An episode with its heart in the right place and its head largely on the moon. In this regard it resembles Himes’ previous effort. The problem is that where “It Takes You Away” moved among a bunch of elements that were batshit weird and largely unlike anything we’d ever seen before, “Orphan 55” moves through a bunch of Doctor Who standards. These are generally among the more interesting Doctor Who standards—a dodgy resort a la The Macra Terror or Delta and the Bannermen, the main reveal from The Mysterious Planet, and a big heavy-handed environmental message like it’s The Green Death. These are all basically good components.
Unfortunately, Himes’s sugar rush sense of momentum keeps any of them from going anywhere. The supporting cast is overstuffed and undercooked, feeling at times like a cut-rate Voyage of the Damned. Interesting ideas flop oddly around the screen, briefly contemplating becoming significant plot threads before declining to. What exactly are the Dregs doing, killing some people and weirdly torturing Benni in a way that doesn’t actually make him stop being a weird comic relief character? What’s the actual substance of the relationship between Kane and Bella? There are stories here, but they’re being rushed past in favor of something that structurally feels more or less like The Ghost Monument.
This remains extremely puzzling to see. There’s a continual failure to quite remember what stories are supposed to look like. This is structured like a serial that we’re watching all the parts of in 45 minutes. And the parts appear to be about six minutes long. This is a more coherent structure than Chibnall himself generally manages, but it’s baffling to see Doctor Who suddenly attain the basic narrative cohesion of a shitty 90s cult television show. Ian Levine’s hilarious “friendship over with Doctor Who, now Babylon 5 is my best friend” bit two years ago actually makes a vague amount of sense in a world where Doctor Who feels like it’s on the same basic quality level of Seaquest DSV. It’s like a peek into the universe where Fox picked Doctor Who over Sliders in 1996.
Reviewing it ends up feeling a lot like when I did comic reviews—that immensely frustrating sense week after week of going “you are failing at the most basic tasks of actually telling a coherent story.” Except comics are a low-paying medium run by companies more exploitative of both employees and customers than usual in which the reason people work is usually fannish love instead of actual talent. This is BBC One in the age of Peak Fucking Television, and it leaves you wishing they’d go hire Dan Weiss and David Benioff, who at least understand what earning your dramatic payoff should look like in the abstract, even if they can’t actually make it work. This isn’t even broadly shaped like coherent televisual narrative—it’s just vomiting a random set of concepts at the screen and hoping a point comes out somewhere.
Actually, that’s unfair—it’s perfectly willing to hammer you in the face with its point. And to its credit, its point is basically sympathetic. Not doing a climate change episode in 2020 would have been inconceivable. Given that, the utter lack of compromise in its message and the unwillingness to hide behind allegory was admirable. And sure, I’ve learned not to have any real hope that Doctor Who is going to suggest anything than warm platitudes about individual heroism. Obviously the strongest message about climate change that we can realistically hope for is “so recycle more” and not “so drag the billionaires who are profiting on the destruction of the world out of their houses and drown them.” It’s fine. Honestly, the cynical line about how the elites will abandon the planet and leave us all to die was better than I’d hoped for. Like I said, this is an episode with its heart in the right place.
It’s just that it lacks literally any of the technical skill needed to make that heart remotely effective.
- So… how does time work now? The declaration that it’s climate change that does humanity in makes it clear that the orphaning of the planet is near term instead of long term—this clearly isn’t happening in parallel with Starship UK or the whole Wirrin incident. So this is clearly the existence of a timeline in which large swaths of the future history of Earth that we’re familiar with doesn’t happen. And the Doctor’s declaration that this is one of a number of possible timelines is extremely weird and not how the future has ever appeared to work before. Moving between alternate universes is supposed to be hard, and yet it now appears to be how time travel works.
- For that matter, when is the present? What parts of history are written? How subject to rewrites are they anymore? And more to the point when the fuck did all of this change?
- Obvious answer, of course, is the re-destruction of Gallifrey. The fact that this didn’t happen after the Time War is just down to the Time Lords not actually being destroyed. Now they really are gone, so time works differently. And since this new understanding of time is obviously going to be completely ignored by every future story, it won’t be a problem when Gallifrey is inevitably brought back and time silently goes back to actually making a goddamn bit of sense.
- And hey, at least the Doctor’s reaction to being the last of her kind is just to be a bit surly instead of vast cosmic angst. I suppose when you’ve lost the planet multiple times you stop being quite so upset about it. Honestly her reaction is probably more about “ugh I have to go fix that and that’s probably going to mean seeing the fucking Time Lords again” than it is “oh woe I am once more the last of my kind.”
- Getting back to review instead of wild continuity speculation, I think the thing that really makes this episode so frustrating is that it’s probably going to remain in the top couple for the season. This is what success looks like these days. How utterly dispiriting.
- Orphan 55