And we are back, unfortunately, to many of the deficits which plagued the first series of Jodie Whittaker’s DOCTOR WHO with today’s third episode, an entry that’s heavy-handed, completely forgettable and which does nothing to broaden our understanding of the core characters. This is a distressing development given how much progress the opening two-parter seemed to give us. And yet, I cannot truly say that I’m surprised, really.
The third episode slot in any series of DOCTOR WHO typically tends to be one of the weaker or safer episodes; after having laid out the particulars of the season and the series in the opening two, the production team almost always follows that up with “just an episode”, a meat-and potatoes entry, which is the category that ORPHAN 55 falls into. And in fact, it’s another take on one of DOCTOR WHO’s most perennial structures, the “base under siege” storyline. Except in this instance, it doesn’t really do anything all that interesting or novel with that structure, and so all of the best moments in the episode bring to mind other earlier, superior installments, such as MIDNIGHT. This wasn’t a bad episode per se, but it didn’t have much to recommend it apart from rounding the bases.
It did serve to underline one of the ongoing weaknesses that the series struggles with: the cast is simply too big. Here, we’re introduced to a bevy of new characters, none of whom are drawn particularly subtly in the scant time we spend with them, but all of whom we’re meant to care about at least a little bit as one by one they are picked off by the inexorably attacking Dregs. And this might have worked if we were facing this situation with the Doctor and a single companion (or no companion, as in MIDNIGHT.) But here, we’re also trying to service four lead characters, most of whom are once again woefully under-served–this time out, it’s Graham who gets the worst of having nothing to do. The result here is that we don’t get to spend enough time with the Fam regulars to really make them pop, and all of the new characters are battling as much with one another to get some viable screentime just as much as they’re battling the Dregs. I like this cast in theory, but in practice I cannot help but hope that we get a few episodes along the way where we leave one or more of them behind, simply so that the rest can get some much needed attention.
I also screamed a bit at the end beats, in which the Doctor and her team leave Kane and her daughter Bella behind, facing certain death to buy the Fam time to teleport back to the safety of the Tardis. And then, rather than firing up the box that can go anywhere in Time and Space and effecting a rescue, the Doctor instead chooses to lecture the audience through the surrogates of her passengers on the hazards of global warming and climate change, and the need for people to do something about it. It’s another in a string of occasions over the last two series where the Doctor has an opportunity to do something heroic and doesn’t carry through on it, and it’s maddening. I want to root for the Doctor and I want to see in her what the rest of the characters around her see in her, but it’s difficult when the production team forgets to allow her to be the hero. I don’t know, maybe the production team needs its own Donna Noble there to remind them to have the Doctor “just save somebody, just one person!” Preferably, somebody beyond the Tardis Team who are protected due to the fiat of being regulars on the show.
I was also a bit bothered by how easily the Doctor hand-waved away the events they had just lived through as being only “one possible future.” This isn’t really a card that the show has played so overtly so often (though of course events have been changed in the past.) But bringing it up in this fashion really does make me wonder what the big deal was when we discovered that Orphan 55 was (spoilers!) Earth all along! On top of being a plot twist that didn’t carry the weight that somebody thought that it would, the very fact that its importance is dismissed at the end makes the whole production suspect. Why is any future that we happen to go to of any consequence? For that matter, the present exists only thanks to our relative position in time, so is the present any more relevant? (Especially when we retreat into the past for a story–did the Doctor really need to wipe out those historical figures’ memories last week in order to preserve the timeline? )
But that’s all timey-wimey stuff. The bottom line here is that I was never all that caught up in the episode, the cast was under-utilized and generic, the guest stars never rose beyond being types and the threat seemed at once underwhelming and uninteresting. This was an episode of DOCTOR WHO, sure, but not one likely to get a lot of repeat viewings in the future. It just didn’t have all that much to offer.