❉ Robert Fairclough reviews the latest episode.
“Be the best of humanity, or…”
Well. This is a turnaround.
In my review of Spyfall, I noted that show-runner Chris Chibnall’s writing had been dramatically reinvigorated. Three episodes in, and one of the better writers on Jodie Whittaker’s first series, Ed Hime, delivers something on a par with the least satisfying Chibnall episodes in Series 11.
The central idea was good one: a holiday resort, Tranquility Spa, secretly installed on a toxic planet as a foothold towards terraforming, would make the owner, Kane (Laura Fraser) a fortune. The intrusion of the Tranquility dome had riled the mutant locals, the Dregs, who a traitor inside Tranquility allowed to breach the complex. So far, so far standard base-under-siege Doctor Who, a trope that was established as long ago as the era of the Second Doctor, Patrick Troughton (which may be why the Thirteenth Doctor used his catchphrase, “When I say run, run.”)
This idea was hampered by some very underwritten Family Issues sub-plots (which, going by his 2018 story It Takes You Away, are a favourite preoccupation of Hime’s). I just couldn’t believe that Kane’s estranged daughter, Trixabelle (Trixabelle! Seriously?) was so eaten up by bitterness and rejection that she’d use high explosives to destroy her mum’s place of work and potential gold mine. If she was, this motivation – her anger about her neglected father, who she had to care for, aside – went totally unexplored in the script and didn’t show in Gia Ré’s bland, teenager-in-a-sulk performance.
Counterbalancing this dysfunctional duo, Hime fielded father and young son maintenance duo Nevi (James Buckley, green hair) and Sylas (Lewin Lloyd, green hair), who inevitably had a spat over who was more technically competent. This put Sylas in danger, and when reunited with his father, Nevi happily admitted that Sylas was more au fait with technology than he was (“Move over for a real mechanic!”) To be fair, this was a nice – if, again, obvious – touch, as offspring do tend to be more technologically clued up than their parents. It did, though, make the Green Hairs’ relationship a bit one note, as you were waiting for the inevitable pay off.
Good script points? Kane being so apparently callous that she’d accept a gold necklace from an old lady, Vilma (an unrecognisable Julia Foster) as payment to save her husband, the Dregs breathing carbon dioxide in and oxygen out – “like a really angry tree” – the awful idea that the toxic planet was only one of 54 others that had been junked… and I did like the Doctor’s ploys with the “ionic membrane” – which rejected the invaders from Tranquility – and later the Dreg leader, persuading it to lock itself in a cage in a sealed room, so it could survive on the carbon dioxide the Doctor and (Trixa)Belle were breathing out and they could escape.
However, this engaging material was overshadowed by some whacking great coincidences. The Hopper virus, which had shut down the teleport and prevented the holiday makers escaping, also handily mutated the fuel source Sirilian 3 into Sirilian 4, which, even more conveniently, powered the teleport. And, at the end, Kane – who looked like she’d perished sacrificing herself to the Dregs – with no explanation literally popped up out of nowhere to make a heroic last stand, reunited at last with Belle.
Apart from the uneven script and bland characterisation – I didn’t care about any of the supporting cast, because there wasn’t a lot of character to care about; why employ the services of James Buckley and Julia Foster and then give them nothing to do? – tonally Orphan 55 was bizarre. The appearance of Hyph3n (perkily played through she was by Amy Booth-Steel), looking like some reject from an amateur production of Cats, would have had the uncommitted groaning and switching over within the first few minutes, as would Ryan’s unfunny gooning around and sucking of his thumb, just before things got relatively more interesting with the switch to the standard-look, budget-bleak-industrial security room that was Kane’s base of operations.
The biggest problem was the flat pace of the direction. The arrival of the TARDIS quartet in Tranquility, the sequences inside the resort’s transporter and the scenes where the effectively designed Dregs broke loose inside the spa, all had exactly the same tempo, i.e. slow. Furthermore, wobbly camera work alone doesn’t automatically create tension. These lapses were surprising, as director Lee Haven Jones did such a good job on Spyfall Part Two.
Then there’s the element that undoubtedly annoyed certain members of the audience, if a look at Twitter is anything to go by: the Moralising Writ Large. Orphan 55 turned to be a future Earth, globally warmed, polluted and nuked to the point that humanity had mutated into carnivorous monsters. Nothing wrong with that in itself, with Yaz, Graham and Ryan’s shock at this discovery being effectively played, but to hammer home the point in a Star Trek-style coda – “people can save planets or wreck them” – where it looked in places that the Doctor was directly addressing the audience was, I have to admit, excessively preachy. By contrast, I watched the 1973 Doctor Who story The Green Death on Friday and the same message was conveyed rather more subtly and intelligently. Much as a I don’t like to say so, this was an example of Doctor Who dumbing down. But, then again, is that just culture today generally? Discuss…
On the plus side, Jodie Whittaker continues to flower in the lead role, even if she was, again, saddled with irritating tell-not-show speeches. Elsewhere, Ryan had a brief, tepid taste of romance with Belle, while Graham had little to do apart from look endearingly befuddled. Yaz, though, had two key moments, looking convincingly horrified as Vilma was devoured and delivering – barely audibly – the funniest line of the episode: “Sun loungers are our last line of defence.”
For reference buffs, the Doctor appears to have acquired the ability to Vulcan Mind Meld (in her telepathic union with the Dreg leader) while the key story point – an underground railway station sign revealing that Orphan 55 was in fact the Earth – was lifted from Doctor Who’s own The Trial of a Time Lord: The Mysterious Planet (1986). The less charitable among you will speculate that this is perhaps subconscious masochism on Chibnall’s part: in his youth, he infamously appeared on an edition of the BBC magazine programme Open Air and wasn’t too complimentary about the Trial series. Years later, he’s in the hot seat, taking the brickbats as well as the plaudits.
So, then: please let Orphan 55 be this series’ only clunker.
Come on, guys – I know you can do it.
❉ Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to We Are Cult, ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘Infinity’. He is the author of books on the iconic TV series ‘The Prisoner’, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’.