Tuesday, March 24, 2020

12.3 Orphan-55

Invasion of the Tropes


The Holiday Camp is a 1950s British precursor to the Theme Park. It has no connection to an American summer camp. Families all go together and stay in small multi-occupancy apartments known as chalets. Decades after their heyday, the Holiday Camp remains a potent symbol of a good old-fashioned holiday, but with a strangely sinister undercurrent. The Prisoner’s Village is clearly a remote outpost of Butlins. The idea of merriment enforced by uniformed "redcoats" who encourage you to participate in slightly humiliating fun and games and wake you up in the morning with a hearty “wakey wakey campers!” is the antithesis of the buttoned-up stiff-upper-lip and at the same time the most English thing you can imagine.

"Tranquility" has a luxury pool and a spa: one somehow doubts that there are competitions for the Knobbliest Knees and the Most Glamorous Grandmother. But the Tannoy telling everyone to have a good time, and the feline Sue Pollard who greets them, is straight out of Maplins.


Doctor Who has its own iconography of fear: a Dalek or a Cyberman may not be all that frightening to look at, but everyone knows that they represent the Scariest Thing In the Universe. Orphan-55 chooses not to draw on that native iconography but instead to borrow from a 41 year old movie named Alien. The teeth, the strangely shaped head, the habit of massing in corridors and showing up as green dots on computer screens all call to mind the first two Ridley Scott movies. In case we miss the point, we get a close up of the Doctor face to face with a scary set of teeth, obviously referencing the iconic image of Sigourney Weaver and the Alien Queen.

“Alien meets Hi-Di-Hi” is a not unamusing premise for a Doctor Who story, but it's basically lazy. Stick a recycled image of “horror” alongside a recycled image of “fun” and see what sparks fly off.

Everyone's favorite fact is that Ridley Scott worked for the BBC in the 1960s, and narrowly avoided designing the Daleks.


The idea of a world so polluted that the native life-forms breathe filth and are repulsed by cleanliness is a venerable old sci-fi stand by. At least it sounds like it should be. I can’t immediately think of an example. The first Dalek story was set in the aftermath of a nuclear war: the Daleks were originally the survivors who had adapted and now needed radiation to survive -- their plan was to contaminate the whole planet, allowing them to leave their city but destroying the Thals in the process. There is a very apocryphal story that Nation reworked the Daleks from a rejected Tony Hancock sketch about people who lived in dustbins and ate radiation after World War III.

The Dregs have adapted to guns and nuclear winter and have evolved to live without oxygen. They breathe CO2 in and oxygen out, like “really angry trees”. The idea that the creatures who live on a horrible planet would necessarily be horrible is probably a science fiction version of what English teachers call the pathetic fallacy (rain at funerals, sunny at weddings.) I suspect it is also very slightly racist. 


Iconic British anti-hero Judge Dredd lives in a self-contained urban sprawl, surrounded by an impregnable wall beyond which lies a radiation infested wasteland populated by hideous mutated monsters. It is hard not to recall this imagery when the massing army of Dregs break through the force-field into Tranquility; although perhaps a more current reference point would be the White Walkers and the Night Watch. The vehicle in which our heroes sally forth to rescue Benny very much resembles the Landraider in which Dredd crossed the Cursed Earth.


In 1973 Terry Nation wrote an alternative origin for the Daleks. It turns out that some cavemen got separated from the rest of humanity and placed on a planet where evolution happened much more speedily. The amazing twist ending is that these proto-humans eventually turned into Daleks: humanity's worst enemy is actually an offshoot of the human race. He recycled the idea in the final episode of the third series of Blake's Seven: our heroes believe they are trapped on a planet populated by the monstrous remote ancestors of the human race, but it turns out that the savage brutes are what the human race will eventually evolve into. (In The Curse of Fenric it turns out that Vampires are in fact human descendants from a hideously polluted future Earth.)

The idea that the Dregs represent human survivors is rather cool. I do like the idea that the Dregs are literally the Dregs of humanity. But not many science fiction readers will have had their minds completely blown by the revelation.


Many of the stories in seasons four, five and six of the original show were set in bases. Quite often they were besieged by aliens.


The conceptual sibling of "I have found the alien and it is us" is "the alien planet turns out to have been the earth all along"; it has an equally venerable lineage. Charlton Heston takes an inordinately long time to realize that the alien world where Chimps and Orangutans exhibit humans in cages and will not allow anyone to ask questions about history is in fact his own earth some years after the Big War. In the awful opening segment of the awful Trial of a Time Lord, the Doctor realizes that the Mysterious Planet Ravelox is actually the earth, way in the future. The Doctor works out Ravelox’s secret when he spots the sign for Marble Arch Tube station; someone has to bash Charlton Heston over the head with the Statue of Liberty before he spots the perfectly obvious.

The revelation that Orphan-55 is earth is pretty well set-up: first we find out that the Holiday Camp is an artificial environment; then we find that it is part of a plot to terraform an inhospitable world; then we find that the world was previously ruined by its original inhabitants; and then the Doctor stumbles on the Russian metro sign. (Why is it always tube stations?)

The Doctor finds out the backstory by Mind Melding with one of the Dregs. The Vulcan Mind Meld is Mr Spock's unique selling point. Allowing the Doctor to use a Time Lord Mind Meld when she needs an info-dump feels distinctly like cheating.


All the supporting cast have isshoos, mostly involving family. Some of them resolve their ishoos and some of them lay down their lives nobly for the greater good. A terraforming holiday camp besieged by Aliens on a far future post holocaust earth is not sufficient basis for a story: it has to really be about how one of the supporting characters doesn’t feel that her mum loved her. (It turns out that Mum built the terraforming holiday camp in order to demonstrate her love for her daughter: as you would.) Ed Hime has got the memo that Doctor Who is an emotionally literate soap-opera which happens to have monsters in it.


In the early 1970s, every third children's TV series contained a warning about something called "pollution", usually conceived of in terms of Other People pumping smoke into the atmosphere, or Us carelessly dropping crisp packets. It was safe moralism; something everyone agreed with but no-one needed to do very much about. Environmental issues have a much greater urgency in the present day, and young people in particular are rightly quite cross about them.

Nevertheless, when a Doctor Who story starts to talk about "global warming" with the caveat that ordinary people can make a difference many of us groan slightly. Not because it is wrong, but because it is a bit obvious. (Is that what the kind of people who call things "woke" mean when they call this kind of thing "woke"? That it’s a bit obvious?)

Having said all that the central metaphor of Orphan-55 stands up quite well. The one thing we can definitely all do to prevent earth turning into a desolate quarry populated by CO2 breathing mutants is recycle as much as possible. And this story sets an excellent example, being entirely constructed from recycled plot elements.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

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  1. Thank you! That was much more fun than the episode under discussion; and where "Orphan 55" became the first episode of the 21st century series that I simply didn't bother to finish, I stuck with yours and learned that you're a Tom Lehrer fan. Which isn't surprising, but which -- unlike anything in "Orphan 55" -- is new to me.

  2. I missed the Lehrer reference — enlighten me?

  3. https://youtu.be/yygMhtNQJ9M

    We are the folk song army,
    Every one of us cares.
    We all hate poverty, war, and injustice
    Unlike the rest of you squares.

    The tune don't have to be clever,
    And it don't matter if you put a couple extra syllables into a line.
    It sounds more ethnic if it ain't good English
    And it don't even gotta rhyme... excuse me: rhyne!


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