Sunday, May 26, 2024

The Ambition and Failure of “Orphan 55”

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After the promising “Spyfall” two-parter series 12 carries on with the much less impressive “Orphan 55″. Writer Ed Hime’s episode last season, “It Takes You Away”, was one of the most unique and atmospheric episodes of series 11 so I was hoping for a similar story here but that’s not what I got. Instead, this week we witness as a fast pace triumphs over emotional beats, an important message becomes tacky and the overall story fails to be engaging on nearly all levels.

The ambition of “Orphan 55″

The main problem of “Orphan 55″ is not necessarily the basic idea and definitely not the message it tried to get across, it’s the execution. Director Lee Haven Jones proved how capable he was last week with “Spyfall: Part Two” and I already mentioned Ed Hime’s previous success as a writer for Doctor Who. So what went wrong? After the first watch, I have a few different approaches to answering this question and maybe a rewatch after the end of the series would yield more answers. For now, it seems to me that this story wanted to do too much and failed on almost all fronts.

Anything can happen on a show like Doctor Who so normally I wouldn’t say a story is too ambitious for its own good but that might just be what happened with “Orphan 55″. The premise doesn’t sound too complicated: Team TARDIS wins a vacation at Tranquility Spa but they quickly discover the ugly truth behind the illusion of luxury. The whole place is built on a planet called Orphan 55 that’s uninhabitable for anyone except for the Dregs, who tear down the spa’s defenses thanks to a virus and begin hunting our heroes and side characters. As they all try to survive (and most don’t), new character dynamics are revealed and so is the fact that this toxic planet used to be Earth until climate catastrophe hit and the humans who remained there mutated into the monstrous Dregs.

It sounds good on paper but doesn’t quite come together. For starters, the high-stakes situation relies on us caring about the roster of side characters introduced in the first five or so minutes but there’s so many of them and they start dropping like flies so soon that it’s hard to feel the emotional weight of it all. I liked how Team TARDIS split up at the beginning and we met the new characters through them but we had so little time before hell broke loose. The only ones I felt even remotely attached to were Benni and Vilma but let’s be honest, it’s easy to find elderly sweethearts adorable. Their death was the most predictable of all and ultimately the only real significance it had was Yaz’s absolutely horrified reaction to Vilma’s sacrifice. Props to Mandip Gill’s acting but shame the fast pace meant that Yaz didn’t have any time to process that.

Sometimes, new characters are introduced only to be killed off almost instantly. To an extent, we expect that from Doctor Who. Every era has the Doctor get to know likable characters whose ultimate role is either to heighten the tension by dying early on or to be heroic and save the Doctor and co by dying… later on. The latter gets lampshaded a handful of times within the show, like Davros’s speech to the Tenth Doctor in “Journey’s End”. This is not a new concept, is what I’m saying. But if you’re going to have those characters represent something, like the complicated nature of familial dynamics, you need to establish them. They need more space to breathe before the tension kicks in and they need to be able to carry whatever storyline they have.

Made Nevi look like Parent of the Year

There are two parent-child duos in “Orphan 55”. First, we have Tranquility Spa security/ boss Kane and the daughter she abandoned, Bella. Their connection to each other comes as a twist about halfway through but it doesn’t go anywhere. Sure, Bella is responsible for the hopper virus and therefore fro the Dregs attacking the spa and she did because of Kane. And the reason why Kane and the spa are there in the first place is because she wanted to build a better future for her daughter.

There’s a poignant story in there somewhere about a complicated mother-daughter relationship, one that deals with abandonment and what people are willing to do in the name of familial love. It’s a story that we explore at all in “Orphan 55″, though. We can speculate about their past and there’s room for a possible future but we just don’t get to see enough of the characters and especially the relationship for it to become meaningful in any way. Kane’s sudden reappearance at the end as she defends Bella feels cheap and goes to show how lacking their story is.

The other pair, Nevi and his son Syles have a much smaller role but there’s a hint of a story there that’s even less developed than that of Kane and Bella. From the moment Graham meets them we see that Sylas is a talented engineer but Nevi doesn’t take him seriously. This culminates in Sylas trying to help during the climax only to be dismissed by his dad. He runs away so he can be rescued by the Doctor and Bella and work on the teleport with Nevi. This sequence is so jarring in how it’s cut together and feels out place with everything else that’s going down. Nevi barely has a reaction because again, the plot needs to move on at breakneck speed and there’s no time to explore their relationship. They fix the teleport and leave as the only survivors apart from the fam, leaving no lasting impressions in their wake.

There was an opportunity here to draw parallels between these two relationships but that would have meant developing them on their own first. Instead, here are two half-baked stories of parents and their children that expect us to appreciate their potential without putting the work in. I would have loved to be invested in these characters but that just didn’t end up happening because there’s so much to get through in 45 minutes and so many different characters.

When I say run, run

I keep mentioning the pacing of this episode so let’s explore that in a bit more detail before talking about the message, the monsters and Team TARDIS. We’re not in five minutes in when the “routine Tranquility drill” starts and the action begins. This is all the time our main characters had to relax and meet the other guests before the Dreg attack and the illusion of the spa is shattered. These first five minutes were my favourite of the episode because it seemed like we would set up the location and the new characters before chaos ensues, but no. From there on, the plot is moving forward relentlessly and even though it is largely character motivated, like finding Benni for Vilma or the conflict of Kane and Bella, there’s no room for emotional beats.

