Written by Ed Hime
Directed by Lee Haven Jones
Executive Producers: Matt Strevens and Chris Chibnall
Starring Jodie Whittaker
Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill
Laura Fraser, James Buckley
Gia Re, Julia Foster, Amy Booth-Steel, Will Austin, Col Farrell, Lewin Lloyd, Spencer Wilding
A BBC Studios production for BBC One
First broadcast on BBC One, Sunday 12th January 2020
Running time: 46.33 (source: BBC iplayer)
In an odd piece of publicity, BBC America suggested that viewers would need to watch this episode to the very end, prompting immediate speculation about another potential reveal (so soon after SpyFall Part One?). Would Orphan 55 somehow be related to the "timeless child"? As this story rocketed along at a breakneck pace, I started to wonder instead whether the irradiated, orphaned world of the title might even turn out to be Gallifrey, with those monstrous Dregs regenerating constantly to adapt to laser fire, and so representing the last, lethal remnants of Time Lord civilisation. Because going into this episode, one other fact had been widely trailed -- here be monsters, and really, properly scary ones (with promo photos of a Lovecraftian tentacle stretching into the TARDIS proving to be yet more solid misdirection). But I'd fallen prey to a classic fanboy category error; neither the "watch to the very end" encouragement, nor all the "these monsters are genuinely scary" stuff, were about the new story arc or Doctor Who lore -- rather, both were about this era's burgeoning relationship to the politics of the day (most certainly not without precedent, but still powerfully front and centre here, and all the better for it). And as for my in-episode speculations: right twist, wrong planet.
Valuing the Dregs?
Sure enough, the Dregs were a brilliant piece of design and realisation, intelligently shot and smartly directed by Lee Haven Jones so as to maximise their sense of threat. Often captured in tight, slavering close-ups rather than shown interacting with the main cast, the potential for generic 'men in rubber suits with masks on' was greatly reduced, and the Dregs' apparent alienness was suitably emphasised. At the same time, the slang naming of these creatures by Kane (Laura Fraser) constantly called to mind that judgemental, awful phrase "the dregs of humanity". As it turned out, of course, the linguistic prompt was more than apt, and the call to watch to the very end was one to heed the episode's environmental warnings, as the Doctor (and the show itself, by closing on an image of a roaring Dreg) effectively dematerialised the fourth wall altogether and spoke directly to its audience. Little could the production team have realised that this story's ashen-graded imagery of a ruined world would arrive hard on the heels of dystopic news images featuring red-hued skies from a dengerously, tragically burning Australia. Orphan 55's warnings about one future timeline where ruling elites had done the paperwork and cleared off, only for a new breed of terraforming disaster capitalism to creep in, could hardly have been more timely.
Comparisons to The Mysterious Planet were obvious enough, but there was also a touch of The Pyramids of Mars in the Doctor's closing speech -- surely an iconic moment for this era and Jodie Whittaker's Doctor. For this bit of time travel was seemingly different to the usual Who set-up, where we assume that future events are 'objective' (in the story universe), and so have happened/will happen in the way shown. The time, though, planetary disaster seemed to have become unfixed, and so it could be undone or avoided. This tension between 'Whoniverse' continuity and real-world resonance is probably unavoidable. Either the programme shows a ruined future, in line with its standard continuity of time travel, and risks encouraging fatalism about our real-world present (or accusations of treating a deadly serious issue as a mere backdrop to franchise entertainment), or it drops standard continuity in favour of pursuing clear, resonant lines between the here-and-now and its fictional state of affairs, using this as a potent call-to-action. And as Orphan 55 demonstrates, the latter choice is a dramatically powerful strategy. Just as it jettisons typical time-travelling norms, so too does this story forget about the whole Ravolox thing, as well as neglecting debates over "fixed points" in time etc etc -- arguably, all of this would have simply got in the way of telling the story that this team wanted to tell. And hurtling our heroes into an Inferno-style parallel reality probably would also have cued the twist too strongly for fans, again dampening its impact and lending the tale an air of 'well, it's all safely sealed off as a what-if'.
Surely one of the Chibnall era's key themes, there's once again a full-on Enlightenment sense of science as a valuable source of facts; the Doctor is keen for viewers to pay attention to scientific warnings, and learn from the facts of our climate emergency. All of this may hark back to elements of 1970s Who, yes, but back then our hero was a 'Scientific Adviser'; now she's had to become more of a 'Scientific Proselytiser' (and given next week's scenario, I'd expect more of the same there too).
