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That Was Doctor Who's Starkest Lesson in Years

By James Whitbrook on at

Doctor Who has been a morality play since its earliest days. Ever since the first Doctor picked up a couple of teachers and his young granddaughter for adventures in time and space, it has been a show seeking to educate as much as it does entertain. Last night’s episode carried on in a similar vein but had neither the time, nor the patience, to sugarcoat its message.

“Orphan 55” is, as far as most standard Doctor Who episodes go, very familiar. It’s like running through a big checklist of Things That Make Doctor Who Good. The Doctor and friends going somewhere they think will be relaxing and it’s instead incredibly stressful? Check, this time it’s a fancy space spa literally called Tranquillity. Base under siege? Check, said space spa. Creepy monsters? Check, some honestly gorgeous-looking creatures, called the Dregs. Background characters being meaninglessly killed off every few minutes? Check, pretty much everyone outside of two side characters and our heroes bites it by the end. Said background characters also deciding to throw themselves over to said creepy monsters, as if they’re aware they’re background characters in someone else’s narrative? Check and check. Multiple times!

This is not a particularly bad thing, if predictable – they’re familiar because they’re tropes that work, and have done so from the very beginning. These repeating ideas across over 50 years of Who storytelling are almost like the comfortably cozy jumper of Doctor Who, a familiar structure the series can hang any combination of setting, character and incarnation of the Doctor onto to make a new spin on a familiar yarn. But, as still fresh-faced as she is, this is not the Thirteenth Doctor’s first time at the Base Under Siege rodeo. So what can “Orphan 55” bring to this table resplendent with familiar tropes, and a Time Lord incarnation who already knows her way around a siege or two?

Despair, mainly. And for Doctor Who, a show that prides itself on a romantic sense of optimism, that’s fascinating.

The Dregs are a really cool design that don’t get nearly enough screentime.

Almost everyone the Doctor and her friends meet in their short and unpleasant stay at Tranquility Spa are distinctly, casually unpleasant people, beyond the callousness a situation like the bloodbath of mutated monsters bumping off holidaymakers one-by-one naturally reveals. Some of these are minor cruelties in comparison with each other – Nevi’s repeated disregard for the advice of his clearly gifted son Sylas (Lewin Lloyd, who played Roger on His Dark Materials) when it comes to technology and engineering is a passively aggressive act, but becomes so grating to the poor boy, at one point it nearly gets everyone left standing killed when he runs off in frustration.

On a much grander scale, there’s Bella, indirectly responsible for the deaths of multiple innocent people over the course of the episode, who made her way to Tranquillity specifically to commit an act of terrorism (because she was abandoned by her mother as a child, which, yes, sad, but not “I’m a terrorist now!” sad!). Running it all at Tranquillity – and, as is eventually revealed, Bella’s wayward mother, the source of almost all frustrations in this episode – is Kane, a career-and-profit obsessed, taciturn hardarse so greedy she plonked a capitalist elite’s spa resort on an orphaned, irradiated planet regardless of the indigenous population or the safety of the people who would work and stay there just to try and claim land ownership over the world.

The two nicest people we meet, elderly vacationers and paramours Benni and Vilma, offer a nice foil to these distinctly unlikable survivors the Doctor and friends are forced to work with to escape. Benni and Vilma’s love for each other, their ability to be compassionate to those around them, isn’t rewarded by “Orphan 55” with survival; instead, they just get to sacrifice themselves to help the people around them. Kane and Bella’s self-destructive “screw it all” approach to the situation they find themselves in isn’t given a bloody end as a comeuppance, it unfolds as a tragedy – only coming together in a quasi-acceptance of the bad blood between them in their final moments, left to be killed by the Dreg hordes as the Doctor, her friends, Nevi and Sylas teleport to freedom in the climax.

Here’s the thing about people who are nice and people who are nasty, “Orphan 55” tells us: they all die the same, regardless of their intentions. That’s all bleak enough, but it’s a bleakness backed by the episode’s worldbuilding reveals, too. As the Doctor and her dwindling group of survivors make their way out of Tranquillity’s shielded safe haven and across and under the surface of the irradiated “orphan” world they find themselves on, she eventually figures out the real identity of the planet.

The Doctor and her assholish new “friends” venture out beyond Tranquillity Spa’s safe haven.

