Doctor Who Review: Fugitive of the Judoon

doctor who review fugitive of the judoon jo martin ruth doctor chris chibnall vinay patel nida manzoor

Doesn’t time fly when you don’t have all the answers?

I am, I think, finally starting to understand Chris Chibnall’s take on Doctor Who.

That’s been a point of contention for a little while now, something I’ve spoken about in my review of each part of Spyfall; there’s been, to my mind, a frustrating almost-anonymity to Chibnall’s Doctor Who work, leaving a lot of it feeling like a weak, Davies-era tribute act. I’ve never entirely understood what exactly drives Chibnall, what he thinks Doctor Who is for, what he loves about it. “Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who” has never felt as coherent a concept as “Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who” – much as the latter is often misunderstood, there’s an obvious set of easy to appreciate personal idiosyncrasies that the former very much lacks.

But! I recently read quite an interesting interview with Chibnall (in a magazine, otherwise I’d link it) which I think sheds some light on it all. He described series 12, in contrast to series 11, as “a journey deeper into Doctor Who” – where series 11 was about setting the stage, this is Chibnall finally getting towards doing what he actually wants to do with the series.

Which, actually, makes a lot of sense. Granted, I’m inclined to question just how well series 11 functions as an introduction to how good Doctor Who can be – given that it, uh, was rarely as good as Doctor Who could be – and I’m more than a little suspicious of how in tune his populist instincts actually are, but it makes sense. Series 11, in that sense, almost starts to look like Chibnall’s version of series 10 – not quite treading water, exactly, but a prologue inspired by a popular predecessor in the same way that was an epilogue. Series 12 is what Chibnall thinks Doctor Who should be – as he put it in the interview, “all the treats of the Doctor Who universe and then some”. That, immediately, is much more interesting to me than the (deliberately) simpler, less overtly authored series 11.

Granted, I still don’t know exactly how I feel about this vision – it’s perhaps a little too rooted in established canon and continuity call-backs, even for me – and, more to the point, I’m still not entirely sure where it’s going. Jo Martin’s Doctor is fascinating, though, and introducing her character feels like the most ambitious the show has been since… well, I suppose since casting Jodie Whittaker. For the first time in a long time, to me at least, the series feels genuinely quite compelling – and that’s a pretty nice feeling, actually.

doctor who review fugitive of the judoon jo martin jodie whittaker jack harkness john barrowman vinay patel nida manzoor chris chibnall

Which isn’t to say, though, that it’s necessarily actually any good. Honestly, there’s a case to be made that Fugitive of the Judoon is scarcely an episode at all – just an hour of set-up, moving the pieces around the chess board so that they’re ready for (presumably) the finale.

So, it’s probably worth discussing Jack for a moment. On a production level, it’s more or less inevitable that the character would end up returning – he’s the most easily revisited Davies-era character, for one thing, and certainly one of the most popular (like, I’d love to see Martha back – the only other character you could bring back without having to tie yourself in knots to explain how they’ve returned – but I can’t imagine many people are really clamouring for that). Even setting aside the Davies-era nostalgia, though, Jack was always going to return because John Barrowman is something of a household name. In 2005, he was a theatre actor, with a couple of small film roles; now, he’s been on I’m a Celebrity, he’s a judge on Dancing on Ice, he’s hosted game shows and talent contests and he’s a talk show regular. John Barrowman is, if you like, Bradley Walsh after the watershed – of course he was going to return in Chibnall’s Doctor Who. And, you know, John Barrowman aside, I do basically like Captain Jack, as indeed I like, well, everything from Doctor Who when I was 10. Yes, it’s pretty much entirely nostalgia, but it just about worked for me (even if, structurally, it was a bit of a mess).

What was interesting, though, is how much his sheer force of personality – for better or for worse – nearly entirely overshadowed the other companions. There’s something fundamentally really, really strange about Yaz sharing screentime with Jack – the difference between caricature and character writ large in a Bristol Cathedral dressed as a spaceship. Yaz, of course, was already poorly served by this episode, which was already especially egregious given it was the alien space police episode, but Jack’s return threw it into even sharper relief.

