“Orphan 55” Review – The Importance of Subtlety and an Establishing Shot

Clint Hassell gives his SPOILER-filled commentary on the third episode of Series 12.

Note: this review contains full SPOILERS for episode 3 of Series 12.

“Orphan 55” fails to deliver on the promise of scriptwriter Ed Hime’s stunning initial episode, Series 11’s “It Takes You Away.”  Featuring a standard, “base-under-siege” plot, “Orphan 55” is marred both by the script’s lack of subtlety and by incoherent editing, which hampers the world-building necessary to create dramatic tension.

To be fair, Hime’s script does feature a few clever moments.  The Doctor curing Ryan of the hopper virus is a bit of classic Who camp, and leads to the episode’s most hilarious exchange:

the Doctor, seemingly holding a bag of chips:  “I just pulled THIS out of a friend of mine.”

Hyph3n:  “Well, we do not make any judgements on our guests and fully support any way you choose to enjoy yourself here at Tranquility Spa.”

Yasmin’s inadvertent interruption of Benni’s marriage proposal to Vilma is good for a chuckle, as is the Doctor’s suggestion that family disputes should be resolved via “good ol’ passive-aggressive discussion.”  Moreover, the “fake-action” portmanteau is genuinely inspired, as is the plot device that ties the Doctor’s tendency to talk her way through problems to her rapidly decreasing reserve of oxygen, thus putting Thirteen at a disadvantage while playing against the audience’s expectation.

It’s daring to start an episode with a joke as bawdy as this.

Further, there are moments where Hime demonstrates an understanding of our core cast, with the Doctor admonishing Kane with one stand-out line: “I need you here, to help me understand this place, not out there, shooting at things.”  In another scene, Ryan sees an armed Vorm running through the hotel lobby and asks Bella, “If this is a drill, what’s he doing with a gun?  Do you wanna find out?” – – again referencing a point raised in Spyfall that the companions are evolving to think more like the Doctor.  Unfortunately, this development doesn’t extend to Yasmin or Graham, as neither rise above the “stock companion” role; both could be removed from the narrative with little consequence.  This is especially devastating for Yaz’s character, considering how Hime’s deft casting of the young police officer-seeking-more as the Doctor’s most-trusted confidant was one of the best, nuanced aspects of “It Takes You Away.”

The guest cast is filled with stock characters, too – – the greedy-beyond-all-reason business person, the woman too concerned with finding a lost family member (and who is willing to sacrifice herself, once he is dead), the girl with a secret agenda and a secret relationship – – resulting in a clichéd plot that barely surprises.  Tertiary characters elicit no emotional involvement and are inevitably killed, with little fanfare.

From its predictable plot (the reveal that Orphan 55 is a future Earth fails to shock as intended), to its conventional humor (the running joke that Sylas is a more competent mechanic than Nevi isn’t as funny as the script thinks it is), to its distracting amount of technobabble (and this from a show whose continuity practically drips with it), the script for “Orphan 55” lacks the refinement of “It Takes You Away.”  Rather, “Orphan 55” delivers its message of ecological awareness with all the subtlety of a gassy Slitheen.  When Graham asks the Doctor to define an “orphan planet,” the Time Lord not only cites the world as “uninhabitable,” she launches into a sociological diatribe about “a ruling elite that gets to evacuate, and then signs off all responsibility for whatever they’ve left behind.”  The dialogue is forced, and the conversation is apropos of little more than the script’s desire to hammer the message home.  Rather than expand on how “ignored warnings from every scientist alive” could lead to “global warming,” “the food chain collaps[ing], mass migration, and war,” the episode ends with a final scene where the Doctor actually chides her shell-shocked companions.  “You want me to tell you that Earth’s gonna be OK?  ‘Cause I can’t,” she admonishes the three.  “In your time, humanity’s busy arguing about the washing up, while the house burns down.  Unless people face facts and change, catastrophe is coming.”