It’s a future Earth, one ravaged by climate disasters and nuclear war so furiously that it’s now little but a desolate, barren wasteland. What survivors of the calamities mutated into the Dregs, and what little of humanity that survived beyond that abandoned Earth entirely leading to its designation as the 55th orphaned planet. There was no coming together, no effort to avoid disaster or even to rebuild in the face of it. Like almost everyone else in this episode, humanity’s remnant said “Screw that, I got mine” and peaced out.

This is, once again, a storytelling idea that isn’t unfamiliar to Doctor Who. The show has been commenting on the dangers of climate change and nuclear war since the Daleks first trundled onto TV screens in only its second-ever story. But the reveal is a shocking catalyst for Ryan, Yaz and Graham, whose adventures in time and space have, at the Doctor’s pushing, been teaching them about the beautiful indomitability of humanity – that it will persist out into the stars and into the future, that progress, while slow at times, is inevitable. This alternate look at what could happen is a reminder to them that no such timeline is guaranteed. That, if anything, the privileged, complacent belief that we’ll sort it all out and be fine is just as dangerous as the division and inequalities causing the modern world’s issues in the first place. But it’s one made all the more shocking by the fact that, instead of truly comforting them about that despair, the Doctor fuels it with a call to action that is as bleakly damning as it is hopeful.

At the climax of the episode, as Team TARDIS recuperates in the wake of their escape, Yaz confronts the Doctor, who has become perpetually distant and cool ever since the traumas revealed to her by the Master in the season’s opening episodes, asking her just when she really figured out Orphan 55 was Earth. The Doctor sidesteps the fact that she’d probably known a lot longer than she’d let on to instead, as she simmers with rage, remind her friends that this outcome for their homeworld is an unsurprising one given the time they come from. As she tells them and us alike, we live in a time when humanity is at each other’s throats over every little thing while the Earth literally burns around them. The Doctor’s message is ultimately a hopeful one – also reminding Yaz, Graham and Ryan that humanity’s choice for collective action can be a powerful thing – but her lesson is not warm. It’s harsh, impassioned and starkly delivered, a lesson so burdened by anger that it’s intended to scold as much as it is educate.

This is a Doctor who – buffeted once more by the loss of her own world, who just witnessed how humanity’s self-centredness can be so pointlessly destructive – seemingly no longer has the time or patience for the idle optimism she so often championed last season. It’s a fascinating arc for this version of the character to go on, as the ramifications from the season premiere still sprawl out before us. It’s a fascinating wakeup call for both her and Doctor Who itself. How many times must the message be sugarcoated by the Doctor (or otherwise) before it really sinks in with us that we have to get our act together?

Chris Chibnall’s era of Doctor Who has faced an often misguided criticism that it is too preachy, that there’s not enough monsters and too much messaging  – a puzzling complaint for a show that has prided its entire existence on using science fiction as a window into the trials and tribulations of our society. This episode isn’t just a reminder that you can have both in equal measure, it’s a reminder that sometimes, the latter of those two things must be delivered as bluntly as possible.

THAT HAIR THOUGH.

Assorted Musings

  • Another Very Doctor Who Thing: my god, those green wigs on Sylas and Nevi. Atrocious. Glorious. No one bats an eye at how perfectly dodgy they look. I love them, they’re terrible.
  • Same goes for Hyph3n’s entire aesthetic, which, frankly, I would place as a better representation of humanoid felines than anything in the movie Cats. Thankfully no TSwift was involved this time.
  • Instead of the Doctor’s oxygen supply running out to give her a chance to learn about the Dregs’ true origins, I thought the fact that Time Lord’s respiratory bypass system exists was going to be something that cropped up. Given that this season has already made a play at bringing back quirky aspects of Time Lord physiology, it wouldn’t have been out there to get a nod.
  • Between trying to get the phone number of Yaz’s sister in “Spyfall” and now his burgeoning tryst with Bella here, so far this season Ryan’s arc has been “weirdly horny”.
  • I get that it’s yet Another Very Doctor Who Thing to rapidly cut around a monster suit to both a) leave the true extent of its horror up to your own imagination and b) more often than not mask the fact that it’s a man in a rubber suit, but god, the Dregs were actually a really good piece of costume design that I wish this episode showed off more than it did. One of the best things about this era of Who leaning back into creature feature episodes is the chance for this production team to really show off what it can do with monsters and aliens.

All images: BBC