Hmm. Well, this is easily the worst Doctor Who episode I’ve seen this season. I see many critics agree with me on this.
Orphan 55 opens as the Doctor and her companions arrive at Tranquillity Spa, an all-inclusive holiday destination, for some intergalactic luxury. Doctor Who being what it is, of course, the relaxation doesn’t last very long, as the hotel’s defence system collapses and a horde of terrifying murderous creatures burst in, separating Ryan from the rest of the group. Fantastic! A good old-fashioned base-under-siege episode!
Except, as with Spyfall, the story pivots rapidly away from its initial shape: the Doctor discovers that Tranquillity Spa is built on an “orphan” planet, a planet destroyed long ago by its original inhabitants and left a toxic wasteland. The mutated creatures now living there – named, ominously, the Dregs – have taken Benni, one of the hotel guests; the Doctor and everyone staying at the hotel (including a child and an elderly woman) set out on a dangerous mission across the poisonous surface of the planet to rescue him.
Various inevitable complications follow: their armoured truck breaks down, Benni’s voice is heard mysteriously close, their oxygen begins running low as they make a dash for some underground tunnels. In the midst of all this they discover the awful truth of the planet’s origin: it is Earth, ravaged by a nuclear war caused by climate change-induced food chain collapse; while the benighted Dregs are the mutated remnants of humanity. In case we hadn’t quite got the message, the Doctor repeats it for us once the gang has escaped:
In your time, humanity is busy arguing over the washing-up while the house burns down. Unless people face facts and change, catastrophe is coming. But it’s not decided. You know that. The future is not fixed. It depends on billions of decisions, and actions, and people stepping up. Humans. I think you forget how powerful you are. Lives change worlds. People can save planets, or wreck them. That’s the choice.
I don’t think Doctor Who does edutainment well: in the mouth of the all-knowing Doctor, speeches like this come off a little too didactic. (Which is not to say I don’t think SFF should be political; on the contrary, all fiction is by nature political. But there are ways and ways of doing it.) Nevertheless, moments like this can be redeemed by a strongly-written episode, like last season’s Rosa. Orphan 55 is not strongly-written. On any level. There’s simply too much going on, and too much of that is frankly quite bizarre.
Firstly: I think Doctor Who episodes do best when they have a strong unity of place. I’m thinking of episodes like Gridlock, Midnight, even Blink, all of which explore a situation, a setting, and its various symbolic or psychological ramifications. (Spyfall, notably, lacked unity of place, as did many of Moffat’s episodes.) It’s a format well-suited to a 45-minute segment. The fact that we don’t see the toxic wasteland of Orphan 55 until about twenty minutes in, and that we don’t spend that much time in it, means that we never feel its full emotional resonance. The episode doesn’t take the time to build a sense of atmosphere, which means in turn we don’t experience the full horror of realising this barren wasteland is Earth.
Besides which, the anxieties on display here are weirdly outdated and difficult to connect with modern fears about climate change. The nuclear wasteland (which apparently used to be Russia) and the mutated Dregs feel more Cold War than anything – the Dregs especially tapping into racist concerns about purity and degradation. (It’s interesting that Orphan 55 shows signs early on of turning into a story about colonialism: “You built this somewhere you shouldn’t…The native species want you and your guests dead.”) The later Praxeus does a much better job of working contemporary environmental concerns into a compelling storyline, focusing as it does on plastic proliferation; I might also expect to see flooded planets, drowned cities (bonus if they contain recognisable buildings) or extreme weather events in a story about climate change. It is possible to repurpose old imagery to talk about new things, but it hasn’t worked here.
While the failed climate change messaging is the worst thing about Orphan 55, it’s not the only thing the episode fluffs. There’s plenty of stuff that just seems to be…forgotten? Why did the Dregs keep Benni alive for so long, and why does his death happen off-screen? How did three people run a spa on their own, and how did they hope to terraform a whole planet? Sure, the semantic content of popular SF narratives isn’t always important or worth interrogating, but the episode just doesn’t cohere on any level. It’s frustrating – a far cry from the simple, narratively satisfying episodes of season eleven.
And, look. As a species we need more stories about climate change – especially popular ones. There just aren’t that many that tackle it head-on; that present us with solutions, not moralising; that ask us to face the terrifying truth that the climate is collapsing, that everything is dying, that there is no place on Earth we have not polluted. This kind of half-baked storytelling? Is not going to cut it. Do better, Doctor Who.