Doctor Who season 12 continues with a classic base under siege-style story, but this installment comes with an uncomfortably modern twist.
A base-under-siege episode is a Doctor Who staple, a classic story type which generally finds the Doctor and friends joining forces with a group of soldiers, scientists or others who are under insidious, creeping threat from a largely unseen enemy that’s picking everyone off one by one.
“Orphan 55” is just such a tale, which sees an ostensible family vacation become something darker and much more sinister, and serves as an uncomfortable warning to those of us watching at home that we’ve got a distinctly limited amount of time to change our ways. (Or risk becoming Orphan 55 in the future, ourselves.)
The episode is penned by Ed Hime, the writer that brought us season 11’s gorgeously weird “It Takes You Away”. (Yes, the one with the sentient pocket universe and the frog.) This installment is much more straightforward, and certainly hews much more closely to what might be called a “traditional” Who story. Meaning, there’s a mysterious monster, an awful lot of running, some occasionally charming guest characters, and the Doctor talking as fast as possible.
But it’s not a lot more than that, which means this is hardly likely to be a super memorable episode of Doctor Who, beyond the fact that there’ll probably be a lot of Tumblr memes featuring the Doctor’s climate change quotes.
The basic gist of the story is simple: Thanks to Graham’s diligence in collecting coupons from one of the TARDIS coffee makers, Thirteen and her companions have all won a free two-week stay at an all-inclusive resort known as Tranquillity Spa. But instead of relaxation, they discover monsters trying to kill everyone.
That’s because Tranquillity Spa isn’t a resort planet, but rather a “Fakation Destination”, a domed, Truman Show-style enclosure that exists in the ruins of an Orphan planet. Orphan 55, to be exact, an essentially dead planet that exists in the aftermath of nuclear or other disaster, a toxic wasteland incapable of supporting most life.
Turns out, the Tranquillity company isn’t so interested in crafting affordable vacation destinations for the universe, but rather terrafirming and rehabilitating the dead planet in the name of corporate profit. Unfortunately, for them, the native inhabitants, a group of horrifying monsters known as “dregs” that have adapted and mutated to survive nuclear winter, and are not too fond of human visitors.
There’s a lot to like about this episode: Jodie Whittaker is at her fast-talking, quick-thinking best, and Thirteen’s impassioned plea to Team TARDIS – and the viewers at home – to be the best of humanity, to make the important, hard decisions that avert this future is everything we love about the Doctor. The dregs are terrifying monsters, and the story is full of genuinely tense and frightening moments. (The sequence in which the always chattering Doctor is rendered unable to speak because of her lack of oxygen is particularly great.)
The pacing is relentless, and it feels like so much happens in the space of an episode that’s actually ten minutes shorter than virtually every other episode in the Chris Chibnall era. The moments that work best are those which – in true Doctor Who fashion – take place in claustrophobically small settings like broken down vehicles or tunnels full of sleeping dregs, and its certainly not afraid to off some of the story’s secondary characters in the name of raising the stakes.
That said, the reason “Orphan 55” can sacrifice so many secondary characters is that there are simply too many of them. Unlike earlier installments such as, say, season 2’s “The Satan Pit,” or season 4’s “Midnight,” we never really get to know any of these people beyond the various archetypes they serve, so it’s pretty hard to care about them or their generally sad and depressing fates.
There’s Benni and Vilma’s doomed fortysomething year-old love story. There’s Bella’s revenge plot against her absentee mother, complete with literal bombs. There’s a random green haired engineering tech and his supergifted son, who seems to be part of the story simply so that he can wander off in a snit at a key moment and subsequently need rescuing. (I mean, what else did these two add to this episode? Nothing.)
I suspect we were meant to read the various sacrifices of certain characters as noble and heartrending. Which, on paper, they surely are. But after listening to Vilma do little more than shriek BENNI for twenty minutes, her exit comes as much as a relief as a heartbreak. And given the fact that Bella is a mild domestic terrorist who’s lied about literally everything we know about her, it’s also difficult to feel too terribly invested in her flirtation with Ryan or her reunion with her mother.
Furthermore this episode virtually no connection to season 12’s first two installments, and no further mention of the Master or the chilling destruction of Gallifrey, beyond a near throwaway mention that Thirteen’s been in a bad mood of late. This isn’t that strange, or even ver unexpected, to be honest, but it’s still…well, a bit disappointing.
For a Doctor that seems to almost require human companionship in a way that few of her predecessors have, it’s a bit weird that Thirteen still remains so emotionally closed off from the rest of Team TARDIS, even after all this time. I hope that’s something we come back to at some point this season, simply because it’s an interesting character choice after the Doctor’s almost obsessively codependent relationships with companions like Rose and Clara.
“Orphan 55” ends on a particularly dark note for a Doctor Who story – most of the characters we meet at Tranquillity Spa don’t survive and we’re given a bleak look at the future of our home and species (the dregs are, naturally, the few surviving members of the human race, mutated into something…else). But the Doctor at least puts our fate into our own hands and reminds us that if this isn’t the future we want it’s up to us to change it. And there are much worse things to take away from an hour of television then that.
Doctor Who will return next Sunday at 8pm ET on BBC America.