Doctor Who #1009: Orphan 55

"This is not the way to resolve a family dispute! What about good old fashioned passive aggressive discussion?"
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Jan.12 2020.

IN THIS ONE... The Fam goes in vacation, but the resort is soon attacked by monsters.

REVIEW: What is up with writer Ed Hime? In the previous season, he gave us the weirdest and most original Doctor Who story in a long time (It Takes You Away). THIS season, he gives us a bog-standard base-under-siege story, in a resort no less, which is a common Who trope even if you ignore the books and audios, and it's very badly written to boot. As you watch it, you might not notice thanks to its rapid pace, gorgeous monsters, and frankly great moments of atmospheric lighting. And the Doctor has some good lines ("All I got is the letter P" and "Lives change worlds", for example), and I generally like Ryan's awkward flirtation with Bella (with the Doctor sitting right in the middle). But when you look at Orphan 55 at all closely, its plot falls apart, its theme is out of control, and its message hits you over the head in the most unpleasant way. That's not even going into how, while the Dregs are an awesome full-body suit, the rest of the show would win awards for worst hair and make-up with Hyph3n coming out of a stage production of Cats (it's not even Cheetah People level) and people with badly-fitting green wigs. I'm not too keen on the blue nose things everyone is forced to wear either.

Okay, so what's my beef. Beefs. Let's start with the big picture, and that's the the idea stolen from The Mysterious Earth (and I guess from Planet of the Apes) that this was Earth all along. It horrifies the Fam and the Doctor seems to blame the catastrophe on what's happening now with climate change, but while that's a worthy issue for Who to tackle, it's obviously not what happened despite the Dregs (of humanity, cute) having some kind of race memory that seems to date to today. Because look, we obviously had time to go into space, where we apparently destroyed 54 other worlds before this one, have forgotten all about Earth, and sold it to the first comer whose real estate scheme is to flip it for profit once her "fakecation" resort allows her to terraform enough of it. And humanity, the 99% that didn't get to leave, have had time to mutate into Apex predators that breathe CO2 (and eat what, when tourists aren't available?!), but still remember the disaster somehow. We know Earth to have been destroyed and abandoned several times during its history that we don't need for this to be an "alternate timeline" (see Theories) and a somehow near-future. Except that the episode needs to sell its message about climate change, through a speech that doesn't even make sense when spoken to the Fam, only if the Doctor realizes she's talking through the telly. The sermon is so on the nose, it causes nose bleeds, but judging from the reaction to this message by people I can't believe are interested in Doctor Who, I guess it still needs to be said. Pertwee was never very subtle either when he taught us a lesson. So that's not my problem. My problem is that the episode doesn't actually match the message.

Consider... If the message is that humanity has to change its ways if it is to survive (agree), but the show admits the elite burned everything down and left the rest to deal with it, why are "the rest" painted as relentless monsters? Okay, the Doctor asks them to be better than what made them, which is a sure rallying call for the youth of the world. The Doctor tells Bella "You caused this mess, you're going to help us fix it", which is about as clear as we get on the theme, and Kane has a similar moment earlier when she's left for dead fighting Dregs. The show also shows a kid who is better at engineering than his father, and a daughter who is angry at her neglectful mother (enough to burn her world down, so there's your parallel). But then you also have seniors who give up their lives for the younger folk, which is fine, it's not up to a single demographic, we all have skin in the game. I have real trouble with the whole thumbsucking bit however, which seems to gratuitously attack the younger characters - it's not just a remedy for the silly virus thing, they use it as a coded goodbye between them. Ugh. What are you saying, there?! It felt tone deaf at times.

And there are the actual plot mechanics and how they relate to the characters. I never really buy into Kane, who seems to be both the blue-collar security chief AND the cold corporate owner of the place. I know it's a bit of a start-up, but... More importantly is her relationship to Bella, her long-lost daughter she's always ignored, to the point where Bella wants to destroy everything she's built. Her eventual claim that she did it all for her rings hollow. She sacrifices herself by staying behind, then shows up again, and because she goes "hands off my daughter", suddenly everything is okay and Bella prefers to die fighting the monsters with her mom rather than escape via teleport. Not that they need to die. Everyone is very sad that they will aboard the TARDIS afterward... a time machine that is at this point pretty damn easy to navigate. And no one brings it up? There's more. I don't think the scene in the oxygen cage makes sense even if we accept these subverbal monsters understand the Doctor's scientific explanation, because letting the CO2 breathers walk out is equal to their dying. Speaking of breathing, why is the Doctor the first to drain her air supply when Time Lords have shown again and again their respiratory bypass allows them to breathe less than humans? There's no good reason for the Dregs to adapt to energy weapons just because they've adapted to Orphan 55's conditions, nor is this adaptation shown in any way other than dialog. For fearsome monsters, they do a lot of roaring, but they're not good runners, so it's easy to escape the rover attack as they also neglect to surround the vehicle. Why do they play with their food when it comes to Benny, but not with anyone else, except to cause more melodrama? Why is there so much ambiguity about whether Kane killed him off-screen or not, and when did she have time to do that? The silly vending machine virus Bella used to sabotage the resort makes a comeback at the end with the miraculous ability to transform useless ELEMENT TECHNOBABBLE into useful ELEMENT BAFFLEGAB so some of the survivors can escape. They make a big case about such and such a person not appearing on the scanners, but Ryan's in the resort after all, and only Benny's been taken. Even the little things. Yaz shows up with Wilma and basically infodumps what we just learned in the scene she interrupts. What's the point? Or Graham, why couldn't he be the one to drive the land rover? It's a kind of bus, no? And it would have upped the stakes when for plot reasons, it ran aground. And I don't even want to think about what they're mopping up in the TARDIS after the tentacle monster in heat attacked. This script is muddier than the quarry where it was shot.

