Lessons from Doctor Who’s “Orphan 55” – Climate Change and Beyond

As I write this, it’s the eve of the 2020 presidential election.  I’m anxious.  I’m concerned.  But most of all, I’m hopeful.  I say that with absolute sincerity.  I’m hopeful that tomorrow will yield a change of course after the last four years that have felt like fifteen.  I’m hopeful.  It’s a welcome feeling in an age when, for so many reasons, hope feels like a far rarer commodity than it did even just a few years ago.  However, I wasn’t planning on writing tonight.  I probably shouldn’t be, as I’m sure I’ll be up late watching election returns tomorrow.  But I was rewatching “Orphan 55” tonight and it felt remarkably relevant.  Seeing the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), Yaz (Mandip Gill), Ryan (Tosin Cole), and Graham (Bradley Walsh) navigate this hostile planet, a post began to grow.  So what the heck?  I guess I’ll sleep Wednesday…hopefully soundly.

In one of my favorite openings of any Doctor Who episode ever, we join the Doctor, Yaz, and Ryan as they are cleaning up the remains of some enormous squid monster inside the TARDIS’ control room.  While the Doctor apologizes for being unaware it was their mating season, Graham rushes in excitedly, saying he’s finally collected his sixth coupon from Bandohzi Herald to win a free two week, all-inclusive holiday.  I love how we’re dropped into the story during the clean-up after the action.  I love how commonplace this has all become for the fam.  I love how excited Graham is.  And I LOVE that Graham is a) accustomed enough to travelling through space and time that he’s excited about collecting his sixth coupon and b) collecting coupons to win a free trip in the first place.  They can go anywhere in space and time!  But Graham was sure to get all his coupons XD.  As he assembles the coupons he inadvertently triggers the teleport which whisks the fam from the TARDIS off to the luxurious Tranquility Spa. 

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Yaz and the Doctor mop up after the space squid incident. / Photo Credit – Doctor Who

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Graham enjoys the sun at Tranquility Spa. / Photo Credit – Doctor Who

However, it’s not long before the holiday is interrupted and the resort finds itself under siege from monsters called Dregs.  As she investigates, the Doctor learns Tranquility Spa is a “fake-cation.”  The hotel is real.  The pool is real.  The spa is real.  But the weather and the scenery around the resort are all projected on a dome around the resort.  The “fake-cation” business was originally designed for use in cities, to allow people the chance to vacation when they couldn’t get away/off-world.  But Tranquility Spa wasn’t built in a bustling city.  Tranquility Spa was built on an orphan planet and the Dregs are the inhabitants of this planet, designated Orphan 55.

Yaz – “The whole planet looks dead.”

The Doctor – “It is.  It’s an orphan planet.  It’s a grading that means it’s become too toxic for life.  We’re not safe out here.”

Graham – “Well, we weren’t exactly safe in there.  C’mon Doc, explain.  Why’s it called an ‘orphan planet?’”

The Doctor – “Because it’s uninhabitable.  In societies that let this happen, there’s a ruling elite that gets to evacuate and then signs off all responsibility for what gets left behind.”

Yaz – “That’s messed up.”

The Doctor – “It happens more than you think.  This is Orphan 55.”

Yaz – “And if you can’t evacuate?”

The Doctor – “Then you die.  All sentient life dies.  That’s how it gets the rating.”

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Photo Credit – Doctor Who

Incidentally, I love the symbolism in the name.  An orphan is a child who lost their parents, their caretakers.  So when all sentient life on a planet dies, it becomes an orphan because it is the sentient life which is supposed to take care of the planet.  The message is clear – we are the caretakers of our planet.

Beyond Tranquility Spa, there is no oxygen-rich environment so you can’t breathe without an O2 cannister.  The radiation is such that you can only be outside, exposed without cover, for a short time.  The mist that covers the planet is highly toxic yet, when it clears, the sun is even worse.  Direct exposure to sunlight brings ten minutes of solar blistering and then death.  The Dregs have descended from the small remnants of life which survived the destruction of the planet and they’ve evolved the ability to live in such a toxic environment.

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The Dregs on the surface of Orphan 55. / Photo Credit – Doctor Who

As they try to navigate the Dregs and the hostile environment, the Doctor and her fam make a startling discovery.  They find Russian writing in an underground tunnel on Orphan 55.  Then, Ryan notices a sign on one of the pieces of debris they are using to try and barricade Tranquility Spa from the Dregs:

Ryan – “‘Made in China,’ hey, how did this get here?”

Yaz – “It never left.”