Granted, I don’t actually think Jack was especially well-served by Chibnall’s writing either – often feeling more like a memory of the character’s quirks, and too reliant on technobabble that was never Barrowman’s strong suit anyway – and structurally, his involvement in the episode was a mess. (You couldn’t have given the three companions something to do within this – helping Jack somehow, rather than just watching?) But it highlights, I think, the limits to Chibnall’s skill, even now, as we’re starting to get a better understanding of just where he wants to direct that skill.

doctor who review fugitive of the judoon jodie whittaker jo martin doctor ruth gloucester

On the plus side, though, Jodie Whittaker had one of her best weeks yet. So that was nice.

As I noted last week, Whittaker has always done best in the role when she’s had to play against a strong guest actor; the reason, I think, is that it draws out her otherwise fairly passive take on the character. Pushed to the margins, she’s forced to try and reassert herself over the narrative – so in that sense, pairing her with another Doctor is sublime. Here, the challenge to her place as lead is, by necessity, much stronger that it ever is with Tesla or King James – because Jo Martin, and Jo Martin’s Doctor, offer a very different vision of what the programme could be. It’s not a huge surprise that there were people left sort of wishing the series stayed with Martin at the end – that means it’s working!

(Although, of course, I suspect the two Doctors will eventually find themselves a little more closely aligned by the end. It’s surely not a coincidence, after all, that the Ruth Doctor evokes Grace – who was very consciously, explicitly paralleled with the Doctor in The Woman Who Fell to Earth.)

In places, yes, I do still wish Jodie Whittaker was being given more to do. She’s plainly capable of so much, and the show is often so close to giving her things to do – that confrontation with the companions at end, where she brushes them off and insists they don’t know her, has a bitterness and an edge to it that’s almost entirely unlike anything she’s got to do so far. That’s brilliant! I’d love to see more of that! But it was resolved, so, so quickly, it didn’t really go anyway. A shame.

At the end of my review of Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror – an episode that, I think, is actually probably better than Fugitive of the Judoon – I commented that it’s perhaps not a good thing that it was the best Doctor Who could do. This week, though, I welcome the ambition on display – even if it doesn’t always add up to much, it feels like Doctor Who has regained a certain sense of momentum. I’m really, really glad of that.

Related:

Doctor Who series 12 reviews

Doctor Who series 11 overview

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Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx on Just Mercy, coping during an emotionally intense filming process, and more

michael b jordan jamie foxx just mercy interview bryan stevenson walter macmillan destin daniel cretton

Having that resource there – a real person that’s actually there, that I can call on and text and be able to ask for help [if I was feeling] lost or confused about anything, somebody that I could really lean on throughout this process to make sure we got it right? I think that was really, really important. [Bryan Stevenson] was involved with the script development, he was along for the entire process – I feel like it was a huge benefit, having Brian around.

This one was very exciting! I spoke to Michael B Jordan and Jamie Foxx about Just Mercy, their legal drama based on a true story. It’s a great film, definitely worth a watch, and it was great to talk to them too. Both very polite, which is always nice.

Busy week for me, actually, this stretch in the middle of January. Three of my most high-profile interviews, all squeezed into a fairly short space of time. Not bad! Not bad at all.

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Bryan Stevenson on Just Mercy, the film inspired by his life

bryan stevenson just mercy jamie foxx michael b jordan daniel destin cretton when they see us death penalty walter mcmillan

When [it was] proposed that a movie be made, to be honest I was apprehensive. I wasn’t confident that a Hollywood interpretation of the story would be appropriate – I’ve seen [similar] movies that, for me, were disappointing.

But when I met Destin [Daniel Cretton] our director, and when Michael B Jordan got involved, we all had a great conversation about it – and they were all aligned in trying to do this right, and that gave me the confidence to move forward.

This, I think, is perhaps the most nervous I’ve ever been before an interview – talking to actors, writers and directors is easy, but a “real” person, a civil rights lawyer with “real” life experiences? That felt like an entirely more momentous interview.

Luckily for me, though, Bryan Stevenson was a very friendly, and very assured, presence (which is not massively surprising, in hindsight), so I was very much put at ease throughout. Possibly you can tell, possibly not – I refuse to actually watch these video interviews, I find it much too awkward, so maybe I do look very nervous throughout. But I felt less nervous, which was good.

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Michael Chabon, Alex Kurtzman, Akiva Goldsman and Kirsten Beyer on Star Trek: Picard, what it means to treat Star Trek as a franchise, and more

star trek picard michael chabon interview alex kurtzman akiva goldsman kirsten beyer executive producers franchise

Between the four of them, Michael Chabon, Alex Kurtzman, Akiva Goldsman and Kirsten Beyer have written a lot of Star Trek: novels, comic books, films, and, of course, television. The series isn’t just that anymore – over fifty years after the original Star Trek was quietly moved to Friday nights and eventually cancelled, it’s now the jewel in the crown of CBS All Access, and a major international acquisition for Amazon Prime. That little television show has grown into an empire.