There are some amusing bits, I'll grant you. The Doctor cycling through cover identities and threatening to bark at a cat person. Yaz interrupting a marriage proposal. Her teasing Ryan when he chats a girl up (anyone but her sister, I gather). The computer voice welcoming you to the steam room before asking you to leave immediately. The jaunty humor is a good distraction, but it's just not enough to save the episode.

THEORIES: Alternate timelines?! Well, the Time Lords are gone and it's my continued assertion that they controlled and contained that kind of thing. The 13th Doctor hasn't been to a healthy Gallifrey at all, so the sort of intersections we see in the vortex, which I had first thought was a rebuilt vortex because the Time Lords were back, might actually be a breakdown that allows slipping into different time tracks. In the past, when Gallifrey was in control, alternate timelines did happen, though usually because of the machinations of a god-like enemy (Sutekh, Fenris), though there is that time in Day of the Daleks. The Curse of Fenris is certainly worth thinking about because it showed an alternate future where the Earth's oceans were poisoned and humanity became the Haemovores. In THIS alternate future, far from the oceans, humanity has become the Dregs. They may not be mutually exclusive (we're in Siberia), but no other inhabitants are mentioned. It is still a similar fate/evolution into monsters. So these things happen, and time travel can give you access to them.

REWATCHABILITY: Low - It's a boring stock plot I've seen too many times now, but in addition, we get a plot that falls apart before our eyes, and a preachy ending no matter how much I agree with the sentiment.


Anonymous said...

What this episode highlights for me are the seeming limitations behind the general philosophy of the current production team in prioritizing drama/theatre writers over sci-fi/genre stalwarts. As grievous as the Hopper virus handily mutating the fuel source Sirilian 3 into Sirilian 4 is, and that was a doozy, it's something you might expect from a greenhorn genre writer, but the one area you would expect them to be on far safer ground is basic character relations, which proved just as problematic this week. We're asked to accept that Bella's so vengeful that she'd blow up her mother's life's work, seemingly endangering her own life in the process, yet, she's still got time, and more importantly the mental acuity, to have an innocent flirtation on route. As much as I've grown frustrated by the general lack of emotional intelligence shown by some of the Nu-Hu writers, you'd find it hard to see them making a similar mistake. And over the course of 14 episode run thus far, I'm struggling to remember a truly stand-out dramatic moment I was invested in, which feels like an indictment of the general production philosophy. :\

Anyway, as far as for the theories, I wouldn't put much store by the 'this timeline can change' caveat this week, but I still think there's an alternate Gallifrey story line bubbling away at the heart of this season.

Siskoid said...

Interesting. I hadn't though of this as a possible out for Gallifrey, but then, neither does the Doctor... unless that's why she seems so lost in thought.

Brendoon said...

I should feel comforted by the overall message though: "We'll survive nuclear war and environmental disaster by evolving to fit the new conditions." The human race doesn't get supplanted by Roddy McDowall after all.

Anonymous said...

I have a sneaking suspicion that this episode was heavily rewritten halfway through filming. When Bella first appeared I assumed she was a hallucination of Ryan's, and I was impressed with how well the episode made sure nobody (but Ryan) directly interacted with her, "Sixth Sense" style. That held until Bella picked up the gun.

Anyway, my thought is, the original version of the script wasn't about revenge terrorism, and possibly not even about the earth getting ruined.

Ashford said...

After Spy Fall 1 and 2, I was kind of disappointed to get this one right after, which feels as if the over all narrative is not doing any forward progression. However, having said that, I still would rather watch this than Sleep No More, so I'm not really all that upset. Also, the Doctor bringing the Fam back to safety, leaving the others to perhaps...perish, was an interesting character choice. If you pay close attention, this Doctor tries to do what's right, but she is not begging the crew or anyone else to love her. She is not needy whatsoever. The Fam thought it was kind of cold-blooded that they left Bella and her mom. The Doctor tries to smooth it over, but her explanation was half-cocked and half-baked.

This Doctor and her secrets makes me even more interested in her portrayal as our favorite Time Lord.


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