Doctor Who (Modern): S12EP3 “Orphan 55”

Series 12
Directed by Lee Haven Jones
Written by Ed Hime

Depending on where you looked, last week’s episode was either a bold step forward for the franchise or some major misguided steps to relive the past.  I was very obviously in the latter camp as I watch Chris Chibnall tank what enthusiasm I had left for new episodes as he crawled up Russell T Davies’ ass and try to eliminate any sense that the Steven Moffat era ever happened.  Less bold and more “desperate to resuscitate the falling ratings”.  It’s a shame too because I feel like Jodie Whitaker would be doing great under a different showrunner, but the show just feels lost.

But enough about the two part premiere, I feel like I beat that drum enough.  Plus, in a delightful turn of events, the credited writer this time out isn’t Chibnall.  Instead it’s Ed Hime of one of the show’s best episodes last year, “It Takes You Away”.  I may have admitted at the time that I was being fairly charitable with it, but as I said then “It’s a deeply weird episode and this season, that’s enough.  It’s one that I could feel was very obviously making up for the stretching of the budget in the early episodes… but instead fills it with better than average writing and the most complete feeling story to date.”

In a very NuWho plot, the show has decided to head on vacation after a distressing episode.  It’s the kind of thing where both the characters and the viewers are supposed to be in a similar space and a nice, simple monster story was what I needed.  The Doctor has been in a mood too, something that is delivered subtly by a character saying it out loud with no evidence before or after that it this true.  It never even becomes relevant to the story.  Graham has found and redeemed a bunch of coupons for Tranquility Spa, one of those idyllic resort places that never stay idyllic long.  They are transported there by teleport cube constructed by the coupons (which is a pretty neat idea), booked for two weeks though with the option to return at any time.

The show doesn’t waste any time though before things start going wrong, not even waiting to show off its new cast of supporting characters.  They consist of an older couple who has not yet married, a woman who Ryan strikes something up with, and Nevi and his son Silas (respectively an impossibly incompetent mechanic and his improbably skilled son) who look like they are Hitchhiker’s characters, and a couple hotel workers most notably including Hyphen with a 3, a silly looking alien with a dumb name that the show insists on drawing attention to that looks like a cross between a mawg and a Joker minion.

Ryan gets a (Hopper) virus from a vending machine (very on brand for him) with some intentionally goofy side effects presumably added just to humiliate him.  While coming down from the effects, he comes across Bella, who he ineptly tries to hit on which somehow works.  No one seems to question why she is also coming down from an attack and not dead since it took The Doctor’s intervention to save Ryan, but whatever, it’s best not to think about these things or it will give away the plot.

Something goes on the loose which looks like a Stan Winston creation and The Doctor is forced to drive them out with an Ionic Membrane with keeps out all non-preapproved life.  That seems like it would be a useful thing to be able to build most weeks, but you know, that’s Doctor Who for ya.  Devices and techniques that are used once or twice and then forgotten about which could sort out every problem in minutes.  Frankly, you’d think that The Doctor would have more of a methodology at this point, but what fun is that.

It’s revealed that the place is a budget hotel which essentially uses monitors to simulate being in a more luxurious place.  It exists as a giant dome in the midst of a dead planet.  The place is offering a “fake-cation”, an idea Hime seems way too proud of when you know, there are already plenty of real world places that operate on similar project an air of safety on the grounds while it is rather dangerous off the grounds.  That leaves everyone trapped inside with destroyed teleporters and a dwindling oxygen supply (no, this never proves threatening and at one point a bunch of oxygen is wasted with no ill effects).

Half of the older couple is nowhere to be found and has apparently been transported or forced off the grounds albeit with an oxygen tank.  It is therefore decided that everyone is going out to look for him with arm mounted oxygen tanks despite the fact that he is an old man and their party includes a child whose life they are risking.  My ire is especially focused at his long-term girlfriend who constantly whined, acted like an idiot including yelling while everyone is trying to sneak, demanding everyone risk their life including by trying to buy their efforts, still doing all that after it was clear he was dead, yelling at someone for fulfilling the beau’s request to be shot when they find him (with that person being given the villainous treatment),.

