Doctor Who – Series 12, Ep. 3 – “Orphan 55”

A strong message and setting that doesn’t give side characters their due.

With a show like Doctor Who, there are going to be many one-off characters, especially in bubble episodes like “Orphan 55.” While the characters and story may not have much to do with the overall arc of the season, they can make-or-break an individual episode. If every named character on screen is standing out in some way or making you feel something, then you’re more likely to be invested in how or if The Doctor will save them. This is a major downside to the otherwise great “Orphan 55.”

We start off well-enough, with our heroes winning an all-inclusive resort vacation. Teleported away from the TARDIS, they wind up in the idyllic Tranquillity Spa. A relaxing break is exactly what the team needs after the events of “Spyfall.” The Doctor’s mood has not improved and her companions are feeling the stress. After a few fun minutes exploring the sites though, alarms blare and the spa is under attack. “Vacation” on Doctor Who might as well be code for disaster.

Ryan gets infected with a Hopper virus from a vending machine, rousing The Doctor’s suspicions after she quickly cures him. So does a linen cupboard with heavy password protection. It turns out that room is a security office, where they meet the owner of the spa, Kane. Around the same time, Yaz meets an elderly couple, Velma and Benni, Ryan recovers from the Hopper virus alongside a woman named Bella, and Graham runs into the spa’s mechanic Nevi and his son Sylas. There’s no time for intros though as creatures called the Dregs break in and start killing all the other unnamed guests, also capturing Benni.

During the attack, team TARDIS learns that the spa is actually a fabricated environment on an uninhabitable, desolate planet called Orphan 55. The spa is in an oxygen dome, the only source of it around. The Doctor, already in a bad mood, lambasts Kane for building a false vacation spot in such a wasteland, with apex predators as the only native lifeforms. All the survivors get in a vehicle go after Benni, with limited supplies of oxygen their only protection. But the Dregs aren’t mindless. They set a trap for the vehicle, having used Benni as a lure. Benni yells through the vehicle wall, asking Vilma to marry him and for somebody to shoot him as well. He gets affirmative answers to both requests.

Vilma and Benni should have been great special guests, an older couple finally taking the plunge for life together before the Dregs tear them apart. But we really only get one scene with them before Benni is dragged away by the Dregs. His remaining two minutes of dialog are off-camera. And Vilma deals with the loss by just repeatedly yelling out Benni’s name, before sacrificing herself to give the team time to escape back towards Tranquillity through old sewer tunnels.

It’s in the sewers that two big reveals are made. First, we learn that Bella is Kane’s daughter, furious with her mother for abandoning her to create the Tranquillity Spa. Kane, who’s been hostile and shut down for the entire episode, argues that she aimed to use the vacation spot to get enough funds to terraform the planet and leave it to Bella. It comes off as fairly ridiculous and an effort to save Kane from being the villain of the episode, but it doesn’t really work.

The other twist does though, and it hits with a gut punch. Walking through the tunnels, The Doctor, Yaz and Graham pass by a sign in Russian. It’s with a shock that they realize that the barren, bleak planet of Orphan 55 is none other than Earth in the future, ravaged by climate change and nuclear war. The Dregs are what those humans who couldn’t leave the planet become. The Doctor’s companions are left aghast and appalled, furiously asking The Doctor if she knew this was the fate of their home planet. She didn’t, but this season is doing a great job so far at showing the cracks in the pedestal of The Doctor for her friends.

After a couple more deaths, including a seeming self-sacrifice by Kane, the survivors get back to the spa, only for the teleports to be damaged by a bomb that Bella set off to try and destroy the place her mom chose over her. Again, motivation is there, but is too rushed. Using Chekov’s Hopper virus, Nevi’s genius son Sylas works with The Doctor to repair the teleports just as the Dregs start to overrun the spa. Kane returns, somehow, to fight out the Dregs alongside her daughter while the others use the transport to return to their respective homes. I guess the mom and daughter have healed their relationship enough to die together against the Dregs? If so, it would’ve been nice to see onscreen.

The Doctor, Ryan, Yaz and Graham wind up back on the TARDIS, despondent over Earth’s future. The Doctor states though that the future isn’t set. While Orphan 55 is a possibility, it is still up to humans to decide whether or not to make a positive change. It’s a strong environmental message at the end of a messy episode with too many moving parts. If the episode removed most of the side characters besides Kane and Bella, there would’ve been more room to breathe and for those two to have an effective arc. The story is alright and the message is great, but in the case of the cast here, less is more.

Story Notes:

  • Tosin Cole does get in some excellent comedic acting as Ryan quickly goes through the various symptoms of the Hopper virus, including hallucinations of bats.
  • Speaking of Ryan, him and Bella have some awkward flirting that is funny and adorable initially, but then fails to go anywhere really.
  • The episode starts with the team mopping the floor with giant tentacle nearby, as The Doctor apologizes for not realizing it was the creature’s “mating season.”
  • As The Doctor mentions pulling the Hopper virus out of Ryan, spa employee Hyph3n states, “We do not make any judgments on our guests and fully support any way you choose to enjoy yourself.”
  • In the tunnels, The Doctor’s air supply runs out first due to her motor mouth tendencies. But it works out, as that’s how she learns the Dregs inhale carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen.