Mark Watches ‘Doctor Who’: S12E03 – Orphan 55

In the third episode of the twelfth series of Doctor Who, the Doctor and her companions go on holiday, which has historically never fared well for them. Guess what happens. If you’re intrigued, then it’s time for Mark to watch Doctor Who.

Overall, I did enjoy this episode, though I approached as a morality tale wrapped up in a horror film. When “Orphan 55” is good, it’s utterly fantastic. But it’s also flawed, and I can accept that, despite enjoying it. Let’s talk about why!

From the first sign that something is wrong–which I think happens less than five minutes after the start of the episode–this episode never lets up. It is one of the most relentless experiences in terms of ratcheting up the terror. Initially, I thought the Hopper virus that infected Ryan was going to be the focus of the plot, though I now see it as the plot means that got Ryan to meet Bella. Rather, it was the frequent incursions of the resort by the “locals” that provided the sole momentum of the story, but what a neverending momentum that was! In that sense, this episode worked. If you strip away some of the subplots (which I would argue don’t really work at all), then the script smartly escalates the scares and the stakes, introducing details that either make the Dregs more frightening or make the world more disturbing. Seriously, at first,t here are just these weird creatures attacking the guests. But then we learn a new upsetting detail: Tranquility is a “fake-cation,” a terraformed dome on an orphaned planet. 

So, I adjusted what I thought this was about: colonialism. Or basically, space gentrification. Kane had created Tranquility on a planet that wasn’t empty, and the local population was furious that their home had been invaded. Of course they kept attacking it! I thought I could see the shape of this episode forming. The Doctor is often the great empathizer: able to understand the wants, needs, and desires of any species ever, especially when another species can’t see that. Thus, I expected this to be a specific Doctor Who story trope about how you should respect the native life on a planet, especially if you arrived later. And in this case, given that it was an Oprhan planet, this species went through literal Hell to survive, and here comes Kane and her spa / terraforming colony idea!

And then there’s that tunnel. 

It really changed the episode in every respect. The horror of the Dregs is given a new layer, one that clearly affected The Doctor’s companions. They were getting a glimpse of a possible version of Earth, one destroyed by climate change and nuclear war. For what it’s worth, I do think the script and the onscreen performances gave this reveal the proper weight, and that final monologue from The Doctor certainly grounded the story for me.

I’ll get back to that final monologue in the end, though, because as much as I loved all of that stuff, this script suffers from attempting to give us a breakneck pacing for a horror story, a morality tale, AND three separate subplots. And all three of those subplots suffer because there’s simply not enough room for them to exist! Each of them felt paper-thin, jammed into an episode that was already utterly full. 

Take the story of Nevi and Sylas, for example. Here’s a father and an engineer whose entire conflict is that… he literally doesn’t know what he’s doing because his son actually does all the work. Let’s put aside the fact that he somehow keeps getting gigs he is unqualified for. Actually… wait. No. I can’t put that aside! How did Nevi work before his son was born? Because the whole point of Sylas appears to be that he always knows how to solve things his dad doesn’t. If you remove their plot, “Orphan 55” is largely the same, isn’t it?

Then there’s Vilma and Benni, who are introduced with a VERY interesting backstory: they’ve been together for over forty years without getting married, and Benni brought his partner to Tranquility so that he could finally propose to her. But what happens when you take them out of this episode? Well, we lose Vilma being the quintessential annoying character in a horror film. Seriously, how many times does she LITERALLY notify the Dregs to their position by just screaming out Benni’s name? We would also lose Kane shooting Benni offscreen for… dramatic effect? I don’t know? Or Vilma’s sacrifice? Or the fact that their entire backstory isn’t explored in any context aside from tragedy. Look, this whole episode was bleak enough already without Vilma accepting Benni’s proposal and then both of them dying within an hour of one another.

Finally, there’s Kane and Bella. Oh, the potential here: Kane abandoned her family to build Tranquility and didn’t even attend her husband’s funeral. Overcome with grief and anger over her mother, Bella… plots to blow up Tranquility? I mean… I guess? Again, this had so much potential! But it’s revealed super late in the episode, and Kane and Bella talk about it for the whole of sixty seconds before Bella heads back to the dome to blow it up. While also making a bunch of amateur mistakes? I don’t get that part either. Apparently, she’s built a lot of bombs (what did that mean?), but misfires them and gets herself stuck? And everything is solved by… both of them staying on Orphan 55 with no real escape or way to stay alive?

What I am ultimately building to is that I believe this episode didn’t need any of these side stories, and I think this would have been a lean, bleak thriller about our collective potential future if we had just focused on that. Because without these side distractions, I think the story of Orphan 55 worked! The central horror here is what we COULD become. Three humans must survive future versions of their species, who turned out that way because of the terrible decisions made in the present day.

As I said at the end of the video, I know that this isn’t subtle, and I actually don’t care. Just recently, permafrost that is tens of thousands of years old melted. All the projected timelines of what is going to happen to the Earth–rising sea levels, food insecurity and hunger, massive climate changes on a global level–are on track. God, I remember hearing these warning calls in the early 90s, and those activists and scientists were dismissed ALL THE TIME. They were made into jokes. This was happening at the same time I moved to Southern California, where we would have days where the air quality due to pollution was so bad that we were mandated to stay indoors. The memories of those Bad Air Quality days were a huge influence on why I never got a car and have devoted to taking public transit or commuting by bicycle.

But even that’s a problem. It’s an individual solution, and my choices aren’t going to ever substantially change the world. So I appreciated that this script had The Doctor address COLLECTIVE change. That will be far more effective, especially if we are ever going to stop the world’s worst polluters from ruining this for everyone. 

So yes, this is a flawed episode, but it is not without some merits. It’s frightening, it’s got a super disturbing twist, and the acting is top-notch. (Some of the costumes could use some work. What was with Hyph3n’s Federation knock-off jumpsuit? Was she an extra in Cats?) I don’t care that the message isn’t subtle; this global emergency doesn’t need subtlety to solve. Fiction is often a reflection of or reaction to our world, and it’s not like Doctor Who has avoided dealing with issues of social justice or environmental justice before, so I have no problem with climate change being the focal point of “Orphan 55.” I just wish the script had fully committed to that story!

The video for “Orphan 55” can be downloaded here for $0.99.

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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