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Doctor Who: Orphan 55

"If you can hear this message, you shouldn’t be here."

You know, at some point they're just going to stop trying to take vacations altogether.

Doctor Who-as-disaster-movie is a sub-genre with a pretty good track record in the modern series. This is at least in part because it's one of the few things that they couldn't really do in the classic one. Disaster movie style storytelling requires that you continue to ratchet up the tension, which is hard to pull off when your narrative keeps taking week long breaks every twenty five minutes.

That's definitely one of this episode strengths. With 46 uninterrupted minutes, unless you're watching on BBC America where they thoughtfully shoehorn in regular commercial breaks, this episode is mostly well paced. Questions are raised and questions are answered at a satisfying clip between exciting action set pieces of our heroes in peril. Or sometimes during them.

And it helps that the answers to the questions are, by and large, interesting and that they link together like a series of puzzle pieces, each giving us a little bit more information about what all is really going on. The only one that felt gratuitous was the sudden need to transform 'made up chemical-3' into 'made up chemical-4', and that was entirely there so that the hopper virus, which was the cause of the initial incident that started the chain of events, could be the solution to the final incident that allows them to escape.  That's pleasantly symmetrical, and I approve of it.

I wasn't a huge fan of Ed Himes' only previous script, last season's 'It Takes You Away,' but it had its charm. 'Orphan 55' is, generally, a much more disciplined screenplay in terms of structure. I look forward to his next contribution.

Another positive of this episode, initially, was how little of the Dregs we were shown. It's that tired old anecdote about how they couldn't show the alien clearly in Alien for fear that it would look stupid, and so they mostly left it to glimpses and imagination which was a million times more effective. I know that it's a cliché to bring that up, but it's true, and I wish they had remained that disciplined about how much of the Dregs they showed us later on because they were much scarier before we got a clear look. They were still an awfully cool design, though.

Ed Himes appears to agree about things being scarier when left to the imagination, since he seems to deliberately go that route when he has the option. For example, the final fate of Benni, proposing from the roof of the armored car while a Dreg was doing god knows what to him. Kane's simple line that the Dregs were 'having fun' suggest a million possibilities, none of them pleasant

It does start to feel like we might have a surprise reveal or two too many towards the end, but they mostly tie together well enough that I could forgive this particular pudding for having a spare egg or two. I do wonder if the reveal that this was Earth all along would have been enough of a twist on its own, and been more effective if we hadn't just learned that Bella was secretly Kane's daughter Surprise reveals should be like torture. Two strikes in too rapid a succession dulls the pain of the second.

Does that being my go-to metaphor make me a sociopath?

The only thing I could really point to in this one and say 'this is a flaw' would be the characters of Nevi and Sylas. Specifically, why were they even in this episode? They didn't really add anything to the plot that the Doctor couldn't have done, and Sylas' 'I'm a kid, so I'm going to get mad and walk out of this safe area to the parts of the building in which I know for fact there are monsters because I'm sulking!' was so painfully contrived that at that moment I was rooting for the Dregs.

Oh, and I don't think that Bella and Kane are as 'morally conflicted' as the episode wants us to find them. I think they're both just terrible people. Bella at least has a defensible reason to be, I suppose. I just wish they'd had the conviction to have her actively detonate the bomb and make a choice instead of waffling about it until the magic 'secondary bomb of plot convenience' made it so the bomb triggering didn't have to really be 'her fault.'

I make an effort to not look at any online feedback to the episode until after I write these, since I don't want them to color my own opinions, but I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that a lot of the feedback for this one involves complaining about 'Why does Doctor Who have to butt its nose into politics, get woke go broke, bleeding heart lefties ruined this, my show that was never political before.' All I really want to say about that is:

- If you think Doctor Who has never been political, you're just objectively wrong. It's been part of the show's DNA from the very beginning.

