Warning: contains spoilers.
If last week’s episode Spyfall brought back memories of the Russell T. Davies years of Doctor Who, then the beginning of Orphan 55 brings to mind an even older era of the show… in the beginning at least. The Doctor, Graeme, Ryan and Yaz find themselves transported to Tranquillity Spa, a luxury resort of the future and initially they’re quite excited about it. This reminded me of nothing so much as the Sylvester McCoy era of the show, when Mel would get excited over the swimming pool at the top of Paradise Towers, or the Doctor would enthuse about journeying to Segonax to see The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. The late-80s vibe is compounded by the appearance of such colourful characters as Hyph3n (Amy Booth-Steel) and senior citizens Vilma (Julia Foster) and Benni (Col Farrell), who could easily have stepped out a story in the era of the Seventh Doctor. However, the colourful ‘oddball’ feeling does not last long and pretty soon things are getting dreadfully grim on Tranquillity Spa.
The Doctor discovers that the computer systems of the resort are under attack by a virus that is causing the protective barrier to break down. Why does a holiday resort have a protective barrier? Because it’s a sort of semi-holographic Centre Parks dome that’s been built on the cheap in the middle of a radioactive wasteland on an ‘orphan planet’. In no time at all – and I mean that quite literally because everything goes to hell with unseemly haste – the resort is being overrun by terrifying bloodthirsty creatures from the wasteland called the Dregs. They eat a few holiday-makers before the Doctor is able to expel them, but… shock horror! Benni has been dragged off by the Dregs (sounds painful). Quite why they didn’t just eat him too is anybody’s guess. Upon hearing this, the Doctor drags together a group of people who would never in a million years go on a mission together (including a child and a senior citizen) to rescue Benni.
The Dregs look great; they’re a really amazing costume, but it quickly becomes apparent that they’re pretty immobile. We’re told that the Dregs are a fast-moving predator, but we never see them moving at anything other than an aggressive stagger. They tend to appear and disappear in scenes as needed, but they could have done with a bit more visible movement. I don’t know if it was a budgetary decision, but a few cuts to CG versions of the monster scuttling about the place would have made the world of difference. Director Lee Haven Jones throws some interesting shots into the mix but it’s not enough to hide the immobility of the Dregs; which is a damn shame because, as I said before, they’re a really impressive design.
Out in the wasteland in a truck they bought cheap in the Cursed Earth, things get real. Benni is still alive, though we don’t see him; through the walls of the truck he asks Vilma to marry him (ahhh), then begs someone to kill him (oh). Apparently someone does kill him, but it happens off camera and is mentioned later, which kind of saps the whole scenario of any kind of drama. The fact that we never see the bodies of any of the Dregs’ victims, nor experience them being killed after getting dragged away, led me to believe that there was some kind of a twist coming. Well, there is a twist, it’s just not the one I was hoping for; fleeing from the broken down truck, the Doctor and Co. discover the Statue of Libert… I mean, a Siberian Underground station. It was the Earth all along! You bastards! You blew it up! God damn you! God damn you all to hell! I’m sorry, but I was expecting something cleverer.
You see, this is a parable about pollution and the nuclear threat, but boy does it lay it on with a trowel! I mean, subtlety doesn’t even get a look in. The Dregs are the dregs of humanity; the last remaining beings after the Earth has been laid waste by nuclear armageddon and pollution. Hang on a minute, wasn’t that the Haemovores in The Curse of Fenric? Another Seventh Doctor connection! Perhaps they’re cousins. It’s a very noble idea but it just doesn’t quite cut the mustard. The same goes for the explanation that the spa guest Bella (Gia Ré) is the secret daughter of spa owner Kane (Laura Fraser) and introduced the computer viruses that caused all this because she has serious mummy issues. Overreaction much? Still, she’s redeemed in the end because mother and daughter are reconciled, even though almost everyone else at the spa has been eaten by the Dregs. Hoorah! I love a happy ending. All that remains now is for the Doctor to make a speech.
Orphan 55 is like a high quality jigsaw puzzle with several of its pieces missing. The overall picture is very good and a lot of the pieces are terrific, but it just doesn’t hang together properly and the more you look at it from a greater distance, the more you realise something is missing. I was really psyched after Spyfall that Doctor Who was back on track and although Orphan 55 is still more enjoyable than much of Series 11; it still feels kind of unfinished – which it shouldn’t when they’ve had over a year in development. This isn’t terrible, but the tragedy lies in the fact that the material is there for it to have been so much better.