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 x 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.

doctor who orphan 55 series 12 review ed hime chris chibnall jodie whittaker environment too pc global warming

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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Doctor Who Review: It Takes You Away

doctor who it takes you away review ed hime jamie childs chris chibnall jodie whittaker bradley walsh mandip gill tosin cole

There’s me thinking the day had no more surprises left.

It Takes You Away is very good. I liked it a lot. I am, however, somewhat of the mind that a big part of this is because of where it is in the series, and indeed the series it’s in – after a run of episodes that don’t quite live up to the standards I’d have liked them to, this one feels better than it actually is by contrast. I’m not entirely sure if the Series 10 version of such would’ve had quite the same level of impact (though actually, and I recognise it sounds counter-intuitive, I think this episode might well have been improved had the rest of the series been better – more on that shortly, though).

On paper, there’s a lot to like. Conceptually, It Takes You Away is throwing around a lot of genuinely great ideas – not just the frog, but actually particularly the spin on the haunted house offered at the beginning. I really liked that, personally – that sort of character driven, quieter approach felt like some of the more emotionally sophisticated storytelling we’ve seen all year. Erik faking the monster to keep Hanne inside while he’s in the other world with his dead wife? That’s a brilliant idea, it really is, and there’s a neat resonance too with Ryan’s own dad and his experience of abandonment. Quite possibly it could’ve sustained the episode on its own terms, or at least gone a long way towards it with a little bit of work.

But, of course, that wasn’t the case, and there were plenty more interesting ideas and concepts being thrown out across the course of It Takes You Away – I think it’s probably fair to say that, of the nine episodes we’ve seen so far, this one had the greatest density of new ideas and… not plot twists, per se, but plot stages, certainly. There’s a willingness to engage with and indulge in the strange in a relatively straightforward way that I quite appreciated – the frog is absolutely bizarre, but it’s also the best part of the episode, and one of those things that probably only Doctor Who could do. (And, a little more cuttingly, one of those things that has been absent from Doctor Who for a little too long.)

So, yes, It Takes You Away had lots of interesting ideas and concepts, and it was all very good and entertaining, and I mostly enjoyed it. All well and good.

On paper.

doctor who it takes you away review jodie whittaker solitract soletract frog grace thirteenth doctor mirror ed hime

In practice, I think, the episode struggled somewhat. A few reasons, none of which are especially interesting ones – I think largely my problem is the antizone section, which struggled to impress me.

It’s not that it was filler, exactly – argument could be made that it was, I suppose, but I’m not wholly convinced that was the problem with it. No, I think the problem was largely down to the direction. I’ve been less than impressed with Jamie Childs’ efforts on the series so far generally, but I think the antizone section from this episode is probably the weakest stretch he’s directed so far. (Not that the rest of the episode was brilliant, exactly, but here’s where it was most damaging to the overall story, I think.) Those caves should’ve felt strange and unfamiliar to the point of being dangerously disorientating – in actual fact they were just a bit generic. Granted it’s been a while since we’ve seen Doctor Who do caves (or, at least, I’m struggling to think of a recent example – arguably sections of The Eaters of Light, maybe?) but this wasn’t exactly a compelling argument to suggest they’re worth doing. Putting a bit of a red light on something isn’t enough to make it look interesting, particularly when the stuff that would’ve heightened the distinctness of the setting (flesh balloons!) were entirely undersold.

So, what we’ve got, then, is a mostly flat section of the episode that isn’t quite realised very well, and in turn feels like it’s being focused on at the expense of other, more interesting aspects of the episode. It’s difficult not to argue, to my mind, that It Takes You Away would’ve been better with greater focus on the world on the other side of the mirror (and greater focus on the frog!) – there’s not quite enough time spent there to convey the sense that this might genuinely be anything other than a trick, or indeed enough time there to suggest a genuine friendship between the Doctor and the frog.

That this section was a little weak didn’t, actually, bother me that much. On the first viewing it still worked, more or less, and on repeat viewings… well, while it feels clear to me that that section with Ribbons is basically superfluous, there’s just enough going on there that it didn’t especially overstay its welcome. So, much as I would’ve liked to see a little more attention devoted to the more interesting aspects of the story, this somewhat-less-engaging aspect wasn’t a particular obstacle to my enjoyment of the piece.

doctor who it takes you away review bradley walsh tosin cole graham grandad ryan sinclair

What has, admittedly, rankled somewhat is a realisation I had a few days later: it should’ve been Ryan who went with the Doctor and Yaz to the other universe and saw Grace, while Graham stayed behind with Hanne.

It struck me while I was thinking about that final “granddad” moment towards the end. It was more than a little unearned, of course, but that’s not really the fault of It Takes You Away – there’s simply a need for more character work to have been done outside this episode. (That’s what I meant about the episode functioning better had the series been better – a rising tide lifts all ships and all that.) While it functions nicely on its own terms, a moment about Ryan trying to extend Graham some kindness, I can’t help but wonder if it would’ve been more effective coming after Ryan had been forced to say goodbye to Grace again?

Certainly, it’s not difficult to imagine the shape of the episode had it been structured that way. The scene where Grace tells Graham to forget Ryan doesn’t, to my mind, entirely work – the ending more or less presents itself fait accompli at that point. But if Grace is telling Ryan to forget Graham – something he would actually, on some levels, once have quite liked to hear – it takes on a different tone, I think, a stronger emotional beat.

It’s not that the scene didn’t work as presented in It Takes You Away – it just feels like the specifics of Bradley Walsh’s contract are, once again, taking oxygen away from the other characters, in this instance taking what surely should’ve been one of Ryan’s key emotional beats for the series. (I would also posit that it’s more interesting for Graham not to see Grace again than it is for Ryan not to, but still.) So that was a little frustrating. But you know. Not the end of the world.

Ultimately, then… it was good. I liked this episode. I don’t think it was quite as creative or strange as people have suggested – between the generic antizone caves and the “tempted by a fake dead relative” thing that’s been done in science fiction hundreds of times before, from Star Trek to Class, of all things, It Takes You Away perhaps doesn’t have as much to offer as it might have initially seemed.

But then, you know, there was the frog. And it really was a pretty great frog.

8/10

Related:

Doctor Who Series 11 reviews

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