Doctor Who had a lot to prove this week. And I'm sorry to say that it failed spectacularly.
Come on, Ed Hime. I trusted you. I defended the talking frog. Why'd you have to go and let Greta Thunberg ghost-write your second Doctor Who script?
“Orphan 55” is the first episode of Series 12 to step back into “monster-of-the-week” territory after the continuity-laden two-part premiere. Series 11 didn't do a very good job with this kind of story on the whole, but there were a couple of breakout moments–including “It Takes You Away”, penned by Ed Hime, who also contributed the script for “Orphan 55”. This made me cautiously optimistic that we'd get a strong follow-up to the well-received “Spyfall”.
The Quick & Spoiler-Free Verdict
“Orphan 55” stinks. Skip it.
Okay, I'll go into a little more detail than that. What makes the episode so bad is that it squanders both the potential of “Spyfall” and a very strong first half to offer up a banal final act rendered painfully predictable by its reliance on a political agenda to drive its storytelling. It's all the worst flaws of Series 11, turned up to 12. I can't say that it completely breaks Series 12, because it doesn't appear to have any connection to the main story arc, but it definitely doesn't do the current era of Doctor Who any favors.
What I Liked
When Jodie Whittaker was first announced as the Thirteenth Doctor, part of what intrigued me about the casting choice was the work she'd done before. She had one or two comedic projects on her CV, but she was primarily known for playing very intense, serious roles on shows like Black Mirror and Broadchurch. Based on these performances, many were concerned that she couldn't handle the whimsical comedy which actors like David Tennant and Matt Smith brought to the role of the Doctor. She quickly proved those doubters wrong…but in the end, there was a little too much comedy in her portrayal of the Thirteenth Doctor during Series 11, and not enough seriousness to balance it out.
Thankfully, the huge changes in the Doctor's life introduced by “Spyfall” have finally given Whittaker the chance to show off more of her acting range, and to Ed Hime's credit, he does capitalize on this in the first half of “Orphan 55”. The Doctor's not quite as bubbly as she was prior to her horrifying discovery on Gallifrey. Even in her lighter moments, there's an undercurrent of gravitas. Also, Whittaker seems more confident in scenes where the Doctor gets tough with people, evoking the more intense moments of the Doctor's Tenth and Twelfth incarnations far more effectively than she did in Series 11. There's more of a welcome subtlety to the Thirteenth Doctor now…
…at least, when she's not lecturing people about social justice issues, but we'll get to that.
Ryan in particular gets some much-needed development in “Orphan 55”. I liked the implication that his frequently goofy demeanor is actually a coping mechanism to get people to like him; it puts a more favorable spin on the comic-relief role he often plays. Graham is also great here (but really, when is he ever not great)? Yaz…*ahem* never mind, we'll talk about her in the next section. I also liked all of the side characters. (Individually.)
The cinematography and effects deserve praise as well. I thought that the use of an oversaturated color palette in the resort scenes was clever, since it was a clue to the eventual reveal that the getaway was a fake. It contrasted nicely with the bleak hues of the hotel's true location. The monsters were a great upgrade from disappointing foes like Series 11's P'ting. For one thing, they were brought to life almost entirely through practical effects, and for another, they did represent a genuine threat and did not turn out to be vegan pacifist nuns in disguise. (They kind of were something in disguise, but at least they were still truly dangerous.)
What I Didn't Like
I started to worry a little about where “Orphan 55” might be headed as soon as the Doctor explained the concept of orphan planets. That said, I honestly didn't believe that the episode would build up to a twist as hackneyed as “This is Earth!”
Before we go any further, let me be clear: none of my criticisms of this episode have anything to do with whether or not I agree with its central message. My views on environmentalism are not black-and-white, and I'm not going to get into them here. I think anyone who's being honest and objective, regardless of their stance on global warming, will agree that “Orphan 55” is an example of bad storytelling.
