science fiction idea, ripe for exploration at this present moment in time, especially now the issue at hand is a matter of much debate and discussion in the wider public sphere.
Sadly, this big twist doesn’t lend the episode any dramatic weight once it’s revealed. The conceit that the planet Orphan 55 is actually Earth is clumsily mishandled, thrown in almost as an afterthought, and then capped off with an awkward, heavy-handed speech about global warming which has little substance or poetry to it at all. Doctor Who has always been able to discuss real-life socio-political issues within it’s stories over the course of it’s history but it has always done so with ingenuity and subtlety. Orphan 55 has none of that.
What it does have in abundance though is characters. Too many characters, to be precise. Between James Buckley‘s ineffectual engineer, Laura Fraser‘s antagonistic grunt Kane, an insufferable old couple, a cat woman, a kid and a bland love-interest for Ryan, we have seven guest characters here taking up space, not to mention three companions that are, once again, barely utilised. Most of them may as well have ‘cannon fodder’ tattooed on their foreheads, as there’s little characterisation here beyond some stupid mother/daughter twist that doesn’t quite convince. Once they start dying, it becomes incredibly hard to care.
Thank god then for Jodie Whittaker, who enlivens every scene she’s in and does a great job of keeping the tension running high throughout. Her more weary, sullen mood is in keeping with last week’s big revelations, whilst this series continues to make her Doctor much more assertive and in control, traits evidenced here by the bucketload. Her performance is the definitive highlight of the episode and yet another step in the right direction for her Doctor’s development.
By all rights, Orphan 55 should have been better. There’s a decent base-under-siege story hiding in plain sight somewhere here, with plenty of scares and character drama bubbling just below the surface. But as the writer elects for a simple plot twist (that’s been done to death in Doctor Who before) for the sake of an important eco-message that falls flat through ham-fisted writing, we’re also presented with choppy direction and woeful editing that further frustrates what could have been a decent episode.