The Doctor – “Orphan 55 is Earth.  This is your future.”

Ryan – “If this is Earth, then what are the Dregs?”

Yaz – “They’re us, mutated.”

The Doctor – “Yes, the few that didn’t die.”

Graham – “It can’t be.”

Ryan – “How did Earth end up like this?”

The Doctor – “You had warnings from every scientist alive.”

Yaz – “Global warmin’.”

Ryan – “Huh?”

The Doctor – “The food chain collapses, mass migration, and war.”

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The Doctor and company flee the Dregs on the surface of Orphan 55. / Photo Credit – Doctor Who

There is so much going on in this episode and it’s all handled so brilliantly, with the sort of precision, poetry, power and skill I rarely find outside of Doctor Who.  It’s symbolic not just that the Earth is a barren wasteland after we refused to listen to the warnings about climate change but that the human beings who survived evolved into monsters.  To ignore our responsibility to be stewards of this planet, to ignore the warnings around us, to pretend climate change isn’t real and we don’t have to be mindful of our consumption is monstrous and those of us who take part in such actions become a horrifying sort of monster.

Yet, in one of the episodes most challenging scenes, we see even these monsters can learn.  As the Doctor is trying to isolate the Alpha Dreg, the apex predator, whom she affectionately calls “Wheezy,” she tells it, “This room is sealed.  You need carbon dioxide to convert into oxygen so you can breathe.  We need oxygen to make carbon dioxide.  Right now we’ve got a perfect ecosystem.  Kill us and you die, too.  Sorry, this was a trap and you walked right into it Wheezy.  Step back and let us out of that door.  It’s the only way you’re gonna live.  The people who used to have this planet could’ve changed but they didn’t.  So they lost everything.  Be smarter than what made you.” 

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The Doctor and Wheezy / Photo Credit – Doctor Who

And Wheezy listens.  It, in fact, is smarter than what made it.  This says SO MUCH.  Even in this bleak, desolate, hopeless future…all is not lost.  All, in fact, is not hopeless.  Because this monster could change.  And it did.  Wheezy recognized the symbiotic nature of their “perfect ecosystem.”  It realized it couldn’t live without them.  So it let them live and, in so doing, ensured it’s own survival.  What happens when we ignore every shred of scientific evidence and our deeply personal, biological, ethical, theological, and evolutionary call to care for our planet?  We become monsters.  But even monsters can see the truth.  Even monsters can change

In the closing of the episode, once the conflict is settled, the fam find themselves back in the TARDIS.  The mood is quiet, somber.  Yaz, Ryan, and Graham are all deeply disturbed by the future they just saw for their home.  Yaz breaks the silence to ask the Doctor: 

Yaz – “When did you know?  That it was Earth?”

The Doctor – “Just before you did.”

Yaz, Ryan, Graham – “…..” 

The Doctor – “Look, I know what you’re thinking.  But it’s one possible future.  It’s one timeline.  You want me to tell you that Earth’s gonna be okay?  ‘Cause I can’t.  In your time humanity’s busy arguing over the washing up while the house burns down.  Unless people face facts and change catastrophe is coming.  But it’s not decided.  You know that.  The future is not fixed.  It depends on billions of decisions and actions and people stepping up.  Humans, I think you forget how powerful you are.  Lives change worlds.  People can save planets or wreck them.  That’s the choice.  Be the best of humanity.  Or…”

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Photo Credit – Doctor Who

The scene shifts to this image of the Dreg and the episode ends, with the implications hanging clearly in the air.

Written by Ed Hime, “Orphan 55” received a mixed reception from critics and fans.  Some praised it.  Some said it was too heavy-handed in its treatment of the issue of climate change, too direct in its homily.  Personally (and obviously), I thought it was brilliant.  In fact, I think, sadly, we are looooooong past the point of subtle messages about climate change and our responsibility to be loving and mindful stewards of this beautiful and complex world upon which we live.  I can cite a billion articles and stats here but it will pull us from the main point I’m building towards.  Suffice to say, if you need to know how dire the situation is and how quickly we are approaching the point of no return, then you should real Bill McKibbon’s Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?  It is as readable as it is brilliant and haunting in its implications. 

But whether you are more subtle in your delivery or not, catastrophe is coming.  And whether we want to hear it or not, we need to recognize this unwavering reality and our role in creating and, hopefully, averting said catastrophe.

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The Doctor stares into the face of our potential future. / Photo Credit – Doctor Who

So, why did “Orphan 55” strike me as so poignant tonight?  Why, on the eve of the 2020 election, did this feel so remarkably relevant?  Because everything the Doctor says is right.  And the implications of her speech extend far beyond the matter of climate change.