Or, put another way, it’s a franchise.

“It’s interesting this word ‘franchise’, right?” muses Kurtzman. “Because it feels like a very – Michael used an excellent word the other day – a very mercantile term, where everything is about ‘okay, we can sell this and we can sell that’. But I actually don’t think that’s what it’s about for any of us. I think that’s someone else’s job. Our job is to create great stories and figure out how to use all these different mediums to tell them in interesting ways.”

I’m really, really pleased with this one, actually – it is, I think, my favourite of the four Star Trek: Picard interviews I’ve done this week. Certainly, I think it’s the most insightful and most worthwhile as a piece of writing on its own terms – I’m particularly proud of what I was able to build out of the roundtable interview here.

Take a look!

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Isa Briones and Jonathan Del Arco on Star Trek: Picard, their characters Dahj and Hugh, and more

star trek picard interview isa briones dahj soji hugh borg jonathan del arco

As Isa says, though, it’s not every day you become part of something already so well-established. But with that must come some sort of trepidation – especially so early in her career, knowing this might well become her defining role?

“When you haven’t done much you will take any role that’s given to you,” laughs Isa Briones. “But I also didn’t know what this role was going to be. I was just auditioning and I was told it was Star Trek. I wasn’t really told that she was going to be this involved until the last call back. It really was a lesson, like, you’d never know how life is going to turn out and timing is everything… I always just cite my father. My father has been in the business a while, working his ass off for so long, but he finally started getting known at 50 years old. Now this is happening for me at 20, so anything is possible at any time. You roll with the punches, you take what comes your way.”

“She’s also an incredibly confident actor and performer, a great singer as well,” says Jonathan Del Arco, praising his co-star. “You always seem incredibly competent to me, from the day I met you. I think you were born for the part.”

The third of four Star Trek interviews! Isa Briones and Jonathan Del Arco were both absolutely wonderful – really just genuinely quite fun to be around.

Interviewing Isa in particular was a little bit of an odd experience, because it was the first time I’ve ever been older than the person I was interviewing. Which obviously is not actually that significant, but it threw me for a loop a little bit.

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Michelle Hurd, Harry Treadaway and Evan Evagora on Star Trek: Picard, working with Patrick Stewart and Jonathan Frakes, and more

star trek picard interview michelle hurd harry treadaway evan evagora raffi elnor narek

“I’m just trying to work out whether I’m allowed to say what I think I’m allowed to say,” paused Harry Treadaway.

We’ve asked the assembled actors if they can tell us a little bit about their characters. So far, the answer has mostly been yes: Michelle Hurd explained that her character, Raffi, “has a very complicated relationship with the Federation. Very strained. She worked with Picard back in the day after Next Generation, and they had a bit of a falling out”. Evan Evagora, meanwhile, described his character Elnor as “a young Romulan boy who’s an expert in hand to hand combat. He’s pretty good with a sword as well, and he was raised in an all-female sect of warrior nuns”. Elnor is an orphan and a refugee; Raffi is haunted by decisions she’s made in the past, both of their lives changed radically by the destruction of Romulus.

But Harry Treadaway is having a slightly harder time telling us anything at all about his character. The three of them confer for a moment, whispering to each other so we can’t hear.

The second of four Star Trek: Picard themed interviews – this time with new cast members Michelle Hurd, Harry Treadaway and Evan Evagora!

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Sir Patrick Stewart and Jeri Ryan on Star Trek: Picard, how the new series addresses the present, and more

star trek picard interview patrick stewart jeri ryan amazon cbs all access

Captain Jean-Luc Picard is here. Not only in a new Star Trek television series, but he’s also sitting just across the table from me.

There’s something a little surreal about that. Technically, yes, it’s actually Patrick Stewart who’s sitting here in front of me – but in all ways except literal, Captain Picard is in the room, and we’re all captivated.

It’s not the sort of thing you ever really think is going to happen, and it’s clear Patrick Stewart didn’t expect to be here either.

