Goddammit, Ed Hime! We really loved It Takes You Away - for us it was one of the strongest stories of the Thirteenth Doctor's first season, and by a considerable margin, too. So why did you have to go and break our hearts with this…thing?
Because there's no sugarcoating it. Orphan 55 is an absolute shocker.
Our doughty heroes are busy cleaning up a comedy squid in the TARDIS when Graham announces he has coupons for a free all-inclusive holiday in a place called Tranquillity. First of all, as soon as the word "Tranquillity" was uttered, the entire plot unspooled before us. Creepy calm covering up horrific truth. Tick. And second, they're on holiday all the time! Not to mention that with the Doctor's compound interest they can afford anything anywhere at any time. Why are they getting so excited about a deckchair next to a pool full of five year olds' wee?
Then Graham, for no reason we can discern, assembles the coupons into a cube. Who does that? We can only assume this mysterious sequence was included so that the Doctor, having had no time to research Tranquillity, looks like less of an eejit later on.
One transporter trip later, and we're in Tenerife outside the rather splendid Auditorio. Give it a good once-over, because this is the high point. Aaaah. Lovely. OK, gird your loins. On we go.
Clearly most of the budget for this episode was spent at Ryanair, as a feline-ish alien turns up whose features are literally drawn on with an eyebrow pencil. Then we meet an adorable pair of senior citizens who Yaz interrupts right on the point of one of them popping the question. Oh dear. The only thing more likely to mark you out for death than that is getting out a picture of your loved ones at home and talking about how much you're looking forward to seeing them when your mission ends. We know they only have forty-five minutes, but do the characters have to be quite that stonkingly clichéd?
And about that forty-five minutes. Normally with this sort of thing, it rolls along a track gradually gathering speed. All is lovely (if creepy). Then there are tiny intimations that things may not all be well. Then bigger intimations. Then you're fighting for your life against something that's put you on the lunch menu.
There's a reason for that track. It's to give the audience something to invest in. Pitch them into it virtually from the start, and why should they care about people they've barely seen?
However, forty-five minutes. After two lines of dialogue to establish the oldies and Ryan's brush with the stupid hopper virus, it's pedal to the metal. And it's exactly as involving as you would expect.
Ahhh, good old base under siege, eh? Stick everybody in an isolated environment and unleash a monster or three to pick 'em off one by one. Good times. Well, actually, we've never been fans of base under siege, because the vast majority of the time it's mega-predictable. Lots of people love it, though, and it's certainly been a massive go-to over the Doctor Who decades, so shrug, we're not going to ding them for that. Is it a trope that's played out? Nah, there's life in the old dog yet. At least potentially. There's always the chance that a writer will come along who will give it a fascinating new spin and rock the audience's socks off in the process.
Yeah. Orphan 55 is not that story.
This is far from the worst thing about it, but it's still bad enough: Orphan 55 is about as clichéd a base under siege as you can get. So run of the mill is it, in fact, that we wonder if it's a plot Ed Hime was handed instead of coming up with it himself, given the sparkly originality he managed in It Takes You Away. Let's run with that idea, shall we? We find it far more comforting than the alternative that Hime has one (1) Doctor Who idea in him.
So the dial's been turned up to eleven. We've only just got here and already it's all about evacuation. People we've never seen before are being dragged away screaming. People with guns we've seen for a few seconds are out there in danger and we're supposed to care. Because there's been no time to build anything up, the monster is a standard grrr argh model with teeth by the metre, complete (of course) with dripping saliva. Got it. They're not very nice.
Clearly, this isn't good enough and they know it, so they attempt to forcibly inject in some more characters we'll care about the fate of. Woof, we weren't kidding about the budget. Bumbling dad and winsome boy indicate they're aliens by wearing green wigs. Like you'd get at the party shop, which is probably where they came from. The relationship between them, that Sylas the kid is a smarter engineer than his dad, is conveyed with subtlety and nuance thus: "You're not a mechanic. You're a child". Uh.
Strangers keep dying and it's so boring. Sweet little Vilma and Benni, meanwhile, are behaving like utter morons, more concerned about the fate of Vilma's hat than the life-imperilling crisis clearly going on around them. And to shovel more crap on top of that, they decide that Benni has wandered off the premises. First of all, why. Second of all, WHY. And third, how did they think he did it? There seems to be one exit: the hole in the shields, which is a small and jagged gap filled with broken rebar. Really not seeing Benni, a man so infirm he needs oxygen, scrambling up the pile of broken rocks below it and diving through.
