Not What It Seems
Tripwire’s contributing writer Robert Cave, our man in Los Angeles, takes a look at the third episode of the new run of Doctor Who, which was broadcast on Sunday…
Writer: Ed Hime
Director: Lee Haven Jones
One of my favourite episodes of Doctor Who Series 11 was Ed Hime’s It Takes You Away, an engaging and well-paced tale of longing for the return of lost partners and largely unseen horrors, so it was with a certain amount of anticipation and excitement that I sat down to watch Hime’s second Doctor Who story. Unfortunately, Hime’s sophomore effort didn’t come together quite as well.
The opening premise, of the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her fam using coupons to indulge in an all-inclusive planetary package tour to the Tranquility Spa, is solid enough. It’s also a similar set-up to the great Tenth Doctor story, Midnight, but what follows somehow manages to have both too much and not enough going on at the same time.
There is an over-abundance of ideas at play most of which felt to me a bit underdeveloped; the parasitic hopper viruses inhabiting vending machines and other technology, the notion of ecologically devastated “orphan worlds,” and the boutique industry for fixing them up and selling them on all merited more explanation than they ultimately received as they jostled for audience attention alongside a plenitude of intriguing characters played great actors, most notably Hyph3n (Amy Booth-Steel), a dog-like humanoid working as a customer host at the Tranquility Spa hotel that has been sited on one of the orphan worlds. But we aren’t really given much of a chance to explore these characters or ideas before the arrival of the marauding Dregs.
Looking like they share a dentist with the Hoix, a lesser monster dedicated fans will remember from the series 2 story Love & Monsters, the big revelation is that the Dregs are in fact people, or at the very least what the poor people left behind on a poisoned planet Earth ruined by various ecological disasters eventually evolved into. It turns out that the Tranquility Spa was built on a hopelessly contaminated Earth that had been abandoned by the wealthy and auctioned off as the worthless orphan planet 55. Yes, I wasn’t kidding when I said that there was a lot going on in this week’s episode.
Sadly, all the action and big sci-fi ideas means there is less room for compelling and meaningful character moments from the guest cast, a problem exacerbated by the sheer number of them that eventually opt to sacrifice themselves for the greater good of the group. What could have been seen as noble soon became clichéd almost to the point of parody, and that really detracted from the story for me.
But what really grated for me was how the revelation of Earth’s apparent fate as full-scale planet wide ecological disaster area was handled. The idea that the Earth would eventually become uninhabitable for humans is not new to Doctor Who. The 1975 Tom Baker story The Ark in Space sees the Earth being evacuated due to powerful solar flares, and there was the whole bit where Earth is apparently moved by the Time Lords and renamed Ravelox, as revealed in the Trial of a Timelord, but this is perhaps best forgotten. In Orphan 55, Earth’s devastation is attributed to “global warming, the food chain collapses, mass migration and war.” I have no problem with the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change as a theme but, and this might be where I fail the Voight-Kampf empathy test by focusing on the show’s continuity over potential mass-extinctions etc., I really didn’t like the way the Doctor described the whole thing as “just one possible future.”
I get why Hime, or perhaps showrunner Chris Chibnall, felt the need to emphasize human agency and the fact that humanity could, even at this late stage, act to mitigate some of the worst effects of climate change, but talk of possible futures really fundamentally reshapes our understanding of what kind of show Doctor Who is. Instead of travelling through a unified sense of space and time, as advertised regularly over the years in the (formerly) BBC listings magazine Radio Times, the notion of possible realities seemingly brings the show more in line with Rick and Morty, in which the title characters’ journey across an infinite multiverse in the course of their misadventures.
Time travel is a tricky thing to spin narratives about to be sure, and in the past writers and script editors have tended to tread, to a greater or lesser extent, somewhat delicately around notions of a fixed predestined future. Previous showrunner Russell T Davis’s vaguely defined “fixed points” – events that could not be changed even by the Doctor demonstrated his approach to the narrative complications of time travel, while maintaining a broad sweep of history in the past, present and future. Meanwhile, some fans, including former Who writer Paul Cornell, to speculate that the Doctor’s travels routinely reshape the universe around us so that each adventure effectively rewrites all of time and space. This episode seems to indicate that Chibnall Sees things differently. The notion of an infinite mulitiverse where all possible outcomes playout somewhere would kill the show’s dramatic tension stone dead. What does it matter if, to use just one dangling plot point as an example, Gallifrey is apparently destroyed? In other realities it is completely fine and intact. I really hope I am wrong.
I was also dissatisfied that the Doctor didn’t realise that Orphan 55 was Earth. I understand that it would be a pretty boring show if the title character knew everything that was going to happen each week, and the surprise is meant to help further sell the idea that this future is not yet set, but the Doctor has routinely clued companions into the broad sweep of intergalactic history, past, present and future over the years, and The Doctor also knows from some of the aforementioned previous adventures that the Earth will at some point be evacuated of all human life, perhaps on multiple occasions. If humanity leaving the planet and returning is part of the human story, why not say that?
The reason, I suspect, is that this would not fit so well with the notion of the Dregs as humanity’s dehumanized underclass. The under-developed, carbon dioxide-breathing, oxygen-exhaling Dregs are literally left behind to do the unpaid grunt work of making the Earth habitable again for the benefit of others. It’s just a shame that this idea isn’t explored further because it is actually a pretty interesting. If only we’d seen the Doctor engaging more fully with the Dregs themselves we might have had a much more compelling episode.
Ah, well. Next week we have Nikola Tesla. Let’s see what the show does with him.