It is perhaps just as well that travels prevented me from blogging about this episode of Doctor Who right away after it aired. There is a big reveal that reframes the narrative and mentioning it when some might not have yet had the chance to see it would be cruelly spoilerific. As it happened, I was en route to Australia, a country experiencing out of control bush fires and intense smoke, when I watched it, and that made the episode’s big reveal all the more powerful. But let’s start at the beginning…
The episode begins with a scene that is, I think, quite unprecedented in the show’s history. We see the Doctor and her travel companions mopping the floor of the TARDIS and in other ways contributing to maintaining its cleanliness. Clearly there had been an unusually messy incident involving a space squid, but even so, it is a clever way to start the episode given where it goes later. We might assume that the TARDIS is simply self-cleaning, that the dimensional engineering technology that makes it possible for it to be bigger on the inside than the outside and to travel through time and space also eliminates spills and stains as if by magic, no matter the extent or degree. It turns out, there is no magical technology that eliminates the need for each resident in the vehicle to pull their own weight and contribute to its upkeep. The symbolism of that and its relevance to the episode’s moral message is not instantly clear, but becomes so with hindsight.
The main dilemma scenario of the episode is provided by Graham having been saving coupons which earn them an all-inclusive free trip to Tranquility Spa. The coupons are a teleport cube when assembled and so the group is whisked away without adequate discussion, warning, or prep time. This being Doctor Who, viewers know from past experience that this will not be a quiet restful time for the characters. Here too there is a direct connection to the episode’s theme and message. If we think we’re getting something for free, we are naive. Our current lifestyle of relative comfort comes at significant cost to our environment and its resources.
We soon learn that the resort offers “fakecations” on what is known as an orphan planet, a world whose population rendered it uninhabitable, at which point the wealthy ruling elite usually finds a way to evacuate and relocate, leaving everyone else to die along with their world. It thus makes sense that the native creatures who have managed to adapt and survive on the planet are referred to as “dregs.” The person running the operation has purchased this bit of worthless real estate and is bankrolling an effort to terraform it through the “fakecations.”
Additional tension is added as we learn that this effort was in the interest of being able to give the ultimately valuable property to her daughter. Meanwhile, the daughter has shown up among the fakecationers intent on destroying the enterprise that has essentially rendered her an orphan as her mother was never around. Here too there is profound symbolism, since the sacrifices capitalist societies make on the national and planetary levels are mirrored on the level of families. We sacrifice wellbeing in the interest of elusive profit or at least financial stability.
That this planet is Orphan 55 conveys how often this fate befalls planets. This in itself would have been enough to make the episode relevant to the present day. But an additional twist makes is more directly relevant, as the group finds some writing in Russian in an underground tunnel and it is revealed that Orphan 55 is in fact Earth!
The blame for what has befallen the planet is placed squarely on human shoulders. It is not technology or some malevolent force but our own lack of wisdom.
Dregs are humans who managed to mutate and adapt, so that they can now breathe CO2 and breathe out oxygen. The Doctor makes a telepathic connection with one of them and the dreg remembers climate change, nuclear war.
The Doctor berates our folly, saying that scientists agreed and all the signs were there, not just about global warming, but what it would lead to when the food chain collapses, namely war and still further forms of human-caused devastation inflicted on our world and ourselves.
The dregs are shown to still have some remnants of rationality as the Doctor reasons with one of them, saying, “Be smarter than what made you.”
Lest there be mere despair (a common response to what we are told about the situation we face due to climate change) the Doctor emphasizes that this is one possible timeline. She also adds: “Humans, you forget how powerful you are—lives change worlds.” But the warning is still a strong one as she accuses us of arguing about the washing up while the house burns down.
There is a nice echo of the show’s history when the Doctor uses the phrase so characteristic of the Second Doctor: “When I say run, run.” Rather than mere fan service, this should serve to inform anyone who objects to Doctor Who “getting political” that this is nothing new. From “Planet of Giants,” “The Green Death,” and “The Sun Makers” to numerous more recent post-reboot examples, Doctor Who has offered this kind of social commentary throughout its history. Here’s a nice article with these and a number of other points of continuity.
The dynamic between Nevi and Sylas, a father and son where the latter is supposedly assisting his father but in fact is the one who is a gifted engineer and technician, is probably also related to this theme in the sense that children can save the day. I wonder whether the writers had Greta Thunberg in particular in mind. There are also other elements in the show and its dialogue worth talking about – the “hopper virus” that can affect humans as well as technology, nicely indicating that humans are not as separate from either our natural or our artificial environments as we sometimes imagine; and the Doctor claiming that not only could she make an ionic membrane from scratch, but she could make a person from scratch with enough time and the right materials. Are we catching a glimpse of the Doctor taking on quasi-divine status again? I also want to mention the older couple Wilma and Benni who contribute so much to the story, and ensure that it isn’t just a story about younger people saving the day (not that that could really be a worry, given the Doctor’s age).
What did you think of Orphan 55? Did you see the big reveal coming beforehand? Does it work effectively as social commentary?