There’s a distinct air of déjà vu around this week’s episode, the first this season not written by showrunner Chris Chibnall, or at least not directly credited to him. First of all, in an echo of the previous season, there’s no cold open (despite the script clearly being written to accommodate one) but at least we still get opening credits so be thankful for small mercies. It also revisits one of the 13th Doctor’s most frustrating tropes, that of starting the episode at the conclusion of what sounds like an altogether more interesting one than we’re about to watch, although to be fair “Orphan-55” isn’t without interest or excitement. Subtlety and consistency, though? Well, that’s another story.
Having collected enough coupons for a holiday offer, Graham accidentally assembles a teleport cube and transports the Doctor, Yaz, Ryan and himself to the Tranquility Spa for a relaxing all-inclusive break. Facilities include a bar, guest lounge, open-air swimming pool, virus-riddled vending machine and complimentary marauding monsters breaking in through the forcefield which surrounds the complex. While the Doctor is quick to restore the forcefield, when scans show that one of the guests is trapped outside, the gang have no choice but to saddle up and head out on a rescue mission.
There’s a lot of competing storylines jostling for position in this episode, some clashing styles and a patchwork of ideas which are all, in the end, suffocated by a moral so heavy-handed it makes all of the previous expository adventures of this TARDIS crew seem like a masterclass in inscrutable thematic ambiguity. We start with the fun but throwaway tentacle and mop scene but before we have time to enjoy that, we’re teleported straight into what feels like a late-period 7th Doctor Adventure. Maybe it’s the Poundland Cats-cosplayer receptionist Hyph3n, or the ‘big’ name but woefully underused guest star with a cheap and terrible coloured wig or the archly selectively shot contemporary location with a digitally coloured sky but it 100% feels like Sylvester and Sophie could stroll around the corner at any moment, boombox and question mark umbrella in hand. It’s kind of a fun throwback at this point, and the Doctor’s vague disappointment at the ‘fam’ disappearing off to do their own thing feels very Whovian too.
The marauding monster and the shenanigans leading up to the restoration of the ionic membrane (a very cool idea) are pretty good too and just as you’re settling into what you expect to be a good old-fashioned base under siege story, another of the 13th Doctor’s bad habits (not the talking to herself – I’ve made my peace with that and so, apparently has she by referencing it in dialogue) resurfaces: putting everyone in unnecessary danger. Although the spa is now secure (well, it’s actually not but that’s because there’s a third plotline waiting in the wings), the Doctor is a-okay with bringing everybody along on the incredibly dangerous rescue expedition into the toxic unbreathable atmosphere rather than just taking a select few and leaving the rest safe and sound behind the ionic membrane, thereby resulting in more than a few otherwise avoidable deaths and so many noble sacrifices it ends up being a cliché by the end of the hour. Of course, if we didn’t take everyone with us, we couldn’t bring the surprise family drama to the fore as we also drop the episode coup de graceless as it plays what it thinks is its trump card: Orphan-55 is dun-dun-dunnnnn Ravalox – er, I mean Earth.
Putting aside this contradicts a surprisingly large portion of Who (both classic and Nu) canon regarding the fate of our little blue-green marble of a planet, the environmental moral of the story was already more than secured by the whole concept of Orphan planets. Making the planet turn out to be Earth all along was grotesquely gilding the lily and, most egregiously of all, crediting the audience with absolutely no intelligence whatsoever, dropping its message with the subtlety of a bonk on the noggin from Mallet’s Mallet.
Having seemed eager to cement its canon credentials in “Spyfall”, suddenly the series has gone all shy again. The Dregs – a decent if somewhat “Red Dwarf”-esque Doctor Who rubber monster – could easily have cemented the 7th Doctor ambience by turning out to be the at least related to the far future haemovores of “The Curse Of Fenric”. It would, at least, have explained why the creatures were so eager to feast on the residents of Tranquility Spa (although it does raise the question of what they eat during the offseason). Another bit of classic Who continuity which would have been eminently useful in this episode was if the Doctor hadn’t apparently completely forgotten about her respiratory bypass system, a handy ability to have in oxygen-poor environments.
The episode does have some spectacular visuals, no doubt, and struggling under all the sanctimony is a cracking base under siege story trying to get out but the whole thing just collapses into offputting polemic when the Doctor piously monologues to her companions (but really directly through the fourth wall so hard it probably dented the fifth wall too) about how it’s only a possible future and if the people at home (who fifty-odd years ago were wished a very merry Christmas) would just stop using plastic straws and disposable carrier bags and cars and coal then it could all be avoided. I mean, that’s not how time travel has ever really worked in “Doctor Who” before, but whatever gets the message across I guess.
It’s another creative misfire from writer Ed Himes, who wrote the similarly triumphant folly of “It Takes You Away” from last season. Then it was horror tropes whereas this time it’s – slightly less successfully blended with typical Who running around – thoughtful seventies-style cautionary sci-fi but I hope he continues to write for the series because for every misstep, there’s a cracking sci-fi idea and the series desperately needs someone who can write decent science fiction. One day, I really hope his chimeric approach to Whovian storytelling pays off handsomely and Jodie gets a bona fide all-time classic story but in the meantime, I’d appreciate the series giving its audience a little more credit and keeping the subtext where it belongs.