Doctor Who: 12.03 Orphan 55
Last night's Doctor Who saw the Doctor and her companions travel to a holiday resort world under attack from a terrifying enemy. With the promise of being the scariest episode of the Chibnall era yet, there were high hopes for Orphan 55. And indeed, the Dregs are some of the finest aliens since Jodie Whittaker took on the mantle of The Doctor. Alien xenomorphs meet the Demigorgon from Stranger Things, they Dregs are sure to give younger viewers nightmares and provided a formidable threat as Doctor Who went for the classic base under siege storyline.
Ed Hime, writer of last series' wonderfully atmospheric It Takes You Away returns to pen Orphan 55, though sadly it lacks some of the magic of its predecessor. As deadly as the Dregs are, the whole situation felt far too familiar to previous stories in the modern Doctor Who era, even taking into account the classic series trope. The bloodbath of guests being killed, Ryan and Bella cowering from the Dreg in the steam room, the assault on the armoured vehicle, the escape and pursuit through the tunnels; all of these moments could have been packed with nail biting tension. But whether it was the direction or desire to keep the show family friendly, these moments lacked the tension they needed, even with a terrific, unstoppable alien like the Dreg in play.
It is also an episode packed with far too many characters, which is a shame as it starts of well; Ryan getting infected with the virus and hallucinating bats is genuinely funny and his flirty encounter with Bella is a lot of fun. There is a lot of chemistry here and Tosin Cole really shines with the material he is given, playing off Julia Elizabeth Fogle well. Bella herself is fiery, determined and sassy, with an intriguing twist as her motivations surrounding her long absent mother become clear.
However, despite a strong cast, the other characters fare less well. James Buckley and Laura Fraser were two of the series' big guest announcements but neither are given room for development. A quirky man with green hair and a brilliant son with an engineering mind (Lewin Lloyd fresh from a brilliant performance in His Dark Materials) Buckley's Nevi and son Sylas never go beyond the original set up, making it hard to feel for them as the stakes were raised. Fraser's Kane had a bit more development as the woman with all the guns and money but the episode didn't go deeper than a half-hearted plot about leaving a legacy for her daughter. Vilma and poor Benny don't have any more to them than an old couple reminiscing about their years together. Hyphen-3 is a quirky dog-like alien that has no more to her than being quirky. No one performance is bad. But it makes for a crowded character roster and when people start dying there isn't enough investment to make you invested or anything other than surface level.
You also have to wonder about the logic about dragging everyone out into the heart of Dreg territory to rescue Benny, who gets an off camera exit presumably because what happens to him is too horrific for family television. The result is a lot of action, some mild tension, great monsters, plenty of death but not a lot of depth. The best moment is seeing the Doctor's oxygen tank run down faster than anyone else's because she talks too back. It's a brilliant gag that fits this incarnation of the Doctor perfectly.
The 'twist' around the location of Orphan 55 is a very effective one, though not quite as bold as you might expect, largely being a rehash of the classic Doctor Who episode The Mysterious Planet back in 1986. But it does add some meat to the bones of the episode, making it more than just the standard base under siege, everyone dies plot. Having the post-nuclear wasteland of Orphan 55 a future Earth is a bold and effective commentary on the state the world is going today, though I found the final message to the audience delivered in such a ham-fisted way, there should could have been a more effective, and subtler way to get the point across.
Orphan 55 was a mixed episode. The humour was top notch and the aliens incredibly effective; a proper scary monster to make kids hide behind the sofa. But it was also over saturated with too many undeveloped characters and lacked a surprising amount of atmosphere and tension. Series twelve is still reasonably stronger than the last at this point, but this is one episode that probably needed a little more directional flair, and perhaps the full hour to really establish the character dynamics. And while the end message was presented in a bizarre fashion, it was a good message to give. Let's hope the human race doesn't all become a horde of Dregs...