After its action-packed opener, the new series of Doctor Who continues with a much more traditional episode, as the Doctor and co find themselves on a luxury resort plagued by hideous monsters. ‘Orphan 55’ is a fast-paced adventure with some neat ideas buried in the mix, and it’s probably the darkest episode Jodie Whittaker’s been given yet. All the same, this is very much a by the numbers episode of Doctor Who, which spends most of its time as a simplistic runaround with a forgettable cast and a meandering plot.
‘Orphan 55’ starts off with the Doctor apparently still morose after the revelations of the previous episode. We’re told this by Graham, but for the most part she seems much the same as ever. The twist that Gallifrey’s been destroyed was a welcome one due to the prospect that it would give this incredibly lightweight incarnation of the Doctor a bit more depth and seriousness, but here it’s more or less forgotten after the first five minutes – a missed opportunity considering the plot for this entirely revolves around dead planets.
It’s decided that the gang are in need of a holiday, so they get themselves teleported to a luxury getaway based on an unknown planet. This being Doctor Who they don’t get much opportunity for R&R – it’s quickly revealed that the resort is merely a façade, kept hospitable within an artificial forcefield, and that the rest of the world is a barren wasteland. This concept of “orphan planets”, dead worlds which the super-rich of the galaxy have used to create a secluded getaway while what’s left of the original population live on as hideous mutants – ‘Dregs’ – is actually a pretty neat idea. It might seem daft that someone would look at a planet like this and think to build a resort there – but then again, you have plenty of people going on holidays to places like Chernobyl in the real world.
After some of the holiday goers are taken by Dregs who’ve found a way in through the forcefield, it’s up to the Doctor and her companions to venture into the barren, oxygen-less wasteland to try and get them back. There’s lots of stuff here I did like. The Dregs themselves are animalistic monsters, impossible to reason with. Of all the monsters Whittaker’s Doctor has faced up to so far, they feel the most genuinely threatening, picking off the cast one by one. The prosthetics for them are really impressive, and the scenes following our characters trying to get back across the wasteland with their lives are reminiscent of films like Aliens or Pitch Black.
But while practically everyone in Aliens feels likeable and real, the characters in this range between forgettable and grating, and are largely what drags this down. The cast are mostly decent, but are given nothing to work with. The big guest star in ‘Orphan 55’ was James Buckley from The Inbetweeners, yet he has the blandest, most uninteresting storyline in the whole thing, playing a useless mechanic who’s jealous of his far more skilled son. Every time we went back to these two I groaned – the episode never gives us any reason to care about them, and wraps up that plot arc with his revelation that maybe he’s being a bit petty. The moment where he gets the kid to help, cheerfully stating “my son can fix anything” is just ridiculously schmaltzy.
‘Orphan 55’ also tries to give companion Ryan some development by giving him a brief love interest. But again, these two are portrayed in a daft, clumsy manner – their sombre goodbye becoming unintentionally funny when it tries to make sucking your thumb look romantic. As for the old couple who Yaz befriends – they’re just annoying from the get go, as the man, Benni, tries to pluck up the courage to propose. It gets even more tedious after he’s kidnapped, and his other half, Vilma, becomes fixated on getting him back. I emphasise the ‘mostly’ when saying the performances here were decent – she’s just not great, though it doesn’t help that she’s given nothing to do except shout Benni’s name over and over again. The scene where she meets her end, demanding to know what the Dregs have done with her partner, was another scene that just ends up unintentionally hilarious.
The rest of the cast are passable but don’t make any lasting impression. There’s a few too many in there for any one of them to have much of an impact. ‘Orphan 55’ spends so much time following those mentioned above that the rest become just cardboard cutouts – stock characters such as the grim, stoic captain who gets little development, her arc going exactly where you’d expect. Half of them are given ridiculous features to indicate they’re not human, such as green hair or cat’s ears, which just makes it all look incredibly cheap.
Doctor Who might have a history of daft costumes and special effects being made on a budget, but these would have looked bad in the classic years – it’s that sort of cheapness that got it cancelled back in the 1980s. Next to the glossy visual effects of the modern series, and the excellent prosthetics on the Dregs, it’s just laughable. There is no excuse for it either – considering this is a show that’s established there are aliens who appear human it would have made much sense to just have actors playing regular people, rather than drawing attention to the silliness of it all by dyeing their hair.
Stuck with this bunch, what could have made for an interesting episode quickly devolves into a runaround, as the characters explore the wasteland then, after their truck gets damaged, try to find their way back. From here the plot goes on autopilot, the episode chiefly consisting on them being chased around a quarry by the Dregs until the final twist at the end. It becomes incredibly difficult to take seriously – not only is there that death scene with Vilma, but we also have fires without oxygen all over the place and, instead of spacesuits, we’re told that green strips on everyone’s noses is supposed to keep them breathing.
There is still some interesting stuff in here. The way the Dregs are fleshed out, in terms of their biology – eg breathing carbon dioxide – is a pretty neat idea. And then there’s the twist at the end where, after discovering some old writing on a wall, in Russian, the Doctor figures out that this isn’t just any random planet – it’s the Earth, in one possible future, where it’s been ravaged by climate change and nuclear war. The closing moments, where the Doctor explains that this could be our future, are not exactly subtle. Having her literally speaking to the camera does veer close to just being overly preachy, and the episode could have delivered such a message far more effectively. It’s also the kind of twist we’ve seen in all sorts before, from iconic movies like Planet of the Apes to previous episodes of Doctor Who itself (the scene where they find the sign in Russian being practically identical to one from the 1980s story ‘The Mysterious Planet’). Nevertheless, it is still the most interesting aspect to the story, and provides a surprisingly dark ending.
The issue is that this twist is just that – a twist at the end rather than a major plot point. As a result, it feels like it’s just been jammed in there to try and make a point, and if you removed it entirely the story would barely change. If ‘Orphan 55’ had chosen this as its main theme, if it had entirely focused on the horror of this future and cut out all the useless side characters and their various sub-plots, then it could have been a really powerful, haunting episode. Instead, it just feels lazy, and does little to elevate the episode as a whole.
It’s appropriate that it’s a 1980s episode which this one pays homage to, because this literally does feel like a throwback to that era of the show. Just like back then, it’s all the worst aspects of the show: characters you aren’t invested in, cheap-looking costumes and prosthetics, and a plot which basically consists of people running away from monsters for 50 minutes. What could have been an interesting subplot had it been the main focus of the episode is instead a final twist chucked in at the end to provide a moral for the story, rather than being used to elevate this beyond a generic ‘Doctor fights monsters’ episode.
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A by-the-numbers episode of Doctor Who, with some interesting moments that get dragged down by the standard tropes of the series and bland characters.
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