Doctor Who: ORPHAN 55 Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Doctor Who: ORPHAN 55 Review

Tony’s with the Dregs.

We live in a populist age.

What that ultimately means is that anyone in power can do more or less what they like, so long as at any point, they retain the support of one core group. Importantly, the identity and beliefs of that core group can change from week to week.

I mention this because Orphan 55, by Ed Himes (writer of Series 11’s It Takes You Away, with its somewhat notorious universe-frog) couldn’t really be more different from the two-part series opener Spyfall if it tried. What that seems to have led to is that all the people who squee’d themselves over the twists, turns, reveals, returns and downright spy-based bonkersness of Spyfall have found themselves…a bit underwhelmed by the ‘Classic’ elements of Orphan 55, whereas those who found all the newness and brashness and spy parody tedious have rather glommed on to Orphan 55 as a return to Classic form – monsters, base under siege, men in rubber suits, dramatic self-sacrifice, the Doctor being clever, bish bash bosh, home in time for Custard Creams, with a bit of a message for our times. The people who most vocally support the show, being generally divided, can change from episode to episode, and Doctor Who sails on, relatively stable, pleasing some of the people some of the time, and the rest of the people…next week instead.

Looked at purely from an entertainment perspective, there’s plenty to love about Orphan 55 – it uses one of the oldest tricks in the book (the Doctor and Fam on holiday) to establish another of the oldest tricks in the book (a base under siege, with monsters trying to get in), gives us lots of running around, complex technical problems, an escape to danger (sorry, couldn’t resist that), little attempt to understand the position of ‘Roaring Monster Number 651’ – or the Dregs as they’re called here -plenty of attempts to run away from them very very fast and survive till the end of the day, and a slam-dunk message to the audience that if we don’t shape up, this is the future from which there’s no real saving us. All of this is likely to please most Classic Who-fans. There’s also a happy handful of callbacks to both Classic stories and New Who stories that now feel like they happened long ago that they can be considered Classic – from Paradise Towers (running increasingly away from things trying to take over your building), The Mysterious Planet (finding writing that proves you’re on the desolated remains of the Earth), Gridlock (riding out into a hostile environment, only to discover what a catastrophically bad idea that was) and so on – all of which gives a cosy, familiar feel to the piece. The fact of ‘man in a rubber suit’ monsters, while by no means a thing that’s gone away in New Who recently, will please some fans too – especially because the Dregs were rendered, let’s be honest, through extraordinarily good and convincing rubber suits by Doctor Who standards.

There’s also a good deal of charm in some of the performance moments – Graham and his teleport coupons (Speedo line optional), the increasingly snappy back and forth dialogue between Yaz and the Mardy Doctor (please Rassilon, don’t let that stick as the shorthand by which we remember this incarnation), Tosin Cole’s hallucinatory bat-acting, the cllunkiest chat-up lines in the galaxy, the Doctor getting her Gallifreyan on and delegating like a good ‘un. There’s even a slightly busy version of a Robert Holmes classic tactic – a pair of secondary characters where the senior partner’s a bit of a clueless shyster and the junior’s the brains of the outfit, as seen here in James Buckley’s Nevi and Lewin Lloyd’s Sylas. All of this, and Hyph3n’s distinctly retro species make-up and tail, helps those who love a good bit of solid, straightforward problem-solving and running away, as seen in almost every iteration of Doctor Who, feel that it’s an art that’s not been lost even in 2020. As such, there’s absolutely a place for a bit of Orphan 55-style fun in any series of Who.

That said, there’s plenty to sigh about too. The characters are mostly ciphers, with Benni and Vilma being heartstring-pulling Dreg-fodder from the moment they appear, Vorm being a rent-a-guard you’d be hard pressed to pull out of a line-up, Hyph3n being the cheerful, morally sound one you hope will survive, but who dies in a way so unremarkable it fails to punch any sadness-buttons, Kane being the supposedly heartless one who’s really just ‘doing it all for her daughter’ – without actually telling the daughter concerned anything about it. It’s actually pretty hard to give even the remotest of tosses when any of these people dies, which feels like the result of an overcrowded script, a one-part story, and the need for constant forward motion studded with corpses to stop us from at any point examining the underpinnings of the world-building. Nevi and Sylas are heartwarming and Holmesian, but they’re not by any measure technically necessary to the script either, and a few weeks from now, you probably won’t remember their names.