Doctor Who is no stranger to the subject of climate change. Climate disaster has been included for a long time in the many fates of planet Earth throughout the myriad timelines of the Whoniverse. But it's never been front-and-center like this before. As a result, “Orphan 55” feels like it's trying very hard to appeal to the Greta generation.
The problem, however, doesn't simply lie in the theme of the episode, but in how it uses that theme. Personal opinions aside, I think it would be possible to tell a good Doctor Who story about global warming, but this isn't it. As soon as Orphan 55 (the planet) was revealed as Earth, every ounce of subtlety and intelligence in the storyline was stripped away, especially since the episode proceeded to bludgeon the audience with one ham-fisted metaphor after another from that moment onward. The Ryan's-girlfriend storyline and the carrot-people storyline (I forget all their names, sorry) were revealed as parables for adults not listening to the younger generation. The Dregs are unmasked as direct analogues for climate deniers (but, in case you didn't get the point, there's a final shot of the Dregs right after the Doctor discusses climate denial just to hammer it home one last time). Even the big final showdown with the Dregs is a pageant about environmental concerns. Oh wait, you somehow missed that? Don't worry! The Doctor explains in detail what the scene is meant to represent in. The. Episode. I honestly would not have been surprised if the TARDIS had materialized in my living room and Thirteen had sat down next to me on the couch to add another layer of explanation to what she'd already done on screen. Fourth wall? What fourth wall?
Aside from taking a rocket-powered sledgehammer to all narrative nuance, “Orphan 55” fails its characters in the end as well. We've got the “one companion too many” problem this week again, as Yaz is given practically nothing to do but run around after everyone else. The side characters all had potential and were well-cast, but there's too many of them, too. And while the Doctor was excellent throughout much of this episode, she's ultimately reduced to her tiresome, lecturing old self from Series 11 by the limitations of the script.
A couple of continuity niggles: first of all, I really don't know what the deal was with that teleport cube at the beginning of the story. It looks and functions exactly like a Gallifreyan psychic cube (aside from the teleporting part), right down to having to be assembled from six flat sections. So why did it apparently have no connection to Gallifrey whatsoever? It has to be a deliberate reference, but if so, it wasn't handled very well. The Doctor should have at least addressed the similarity in some fashion. I really thought we'd get a hint at some point that the team was sent to Orphan 55 as part of some plot by the Master, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Another element that clashed with Doctor Who lore was the Doctor's explanation that Orphan 55 was one of many possible timelines. That's not how timelines work in the Whoniverse. True, the fate of Earth has changed more than once, but there aren't multiple timelines existing in tandem within the same universe. Under ordinary circumstances, you can't travel to possibilities, only the current version of reality. Plus, teleporting in and out of the TARDIS should have represented some sort of challenge in and of itself, especially since the ship was apparently in the vortex at the time. We're Whovians, Mr. Hime; don't insult our intelligence with sloppy quantum physics.
“Orphan 55” brings back a lot of problems I'd hoped Doctor Who would move on from in Series 12. In an effort to end this review on a somewhat positive note, however, I will say again that the episode gives the Thirteenth Doctor some very strong moments that build on the character development she got in “Spyfall”. Plus, as I mentioned in my quick verdict, “Orphan 55” fortunately doesn't meddle with the series arc in any way…unless the global-warming apocalypse is somehow used as a recurring plot thread, which I hope won't be the case.
Do I still think you should be watching Doctor Who, even after this dumpster fire of a story? Yes, but only because “Spyfall” was so great. Hopefully, the other stand-alone stories of Series 12 won't follow in the footsteps of Episode 3. Like I said before, Doctor Who had a lot to prove this week, and it fell short. We have yet to see whether Series 12 can offer us “regular” episodes (without relying on big, crowd-pleasing continuity reveals) which are up to the standard of past seasons.
Thanks to “Spyfall”, you've still got plenty of reasons to come back to Doctor Who, but take my advice and give “Orphan 55” a miss.