Calling them Dregs was a little on the nose, don’t you think?
Look, I love Doctor Who. I love it when it’s bonkers, when it’s heartbreaking and when it’s labyrinthine and obscure. I have a shocking recency bias when asked who my favourite Doctor is. I love it when the special effects are a bit crappy. I love it when it’s cheesy and silly, when it’s profound, when it’s dark and when it’s too damn clever for its own good. I love the new Doctor and the new team. So I don’t say this lightly: Can Doctor Who hurry up and get good again?
‘Orphan 55’, with a few notable exceptions, was generally pants. It was another derivative offer, hammered home with all the subtlety of a klaxon and a neon sign that said GET IT, THICKIES? For the second week in a row, terrorism of the ‘mummy issues’ variety threatened to kill a whole bunch of people, most of whom we didn’t know or care about, and whose LOOK IT’S THE FUTURE stylings consisted of a couple of wigs and a Poundland Halloween costume. All of this was wrapped up in a premise that we have seen before and that forgot to trust its audience with metaphor and subtext. This was a draft of an episode that felt cobbled together from weak tropes in order to sell a genuinely important message, and just forgot to tell a decent story in the process.
The highlights came courtesy of Ryan’s Hopper virus, and Graham’s gleeful vacay spirit, both with the couponing and his intention to do a lot of sitting down on his all-inclusive holiday at the Tranquillity Spa. The fearsome if unfortunately named monsters of the week, the Dregs, were a legitimately terrifying foe, and were another highlight in terms of visuals.
It all went downhill from there, with the expedition to save poor Benni from the Dregs after he wanders off or is captured for some reason during the initial attack, because Vilma dropped her hat. (If you aren’t singing “B-B-B Benni and the Dregs” yet, sorry and you’re welcome.) The rescue mission goes predictably badly, and everyone has to run back to base again, this time with dwindling oxygen supplies and without a truck. Hooray for human shields! Point of order though, if various crudely-drawn secondary characters are sacrificing themselves to speed your escape, this would be more effective if you ran away rather than standing there thinking “OH NO, which one was that again?” as they die. Just a suggestion. As scary as the Dregs were, they were inconsistent as well; they can invade a building and go on a murderous rampage one minute, but might also just stand there like confused “angry trees” the next; they might be smart enough to set a trap, and to understand that there’s an oxygen / carbon dioxide trade off taking place, but not smart or fast or numerous enough to take out a small group of effectively unarmed survivors a bit later on. I’m not convinced there was much going on behind the scenes to develop the Dregs apart from a name, a sketch, and a vague sense of the fact that they EVOLVE, Y’ALL. (To be fair, it was a scary looking sketch.)
Other than providing a lovely / REALLY AWFUL “will you marry me? And also, will someone shoot me?” bit of dialogue, the great Benni quest out and immediately back again just thinned a very small herd of red shirts a bit. It took an unfeasibly long time for Kane, one of the staff members, to realise that one of the guests was her daughter, Bella, so, there’s that. And rather than save a few narrative seconds by having a competent maintenance guy (albeit one styled as an Oompa Loompa in a prison jumpsuit), they made him a bumbling sidekick to his Irritatingly Precocious Child, who seems to be there on a kind of extended ‘Bring your Irritatingly Precocious Child To Work’ Day. That’s not why Bella is there with her mum though; she’s there on a completely coincidental ‘Blow Up Your Mum’s Workplace and Murder Some Strangers’ Day. Once again, it was a case of too much going on, and too little at the same time. The Doctor has a big team, and it’s time to give them something more to do than scream, run, and wonder why that sign looks familiar.
Orphan 55 didn’t need to be Earth. The Team would have cared anyway! Caring about alien cultures is sort of the show’s strength, right? When the Ood were enslaved, they didn’t have to have evolved from humans for it to be unjust that they were enslaved. The show’s definition of an orphan planet, one that was wrecked and then evacuated by the elites, leaving the poor to die (or in this case, evolve into Dregs) was already super grim, as was the disaster capitalism approach of the Tranquillity Spa, buying up cheap real estate in hopes that terraforming would render the planet habitable again and PRESTO, canny investment. It’s already a terrible story about climate change, greed and the plight of the poor! Unless there’s going to be some sort of team bonding over whose planet looks worse, which would require the Doctor to mention the rather toasty Gallifrey she visited last week, then it didn’t add to the plot; it undermined it. One of the beauties of sci-fi and fantasy is using monsters as metaphor, and getting playful with satire. Making the subtext text suggests a lack of faith in the audience to understand the message, and the Doctor’s final speech did just that.
If they wanted it to be Earth but labour the point less, they could have used the same trick they used in the Tennant-era episode ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’, where the Doctor, Rose and Mickey left the mysterious ship still a little confused as to why the clockwork men were stalking Madame de Pompadour, only for the audience to see a portrait of her behind the TARDIS once it disappeared, and then the final shot showing the name of the ship from the outside. It would have elicited a few groans if the final shot of ‘Orphan 55’ had been a ruined Earth landmark, but it would have done the job.
Let’s hope the current run is a blip and that better service resumes quickly. At the moment, this season is kind of a hot mess, and Team TARDIS deserves better. Please give Jodie Whittaker something better to do, so that the first female Doctor isn’t saddled with lame episodes that feed dudebro objections to her existence!
Timey Wimey Stuff
Scorched Earth aka Orphan 55 is apparently only a possible future. So either it’s not a fixed point in time, or the writers forgot about fixed events, or the Doctor was lying to make the fam feel better.
Does this mean that the Star Whale from the Matt Smith era was carrying the elites away from Earth? Or is that just another possible future?
When the Doctor’s oxygen alarm went off, it was a four-beat alarm like the double heartbeat again.
Amuse yourself by comparing Hyph3n’s look with the Cat Nurses of New New York. Go on. It’s worth a laugh.
Next week: We’re off to meet Tesla and Edison. Please be better, please be better…
Header Image Source: BBC