The Doctor decides on a sightseeing jaunt through the inhospitable terrain studded with snarling monsters to find Benni. And everyone still breathing comes along for the ride. WHHHHYYYYYYYY???????? They make an enormous fuss about the oxygen things, signalling as if from space that this is going to be a Problem later. The Doctor does her best to be authoritative with Kane, and Kane is tough back, both sadly undermined by the silly blue strips on their noses.
Off they set across the trackless waste, the Doctor infodumping as they go about the evil elite abandoning the poor working class sentient species, etc etc, to their deaths. Standard Doctor Who stuff. Kane demonstrates what an evil capitalist bitch she is herself by only agreeing to keep following Benni's life sign for filthy lucre. The Doctor, on discovering the Dregs (Dregs! Seriously? Setting themselves up there or what?) can adapt to attacks, is suddenly quivering with terror at the thought that they're driving into their territory. Um, hasn’t she seen these things already? Also, considering they know they have Benni, isn't driving into their territory precisely what she was trying to achieve?
Not that it matters, as one flat tyre and they're all off back to the dome again! How pointless was that? Except that thanks to some more grr arghing, it's everybody back to the truck! And here something extremely strange happens to the episode. Benni talks to Vilma from outside the truck, proposes to her (dear God) and asks somebody to shoot him. Which Kane later says she did. All offscreen. Deeply weird, and we're certain that wasn't how the story was originally shot. Our guess is that they decided it was too PTSD-inducing for a family audience and had to edit it heavily. But what was the original? We think that either Benni was being messily disembowelled or, more likely, he had been transformed into a Dreg himself and munching on Cat Lady. That would at least explain Kane's baffling line "He was having fun".
Although they came back to the truck for safety after being surrounded by Dregs on the outside, they now decide that the truck, which is surrounded by Dregs, is unsafe and head for the outside. Explain that one to us. There's again some heavy editing as we only see Kane post-Dregs battle and all we hear of Vorn is some distant screaming. This time, they get to the tunnels without incident. (What happened to all the massed Dregs that were there before?) And Bella chooses precisely this instant to manifest her inner terrorist.
Again, a lot of this is baffling. Bella says she wants to burn down everything Kane has created. Really? This is Kane's creation? Since when is a CEO a security guard? And something something about the maintenance teleport: why is Kane initially willing to die to keep the knowledge of where it is secret? Isn't she trying to get everyone, including her, back to the dome?
More chucked-in peril as the route goes through a Dreg nest. In case that isn't enough, Bella throws a bomb into the mix. At this point, we wouldn't have been surprised if a coyote had dropped an anvil.
Suddenly! There's a sign in Russian! Why they can't read it we don't know, since the TARDIS's translation circuits should take care of that, but never mind. The point is that It Was Earth All Along! This plot is cobwebby all across the media genres, but even more unforgivably, they've used it already in Doctor Who in the Sixth Doctor adventure The Mysterious Planet. So forgive us if we remain unmoved by the sight of Earth as a howling wasteland. We've seen it all before.
Vilma flings herself into the jaws of the Dregs, thus relieving us of the necessity to hear the phrase "My Benni!" ever again. As when they exited the truck, however, instead of using her sacrifice to scarper, the others spend forever gawping at the carnage.
Drama as the Doctor's oxygen gets low. Huh? What about her well-established respiratory bypass system? And for no reason whatsoever, she waltzes up to a snoozing Dreg and finds it's exhaling oxygen. How? Why? Etc. It just comes out of nowhere. After much discussion, we think the fires burning are meant to clue her in that there's a source of oxygen somewhere, but how she gets from there to breathing in a Dreg is a mystery. As is her newly acquired mind melding ability. And her decision to chat to a lethal monster while it's sleeping.
Chaos in the dome, and a sea of Dregs outside, all endlessly bellowing. Perhaps they're angry because they've lost their genitalia. They seem to be hoping that if they puff in enough smoke, turn off enough lights and don't let anyone stop running around, the audience won't notice that we're exactly back where we started. Sylas stupidly runs outside the room in the middle of a life-threatening crisis and everyone else stupidly lets him.
