Orphan 55: Climate Chaos in Cardiff

Previously

Spyfall 1: It’s the End of the World as We Know It

Spyfall 2: It’s Time She Spent Some Time Alone


“Chaos in Cardiff” was the tabloid-headline for a rumour doing the rounds during the filming of S12 that due to severe production problems/creative differences/interference from the unimpressed higher ups at the BBC, both showrunner Chris Chibnall and lead Doctor actor Jodie Whittaker had stormed, in an enraged walk-out, off the production, leaving Doctor Who without a creative or cast lead. This was not true. Evidently, seeing as both went on to produce next series of the show. Between the way that this was telephone-whisper-shouted across angry, “anti-SJW,” hate-profit YouTube, and the fact that the only individuals named in the rumour are the two most obvious, front-facing, recognisable representatives of the show, it seems fairly clear to me that the way this was spread was whipped up for clicks, without concern for any factual basis, designed to funnel gullible people’s discontent with the show into regressive pits of bigotry.

However…

Watching S12, it is hard to ignore that something has gone very, very wrong somewhere along the line of production, both from what happens on screen, and from the rare, slim glimpses we see of behind-the-scenes. Despite the projection of a tranquil and perfect environment, you just have to scratch the skin to see the chaos hidden away and covered up. There’s a secret buried beneath the surface, and though it has been there for a while, now it is clearly breaking through the façade. So, let’s investigate.

Orphan 55 is broken. Just tabling that immediately. The monster costumes are filmed separately from the rest of the cast, often not matching the opposing shots, consistently feeling jarring and out of place, as if they don’t exist in the same world. Characters make unmotivated or terribly communicated decisions and reveal twists and payoffs with no set up or grounding, in a way that feels like the rough sketching of a pre-first draft, before the details have been figured out. And through a combination of unclear narrative and even-unclear-er editing, several key scenes and important ideas are just incomprehensible.

I think, more than anything else, this failure of construction is why Orphan 55 has topped so many people’s “worst episode ever” list, and that’s fair enough. Incomprehensibility is my whole schtick, and even I think it borders on unwatchable. People should expect more from their media than this, and while I can’t bring myself to hate it, more power to people who can. Part of me feels like it’s unfair to whale on an episode that is so unprecedentedly unfinished, but is it really so unique?

Throughout the episode there are plenty of genuinely good jokes, jutting through the more workmanlike dialogue that makes up the rest. The hopper virus scene, the “pulled this out of my friend,” gag, a decent chunk of Graham’s lines, are funny in a way that feel disconnected, like the kind of jokes I would write in as I sketched the dialogue, so as not to forget them. Ideas like Benni’s “two questions,” or the Dregs breathing CO2, or the framing of climate change as a generational failure are all meaty, interesting aspects that aren’t fused with the rest of the episode, so stick out like unfocussed tangents that aren’t properly developed. The “catastrophe is coming” speech is fine, even if the episode doesn’t actually offer any solution to our impending doom beyond that ‘people do something’, but it’s necessary because the ideas weren’t communicated clearly enough throughout, so sticks out as “a speech” rather than the natural conclusion. And there’s just so much of this in the episode – so many nice lines between dud characters, and themes that don’t pan out, and good ideas that pollute the story by not connecting to anything else – but I don’t think those failures themselves are unique at all.

Just last week, Spyfall derailed itself for hat-upon-hat of new ideas that just made it less successful in tying everything up holistically in the end, and S11 is full of that too, as are the episodes yet to come. In fact the moment I found most frustrating in Orphan 55 – when the Doctor realises that the ‘hopper-virus’ that they stumbled on in act one, that she’s been carrying ever since in a little paper bag, turns out to be exactly what they need to turn the type of fuel that they have into the type of fuel that they need – isn’t any different to the Master getting caught in his “sprinting” lie he told off camera in that very last story. In both cases, it’s not the contrivance that gets me, so much as the fact that it would have been so easy to patch it up with a single line of dialogue earlier on that they both must be the result of rushed scripts or missed deadlines. If Ranskoor Av Kolos proves anything (and it proves many things) it’s that this isn’t a bold stylistic choice – that story being absolutely chock-full of rushed work arounds and quick-fixes – but rather a result of some serious background issues.

So, I think, even without trawling the rumours and actual, personal accounts, it’s not hard to deduce that there are serious production problems on Doctor Who.

And it’s very easy to point at the last few years, across which these problems have become so clear, and conclude that this is Chris Chibnall’s fault, or Matt Strevens’s fault, or somehow Jodie Whittaker’s fault if you’re partial to brain worms, and I understand how people come to that conclusion. There were production problems under RTD and Steven Moffat too, nobody would deny, but it’s only recently become so obvious that it’s impossible to ignore. There have been delays and bad episodes before, but there’s not been a revival story so totally broken as Orphan 55. You probably have to go back 35 years to find any TV Doctor Who story at all in such bad shape (and we will, eventually). So surely it’s Chibnall’s fault. He’s the common denominator with the rise of these production failures, and it’s not like there’s not already a laundry list of problems with his handling of the show. Surely if we just got RTD to come back, or just got Moffat to come back, or just found some new genius polymath creative who can handle production better than the current lot.

But this is exactly what Orphan 55 gets so wrong about climate change. It’s not about people, it’s about systems. It’s a problem resulting from the methods of production that everything else is then built around. Assigning responsibility to one person, however many problems that person has, isn’t just inaccurate, but it fails in the same way that the system itself fails: by focussing power and decision-making responsibilities in a few ‘special’ individuals. It’s always valid to critique the people in control, but it’s too easy to forget the that the systems that put them there, and that put the people before them in the same place, are untenable, and always have been. Doctor Who has always been a fatal weight on the shoulders of an individual creative, bound to collapse, and society as we know it has always been unsustainable with power consolidated with the richest few. These things have always been true, but it’s only now that the chaos has begun to crash down so clearly that it’s become truly undeniable that something has to change.

Or…

But let’s see if we can’t be a little more specific than the Doctor about what, exactly, needs changing…

NEXT WEEK: Nicola Tesla’s Night of Terror: Great Men and Great History

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