The 12th season of Doctor Who (or 38th, including the classic series) has unveiled its third episode, “Orphan 55”, written by Ed Hime and directed with a distinct lack of panache by Lee Haven Jones, and it fails on multiple levels. I usually try to look for positives in my reviews, but this is a particular challenge for “Orphan 55”, my least favorite to date of the decidedly uneven batch of episodes under current showrunner Chris Chibnall.
Inside the TARDIS the Doctor shoos away the tentacle of a space beastie, while Graham (Bradley Walsh) finds coupons for a luxury resort that, when stacked together, form a “teleport cube” that whisks the TARDIS fam to the “Tranquility Spa” luxury resort (filmed on location in Spain), where they are welcomed by a host named Hyph3n…yes, with a 3, (Amy Booth Steele, who is dressed like a bad “Spaceballs” Barf cosplayer).
At the resort, we meet an elderly couple named Benni (Col Ferrell) and his paramour Vilma (Julia Foster), who are dressed right out of the 1970s for some reason (?). Benni is hoping to finally pop the question to Vilma, and the only reason we’re supposed to care is because they’re clearly set up as sacrificial lambs for later. Like characters in a bad Irwin Allen movie.
Ryan (Tosin Cole) uses a vending machine at the resort and is attacked by a “Hopper virus”, which jumps from electronic systems to biological hosts. The virus is coughed up by Ryan and bagged by the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker). Later, during a ‘drill’, the colonists are forced to take shelter as the Hopper virus has also attacked the colony’s “ionic membrane” which protects the resort against an unseen enemy.
Ryan then flirts with a young woman named Bella (Gia Re), who turns out to be the daughter of the resort’s security chief Kane (Laura Fraser), who isn’t going to win any “Mother of the Year” awards anytime soon. The mother-daughter soap opera subplot is tacked on for its own sake, apparently just to give the otherwise bland Ryan a love interest with some connection to the goings-on below.
We’re also introduced to the resort’s green-wigged mechanic Nevi (James Buckland) and his smart-ass kid Sylas (Lewis Lloyd), who tags along with his dad on repair jobs, and in the best Wesley Crusher-tradition, is always way ahead of his dimwitted father. Sylas is the kind of cliched wunderkind character who’d be right at home with the late Gary Coleman’s ‘boy genius‘ Hieronymus Fox from “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.”
Using her psychic paper to infiltrate the colony’s lower depths, the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) meets Kane, and discovers that the resort is not an open space; it is a “Fake-ation”; a closed-off dome colony on an otherwise inhospitable planet (designated “orphan planets”). The dome has its own limited oxygen supply, and currently compromised defenses…but defenses against what?
Turns out the colony dome is surrounded by Morlocks–er, “Dregs”… unimaginative creatures that look like rejected Stan Winston cocktail napkin sketches, complete with gray veiny skin and conic mouths filled with sharp teeth.
At this point, I’m just going to spoil the non-surprise surprise, which anyone watching this episode has probably long-guessed; Yaz and Graham find a subterranean sign in Russian indicating that they’re in future Novosibirsk… yes, the planet “Orphan 55” is a future dystopian Earth which has fallen into an uninhabitable state due to global warming and nuclear winter (from wars brought on by increasingly scarce resources; an all-too likely outcome of climate change). The “Dregs” are actually mutated, savage humans who have evolved to fit within the hellish environment outside the resort dome…i.e. Morlocks.
The Doctor, her companions and Kane exit to dome to look for missing elderly romancer Benni, who’s been kidnapped by the Dregs, but has survived due to his portable oxygen tank (one of the benefits of being a senior citizen with a portable oxygen supply). Benni is eventually killed in an act of ‘mercy’ by Kane when the Dregs decide to rip him apart later on. Benni’s geriatric lover Vilma later avenges Benni’s death by sacrificing herself in order to buy the Doctor’s group time in escaping the murderous mutants.
Turns out the discount Morlocks have evolved to breathe in carbon dioxide and expel oxygen (an inverse of current human breathing). We hear repeated computerized warnings that the oxygen levels outside the dome too low for humans to breathe… yet we see the Doctor literally walking by blazing campfires as the computer reports, ‘oxygen levels at one percent.’ Um, fires need oxygen, folks. Really bad basic science is but one of the many problems with this lackluster episode.
In short but frenetic order, boy genius Sylas creates a desperately needed power supply to power the resort’s evacuation trans-mat, and the evacuees leave. Bella volunteers to remain behind with her estranged mum to fight off the Dregs (I guess?), and she kisses Ryan goodbye.
Back aboard the TARDIS, the Doctor tells her fam that the future dystopian Orphan-55 Earth is only a possible future, and that we humans don’t have to follow that particular trajectory. Her well-meaning speech goes as follows:
“I know what you’re thinking – but it’s one possible future. It’s one timeline. You want me to tell you that Earth’s gonna be OK, ’cause I can’t. In your time, humanity’s busy arguing over the washing up while the house burns down. Unless people face facts and change, catastrophe is coming. But it’s not decided. You know that. The future is not fixed, it depends on billions of decisions and actions, and people stepping up. Humans. I think you forget how powerful you are. Lives change worlds. People can save planets, or wreck them. That’s the choice. Be the best of humanity.”
Great speech, bad episode.
The beginning of the story reminded me very much of the ‘evil resort’ Doctor Who episodes such as “The Leisure Hive,” “The Happiness Patrol” “Paradise Towers” and the more recent “Smile.” None of these evil resort stories rank among the better Doctor Who tales in my opinion. It just feels a bit redundant seeing the TARDIS fam yearning to take a holiday. I mean, they travel the universe in a magic spacetime box, yet they want a vacation?
“Orphan 55” also ‘boasts’ production values are right out of the late-1980s incarnation of Doctor Who at its worst, with people in bad green wigs and sub-“Spaceballs” makeup (the aforementioned Hyph3n character). Hyph3n’s makeup is downright embarrassing. Even the current film adaptation fiasco of “Cats” fares better from what I’ve seen.
The discount Morlock “Dregs” are also some of the dullest adversaries the Doctor has ever faced. They might have been more effective if we’d seen just a few lingering traces of their latent humanity in there somewhere. Maybe a child Dreg mindlessly playing with a tattered human doll….something, anything. Giving them a touch of pathos could’ve cast them in a far different (and more effective) light than just the walking, screaming sets of teeth and claws we see in the final episode. It would’ve also given the episode’s ecological message a much bigger punch to reinforce the image of the Dregs as our descendants if we don’t reverse course.
The subterranean sets beneath the colony and in the rover vehicle look like a cheap ripoff of “ALIEN” and its sequel “ALIENS” (the ‘homage’ continues with a tough female heroine named “Kane”, after the ill-fated John Hurt character from the first ALIEN). The smoke lighting, banks of snowy TV monitors and lights shining through grates everywhere look like a really bad 1980s rock video.
The saddest part of “Orphan 55” for me is that despite the cheesy production values, superfluous characters, clunky writing and generally incompetent direction, there is a worthwhile message in the story’s DNA. Yes, the Earth’s human-supporting ecology is currently facing ruin by human-fueled climate change, and we are very likely facing devastating future wars over increasingly finite resources. So while I very much agree with the ecological message in “Orphan 55″, it ultimately feels insincere when it’s buried under a pile of vintage-1980s schlock. If only this critically important subject had been given the gravitas it so very much deserves.
Missed opportunity doesn’t begin to cover it.