“For many years, any suggestion that I might revive Picard,” he explains, “I passed on immediately, straight away, without hesitation. Not because I wasn’t proud of what we did on Next Generation. I was, and I loved all the people that I worked with very, very much. But I thought I had said and done everything that could be said and done about Jean-Luc and the Enterprise and his relationship with the crew and so forth.”

Which, well, makes a lot of sense. There’s a version of Star Trek: Picard out there – a half-written script on someone’s hard drive, a forum comment, the whisper of a dream – where nothing has really changed. Captain Picard, on the Enterprise (the Enterprise-F this time, of course), boldly going where no one has gone before. But we’ve seen that: we’ve seen a hundred and seventy-eight episodes of it, and they were often wonderful, but all good things must come to an end.

Except, of course, here we are.

So! This was very exciting!

The day after going to the London premiere of Star Trek: Picard in Leicester Square, I had perhaps the most personally exciting interview of my career: Sir Patrick Stewart! And Jeri Ryan! Captain Picard! And Seven of Nine!

Eventually, I suspect I’ll write more about the experience itself – I think perhaps there’s something interesting to be said about it – but for the moment, let’s just sit and enjoy quite how cool this is.

Patrick Stewart!

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Doctor Who Review: Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror

doctor who review nikola tesla's night of terror nina metivier chris chibnall nida manzoor jodie whittaker goran visnjic

The present is theirs. I work for the future. And the future is mine.

Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror is, immediately, one of the best five episodes of the Chibnall era – which perhaps says altogether more about Doctor Who of late in general than it does about this episode in particular.

The trouble with reviewing Chibnall’s Doctor Who – or, one of the issues I’m starting to have, anyway – is that I’m never quite sure how much to approach a given story in terms of what’s going on around it. Does Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror demand to be read in isolation, or should it be contextualised by the rest of series 12?

The answer, I suppose, is surely ‘both’, but I can’t help but feel the latter places a certain unfair weight on the story. As ever, Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror is a dismal episode for Yaz; the occasional flash of charm aside, poor Mandip Gill is given such utterly thankless, banal lines I continue to feel sorry for her. (“It’s sensing it’s surroundings, like a scanner” has to be one of the more egregious bits of Chibnall-era hand-holding exposition: for all that the series emphasises scientific thinking and curiosity in its current iteration, there’s an odd unwillingness to trust in its audience’s ability to understand a concept the first go around.)

I’m not wholly sure, though, how much Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror deserves critique for that. Clearly, it’s an endemic problem – the issue is with Doctor Who as a whole right now, not this episode in and of itself alone. Any other year, it likely wouldn’t even warrant a mention; it doesn’t matter particularly that Rose is a little underserved in The Long Game, because Dalek and Father’s Day fall on either side of it. There are a few episodes in Series 9 where I wish Jenna Coleman was given a little more to do, but I’m more or less inclined to forgive them given quite how good Face the Raven and Hell Bent are for Clara. If Spyfall or Orphan 55 had found more space for Yaz, then it wouldn’t matter quite so much that she’s sidelined here – but they don’t, so it does.

Yaz isn’t the only issue you could highlight, of course; generally speaking, few of Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror’s problems are uniquely its own. Perhaps, I suppose, it’s time to stop drawing attention to them. (Or, you know, less so – you can probably take it as read that Yaz is underserved by an episode, so it doesn’t always need to be mentioned, but if she’s still side lined in Fugitive of the Judoon, it probably warrants a mention.) Still, though, at a certain point I think there’s a need to forgive Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror, or any given episode really, for being part of Series 12, and just take them on their own strengths.

And, freed of the obligation to be a good episode of series 12, Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror ends up being… well, basically quite enjoyable actually.

doctor who review nikola tesla jodie whittaker goran visnjic nida manzoor nina metivier chris chibnall

Tesla, of course, is self-evidently a good idea for a Doctor Who celebrity historical – “brilliant Victorian inventor”, after all, is exactly what the Doctor is half the time. If you’re inclined to position the celebrity historical as a way to interrogate your lead characters, it’d hard to think of a character better than the archetypical eccentric inventor. He’s particularly a good fit for this iteration of the Doctor, who is (nominally speaking) an inventor herself – and, although they didn’t touch on it, Tesla’s slightly idiosyncratic view of women might’ve been an interesting thing to draw on as well.