The trip into the wasteland is an absurd story-contrivance and leads to an equally absurd chain of actions to undo its folly. That chain of actions eats up screen-time because that’s more or less all it exists to do – provide some solid running about and shouting and character-deaths.

The button-pushing mother-daughter resentment and their reconciliation prior to what is probably their inevitable death is a salad-simple emotional thread that fails to enthral either when Kane is being desperately Alpha and money-grubbing, or when she comes back (twice) to do the noble thing, finally winning the apparent approval of her daughter by…ultimately, delaying their deaths by about thirty seconds. (Also, what’s with mother-child relationships so far in this series? Daniel Barton basically deep-fries his old mum for being disappointed in him in Spyfall, and here Kane runs off and…nope, already had to look up her name…Bella retaliates by wanting to burn everything her mother’s built to the ground).

The Dregs – which by the way feels about as appropriate a name as Eskimos or Red Indians, being an imposition on the species by those driven to have negative views of them – are highly problematic too. They’re an apex predator in an environment the point of which is that nothing lives there (we’ll ignore the trees that show up looking pretty healthy here and there). Surely the point of an apex predator is that they’re at the top of an ecosystem, rather than alone in one? They appear to be clearly carnivorous in nature, so what do they eat in the wild? Each other? Seems odd, given they’re shown in quite large numbers, unless of course they’ve developed into clans across the planet and we only see the Grey Dregs (‘Grey Dregs! Grey Dregs! Grey Dregs are best!’). Even so, they breach the spa complex, kill most of the people there…and apparently leave most of their meat-kills behind, but take one grumpy old bloke, who is at least still alive enough to prod at our heartstrings by proposing, before almost immediately dying off-camera by a human gunshot. All of this poses interesting questions about Dreg nature and development, and it feels like that could have made a useful second part to this story, but we get to explore none of it because the Dregs don’t exist to be understood, but to be run away from – as a non-verbal monster, all they can do is roar, and kill, and give us one critical piece of information by virtue of the old Time Lord touchy-feely (which is another evolving magical fixer, like the sonic – once used sparingly, this episode sees the third time it’s been used in Series 12 alone).

Oh, and one thing no-one seems to have mentioned. While the Twittersphere was up in arms after Spyfall, Part 2 when the Doctor turned off the Master’s perception filter so the Nazis would see him as a person of colour, no-one seems bothered by the Doctor’s casual comment in this episode that ‘If you can get rid of your Dreg problem, you’ll be rich.’

Errrrrm…so if you can wipe out the indigenous life forms by terraforming the bejesus out of their world…you’ll be rich. Righto, Doc. We’ll crack on with that then, shall we?

We’re not meant to empathise with the Dregs, even though they’re supposed to be the descendants of most of us. They’re both threat and warning, but at no time are we supposed to connect with them. It looks like we might be getting somewhere with the ‘Smart Dreg’ Leader, but then, all too soon, nope, it’s about the running away and the blowing things up again. As mentioned, Nevi and Sylas (the green-headed ones, as we’ll be calling them soon enough) add an extra couple of spins to the drama wheel, but they do so in such a manufactured fashion it doesn’t spike our pulses, and ultimately, by the time we get back on board the Tardis, everything feels like it’s been a load of running about and uncovered Russian without actually caring very much for anyone’s life or death. As such, while it should feel natural, the awfulness of the situation expressed by Ryan – how will those left behind be fine, exactly? – feels instead like a brick tied onto a soap-bubble of a story, and the Doctor’s additionally heavy-handed eco-lesson of choosing timelines, and people, and choices, and essentially the plot of Day of the Daleks, instead of underscoring everything that’s gone before it, weighs on us like an unexpected sermon because it only tangentially connects to the adventure that’s gone before it. Yes, elements of the eco-message have been crucial to the underpinning of the story – our planet, ruined, the 1% flying off and leaving the rest of us to our doom etc – but the majority of Orphan 55 has been about running away from scary monsters, rather than pausing to really drive the perils of eco-disaster under our skin, so the speech sounds preachy, rather than conclusive.

Overall, Orphan 55 has plenty of good bits, some extremely chuckleworthy moments, and some great ‘men-in-rubber-suit’ monsters. But the monsters are underdeveloped and non-verbal, the pace is forced, the journey is ludicrous, the cast is overcrowded and the drama ultimately underbaked, leaving many fans feeling it is at best an inconsequential revisiting of some themes from previous adventures.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at

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