Does it deserve the criticism? A look back at Doctor Who’s Orphan 55
Across The Digital Fix’s five-part retrospective of low-rated Doctor Who episodes since 2005, we’ve examined the merits and weaknesses of one story apiece for the Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors. This final instalment addresses the criticisms directed at Thirteenth Doctor episode Orphan 55, which is rated 4.1 on IMDb, the lowest both of Thirteen’s tenure and of the entire revival.
Orphan 55 has all the key ingredients for a classic Doctor Who story setup. The TARDIS crew attempts to have a relaxing holiday when something goes wrong: check. An assortment of distinct supporting characters: check. Monsters break out and terrorise the resort facility: check. Not everyone gets out alive: check. Sacrifice to save a loved one: check, check, check. On this basis, the story starts strong.
The first act is an efficient setup of setting, character and threat done with snappy and energetic editing, information being conveyed through the visuals and using minimal dialogue. Admittedly this means events progress at a fast pace, but this is frequently the case both for Doctor Who and drama in general.
The Dreg monster design is striking and genuinely terrifying. On a limited single-episode budget, the practical effects involved in designing and crafting a horde of ferocious beasts such as this are highly impressive. The camera work often leaves the creatures being seen only obliquely or for a moment; in contrast to the Sandmen in Sleep No More, perhaps a fraction more screentime or clarity to their framing could have exploited the terror of their appearance even further.
Ed Hime’s script has its moments, with some witty lines and all the charming character dynamics between members of the TARDIS team/fam that viewers have come to admire. The Thirteenth Doctor is at peak open-eyed exuberance and fast-talking problem solving, and it is clear Whittaker embraces every line of dialogue with her whole being.
The main criticisms of Orphan 55 boil down to two elements: the high volume of quirky supporting characters and the final scene where the Doctor reproaches humanity for ignoring the warning signs of global warming. The abundance of characters, admittedly, is sometimes overwhelming due to the amount of information being presented. Indeed his review of the episode when broadcast, my TDF colleague Baz Greenland calls the episode “oversaturated”, but he also praises the monster design, calling the Dregs “some of the finest aliens since Jodie Whittaker took on the mantle of The Doctor”.
The revelation that the Orphan 55 planet is actually a possible future version of the Earth is a classic trope of science fiction – look no further than Planet of the Apes. The ferocious call to action from the Doctor (aimed ostensibly at her companions, but it is clear who Hime is actually addressing – all of humanity) may be blunt and direct, but is not unwarranted based on contemporary scientific evidence about the dangers of climate change. Considering the denialism and apathy evident in some parts of the world, perhaps such direct words are required to shock people out of their complacency and inaction.
It is possible the perceived flaws in this episode could be solved with a fairly simple fix: make the story a two-parter. This would give extra legroom for the ideas to be fleshed out and the characters explored given the attention they deserve. Still, Orphan 55 is much better than it has been branded, with the episode drilling to the core of that essential science fiction-horror premise: be scary, and have something worthwhile to say.
Is there room for improvement in this episode? Yes, there is. But Orphan 55 does not deserve the ferocious criticism or its low rating.
None of the five episodes examined across the course of this series deserves the derision it commonly receives. To each critic or fan go their own preferences and individual opinions of a given episode, but a show like Doctor Who is never produced with anything less than a great deal of affection, talent and ambition.
Many critics and fans who espouse negative views are excessively analytical of the show, and are perhaps even missing the point: they forget that the show and the Doctor are always very warmly embraced by children, and is frequently aimed at that demographic, certainly more than at critics or older fans with a score to settle. My TDF colleague Ben Taylor mounts an incisive defence of the merits of socially-minded Doctor Who:
The real audience for Doctor Who’s messages of tolerance and forward-thinking are not the adults tuning in and complaining about it. It’s their kids. The most vocal opposition to Doctor Who when it gets political are grown-ups, who seem to demand anodyne, hermetically sealed Doctor Who stories that don’t engage with real-world issues. The ten-year-olds watching Jodie Whittaker save the day each week are the ones who have the power to emulate her heroism and change the world in the near future… these kids are the ones who will live with our generation’s mistakes. In the spirit of the show itself, I’d like to get serious for a moment: I’d go as far as to say that Doctor Who’s commitment to exercising these messages isn’t just window dressing. It’s important.
There is such a wealth of goodness and quality contained within these five episodes that should be highlighted. Aliens of London and World War Three keeps a wacky plot grounded with relatable human characters, while Fear Her knows what it wants to achieve for its childhood audience. Victory of the Daleks is rousing and exciting, and Sleep No More infuses found footage fiction with some clever – and very Doctor Who – ideas. Orphan 55 is an efficient piece of socially-minded, speculative science fiction. And a solid case also could be made for many other low-ranking episodes.
All in all, even at its worst, Doctor Who is still very good.