We’re back to old school Doctor Who this week with a take on the base-under-siege plotline. But whilst that’s a welcome return to familiar territory and ‘Orphan 55’ features a fare share of twists and surprises along the way, it fails to make a lasting impression thanks to some ill-fated decisions and rushed character work.
It starts innocently enough of course, as the TARDIS gang are cleaning up after a tentacle infestation as Bradley Walsh’s Graham reveals he’s won an intergalactic vacation after collecting coupons to a spa named ‘Tranquility’. You’d have thought The Doctor would know not to trust ominously-named holiday destinations by now but nevertheless she and her fam are transported to the Sydney Opera House, I mean, Tranquility immediately for two weeks of all-inclusive relaxation.
Only of course they’re not. Writer Ed Hime is no stranger to the more obscure sci-fi concepts, as seen in last season’s ‘It Takes You Away’, so it’s hardly surprising that the different characters and plot threads come thick and fast all the way through ‘Orphan 55’. We’re introduced to elderly couple Vilma and Benni on the cusp of a marriage proposal, the spa’s mechanic Nevi (guest star James Buckley) and his son Sylas, as well as the mysterious Bella (Gia Ré) and Doctor Who’s interpretation of Cats with Hyph3n (Amy Booth-Steel). When a hopper virus infects the spa’s defense systems, it allows the locals on the planet to invade and kill guests and this week those locals are the ‘Dregs’ – humanoid mutations ripped straight from a Resident Evil catalogue.
Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor takes charge immediately, and resolves the initial slaughter without much difficulty, but it’s when she discovers that Tranquility is actually a virtual holiday – one where people are teleported to a man-made facility – where the more interesting plot developments kick in. The idea of corporations exploiting their customers by making them believe they’re on other worlds is an interesting one, and opens up a realm of possibilities that, sadly, ‘Orphan 55’ chooses not to follow. Instead what we get is a confused mixture of ‘Arachnids in the UK’ and Dmitry Glukhovsky‘s Metro series. Tranquility is actually placed on an orphaned planet, one that’s been dead and void of life for centuries. The corporation snaps up the location for cheap whilst slowly using the spa’s oxygen resource to habitate the planet so that they can own intergalactic real estate. Again, it’s not a disinteresting concept if handled correctly. Unfortunately as Benni is kidnapped by the Dregs, The Doctor and co. head outside the safe zone and into the wasteland to rescue him, and instead the episode takes the form of a rescue mission that flips back-and-forth between a van, the spa and an underground tunnel.
Ed Hime tries to flesh out each of the protagonists this week too. Immediately upon arriving the four of them split up and form simple and quick connections with various staff and visitors. Yaz (Mandip Gill) is unsurprisingly given the short end of the straw with Barri and Vilma, whilst Graham attempts to make the most of an underused guest star with Nevi and Ryan (Tosin Cole) is offered up a potential relationship after quickly forming a bond with Bella. After the brief conversation with Yaz about looking for a girlfriend, it’s clear that Ryan’s archetypal story across this season is going to be him looking for romance. At least it’s better than completely forgetting about his dyspraxia.
It’s strange to say, but ‘Orphan 55’ has the makings of a strong two-parter. With the extra screen-time Hime could have easily fleshed out each of the characters a bit more. The spa staff, Kane (Laura Fraser) and Vorm for example, are given such paper-thin aspirations (money) that it often feels as though we’re watching a truncated version of events. Nevi’s son Sylas (Lewin Lloyd) is shown to be the more handy of the father-son duo, but we’re essentially force-fed this just for the sake of a resolution later during a technical issue. There’s no attempt to hide many of these characters’ intentions, and the only one that is hidden (Kane and Bella are revealed to be mother and daughter) feels unearned and completely out of nowhere during already-manic action sequences.
Speaking of action sequences, director Lee Haven Jones makes the most of the Dregs’ interesting practical designs, but the costume limitations become abundantly clear the more they’re on screen. For example during their first slaughter at Tranquility, I don’t think there’s actually any shots of them and a guest together at all. Instead the editing clumsily forces together montage after montage of close-up growls and roars alongside their various limbs against a nondescript background whilst human voices scream in terror. You can do as much location work as you want to, but when a threat isn’t actually shown to be inhabiting the same world as your characters you’ve got a problem. ‘Orphan 55’ could have also severely benefitted from the ‘less is more’ approach. By the halfway mark we’ve already seen the complete library of grunts the monsters have to offer, and their limited movement dwindles their threat every other time they show up.
Outside of the middle-act’s jumbled assortment of entering and exiting a van there’s a ticking clock element involving each character’s own oxygen tanks. What could have been a perfect implementation of tension as The Doctor’s levels lower to zero (she does talk a lot) is instead instantly solved once the group enters an underground tunnel where the Dregs reside. It’s here where we realise the signs are in Russian, and that the Dregs themselves breathe in carbon dioxide and expel oxygen. They’re mutated human survivors and the titular Orphan 55 is actually a future version of Earth.
There’s always been a heaping dose of social commentary within Doctor Who, but ‘Orphan 55’s choice to become a heavy-handed metaphor towards its final act takes precedence over any of the several other plot threads Ed Hime has introduced. The gang find their way back to Tranquility and have to recharge the transporter before the Dregs converge on their location. Cue Nevi’s son Sylas coming in handy just moments after deciding to run off on his own in a poor attempt to generate some excitement.
It’s not beyond redemption however, until The Doctor and co. are transported back to the TARDIS. With the reveal that Kane survived an earlier Dreg attack and is now fighting alongside her long-lost daughter Bella against an onslaught, you’d have thought we’d be treated with a quick dose of timey-wimey travel in order to save the two from their oncoming demise. Instead we’re treated to an extended monologue from Whittaker’s Doctor about the transformation of Earth into Orphan 55, almost to the point where she may as well have been looking directly into the camera and addressing the audience fully. It’s a jarring moment that fits about as well as the ham-fisted political satire of ‘Arachnids in the UK’, but with an even greater sense of disconnect from the story it takes place in.
Much like last week’s resolution to ‘Spyfall: Part Two’, the enemies of the show don’t face any consequences and here Bella and Kane are left fighting for their lives alone in favour of a plodding warning of global warming. By comparing those who deny climate change to the Dregs themselves, Doctor Who points out the obvious and with it, removes any real sense of satire or cultural awareness. It’s another unfortunate misstep here, with a waste of a promising base-under-siege premise worthy of a better execution.