And he’s great here! It’s a depiction that really works – in no small part to the strength of Goran Visnjic’s performance, who absolutely nails the charisma needed to centre the episode. It really makes a huge difference to the rest of the cast, too, in giving them someone to actually play off – this is perhaps one of Jodie Whittaker’s best performances in the role (not entirely surprisingly; she’s always at her best when paired with a strong guest star). There’s a moment or two where it looked like it might start to riff on The Girl in the Fireplace. I’d love to see Whittaker given something like that, actually.

Perhaps my only qualm, though, is the way the episode tries to position Tesla as a great man forgotten by history. Bluntly, no, he’s not. Not as well known as Shakespeare or Churchill or Rosa Parks, no, but hardly someone whose achievements haven’t been celebrated. Sure, The Current War didn’t make much of an impact, and I suppose The Prestige – where Tesla was played by David Bowie! – is probably one of Christopher Nolan’s less famous films, comparatively speaking, but they’re very much just the tip of the iceberg in terms of pop culture depictions of Tesla. Even in his own lifetime, he didn’t cut an especially anonymous figure: TIME magazine celebrated his 75th birthday by putting his face on the cover and had a huge party in his honour. Einstein was there! Vincent van Gogh he was not, is my point.

Granted, there’s rarely much merit to picking apart these stories in terms of their historical accuracy – Rosa aside, that’s just not really what they’re for. (Which does I think create more of a need to pick Rosa apart, but that’s another matter.) I’m not even especially bothered by the way they elided some of Tesla’s more reactionary views; after all, if that’s the line of critique you’re making, the queue surely starts with Churchill.

There’s something a little off, though, about the narrative this episode tries to build around him. Because that’s just not true of Tesla! There’s a value to doing stories about great achievements forgotten by history – the Rosalind Franklin, Mary Anning types, for example, or even Ada Lovelace, who was much more than just Byron’s daughter even if Chibnall doesn’t realise it – but I’m not sure that “the white man who deserved to be a billionaire” fits this particular story.

doctor who review nikola tesla night of terror anjli mohindra queen skithra scorpion

Everything else, of course, is basically entertaining. It’s the sort of episode that I almost want to review in bullet point form, admittedly, covering individual clunky lines and particular highlights one by one – but they all largely balance each other out, anyway. The direction is a little flat at times, yes, but this TARDIS has genuinely never looked better (an impressive feat, considering the design). The Skithra are actually quite fun – I love how clumsy they are – and Anjli Mohindra is clearly having the time of her life, even if scorpion aliens maybe don’t quite cohere with the themes of the rest of the episode. In any case, both Nina Metivier and Nida Manzoor are surely due a return. (It’s a very alliterative episode I’ve realised, isn’t it? Nina Metivier, Nida Manzoor, Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror. That’s a nice little coincidence.)

Still, though. It’s taken me a while to write this one (I’ve backdated the post, shh), in part because… well, it’s unfair to say nothing is going on in Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror. Indeed, for a genuinely quite compelling read on the themes, ideas and contradictions of the episode, I’d point you to this article here, on a website that’s routinely doing the most interesting Doctor Who analysis around.

Nonetheless, though, there’s something a little frustrating about Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror. Setting aside the fact that it has surely the best episode title we’ve seen in a long time, it’s hard not to think that at any other point in the past decade this would’ve felt average at best – something akin to Fear Her or The Curse of the Black Spot. Which, in fairness, isn’t necessarily indicative of much – I rewatched Robot of Sherwood recently, an episode that’s largely in the same vein, and loved every minute of it. Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror certainly feels like it might age well in the same vein. (And, of course, I have little doubt that Fear Her and The Curse of the Black Spot are someone’s favourite episodes. Well, maybe not Fear Her, but someone other than Karen Gillan must love The Curse of the Black Spot.)

But if this is still the best we can hope for, if this is obviously and immediately one of the best episodes of the Chibnall era, then I can’t help but feel that Doctor Who is perhaps not at its healthiest.

Related:

Doctor Who series 12 reviews

Doctor Who series 11 overview

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Costume designer Caroline Duncan on Servant, working with M. Night Shyamalan, and more

caroline duncan servant the affair costume designer apple tv+ m night shyamalan rupert grint

You always have to be conscious of your audience and considerate of your audience, but you’re not working to satisfy your audience, you’re working to satisfy and fulfill the creation of real characters. Ultimately in doing your job, you help your audience to feel the characters are grounded and real, identifiable. The opposite of that is I’ve never worked with an actor who I think had so identifiable a role before that I was trying to push away from, which was your original question about Rupert. Kind of an amazing challenge! It was just fun to think about that element when designing his costumes too.