Doctor Who: The Next Generation
So, how do you transform didactic eco-horror into family entertainment? For one thing, there's an overload of child-parent angst freighted into the Orphan 55 mix, not just via Bella (Gia Re) and Kane, but also through the mildly comedic mirroring of Nevi (James Buckley) and Sylas (Lewin Lloyd) -- a story strand which largely wasted a performer of Buckley's standing, but still. Parents needed to recognise their children rather casting them adrift, or failing to recognise their developing skills. Both in Kane's (repeated) sacrifice/redemption and in Nevi's eventual welcoming of Sylas's assistance as a "proper mechanic", cross-generational understanding was the dominant flavour of story resolution. Even the Dregs had to come to terms with their intergenerational inheritance in this rich, rapidfire episode (which really would have benefited from an extra ten minutes of runtime, so that there could have been more character-focused moments to counterpoint against the ratcheting up of story speed).
The Doctor's message to the Dregs was passionately unequivocal -- "be better than what made you!" Previous generations had failed, and this time round the Dregs needed to be smarter than any of their forebears, and by implication smarter than 'our' version of humanity who, in snap-edited, mind-melded flashback, had wrecked the planet. Whilst this episode's visibly human children might have needed love and understanding, its monstrous, distorted and metaphorical children -- aka its scary monsters of the week -- needed to wise up and heed the Doctor's words. As such, and despite the episode's attempts to eliminate all subtext in a whirlwind of on-the-nose eco-literalisation, there remains a curious doubling at work here: younger generations of viewers, or those of any generation minded to heed an environmental message, are threatened with becoming the post-human monsters in the Doctor's very final word ("Or...") and at the same time are subtextually addressed through the Dregs: "be more than what made you!" Be better than the systems and elites who have brought our planet to the verge of environmental tragedy; be the humanity in the Dregs rather then becoming 'the dregs of humanity'.
And this is a strange ambivalence at the twinned hearts of Orphan 55, complicating its professed message. We are its monsters, no doubt, but we might simultaneously draw power from a fantasised, subtextual identification with these (momentarily) humanised creatures and their capacity to learn, as well as being rightly terrified of the future that they represent.
This episode's strangeness and brilliance are somewhat marred by other kinds of ambivalence, however, including in the realm of production design. It is surprising that while so much effort has clearly been expended on making the Dregs realistic and convincing, some of the other alien designs are, at best, highly artificial. Hyph3n (Amy Booth-Steel), Nevi and Sylas seem to have been crafted in a completely different tone meeting to pretty much everything else (was there a tone meeting? The campaign starts here: bring back tone meetings!). It's as if Doctor Who only has a finite amount of contemporary genre-based realism per story, and having used this up on Alien-esque not-quite-aliens, there wasn't enough left over for "hyphen with a three" et al. Or perhaps these brightly coloured, cartoonish versions of the alien are meant to reassure younger viewers, partly drawing the sting out of the really scary monster work?
Given the proliferation of characters, not everything has a chance to land. The marriage proposal intended by Benni (Col Farrell) is interrupted when Yaz wanders over, rapidly shifting poor Benni away from existing at the centre of his own story, and towards becoming just one subplot amongst many in the lives of the Doctor and her companions. Benni's tale never quite gels -- sure, he has an oxygen supply, and the Dregs are supposedly "playing" by abducting him, but this always feels like it should pay off more, provoking some fuller plot point in the main storyline. Instead, we are treated to Vilma's (Julia Foster) many pleadings to find her Benni. This is an unexpected masterclass in how many different line readings can be offered from just two syllables, but is nonetheless in danger of becoming almost absurdist through excessive repetition.
On the face of it, green hair and all, Orphan 55 remains less surreal than It Takes You Away -- there's nothing quite like that frog, more's the pity (full disclosure: I loved The Frog. For me, it was a superb, mad, wonderful encapsulation of Doctor Who's artful collision of the ordinary and the fantastical). But Ed Hime's skill as a writer shines in a different light here. Orphan 55 may feel overloaded -- "where's Benni?" -- and overly cranked-up at times, but on reflection, its overt, heart-on-sleeve message is embedded in a far more layered tale of generational conflict, and what we might take away from images of dystopian monstrosity.