You’d think by now the Doctor would know that going on a holiday never works out well for her. From the Leisure Hive on the planet Argolis, to the resort planet Midnight, any time the Doctor takes some time away from fighting evil, saving the universe, and generally being rather heroic, it never ends well. Trouble tends to follow in the Doctor’s wake, and things tend to go south quite quickly. No such thing as time off for a Time Lord, which is rather ironic.
Following the current series’ opening two-parter, this week Team TARDIS end up winning a fortnight’s break at an alien spa called Tranquility (a name like that is always a major hint that it’s actually the opposite, and stuff will be going down any time now). Just as Graham (Bradley Walsh) is ready to slip into his Speedos, as well as an exotic space cocktail, the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) finds out there’s trouble in paradise, and a dark secret buried away at the heart of the planet known as Orphan 55.
Apparently, there are only seven original story ideas in the world, and when you’re watching a weekly TV series – particularly one that started 56 years ago – that notion can sometimes become painfully clear. A lot of the elements seen in ‘Orphan 55’ – a deadly holiday resort; rampant capitalism running rife and causing an avoidable crisis; a base under siege; humans being the real monsters – have been seen before many, many times in the show, some relatively recently. No shame in that, per se.
This week’s tale, however, felt a little bit like a remix, or a ‘greatest hits’ compilation, maybe even a cover version. It could have avoided that by trying either to do something new with what it was using, or – failing that – it could have at least tried to differentiate itself sufficiently from what’s gone before. However, neither path was taken, and it’s disappointing that it had a sameness to it, which wasn’t helped by a rather flat visual look about it which didn’t lift the story, even despite the overseas filming.
Guys, we have desolate, inhospitable landscapes over here: you should know, you’re based in Wales, which has quarries in abundance. In fact, the whole thing came across as a textbook exercise in how to spend a lot of money making something look awfully cheap. The shoddy green wig which James Buckley wore as Nevi looked like a reject from an Oompa Loompa, and Amy Booth-Steel’s Hyph3n (with a ‘3’ – how very Space Age) seemed to be cosplaying as Barf from Spaceballs. Perhaps a chunk of the budget went on ‘Spyfall’, which certainly felt like money had been thrown at it like there was no tomorrow.
At least some of the resources went into giving us a fairly credible looking new monster in the form of the Dregs, which should have got the nippers well and truly cowering behind the sofa. Where it all fell down a tad, however, was in taking them out of the shadows and showing them in the harsh light of day – it can be awfully unforgiving to have monsters out in plain sight, and this was no exception, alas. Perhaps shooting the scenes on the surface of Orphan 55 at night might have helped make them look less like men in suits at times, as well as adding to the tension somewhat.
None of the guest cast distinguished themselves, with James Buckley in particular seeming to play, well, James Buckley. He appears to be one of those actors who’s only good at doing one thing, and it sadly doesn’t work in every role they take, this unfortunately being one of them. We also get a rather bland and unengaging delivery from Laura Fraser as Kane, who’s ostensibly the bad guy, yet when we learn more about her, we’re supposed to see her somewhat differently; however, there’s no perceptible shift in her performance, so it’s hard to feel sympathy, empathy, or pretty much anything at all towards her, be it good or bad.
Perhaps we’ve been spoiled by having ‘Spyfall’ told over two weeks, as it had the luxury of giving both the story and characters time to breathe. Here, we barely get to know anything much about any of the supporting dramatis personae, short of the broadest of brush strokes, and it’s hard to really feel any connection to them. The script also feels overloaded, throwing in one development after another in short order, and revelation after revelation, so much so that it feels as if it should have been pared down, in order to concentrate upon the most important aspects, and put the focus firmly on them.
As for the biggest shocking reveal of the episode, it’s seriously undermined by the Doctor announcing that they’ve been to just one possible timeline, which is another way of hitting a big reset button, and saying that nothing you’ve just seen over the last 50 minutes was of any actual consequence, as it might not happen. It’s the sort of tiresome cheat we’ve seen employed on a number of occasions previously, such as in ‘The Last Of The Time Lords’, where a whole year of Earth’s history was overwritten, rather than doing the brave thing and making things stick. It’s lazy writing, and the audience deserves better, frankly, than to be served cop-outs like the one we get here.
The whole exercise here is basically to give us a cautionary tale about what might lie ahead for the future of mankind if we don’t address our growing climate crisis; it’s particularly timely, as our news channels are filled with images of the devastation being caused by raging wildfires in Australia, stemming from global warming. Doctor Who has actually championed this for decades, going back to stories like 1973’s ‘The Green Death’, which highlighted the dangers of industrial pollution years before it was on most people’s radars. So, giving messages to the audience – including those with an ecological bent – is nothing new for the show.
Anyone who says otherwise has clearly never watched a Jon Pertwee story, as his era was renowned for delivering moral missives, or being political. However, it always seemed to be delivered in a rather avuncular or paternal way, like a friendly arm round your shoulder, rather than being chiding or forceful. In ‘Orphan 55’, however, it came across as being rather hectoring, particularly as it was directed towards her friends, as opposed to the Doctor lecturing someone actually deserving of such ire. There’s nothing wrong with having something to say, but it’s all about the delivery, and that’s where a major problem lay here.
It doesn’t mean there was nothing of note in the episode, as there was some snappy dialogue at times, including the Doctor’s one-liner about what she could do with crayons and half a can of Spam. Sadly, the reference to that particular product seemed a little too appropriate, as ‘Orphan 55’ felt like it was a mechanically reconstituted product, processed to within an inch of its life, and generally not something you’d have out of preference. Not quite the Dregs, but not far off at times.