I couldn’t remember anything about Ed Hime’s first Doctor Who story, “It Takes You Away,” and I knew nothing going into his second, “Orphan 55.” Orphan 55 is a scary action-packed Doctor Who tale that delivers an unsubtle but important message about climate change.
Doctor Who (Series 12)
Lee Haven Jones (director), Ed Hime (writer)
Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, and Mandip Gill (cast)
January 12, 2020
When the episode started, I was struck by how much it felt like an RTD story. A slightly mopey Doctor brings their companions to a strange silly far future planet for a runaround that’s actually about present day Earth. It felt so much like the New Earth stories or Gridlock — it even had cat people! The main cast (Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, and Mandip Gill) all get fun moments and a couple funny lines while exploring, but the guest cast doesn’t do much beyond frustrate and distract the main characters.
Gia Ré as Bella gets more than the rest of the guest cast combined. Bella has internal and external conflicts relating to her personal life, other characters’ lives, and how the orphan planet came to be and may recover. She is the central figure in this story, even more so than the Doctor or any of the companions, and the story would be better if it gave her even more screen time. The revelation that Kane (Laura Fraser) is her mother ties the plot together. It parallels and contrasts the mechanic Nevi (James Buckley) using his son Sylas (Lewin Lloyd) for technical help but not respecting him. Kane being Bella’s mother even further shows Tranquility Spa to be a corrupt dehumanizing place beyond the pretty exterior. Bella’s race and gender are not commented on, but hint as well at some of the systemic issues behind Tranquility Spa.
The plot lags early on but viewers will either buy in or not when the plot turns at the halfway point. The central metaphor becomes literal when planet Orphan 55 turns out to be a future Earth. This provides a further hook for the story, ties the Doctor’s and the companions character arcs together, and explains the Dregs. The Dregs are a fun one-off villain that forces the characters to literally keep moving through the plot. Their visual design isn’t original or unique, but the story provides an excuse for that by saying they’re mutated humans in some distant possible future. The twist feels both original and cliché at the same time somehow — but that’s quintessentially Doctor Who.
As an episode, “Orphan 55” pissed off all the right people. (“I don’t like this preachy Doctor Who nonsense,” one Twitter user wrote.) The episode came out during a January with not only unusually high temperatures, but on the same day the White House Twitter lied about the weather, proclaiming “first snow of the year in Washington DC!” while people walked around in short sleeves and t shirts. If the choice is between an “apolitical” Doctor Who (something that doesn’t exist) and a story like “Orphan 55,” I’ll take this episode any day.
Doctor Who actively addresses our current dystopian nightmare. It’s a mainstream popular family show broadcast on the BBC; it doesn’t need to be subtle, and it often isn’t. Plus, the central message gives the Doctor a great scene in the final moments of the episode, looking at the companions and the viewer and telling us to be better. We’re gradually seeing Whittaker’s Doctor become more heroic, but she still gets less large-scale heroic moments and dramatic monologues when compared to her predecessors.
“Orphan 55” fares well when compared to other Chibnall era stories. Take something like “Spyfall,” which tosses around a bunch of modern issues but doesn’t really say anything, beyond “women are cool and surveillance is bad.” Series 11 had episodes that focused on singular issues, like “Kerblam” and “Arachnids in the UK,” but they failed to address the problems as systemic and ended in cop-outs, just saying “be nice and maybe things will change” platitudes. In contrast, “Orphan 55” offers a challenge to the characters and viewers, and it’s telling that many fans were seemingly offended by that.
The companions’ dismissal and frustration with the Doctor early on makes for a good parallel in the story’s ending. They share the Doctor’s sadness, seeing their own planet destroyed. Whittaker and Gill as the Doctor and Yaz continue to have amazing chemistry. When they look sadly and longingly at each other, both characters find new emotional depths. Still, this is something we have seen before. Not this Doctor and companion, but multiple other Doctors and companions mourning a lost or destroyed Gallifrey while looking at a dystopian or destroyed Earth. This is the central character arc of the Doctor since 2005, and I feel for them being stuck in it. This may be the only time Yaz, Ryan, and Graham confront these ideas but the Doctor is trapped in an endless loop.
I look forward to Gallifrey coming back and the show moving past it long-term, as well as the Doctor remembering that the Time Lords were stodgy classist assholes.