New interview! I spoke to Caroline Duncan, costume designer (it amuses me that her initials match her job description, although we didn’t talk about that at the time) on Apple TV+’s Servant, as well as Showtime’s The Affair, and also Netflix’s When They See Us. 

Particularly interesting – or I thought so anyway – was talking about how she used costuming to reflect similar plot points, the death of a child, across two very different programmes, and discussing how she approached the costumes for Rupert Grint, given that he, as an actor, carries with him certain associations other actors don’t.

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Doctor Who Review: Orphan 55

doctor who orphan 55 review ed hime tosin cole chris chibnall lee haven jones jodie whittaker bradley walsh mandip gill

The people who used to have this planet could’ve changed, but they didn’t. So they lost everything.

I’m conscious, sometimes, that these reviews trend negative. I don’t entirely enjoy Chibnall’s Doctor Who, after all; it frustrates me deeply, and it’s often difficult to appreciate these episodes without caveats. I’m inclined to think my criticisms of this era are basically defensible – although, you know, I would – and I like to think I’m approaching it with the same consistency and the same critical eye as I do anything else.

Still, though, criticising a Jodie Whittaker-fronted episode of Doctor Who feels oddly like a statement, frankly more than it should. At a certain point, I worry that it gets a little #NotMyDoctor – there’s something that feels a tad odd about critiquing a work who’s most vocal and vociferous critics are, more often than not, the worst kind of people. I’m coming at it from an entirely different angle, of course, but there’s a sense still that I’m joining the same chorus of voices – and that isn’t something I’m entirely comfortable with, even as I’m convinced this Doctor Who deserves critique. There’s a point, I’ve often thought, where I’ll simply stop writing about Doctor Who entirely if it doesn’t improve, because I just really don’t want to seem like one of those people. (Which would be a little sad, I guess, for me if not anyone else.)

So! Let’s take a moment instead to just dwell on something – or someone – in this episode I thought was genuinely quite brilliant: Tosin Cole.

Ryan is an odd character, I think. There’s a version of this all where he’s much more explicitly the ‘main’ character – where The Woman Who Fell to Earth was called Ryan, where he was the character reunited with Grace in It Takes You Away, our viewpoint in all this, that sort of thing. Technically, yes, he is the main companion – but because Bradley Walsh plays Graham, and Bradley Walsh is a brand unto himself in a way another actor wouldn’t be, Graham exerts a lot of narrative gravity that Ryan would otherwise hold. Granted, it’s something all the companions have been victims of, and Ryan has certainly fared better than Yaz… but I’m still struggling to think of, say, big scenes he’s shared with the Doctor individually. What should arguably be the core relationship of the show is quite underdeveloped.

Still, though, when the character works, and I do think he often does, it’s down to Tosin Cole’s performance. What he’s especially good at – here and elsewhere, most memorably Arachnids in the UK – is little background details, broad physical comedy at the edges of the screen. It’s a genuinely emotive – genuinely funny – performance from Cole, the type he’s not had a chance to offer in quite some time. There’s a version of Ryan here I hope we get to see more often: there’s a case to be made, I think, that Orphan 55 is the character’s best episode yet.

doctor who orphan 55 review tosin cole ryan sinclair ed hime lee haven jones chris chibnall

It helps, of course, that Cole gets some great material here too – Ryan’s often quite cute interactions with Bella in particular. There’s a bit more personality to it for a change, and Cole has obvious chemistry with Gia Ré. (More than he seems to have had with Gill, anyway, although given quite how slowly the inevitable Ryan/Yaz romantic pairing is being introduced, perhaps the chemistry is still yet to come.)

Unfortunately, though, it’s difficult to say this for the rest of this week’s guest cast. It felt like Voyage of the Damned by way of The Infinite Quest – constantly moving forward, constantly reinventing itself (the reveal that Bella is Kane’s daughter comes almost exactly five minutes after Bella first mentions her mother), but lacking any space to breathe. None of these character moments work, because, well, of course they don’t – it’s much, much too busy.