- I would agree that the Doctor's final speech about the fate of the world if we don't address global warming was overly didactic and the episode would have been better off without it. The same for the earlier line about all the scientists who tried to warn us. No matter where you stand on the issue, both of those moments take the viewer out of the story and that's rarely the right choice for a show.

- However, she isn't wrong and if having the Doctor say those words to someone watching actually changes things and we start to address the problem, consider my criticism cheerfully withdrawn.

'Why am I even in this?'

-- As I took a cheap shot at them about it above, it's probably a good time to mention that I base these reviews off of the BBC America broadcast, who have been known to trim 5-6 minutes out of an episode in order to get in more commercials. I don't think they're currently doing it with the new episodes on first broadcast, but if they are, the cuts are usually character moments that don't directly affect the plot and the better jokes. If you disagree about a character, it might be that you've seen something in them that I literally haven't.

-- I'm curious why Benni and Vilma never got married in all those years. I also like that I don't know the answer and get to mull it over.

-- My side job requires me to bring this up. A nasal cannula (the plastic tube thing that Benni has under his nose) will dispense oxygen at between 2-4 liters per minute. This isn't a technological limitation, that's as high as you're able to take the O2 in that way. So it's not a situation where we've fixed something in the future, unless that thing is our noses. This isn't going to be a useful amount of O2 to keep Benni alive for that length of time out in the wasteland. Still, it was a clever justification for keeping Benni the Bait alive in story long enough for his touching engagement and death.

-- Tosin and Jodie both showed some delightful chops at physical comedy in the initial hopper virus scene. They were working together like a professional dance pairing.

-- Despite the earlier complaint about Sylas and Nevi, the 'divorced dad who has his kid for the weekend' dynamic is one that I don't recall them ever doing before. That felt fresh.

-- Hyph3n with a '3' was a cute joke that didn't quite outstay its welcome.

-- I want to know how Graham got out of cleaning up from the space squid in order to go clip coupons.

-- The coupon cube was a nice echo of the time lord info cube design. It's a little weird that Graham would decide to build a cube out of them however.  But then he proved again why he's the best thing in the series by making the daddest dad joke ever. I really love Graham.

-- 'Guest offline' is just such a great was to describe your customers being murdered. All of the Tannoy voice lines are pretty funny if you go back and specifically listen for them.

-- The concept of the 'Orphan' designation is cool and interesting. But it kind of begs the question of who does the designating. Does the Shadow Proclamation have some sort of planetary welfare check division? Is that what the Judoon are coming back to do later?

-- Yaz seemed to approve of Ryan and Bella flirting and showed not even the slightest bit of jealousy. Thank you for that, show. I really want them to develop the brother/sister dynamic that they seem to be building.

-- I dislike that Wheezy the Dreg was apparently killed offscreen in the explosion and no one even mentioned it.


Yaz: "Absolutely. So long as there’s plenty of sun and absolutely no deep space squid."

Graham: "I am gonna sit over there for three hours. Then, I’m going to get up and sit somewhere else. Then, cocktails."
Graham can travel with me anytime.

Doctor: "Hyphen with a three. I just pulled this out of a friend of mine."
Hyph3n: "Ah. We do not make any judgments on our guests and fully support any way you choose to enjoy yourself here at Tranquility Spa."

Kane: "You can’t build an ionic membrane from scratch."
Doctor: "If I had crayons and half a can of Spam, I could build you from scratch."

Doctor: "This is not the way to resolve a family dispute. How about good, old fashioned passive-aggressive discussion?"

The word I keep coming back to for this episode is solid. I'm a sucker for good story structure, and this had that with a pleasant sixth Doctor, but in the comics, sort of vibe. There are a few things I think could have been done better, and a few I think they should have cut altogether, but overall, solid.

Nine out of thirteen Doctors.

Mikey Heinrich is, among other things, a freelance writer, volunteer firefighter, and roughly 78% water. You can find more of his work at the 42nd Vizsla. He's enjoying this season a lot, so far.