It has been an exhausting four years.  While the problems that seem to weigh us down with each breath now – from systemic racism to horrendous immigration policies to the rise in hate crimes to degradation of the environment and on and on and on – weren’t created by Trump’s campaign or his presidency, his campaign and presidency certainly electrified the worst in us, granting a faux-sense of legitimacy to the darkest, most hateful corners of the U.S.’s spirit and shining a spotlight on problems which have always plagued us and allowing them to grow in broad daylight.  It was easy to get lost in hopelessness and that was before 2020 hit, bringing the shared global anxiety and trauma of the pandemic, lockdown, economic woes, a spotlight on police brutality we couldn’t ignore, and an election cycle dripping with more toxicity than the last time around (to name just a few of the highlights…or, you know, lowlights).  In my lifetime, hopelessness has never felt more pervasive and oppressive.

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Photo Credit – Doctor Who

But it’s not decided. 

Our future depends on billions of decisions and actions and people stepping up. 

Humans, we forget how powerful we are. 

Lives change worlds. 

People can save planets or wreck them. 

That’s the choice. 

Be the best of humanity.

That’s the choice.  That’s the choice.  Tomorrow we vote, and no matter how it turns out the choice remains the same.  If Trump wins again, we must figure out a way to persevere and continue to uphold the light of our better natures, no matter how impossible it seems.  And if Biden wins, we must figure out how to begin to heal the divide that’s become a chasm in our country over the last four years.  Because no matter what happens, it only begins with our votes.  True justice, true change require commitment.  They require time.  They require sacrifice. 

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Ryan, Graham, and Yaz weigh the Doctor’s words. / Photo Credit – Doctor Who

It begins with a vote, yes.  But our commitment to a better world must shine through the way we live each and every day.  Climate change, systemic racism, an inhuman immigration system, the unwillingness to talk to anyone with a different point of view, seeing all of life as a zero-sum game where those who disagree with you are morality-less monsters are structural problems growing within our culture. As the Doctor says, “You want me to tell you that Earth’s gonna be okay?  ‘Cause I can’t.  In your time humanity’s busy arguing over the washing up while the house burns down.  Unless people face facts and change catastrophe is coming.”  A vote doesn’t fix any of that.  But it’s a start.

Those are all ENORMOUS problems.  But the Doctor is right.  It’s not decided.  Our future depends on billions of decisions and actions and people stepping up.  Humans, we forget how powerful we are.  Lives change worlds.  People can save planets or wreck them.  That’s the choice.  Today and every day, that is our choice.  We vote.  And that is important.  But what we do each and every moment of our lives in all the days that follow the election is just as important.  It’s even more important.  Every day we can choose to be the best of humanity.  And, despite all the evidence to the contrary sometimes, in this election and beyond, I’m hopeful we will. I’m hopeful we’ll heed the Doctor’s call and be the best of humanity.

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In hope, we all have something to smile about. / Photo Credit – Doctor Who

2 thoughts on “Lessons from Doctor Who’s “Orphan 55” – Climate Change and Beyond

  1. This sounds like an interesting episode! I am almost finished watching Capaldi’s run so I can finally catch up the show!

    I see how some could see this episode as not particularly subtle. Arguably, however, we are past the point of being able to be subtle. I think the environment is one of those issues where people kind of know what’s going on, like, yeah, it’s good to recycle and to turn off the lights that aren’t being used because we all want to be green, right? But I don’t see a lot of media coverage or public education about just how close we are getting to a tipping point. Turning off the lights isn’t really going to cut it. We’re running out of time to make the major changes we need to make. So I think it’s wonderful that Doctor Who is trying to make people think about this issue–and what they can do about it–a little more.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re absolutely right – there isn’t much public education or media coverage at all about how close we are to the point of no return here. And if we don’t/can’t see the real face of the problem then there’s no way we can ever hope to begin to address it in a concrete way. Even the things we’re urged to do, recycling and the lights or unplugging our chargers, don’t really/fully address the issue of global warming. Or, rather, they help but they are far too limited in scope to address what’s going on. We need to be told that clearly, too.

      I’m so looking forward to hearing what you think of Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor once you get to meet her! I’m also looking forward to hearing your thoughts on revisiting Peter Capaldi’s run. I’ve a loose draft of a piece about his Doctor that includes a little parenthetical to the effect of, “…unless Krysta completely reframes the way I see this Doctor like she did with her brilliant piece on Amy Pond…”


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