Orphan 55 has momentum, yes, but that momentum is built at the expense of clarity. There are quite a few wrinkles I wish were better explained – how conscious are the dregs, how intelligent are they? Did they torture Benni, imitate his voice, or did he mutate into one of them? Whichever it was, I suspect it changed between scripting, filming, editing and transmission. Are the dregs the villains or the victims of the piece? After all, they’re presumably the descendants of the people who weren’t rich enough to escape the Earth. (This raises another interesting question, though – if those aren’t first-hand memories of the apocalypse, then it’s information that has been conveyed to the dreg – which suggest intelligence, society, some sort of recorded history?)

If Kane is terraforming Earth, isn’t that a good thing? Orphan 55 touches on some interesting ideas about colonialism and capitalism, both of which are easy to tie to environmentalism; when the tourism resort is revealed as a front to fund the terraforming project, it could be read as a satirical swipe at how environmentalism flounders under profit incentives. Except, well, why is the resort a bad thing if they’re terraforming Earth – essentially a sci-fi version of cleaning up the environment, undoing the damage wrought before? The thinly sketched personal motives to Kane/Name’s conflict seems to be the reason why the resort is bad – but then, isn’t “I was only doing it for her” less about flogging real estate, but restoring a home, a sort of environmental stewardship?

It harms the episode, in the end, and it’s difficult not to think that at some point there should’ve been more substantial rewrites. I wonder, idly, if this is an Ed Hime problem more broadly – It Takes You Away wasn’t quite so overstuffed, but it had a whole set piece removed in the middle. That episode might’ve felt a lot more like this one if it weren’t for those edits, perhaps.

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More likely than not, this episode will be remembered for its ending. An ending which, interestingly, was specifically hyped up by BBC America – “you don’t want to miss this ending”, both inviting the question “which ending do we want to miss” and ultimately proving more than a little anticlimactic.

I didn’t love it, personally. Setting Orphan 55 on Earth is a clever conceit – sure, the time travel makes no sense, and I think technically the TARDIS should translate the Russian, but who cares, it’s largely a good enough idea to be worth doing anyway. Certainly, it’s more resonant than it ever would’ve been if it was a colony on the planet Zog. The episode’s heart is clearly in the right place, and that’s more than can be said of most of the Chibnall era, right?

Well, yes. And yet… it made me bristle. I mean, I’m speaking as someone who wants Doctor Who to be more openly political, who wants it to be more openly lefty, who’s been critical of Chibnall Who’s more reactionary impulses. This, though, felt too didactic – the Doctor openly moralising to the camera. Which, well, in theory I’m not even against necessarily, I’m sure there’s ways to do it well, but here it felt tepid and flat. In the end, I don’t know that it actually meant anything. Which, well, is the problem with a lot of this episode – it moves so quickly it can only really gesture at ideas (like the “listen to the youth” angle, with the vaguely Greta Thunberg-esque child mechanic) without ever really exploring them properly.

I said on twitter a few times that this lacks subtlety (I’d argue it’s less subtle than Aliens of London and Ker-blam!), but that’s not the problem, in fact. It lacks grace – it’s just clumsy, and not even especially incisive. A nebulous, “you can still do better” would’ve been fine a decade ago, but it’s not enough now. Indeed, perhaps the most damning thing you can say about Orphan 55 is the fact that Primeval, of all things, was more coherent and more condemning in its environmental messaging back in 2009. Good message and all – a little meaningless, but good. Doesn’t change the fact it’s pretty poorly written though.

Tell you what, though, it might not even matter anyway. In one of my favourite bits of Doctor Who writing, and I think the one that’s stuck with me most, a left-wing journalist interviews a right-wing politician about their shared love of Doctor Who – because this journalist was absolutely baffled by the fact that this politician found anything to enjoy in Doctor Who at all.

They talk about a few things – the politician, George Christensen, opposes same-sex marriage, opposes abortion, supports Donald Trump – but the bit I always remember is when they’re talking about global warming. Christensen doesn’t believe in global warming, but cited that as something the Doctor agreed with him on, very excitedly referring to a throwaway line of dialogue from The End of the World. “You spend all of your time thinking about dying, like you’re gonna get killed by eggs, or beef, or global warming, or asteroids. But you never take time to imagine the impossible, like maybe you survive.” That was enough for this guy to think Doctor Who’s official stance on the matter, its message insofar as it might have one, was one of climate change denial. Orphan 55 might even have been too subtle for him – no doubt, if he watched it, he happily dismissed global warming as a fate for another timeline.

I suppose in the end I just wish Orphan 55 had had just a little more finesse.

Related:

Doctor Who series 12 reviews

Doctor Who series 11 overview

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