This week Doctor Who saw our heroes on vacation on the planet known as Orphan 55. Let’s be honest, after last week, the Doctor really needed a holiday. Of course, as with nearly all of the Doctor’s relaxation time, things go downhill fast.
This episode had a lot of moving parts for what ended up as a fairly simple cautionary tale about climate change. Right off the bat, I must say that the episode could have benefited from just a touch more subtlety in its message. Don’t get me wrong. Climate change is horrible and addressing must be one of humanity’s top priorities at the moment. But I think the show demonstrated that clearly and then went on to tell us explicitly a couple of times. The writers seemed really afraid that we wouldn’t grasp the message of the episode unless they displayed it in front of our faces in a flashing neon sign. Overall, important message, heavy-handed delivery.
Let’s back up a bit. At the opening of the episode, we see the Doctor and Yaz mopping up…. juices… from mating space squids. This was totally gross, but also perfectly Who. As far as throwaway gags go, this was top tier. Then we see Graham really show his old man side for the first of several times this hour. He has been collecting coupons. Now that he has 6, he is qualified for an all-inclusive holiday. He puts the cards together and all 4 of our friends are rapidly teleported to a spa. The promotion that this coupon provides doesn’t really make any sense to me, but that’s okay. It’s just a vehicle to get the characters in an interesting place without the TARDIS. Graham immediately sets his sights on a chair in which he’d like to sit for 3 hours. He has a great deal of sitting planned and a bit of drinking. I love this. It makes total sense for an old man that spends his time with the Doctor to want nothing more than to just sit down for a spell.
Ryan quickly catches a virus from a vending machine and the Doctor finds a use for her medical knowledge by capturing the virus (which is more of a glowworm, really) in an empty bag of Space Funyuns™. He soon finds an opportunity to chat up a gorgeous girl and they bond over dead parents and thumb sucking.
Parenting is really the theme of this episode. It’s about what we leave behind for our children. Ryan and Bella have been left behind by one parent that died and another that is simply not around. Bella’s mom turns out to be the capitalistic businesswoman that runs the spa, Kane. Kane has never bothered to show up or care for Bella in any meaningful way. But she has managed to convince herself that her greed and recklessness is really all for the benefit of her daughter. She built the entire spa just for her daughter! Isn’t that nice? What a nice mom.
Bella, meanwhile, hates her mother. To the point where she wants to literally blow up her mother’s work (and doesn’t seem to care if her mother blows up with it). She is justifiably angry at Kane. This anger is coupled with grief over the death of her dad, who actually cared for her. Ryan sees all that she is going through, but he can’t fathom it. In spite of his own terrible family life, he can not get to the same place emotionally as Bella. He recognizes that his grandfather and his friends are his family. He will do anything he can to protect them. We could not have 2 more different results from parental neglect.
Unfortunately for humanity, many parents sympathize with Kane. Humanity decides that greed and profits are worth whatever harm comes to their planet and their children. In the big twist of the night, we learn that Orphan 55 was once Earth. But climate change, war, famine, and a host of other things have wrecked it. It is uninhabitable. Well, mostly. Humans are nothing if not adaptable. Turns out that we develop several rows of sharp teeth, hard, ugly skin, and the ability to breathe carbon dioxide. What is left is the Dregs of humanity. Animalistic creatures that kill to survive. They seem to have retained some semblance of sentience. The Doctor is able to communicate with one of them and arrange a simple negotiation. The Dreg couldn’t speak to her in return (at least as far as we observed). It’s a harsh fate for those beings who remained on Earth after the myriad disasters.
One other parent/child relationship is worth discussing. The mechanic that maintains this holiday spa has a child named Sylas. Sylas is a mechanical prodigy. He is constantly correcting his father’s work. His corrections go largely ignored. Though occasionally, Nevi flat out rebukes his son for offering advice. In the end, however, Nevi realized that children are the future. We must teach them well and let them lead the way. Sylas, a child, is ultimately the person who saves all of the adults around him. This is the kind of subtextual storytelling that the episode needed more of. On the surface, it’s just a smart kid helping to solve a problem. But when you really think about it, the writers are proposing a solution to climate change: look to the children.
In spite of solid performances from all the cast, competent direction, and an interesting premise, I just found this episode to be fairly mediocre. I don’t think the writers really did anything interesting with the concept of a destroyed earth. They simply showed it and said, “hey, don’t do this!” I also think there was a missed opportunity to show some introspection on the part of the Doctor. She just saw her own planet become orphaned. You’d think she’d have more of a reaction to seeing her second home destroyed by people.
If there’s one thing I want to see the 13th Doctor do, it’s get angry. She has been remarkably pacifist throughout her tenure. But we know that there is a well of righteous indignation just waiting to spring up. One of the reasons I think David Tennant’s 10th Doctor was so popular was his duality. He could be kind, caring, and empathetic. But when crossed or backed into a corner, he would unleash an ocean of rage large enough to drown a volcano. All of the other Doctors since the series revival have had to deal with this anger on some level or another. I hope that 13 gets a chance to face this monster within herself. That’s when we’ll really know what she’s made of.