Doctor Who Season 12×03 “Orphan 55” Review

Christian Bone

Reviewed by:
On January 12, 2020
Last modified:January 12, 2020


A perfectly acceptable episode of very traditional Doctor Who, that's let down by some poor editing but lifted by its highly important message.

Doctor Who 12x03 Orphan 55

Following on from the huge scope of last week’s opening two-parter “Spyfall,” which featured multiple time zones, the return (and destruction) of Gallifrey and the arrival of Sacha Dhawan’s incarnation of the Master, was always going to be tough. And that difficult task of keeping up the high quality fell on “Orphan 55,” written by Ed Hime – who previously penned one of the most memorable episodes of season 11. Unfortunately, season 12’s third outing isn’t another stellar one, as – despite some plus points – it largely fails to pop.

The set-up is pure traditional Doctor Whothe sort of story that you could swap out Jodie Whittaker and drop any Doctor from Patrick Troughton to Peter Capaldi into. The Time Lord and her friends take some time to relax at a holiday resort, but this being a destination for the TARDIS, soon things take a dark turn and monsters attack. It’s the classic “base-under-siege” set-up that we’ve seen a hundred times before in the show. Coming from Hime, whose “It Takes You Away” featured such bold ideas as a living universe that could shapeshift into the form of a frog on a rocking chair, the episode is slightly disappointing. Not that there’s anything wrong with relying on a format that has served the series well for decades, mind you.

Stories like this one often rest on the strength of the supporting cast, who will invariably get picked off as the running time progresses. In this regard, the episode’s success is a mixed bag. Hime does go to the trouble of giving each character, or pair of characters, some hook, which is more than can be said for some Doctor Who episodes, but given the limited space to deal with them all, their arcs feel compressed and unearned in execution. Considering the size of the Doctor’s fam as it is, maybe a better option would have been to trim down the cast list and work with just a few of them.

Of the supporting cast, Bella is possibly the standout, as she gets the most distinct arc – from Ryan’s love interest to crazed would-be bomber to daughter reconnecting with her mother. Speaking of her flirtation with Ryan, this is the first time either of the younger companions has had any substantial romantic subplot, which shows encouraging signs that they’ll be fleshed out some more in the future. In fact, the episode seems to hint that Yaz is jealous of Ryan’s conversations with Bella, hinting at a “will they/won’t they” arc for the pair. Obviously, a lot of fans want Yaz and the Doctor to develop something but any deepening of the character’s relationships at this point is a good thing.

All in all, though, how much you enjoy the episode will depend on your feelings towards its big reveal and ultimate theme. About two thirds of the way through, Hime plays his trump card – Orphan 55 is not just any old planet ravaged by war and environmental upheaval, it’s Earth. The specific moment this comes out – a leftover sign from a Russian underground station is uncovered – is a homage/rip-off (delete per your opinion) of an identical moment from 1986’s “The Mysterious Planet,” in which the Sixth Doctor discovers that the desolate Ravalox is actually a future Earth when he comes upon a sign for a London underground station.

With this revelation, it becomes clear what Hime wants to say with the story: be warned, viewers, otherwise this is our future. This is a smart, timely theme to explore and another instance of showrunner Chris Chibnall being brave enough to tackle a real-world issue head-on. And, well, “Orphan 55” certainly does confront it in the most direct of manners. Once the Doctor and her friends have escaped the monstrous Dregs – the mutated, predatory future form of humanity – she treats us to a speech about how we’re standing on the precipice of destruction and must do all we can to save the planet.

Of course, the truth and importance of her words cannot be denied, and if this gets some kids out there even just thinking about the issue of climate change, then that’s great. Where your mileage may vary, though, is in whether you want your television drama to be this didactic or prefer it to dress up its morals and messages with a bit more flair. Those who’ve been complaining about the Whittaker era being “too PC” and “too preachy” will certainly use this as Exhibit A. But then again, others will no doubt find it to be one of the most powerful moments of the season. That’s the Who fandom for you.

Regardless of your feelings about Hime’s script, something that really didn’t help it was the editing. The episode’s a victim of some frenetic, choppy editing that frequently leaves the viewer struggling to decipher exactly what’s going on. Presumably, there was a lot of extra material left on the cutting room floor due to time constraints that would have helped clarify certain story points – such as Kane’s random return from nowhere. Likewise, the framing of certain scenes was peculiar – Benni’s off-screen final words and eventual death, for example.

“Orphan 55” surely won’t go down as the weakest episode of season 12, but neither will it be one of the best. The cast is too big and some flawed editing limits its impact, but at least it has its heart very much in the right place.

Next week, Doctor Who does The Current War as the TARDIS team encounters Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison and some giant scorpions. Be sure to catch “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” on Sunday, January 19th.

Doctor Who 12x03 Orphan 55

A perfectly acceptable episode of very traditional Doctor Who, that's let down by some poor editing but lifted by its highly important message.