We dozed off in the next part, but it mostly seemed to consist of the Doctor splaining her cunning plan to the Dreg. Bella nobly tries to fire at a bunch of Dregs, and when she fails, Kane leaps in to protect her. Kane? Yep, the very one who disappeared in the tunnels, without a word of explanation as to how she got back. And there's a heartwarming yet pat reconciliation before their slightly less heartwarming certain doom.
Back in the TARDIS, the Doctor tries to cheer up her companions about Earth's fate. When they did this in The Mysterious Planet, it was a beautiful, lyrical moment as the Doctor comforted Peri while still doing the truth the honour of looking it in the face: "Planets come and go, stars perish. Matter coalesces, reforms, into other patterns, other worlds. Nothing can be eternal".
But not this Doctor. First of all, she tells the companions that what they've seen is just one of many timelines. The Doctor travels between timelines on the regular? Granted, there's precedent for this: in Pyramids of Mars the Fourth Doctor shows Sarah Jane the wasteland the Earth will become if they allow Scarman to escape. But generally speaking with the Doctor, it just ain't that casual: that's what the whole "not one line!" thing is about. Muck around with time, and it gets seriously messy.
So this is big. At least, it would be if we thought Chibnall really meant it. What's the betting we never hear about it again? Because what it's in here for it just to facilitate what comes next. And if you thought it was bad before, it's nothing compared to the Doctor's astonishing little homily about what's going on with Earth. Could this be any more on the nose? She practically has Powerpoint and a laser pointer.
If we don't like that, we must be climate change deniers, right? Not even slightly. We agree with every word she says. But do they have to deliver it with the subtlety of a charging rhino? We know Chibnall wanted to get back to the historical-educational roots of Doctor Who, but this is taking it way too far.
Is there anything good here? The odd moment is quite funny, and there are certainly some good lines:
"If I had crayons and half a can of Spam I could build you from scratch."
"I'll be honest, all I've got is the letter P, but sometimes that's all I need."
"Like a really angry tree!"
Although it's hard to imagine that they were written by the same writer who produced these clunkers:
"As green as the hair on our heads, Sylas."
"Yeah, I see you, Dreg Leader, the alpha dog of the apex predators".
Chibnall? Is that you?
And it's not just the lines. Orphan 55 might be written by Ed Hime, but it has Chibnall's sticky fingerprints all over it. The plot is hackneyed and is dumb over and over, but that's far from the worst of it. What we object to far more is Chibnall's total inability yet again to structure a story. Aside from a few scenes at the beginning, everything in this is delivered at the same breakneck pace. Other than the odd pause to hit us over the head with clichéd character moments, everything in the story feels exactly the same as everything else, with equal weight given to each. The only thing creating suspense is the music. We can't do better than to describe it as nothing more than a series of unfortunate events.
And the actors? How do they wrestle with this dreck? Laura Fraser is a terrific actor with, amongst others, blistering performances in Breaking Bad: she manages to wedge some conviction into a part that doesn't actually have any. We're embarrassed for her that she had to be in this. The adorable seniors and the cutesy dad and son are insulting caricatures that nobody could spin into gold. Bella is a massively contradictory part that doesn't really coalesce, but Gia Ré manages to get some humanity into it. The companions, while as underused as ever, are great. Now that Ryan's dropped the sulky teenage thing, Tosin Cole is getting some comedy stuff to do that's really fun to watch.
And the Doctor? On paper, it's actually a great part for her, a massive improvement on the passivity that's far too frequently her modus operandi. She figures out things, she takes the lead, she impresses people into doing things with the force of her personality. Just like the Doctor should. She doesn't even thrash the sonic screwdriver to death in this.
Do we actually believe it, though? Ah, that's another matter. Sadly, we don't, and we think we're going to have to lay the gently steaming blame for that at Jodie Whittaker's door. We're not really buying her as a Doctor who could do any of that. There's just not enough light and shade: it's all pitched pretty much the same. Looking moody occasionally just isn't cutting it. Give us more complexity and nuance to our Doctor, please.
It's got a few great lines of dialogue and the odd nice character moment. Otherwise, it's hard to find any redeeming features in this. Basically, it's sludge all the way down.
Yaz interrupts Benni's proposal, and later the Doctor interrupts Bella and Ryan flirting. It wasn't that funny the first time.
How does the ionic membrane shove the Dregs through actual physical structures?