A notable exception is the entire relationship between Ryan and Bella, their scenes get the time and attention that other characters are not afforded. I don’t have any major issues with this, it was refreshing to see Ryan bond with a new character and get a bit of limelight outside of his relationship with his family. Tosin Cole had the opportunity to show a different side of Ryan and did a good job with it, which makes me hopeful for more of this in the future. In a way, Bella’s relationship with him felt much deeper than that with her mother. Make of their kiss what you will, personally I’m just happy that Ryan got more focus.

As far as the other side characters are concerned, they were simply left behind in favour of an action-filled adventure. And look, I have nothing against an episode being this fast-paced but it does come at the expense of character and even story so you have to balance these things if you want all of that to matter. Right after watching “Orphan 55″ I found myself wondering if it would have been better as a novel or an audio drama. This is perhaps surprising as the few saving graces of the episode were almost all thanks to the visual nature of the episode: the Dregs’ design, the cinematography, and the acting. This last one would still be present at least to an extent in an audio drama format but even that would be lost if we only had this story as, say, a Thirteenth Doctor BBC New Series Adventure.

What a different medium could bring is a deeper understanding of the characters, their motivations and their relationships through the introspection that a novel affords. If told through 300 pages rather than 45 minutes, I really think “Orphan 55″ could have been a better story. But like I said, the acting was a saving grace like it has been with the weaker moments of the Thirteenth Doctor era and the episode does look good visually. Who knows if the Dregs would have been nearly as effective and scary on paper as they were on the screen.

The future is not fixed

Speaking fo which, the Dregs were an undeniable highlight. From their design to their movements and how their attacks are shown and cut together, they’re the kind of monster of the week that could have children (or adults) hiding behind the sofa. The added horror that they’re mutated humans elevates them to Eldritch Abomination levels and sometimes, that’s all you need a good Doctor Who villain to be. The Chibnall era has been producing so many new monsters for the Doctor to face but Dregs are easily in the top three best ones.

There’s a catch when it comes to my appreciation for the Dregs, though. Another problem I had with the episode apart from the characters was its core message. Orphan 55 turns ut to be Earth and the Dregs to be mutated humans so Team TARDIS and the audience can gasp in horror at the revelation. So that the Doctor can make her speech at the very end about the potential, though not fixed future of Earth. So that the point about climate change can be driven home in the least subtle way possible.

Let’s just take a moment to acknowledge that this is an absolutely crucial message. My criticism isn’t against the fact that Doctor Who brought up this topic and tried to engage with it. In fact, an episode about the potential horrors of neglecting to do anything about saving our planet could not have come at a better time. As Australia’s burning and it becomes more and more pressing that humanity collectively stands up to do something, Doctor Who uses the infinite possibilities of its premise and tells a cautionary tale. It’s 2020, it shouldn’t be controversial to say that climate change is real and we have a responsibility to do something about it.

The Thirteenth Doctor/ Chibnall era has been trying to highlight issues like this, and we could argue about how political Doctor Who has always been but this era, in particular, has been trying its best. It’s also been real hit and miss in terms of how effectively it does, with highs like the poignant “Rosa” and lows like the mixed bag that was “Kerblam!”. Sadly, “Orphan 55″ goes into this latter category of lows. It’s not that it needs to be subtle about what it’s trying to say, Rosa” sure as hell wasn’t. It’s that it needs to actually say it, to make a point, to build up a story around it and make us really think about the implications.

Despite the fact that climate disaster drives the whole episode and we do get some interesting commentary on how the rich evacuated and abandoned Earth, the Doctor’s speech at the end feels empty. Despite Whittaker doing her best, like she always does in her role as the Doctor, the words feel like they were slapped to the end of the script as a self-congratulatory afterthought. Look how clever the episode is, look how the Doctor warns the audience by warning her companions. It’s not clever, though, it’s clumsy and it gives people who criticize this era for being “too woke” something to attack.

That’s my real problem with how “Orphan 55″ handles a message that’s otherwise very important and absolutely something that should be covered in Doctor Who. It tries hard but lacks the substance in the episode itself to make it hit. Of course, we don’t have to pay attention to people who drag the show for covering climate change because they tend to be the type who a) can’t be convinced anyway and b) are looking for a reason, any reason to drag the show. But it is frustrating when the series fumbles and falls. Much like last week’s commentary about technology, this falls flat and only Whittaker’s acting saves it and makes it a good speech without the context of how disappointing the story itself was.

A family dispute

Let’s not end on that note. As an individual episode, “Orphan 55″ is frustrating in its inability to deliver on many, many fronts, but as part of the series 12 narrative, it is continuing what “Spyfall” started. Although there are no references to the Master or the Timeless Child, Yaz comments on the Doctor’s mood in the opening scene and there’s a tension in the TARDIS that wasn’t there before. Thirteen herself is a lot more tense than before, understandably so, given the events of the last episode. Her companions are more willing to question her now and their frustration towards her is building.

I do love the fam but right now this brewing drama is just what they need. “Spyfall” changed how they view the Doctor and they’re all going to have to deal with that, just like how Thirteen is going to have to deal with the fate of Gallifrey and whatever the Master is up to next. “Orphan 55” keeps with the continuity of the fam’s evolving dynamic and pushes them even further. The Doctor trying to hide the fact that Orphan 55 is Earth from her companions makes so much sense for her character but it also makes sense why they would be upset about this. On the flip side, we also still have heartwarming moments like Graham hugging Ryan or hilarious ones like the Doctor getting rid of Ryan’s hopper virus.

“Orphan 55” was a disappointment overall but I’m still optimistic about series 12. In fact, “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” looks like it’s going to be a fun ride to the past and I’m super excited for Goran Višnjić to guest star as Tesla himself. This third episode is just a bump in the road that still had its better moments and kept the spirit of Team TARDIS.

Images courtesy of the BBC

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