If I were a hotel critic (and, like saboteur Bella, I am not), I’d award this latest Doctor Who a “★★★★ pending”. But for now Orphan 55 garners a ★★★ rating, leaning towards highly recommended. A major step up from the writer’s debut in 2018. I wilted while watching Ed Hime’s episode It Takes You Away (a sort of Nordic noir meets Lost in Space), but his follow-up excursion is considerably more rewarding, sprinkled with innovation, tension and food for thought. It smacks of Benidorm meets Aliens with perhaps a tiny touch of The Truman Show.
Basking at the two-weeks-inclusive Tranquillity Spa, elderly couple Benni and Vilma could almost be Donald and Jacqueline at the all-inclusive Solana in Benidorm (the ITV sitcom), albeit without any saucy swinging. The naughtiest they confess to is being unmarried for 46 years.
Aliens (supposed) come in the form of the drooling Dregs. A splendid creation, hideous, inexorable, a bit dim, they lumber slowly in the tradition of the finest Doctor Who monsters. They would probably have scared me as a child; the suggestion that they’re the mutated dregs of humanity is particularly unedifying. The Truman Show? The spa’s fake environs with an illusory perimeter.
The FX work (dome exterior, escape vehicle, marauding mob) is top-notch, while the filming locations at Mount Teide and the Auditorio de Tenerife are worth the schlep and offer more texture than those perpetual South Wales backdrops.
The cast may have enjoyed some fun in the sun in the Canaries but they also had to become troglodytes in Barry Island. The wasteland’s ridiculously handy, seemingly pointless service passage looks to be the same creepy, disused railway tunnel in Barry that we’ve seen in everything from Sherlock to Torchwood and several Doctor Whos (The Doctor’s Daughter in 2008 and Flatline in 2014).
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All four of Team Tardis have material that plays to their strengths, and Jodie Whittaker is impressively Doctorly, completely believable now as the resourceful, dependable, quick-thinking Time Lord. Her “mardy mood” after Spyfall’s traumatic revelation soon improves as she imbibes a new challenge: “I’ll have a quick look around by myself.”
Orphan 55 rapidly develops a disaster-movie vibe as Tranquillity Spa spirals into Holiday from Hell, first with the hopper virus (a nasty idea, amusingly remedied) and then as visitors and staff are picked off one by one in sanitised off-screen squelches – slaughter left to our imagination. As Vilma, Julia Foster even does a turn as the genre’s self-sacrificing biddy à la Shelley Winters in The Poseidon Adventure.
Mother of broadcaster Ben Fogle, Foster was a bit of a TV siren in the 70s, and a Radio Times cover star as Moll Flanders (above) in 1975. A decade earlier she’d played Michael Caine’s pregnant girlfriend Gilda in Alfie. Quite what she’s doing in this episode I’m not sure. But she does it with a puff of old-school acting technique.
More bankable guest stars for the PR machine are Laura Fraser (Breaking Bad, The Missing, Traces), who can’t help being appealing as the hard-hearted Kane, and James Buckley (The Inbetweeners, White Gold) as the feckless engineer Nevi. My toes curl into a clump at the abrupt inclusion of their familial discord: the dismal mother/daughter melodrama between Kane and Bella (formerly Trixabelle); and the useless-dad/bright-kid dynamic between Nevi and Sylas – a colourless aside, notwithstanding their green party-shop wigs.
“Too toxic for life” – that’s the prediction for Earth in the future. It has been laid waste by the human race and designated an orphan planet. I’m not sure how this squares with many other doom-laden projections across the history of Doctor Who. The 1970s were dotted with dystopian futures, and in 1986 The Trial of a Time Lord also saw a scorched Earth that was identified by a derelict Underground station, as in Orphan 55.
It’s salutary that the latest imprint of Who should offer its own cautionary tale to the audience, no matter how that cataclysm conflicts with what has gone before. This is only, as the Doctor says, “one possible future, one timeline”, but she warns, “Unless people face facts, catastrophe is coming.” Earth dead. Gallifrey dead. Within two episodes. Where is series 12 taking the time travellers? They are rightly appalled, as we should be.
Doctor Who has been bashed recently for ramming home messages or being too PC. My message to the naysayers is: “Bog off and watch something else!” The programme has always had a message. Way back to the first Dalek serial in 1964. Its opening episode was called The Dead Planet. Like Orphan 55, it gave a vision of a world turned to ash by war, all its lifeforms mutations. The Daleks were exterminating racists driven by “a dislike for the unlike”.
Then and now Doctor Who might lack subtlety (last year’s admirable Rosa clunked towards preachy). But this is a family show with impressionable young people watching. We may crave sophistication but more often we need a timely eco-message banged home with a sledgehammer. And Whittaker wields it beautifully at the end.