A… Defense… of Orphan 55??

Reading Time Approx: 5 minutes

Orphan 55 seems to be pretty unanimously derided as one of the worst stories of the modern show and certainly there’s a fair few flaws to point to. If you have some meticulous, thoroughly artificial, point scoring system that ranks things to the 100th degree, I don’t think this one is coming very high on yourlist. But is it actually as awful as people tend to dismissively suggest? I’m definitely conflicted, it’s got problems, but fan opinion tends to be so extreme that I may be about to defend a story that I don’t think is very good. How about that for confusing?

The story starts well I think. We’re given a glimpse of a previous unseen adventure and a hint that the Doctor is hiding something (this Doctor does that a lot) then quickly launched into the story itself. It’s all played for laughs at this stage and the introduction of the Hopper Virus gives Tosin Cole a chance to do some great comedy acting as a well as leading into a great awkward flirting scene with Bella (who naturally turns out to be key to the plot). All of this is, to my mind, really entertaining with the core cast on top form. Also effective is the slow switch from comedy to tension to horror. We get a lot of familiar horror tropes in this section but they’re familiar because they work so well. The little glimpses of the monster initially building up the fear and excitement as the Doctor unravels what is happening. And then, after the attack is repulsed, the silence that emphasizes just what has happened, really brings it home.

So, 20 minutes into this 46 minute episode I’m thinking this is pretty great. And this is where the wheels start to wobble. I think it’s fair to say that the rest of this story rushes through almost every horror trope you can think of and along the way it lets the internal logic slip. Now, YouTube videos and certain websites may have given people the impression that tropes are in some way bad or lazy, but they’re not. They’ve become tropes because they are strong story elements. While overuse can be a problem as you start to fall into cliche, tropes are the building blocks of stories. But, you need enough time to fully present those tropes and 26 minutes (well really more like 24 minutes) is not enough time.

And that I think is where the biggest failing of this story lies. There’s too much being crammed in here and not enough time to really do any of it justice. A good example of this is Benni and Vilma. Now they make perfect redshirt type characters. We get just a tiny bit of background, enough for us to care when Benni goes missing but that’s as far as it goes. Vilma simply isn’t developed enough to support the whole side plot she is given and so we’re subjected to her behaving incredibly stupidly and saying Benni in an annoying way repeatedly. And Benni himself doesn’t even get a proper send off, instead we’re told that Kane killed him because the Dregs were, doing something, we don’t know what. Why did they keep him alive that long anyway? Never explained. Chop out some of these extra elements and the story becomes tighter and the internal logic gets stronger. I seem to recall there were timing issues on Ed Hime’s previous script as well.

Now despite those major criticisms (and there are some other weird production decisions as well, abrupt jumps, odd cuts) even the second half of this episode isn’t all bad. The pacing remains fast, the visuals are distinctive and make this look like an alien world (even though, SPOILERS, it’s not) and throughout this story Whitaker is on top form with some subtle expressions and a Doctor who thinks on her feet, takes charge and solves problem after problem. It’s the patch where they are in the truck or just out of the truck that really suffers. Once they get to the tunnels things firm up a bit at least from an internal logic perspective. It’s all still happening too fast and the various sacrifices aren’t given time to breathe or for the audience to feel the significance.

And then there’s the ending. In an episode that already has far too much in it for the run time available, to choose to give up most of two minutes to a long and very on the nose speech about climate change just wasn’t a good decision. The message was already present in the episode with the initial reveal that this was really Earth and the Dregs are our future. That’s not an original concept but it’s perfectly good sci-fi material. We just didn’t need the point hammered home in such a blunt manner. I get the impression that Chris Chibnal was eager to refocus Who at a younger audience and perhaps that’s why we get such on the nose material, but I don’t think it was very successful at least in this case. There is probably something to be learned here about how difficult this show is to produce and how difficult it is to balance two very difference audiences in nit-picking adult fans and children.

Perhaps most frustratingly is that the bones, even the first half, of a really good horror tinged, based-under-siege episode are in place here. Remove some of the extraneous plot, perhaps drop a couple or three characters and this could be really good. Instead it’s fun for a lot of the running time, but annoying and stupid at key moments. The wonderful Laura Fraser is badly underused as Kane, a character that would have benefitted from more development particularly her relationship with Bella. The Dregs are a great concept and work well in brief glimpses and in the shadows, but not so well when out in the open. Yeah, there’s plenty to criticize here.

So it’s it really the nadir of Doctor Who? Is it a crime against ? No to the second one certainly, I’ve seen far worse things air on tv just in the time since this was originally broadcast (try watching some seasons of The Flash if you don’t believe me). And for all its (many) flaws, it is mostly a fun watch which puts it ahead of a few other NuWho episodes in my book (The Lazarus Experiment, I am looking at you). I’m not sure this really counts as a defense because I’m not claiming it’s good, but for me at least there is entertainment value here at least on a shallow, surface level.

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