The even bigger twist however comes in the revelations about the world.  The place is of course an orphan planet (hence the title) where the radiation has dropped, but it remains too toxic for life.  The whole world being terraformed by the hotelier using the profits from their hotel, but for now it is being plagued by those creatures.  The creatures being mutants, specifically mutant humans called Dregs.  “It was Earth, all along” as I sung while the twist happened, but it was hardly shocking.  As I joked in my notes before that, “it’s a holiday in Pripyat!” and I spent a lot of time wondering why all but one person was human.   The Dregs have adapted to the weapons and environment including breathing carbon dioxide and spewing oxygen (like trees).

In other twists since this season can’t stop throwing them out, Bella is really Trixabelle who was her dad’s carer until he died a month prior and her mom is the head security lady who was out of her whole life.  Now she now wants to destroy the whole place because she hates her mom that much.  She continues to try to go through with this plan when the lives of a number of others including a kid are on the line and yet the show never wants her to be considered a villain.  Bafflingly, the episode ends with us trying to think that the thing going on between the petty TERROIST and Ryan is still sweet and that their goodbye kiss before her probable (unless you have seen any TV before) death is supposed to be something to root for.

The Doctor, her companions, and the kid (I think his dad did too, but I honestly didn’t see what happened to him and don’t particularly care) all survive thanks to a series of heroic sacrifices, just in time for The Doctor to basically speak to the camera about the problems facing us.  Granted, she does it while also keeping super vague because this is a show desperate not to take a side and doesn’t want to actually confront any hard truth.

This episode really was a throwback to last season.  We are back on the humans are the real bastards and moralizing from The Doctor including over killing.  The pace was more fitting the first two episodes in that it flew by and refused to develop anything it brought up as it was hampered by trying to serve too many characters.  The latter bit, however, also fits with last season including a rush to the end.  It’s a mess of a plot that seems to hope that if it moves fast enough, we won’t care about the issues or how it would fall apart with any degree of looking at it.  I know that has always been a Doctor Who staple, but the show is usually better about the not making me care part.

At one point it looked like everyone is going to be separated from one another or at one point like Graham was going to be left thinking Ryan died, but the show just quickly and in drama free fashion resolves them.  Someone really should tell them that you have to give these plot beats time for them to leave any impact.  I left this episode more positively than the past two, but I can’t say I enjoyed it and the more I write about it, the less I think of it.  Also, I thought we moved generally past post-nuclear fiction when we have so many other more realistic ones (even if those issues vaguely led to the nuclear war), but bonus points for setting it in Russia.

Grade: C-

Stray Observations

– I haven’t lost track of what show I’m watching, but it should be noted that the direction was pretty poor and made it look cheaper looking than any of the effects could have.
At one point, everybody is encouraged to go to their nearest “master station” which, c’mon.  *sighs* Explained below.
– I like the idea of a “tranquility drill” and perhaps the best part of the episode is the intercom which tries to project a state of calm
– “We came here for Benny!”  I am so happy that woman died.  I was all ready to make some comparisons to “Voyage of the Damned” if she didn’t kick the bucket.  Every time she yelled for Benny, I hated her more.
– Her man seemed like the right sort of chap though, especially the very casual and British way he asked for someone to shoot him.
– Before the show confirmed they were humans, I was hoping the show would reveal the Dregs as mutant Silurians.
– Ryan hitting on a terrorist also seems on brand for him and he really is becoming this show’s Xander (of Buffy).  I also appreciate that despite the episode seeming to hint again at him and Yaz, she seemed more amused by his efforts than jealous which I’d rather they ran with.  Maybe this year we will remember to characterize Yaz.
– I would not be shocked if this becomes the Chibnall “Kill the Moon” in the eyes of fans.  For the record, I thought that one was imperfect but good despite the silly end.
– The Doctor mind melds with a fairly relaxed Dreg to find out what happened to Earth which was a hilarious scene all around.
– The Doctor talking too much actually comes back to haunt her and use up her oxygen even if it doesn’t do so for more than half a scene.
– This Week in Cliffhangers: A lesson for us all that if we don’t clean up things soon, the poor people will all die but some will become super ripped and .  Also, Bella and her mom may be still alive, threatening to come back on the show in the future despite being besieged by mutants.  I hope neither made it.

Next Up:  The Thirteenth Doctor returns on 1/19 for “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” and ugh to that.  I don’t think I’ve seen a better indication that the show is in the pits than trotting out Tesla, the overused patron saint of nerd culture.  Also, look on 1/13 for a “surprise” review of “Terror of the Autons”.