These shake-and-go wigs are this episode’s biggest catastrophe.

However, the real problem with “Orphan 55” lies not with its script, but with its editing and direction.  In the first act, flickering lights and shaky footage are used to obscure an unseen Dreg, creating a sense of terror, as it drags nameless hotel guests to their deaths.  However, the episode never moves past these techniques, once the monster is identified.  For example, an early scene alternates between Ryan and Bella, hiding in the steam room, and close-up shots of a drooling, fang-lined mouth and claws scrapping metal walls.  The audience is meant to infer, via Ryan and Bella’s terrified faces, that the two are in the same room as the Dreg; however, without an establishing shot that features all three in the same frame, the scene feels fake and fails to convey the necessary sense of menace.

Remember how fake this scene from “Twice Upon a Time” felt, because Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi filmed their lines days apart, and the two never appeared in the same shot?  There’s a LOT of that, in “Orphan 55.”

Later, the survivors are surrounded by a swarm of Dregs that line the hills of the desolate Orphan 55 landscape.  The Doctor, Graham, and Yaz look around, as if they can see the monstrous horde, but an establishing shot fails to put their proximity into context.  Throughout the episode, characters react to off-screen threats so often as to be laughable.  In fact, it is not until minute 29 (of the episode’s 47-minute run-time) that a Dreg and a cast member are in the same shot!  Only three scenes – – the Doctor encountering a sleeping Dreg, the Doctor and Bella rescuing Sylas from “Wheezy,” and the two trapping “Wheezy” in a cage – – involve significant footage of a creature in the same shot as a named character.  The Dregs are meant to be physically threatening, but this is undermined when it is obvious that they aren’t physically there.

Compare the scene where the Doctor and Bella rescue Sylas with the scene where Ryan and Yaz attempt to reinforce the steam room wall.  The former features the characters interacting with a monster; the latter intercuts between actors miming their reactions with separately filmed shots of the invading Dregs.  Which is more terrifying?  Which makes you giggle and feel bad for the actors involved?

In fairness, the script fails to establish much tension either, as it fails to presage much of its plot.  While running from Dregs in the underground maintenance tunnel, the Doctor stops Kane from shooting at the creatures, stating, “There’s too many! You don’t have enough ammunition!”  How does the Doctor know this?  While the revelation creates an immediate problem to be solved – – how to escape the Dregs with only limited munitions – – and results in Vilma’s self-sacrifice, the scene lacks the increasing sense of foreboding that could’ve resulted had the amount of ammunition been teased in the same way as the limited availability of oxygen.  The narrative of “Orphan 55” becomes a string of never-before-mentioned maintenance stations, hatches, tunnels, and teleports, each revealed only when the former becomes impassable.  Where many scripts resolve their seeming unsolvable problems via the abrupt appearance of an unexpected deus ex machina, “Orphan 55” seems to work in reverse, suddenly revealing unforeseen obstacles to overcome – – diabolus ex machina, if you will – – the sudden importance and scarcity of Cyrillium-3 being a prime example.

Random Musings

This is an example of a good establishing shot, which provides continuity between the isolated wilderness of the terrain above and the insular tunnels below.
An establishing shot of the Orphan 55 landscape, as seen through the window of the transport vehicle, would help the scenes set inside of the transport (filmed in a studio) feel more connected those set outside (filmed on location).
If there’s no oxygen, how is there fire?
Why does no one stop Sylas, as he storms off to his certain death?

(Time) Capsule Review

The stock characters and clichéd plot of “Orphan 55” are so far removed from the haunting examination of loss found in “It Takes You Away” that it is difficult to believe they were written by the same person.  The script fails to build necessary dramatic tension, focusing instead on a long series of unforeseen obstacles, and delivers its ecological awareness message in a heavy-handed fashion.  The episode’s biggest problem is its editing, which fails to use establishing shots to effectively contextualize the physical menace of the Dregs.