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.

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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.

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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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Doctor Who Review: Spyfall (Part Two)

doctor who review spyfall part two chris chibnall lee haven jones jodie whittaker sacha dhawan gallifrey timeless child

A little chaos is a wonderful thing.

A few days ago, I asked just what Chris Chibnall’s vision for Doctor Who was. I’ve struggled – across series 11, and now as series 12 begins – to entirely get a handle on just what it is that Chibnall likes about Doctor Who, what inspires him, what influences him, and what sort of stories he’d like to tell.

The answer, it’s starting to seem, is “exactly the same stories Russell T Davies was telling a decade ago”.

I think everyone always assumed, more or less, that Chibnall would owe something of a debt to Davies as showrunner. In fact, that’s exactly what I said when it was first announced that Chibnall would take over from Steven Moffat – forgive the needlessly dramatic headline, I was still working a lot of this out – although it was hardly a unique observation on my part. After all, it was an easy enough prediction to make from his Doctor Who work – especially something like The Power of Three – and his working relationship with Davies on Torchwood. To say nothing of his work outside of Doctor Who: I’m inclined to suspect, though it’s an admittedly slight assertion, if you asked Moffat and Davies to write a drama about a murder in a small coastal town, Davies would write something more closely resembling Broadchurch than Moffat would.

This largely proved a sensible assumption across series 11. Granted, it was always a slightly superficial bit of analysis – sure, we saw Ryan and Yaz’s family, just like we saw Rose, Martha and Donna’s, and Demons of the Punjab definitely had some Father’s Day vibes, but beyond that there was an obvious gulf between what Chibnall and Davies did with their respective supporting characters. Still: whether consciously positioning himself that way or not, Chibnall did indeed have a lot more in common with Davies than his immediate predecessor. Spyfall suggests series 12 will be shaping up the same way. The first part of the story had plenty of what we might charitably call little nods to Davies throughout – the death-by-SATNAV set piece lifted from The Sontaran Stratagem, the Kasaavin owe an obvious visual debt to the Cybermen in Army of Ghosts, that sort of thing.

It’s not, obviously, that imitating Davies is a bad thing. He’s a talented writer who made huge creative contributions to Doctor Who: returning to and recontextualising those ideas anew holds a lot of potential. That’s not limited to Chibnall either, after all – The Pilot was quite clearly Steven Moffat doing Russell T Davies, so to speak, and that’s a perfectly charming series opener.

After Spyfall Part Two, though, it looks rather like Chibnall doesn’t actually have any ideas of his own to add to this – his vision for Doctor Who is increasingly looking like a weak cover version of what’s gone before.

doctor who review spyfall part two graham bradley walsh ryan tosin cole yaz mandip gill chris chibnall

Let’s take a sidestep for a moment and look first at Ryan, Yaz and Graham, if only because I largely neglected to mention them last time. But then, that’s understandable, I think: there’s still so little to say about them.

It’s difficult to articulate exactly what the issue is with the ‘fam’ – it’s something of an imperfect storm, I suppose. In part, I’m inclined to criticise the actors themselves: Mandip Gill, I’m increasingly convinced, puts on a voice as Yaz, the overly earnest intonation of a children’s TV presenter, drawing attention to quite how hard she’s acting without really evoking anything you might call ‘character’. But then, that feels a tad unfair – how else is she meant to ask “what’s the plan?” five times an episode?

There’s a moment in his book, The Writer’s Tale, where Russell T Davies is talking about The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End, and juggling the dialogue for each companion while still ensuring each character remains distinct. “They’re all sci-fi women on the side of good”, he says, or words to that effect, “so they’re all going to be giving broadly similar speeches”. Davies goes on to explain how Rose, Martha and Donna’s specific, individual character traits influence the rhythms and perspectives of those speeches, keeping the lines distinct, but you’d be forgiven for assuming that Chibnall’s version of the same would’ve cut that explanation short.

Yaz and Ryan are both still given largely interchangeable dialogue, veering between inquisitive and expository; Graham fares a little better, although that’s mostly down to the gravity Bradley Walsh exerts on the script.  Four companions was always going to be difficult to juggle. I’d assumed, wrongly, that there might be an effort to dedicate an episode to each companion – a Ryan focused piece, not unlike an American procedural drama, or something out of 90s Star Trek (which I’m convinced Chibnall is quite heavily influenced by, actually). At this point, though, it’s difficult to imagine that working: I don’t think for a second that Ryan, Yaz, or Graham could sustain a Doctor-lite episode like Flatline, Turn Left or so on.

I’m just not entirely convinced, I suppose, that anyone involved – actors or writers – have a particularly strong handle on who these characters are supposed to be. Dropping them into a more or less straight recreation of The Sound of Drums largely confirms this: Yaz gets the ‘Martha calls her family’ beat, but you’d think, perhaps, as a police officer in training she might have had a slightly different reaction to being on the run. They each have their moments, sure – Ryan has a few cute moments, and Graham’s laser tap dance was charming, if a little tonally off – but for the most part, they remain frustratingly anonymous, still little more than vague archetypes. It’s hardly encouraging at this point.

doctor who jodie whittaker thirteenth doctor gallifrey time war timeless child omelas chris chibnall spyfall

That, actually, is what gets at me about the Russell T Davies of it all: Chibnall isn’t actually particularly good at it. ‘Character focused’ is a fairly superficial reading of Davies – and more than a little uncharitable to Moffat – but you’d hope that if Chibnall was going to simply rehash what we’d seen before, he’d at least do it well.

But, no: the Bond parody falls apart, turning briefly into a repeat of The Sound of Drums before being entirely forgotten. Lenny Henry’s Daniel Barton simply leaves, not unlike a lot of series 11’s villains; perhaps we’ll see him return to team up with Chris Noth’s President Robertson, in a toothless wannabe-satire that says nothing at all about right-wing politics or powerful tech companies. The Master, unfortunately, is a caricature rather than a character, an attempt to ignore Michelle Gomez and return to John Simm, with none of the personality that made Simm’s Master work. The series arc – Gallifrey’s mysterious destruction – is, in effect at least, an almost wholesale recreation of the Time War. Spyfall even lifts from Moffat, actually, with some timey-wimey back and forth drained of all the bravura and panache it used to have.

It’s difficult to muster much enthusiasm for this when I can just open iPlayer and watch the better versions of the stories that inspired Chibnall.

Most striking, though, is that it just feels thoughtless. Deeply, deeply thoughtless. Which is fine – well, ‘fine’ – when thoughtless means recreating Simm’s Master without realising why he worked in the first place. It’s ‘fine’ when thoughtless leads to one of the most bafflingly erotic scenes in Doctor Who history, apparently without even slightly realising how intensely sexual it is. It is not fine when thoughtless means repeatedly introducing Ada Lovelace as Byron’s daughter, rather than in terms of her own achievements; it is not fine when the Doctor tells a woman the fascists never win, a few months before she dies at Dachau; it is not fine when the Doctor defeats the first POC Master by very nonchalantly sending the Nazis after him. There is at times something quite ugly about Chibnall’s Doctor Who – accidentally, I’m reasonably sure, but in a real sense it’s far more reactionary than anything that ever provoked the ire of the stfu-moffat crowd.

Sometimes, I feel like I’m doing these episodes a bit of a disservice with the rough wordcount I stick to. At some point, I suppose, I’d like to do a podcast, or some other more detailed breakdown of these episodes (yes, I am asking to be invited to your podcast or roundtable discussion or similar), because there are absolutely lots of little moments in these episodes that are worth celebrating and shining a light on, which I never quite find the time for in amongst the complaints. But also, well, ugh. What on earth was that?

In the end, I’m reminded of this joke – I think from Robert Holmes – that Doctor Who only ever uses the best original ideas, just not necessarily its own original ideas. Spyfall, I think, might just be the perfect illustration of a version of Doctor Who that only uses its own original ideas – long after they might reasonably be described as “original ideas”.

Related:

Doctor Who series 12 reviews

Doctor Who series 11 overview

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