  1. The Doctor might be right, but she also might be wrong. I didn't like how they immediately jumped from "Oh, the future Earth is uninhabitable, how could it happen?" to "Obviously, it was global warming". While global warming is definitely a threat, there could be dozens of other reasons — alien invasion, bioterrorism, extremely big Sun protuberance etc. And yes, the lecture at the end was very similar to the one in "Rosa", which also did not endear the episode to me.

  2. She didn't jump, she looked inside the Dregs mind and saw exactly what had happened, then related to the others what she saw.

    Globe warming led to climate collapse led to food shortages led to war.

    I do agree that they could have made it a little clearer that she was looking into its mind though

  3. Definitely a step back from the 2-part opener. One thing that has been consistent with Chibnall as showrunner is lack of subtlety. Everything has to be overexplained, usually with the Doctor narrating, and the explanation seemingly needs to be tripled when it relates to whatever moral of the story or "issue" (political or otherwise) the story has brought up. Why not just have Bob and Larry from VeggieTales come out with the "What we have learned" song if you're going to treat viewers like they're 5?

    One of the main problems with putting the Doctor on a soapbox like this is that it alienates the very people whose minds they are hoping to change. Instead of letting the story plant a seed of thought that can lead to real change, it hits them in the face with a brick. Any potential good is undone when the reaction is, "Ugh, of course they had to go and make it all about global warming."

    The story itself had a rather Tennant-era feel - a mix of New Earth and Voyage of the Damned. While they did do a fairly good job of making all the guest characters distinct, it felt very disjointed. It also felt like the Doctor was more upset with Kane than she should be at times - maybe that was just me missing where it was shown that Kane wasn't just in charge of the security detail but the reason the spa existed. But even with that, why was the Doctor so mad at Kane when the truck broke down, when the Doctor was the one who insisted on going after Benni?

    There were other bits that also felt sloppy, like the motivation for Bella blowing everything up and physiology of the Dregs. While it was cool that they breathed carbon dioxide and exhaled oxygen (making a neat twist for how the Doctor survived - plus I liked how it was all her talking making her oxygen run low), I doubt that humans could have adapted that much, despite the circumstances. A better option would have been some mix of technology and adaptation for them to survive. And if it was such a long time ago that such a great adaptation could have occurred, why were the memories of what happened so clear?

    But despite its many flaws, it was a decently interesting episode. While it repeated many of the mistakes that series 11 had, it still felt very Doctor Who (which most of series 11 didn't).

  4. @Katie Hart,

    On the Doctor being short with people this ep (Ex Kane) I think its from the results last episode watching this ep the doctor was moody with everyone.

  5. It was pretty good. Could have done without the speechifying at the end. Like, we get it, stop beating us over the head with it. Not that climate change isn't a serious threat, it's just that I'm not sure a 30 second infomercial from a fictional character will make any difference.

    I didn't know BBC America cut out bits and now I'm annoyed.

    DEFINITELY agree about the green haired people. They were pointless. Also I really hated how people kept sacrificing themselves? Once is meaningful, twice is overdoing it, three times is ridiculous. Both Bella's and Kane's motivations were iffy at best.

    Oh and I totally disagree about Yaz and Ryan. I think they are trying to set them up as a couple and I will be furious if they do.

  6. Just re-watched this with my 14yo, and it held up pretty well I think (other than the lectures, feh). Although viewing it from an overdramatic teenager's point of view did improve the viewing LOL. I liked the green haired pple, on rewatch I think they were there to show a contrasting parent/child relationship to the Kane/Bella one. Although I totally agree that the kid running off was useless.
    My 14yo absolutely loved the older couple and the Ryan/Bella portions and squealed both with Benni's proposal and Ryan and Bella's kiss at the end.
    I asked her what she wanted me to put from her in this comment and she said "I think that Dr Who viewers are pretty intelligent in general. We don't need lectures and beat over the head with speeches, just showing was plenty."
    I also asked what she wanted me to write about the "ships" as she calls them... she said "Don't tell them that I squealed!"


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