Doctor Who: Black Orchid Review

It’s Summer 1925 and Lady Cranleigh is having a party. It’s going to be such ripping fun; before lunch there’ll be a cricket match (her ladyship’s son Charles is quite the expert with the bat), then afterwards everyone will change into fancy dress and there’ll be dancing and music on the terrace. Everyone who’s anyone will be there of course - Ann, Charles’s delightful fiancée, Sir Robert Muir, good old Smutty (don't ask) and many others - and the weather promises to be bright and sunny. Oh do say you’ll come, won’t you, the whole thing’ll be simply super! At least, it will be as long as nothing goes wrong, you know the sort of thing that can happen at a do like this - family secrets being uncovered, or a mysterious stranger in a blue box turning up, or a dead servant being found in a secret passage. But I'm almost certain nothing like that will happen... not this time.

It has often been said that Black Orchid, Terrence Dudley’s odd little two-parter from Peter Davison’s first season as the Doctor in 1982, is more like an Agatha Christie whodunit than an adventure for everyone’s favourite Time Lord. With no alien menace prowling the streets or mad scientist wanting to take over the world, the serial was the first Who since 1966’s The Highlanders with no science-fiction elements at all (the Doctor and his Tardis aside, of course) and as instead it’s based around the mysterious happenings at a country manor, which comes complete with secret passages and exotic suspects, it certainly has all the trappings of a Poirot or a Miss Marple. This appears to have been Dudley's intention, anyway, but the odd thing about it is that as a murder mystery it simply doesn’t work - the killer is seen (admittedly head down) from the start and his identity is signposted so clearly you’d have to be a Jamie McCrimmon not to pick up the signals. This fundamental shortcoming is just one of many problems with a story that never quite musters up enough enthusiasm to pull off what it appears to aspire to.

Indeed, Dudley’s script is so laissez-faire about the whole business that for a long time nothing actually happens. The pacing is atrocious; the first episode can be, quite accurately, summed up as the Doctor plays cricket for ten minutes and then wanders down a secret passage moaning while everyone else has a bit of a dance. Unfortunately this means that what plot there is has to be stuffed into the second part, which as a consequence feels rushed, so much so that one can’t really have time to engage with what’s going on. Not that's there a huge amount to get a grip on anyway, as the secondary characters are one-note nonentities while the killer’s motivation and backstory is simpley an uninspired rip-off of things like The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

In the commentary on this DVD Davison describes Dudley's frankly rotten script as lazy, which is spot-on. Taken with Ron Jones's bland direction (his flat revelation of the killer’s face is reminiscent of Peter Moffat’s oft-criticised first look at the Sontarans in the later The Two Doctors) it should be a recipe for disaster and yet, somehow, Black Orchid manages to avoid being a complete dud. Rewatching it again on this release I’ve been trying to work out exactly why that is, and ironically I think the script’s biggest flaw - the somewhat relaxed attitude - is also the story’s biggest strength. This was a somewhat frenetic era for the show, with a Tardis full of squabbling companions who after a while could get rather wearing. As such the fact that here we see them chilling out and having a nice time for once makes for a pleasant change of pace. It’s perhaps the only story in which Tegan, Janet Fielding’s bolshy airhostess, smiles and means it, while Nyssa, when she’s not being kidnapped, has a lot of fun with her new pal Ann. From a personal perspective, the Cranleighs' bash looks like being the most ghastly party there has ever been, but everyone there inexplicably seems to be having fun, and their enthusiasm is mildly infectious. It’s hardly good drama, but as a two episode interlude (and seen in the context of Season Nineteen as a whole rather than an adventure in its own right) the thing works as something of a timeout from the usual sound and fury of those adventures surrounding it.

The serial’s other main strength is that it manages to capture the flavour of TV's version of the 1920s fairly well. Dudley’s habit of throwing in supposed period expressions such as “Ripping!” and “Topping!” grate but the costumes, both regular and fancy dress, are reasonably effective. The interiors of the Hall aren’t especially decorous but serve their purpose well enough, and the location shoot helps add to the illusion, both at the party itself and also elsewhere in the supposed village such as the rural-looking train station and cricket ground. And, while Davison appears to be coasting, some of those around him do do their best with the limited material they’ve been given. In particular, Sarah Sutton can be seen trying her damnedest to take advantage of her moment in the sun - one of the serial’s raisons d’etre is to give Nyssa, and the actress playing her, a starring role, with the result that Ann is discovered to be a doppelganger for the companion, with Sutton playing both. Sadly, Ann doesn’t have a personality beyond thinking dressing up as what looks like an early version of Catwoman is a giggle, but Sutton nevertheless makes a valiant effort to differentiate the two girls, and, sadly given the fact it's in this one, gives one of her best performances during her time in the programme. Her efforts are one of the comparitively few highlights.

All-in-all, then, and despite everything, Black Orchid ends up being strangely jolly. Over on the right there I’ve given the story a 5 - it really doesn’t deserve anything higher - but that doesn’t reflect the entertainment the serial as a whole can provide. One can imagine young viewers at the time falling asleep in droves, and I doubt whether their modern youthful equivalents, brought up on the sort of forty-five minute Doctor Whos in which something exciting happens roughly once every thirty seconds, would respond any better, but for the older viewer this has a charm that can’t be denied. There are many deeply silly things about it, plot holes abound, and one gets the impression that many of the creative team didn’t really give two hoots about this one. And yet, like many other Whos down the year, it succeeds in spite of its flaws. That that should be the case is, ultimately, the real mystery of the Cranleigh's summer party, far more so than the slightly dull matter of who killed Digby the servant.

Black Orchid is one of the new budget releases for the Classic Who DVDS, and is presented on a single dual-layered DVD, together with all its extras. Indeed, it’s business as usual for this Who disc, coming in the familiar grey case and accompanied by an insert with a short essay on the story and details of the disc’s contents. The Main Menu itself has the usual looping series of clips running alongside its options, and the only difference is that the name of the story is now featured at the top of the menu in a slightly awkward box.

As ever, both the Audio and Video have been cleaned up. The Video is particularly notable this time around, with the colours brightened considerably. This helps no end in making the on-location scenes in particular look more convincingly a bright summer’s day instead of the apparently rather torrid weather conditions in which they were shot, and the transfer overall is a treat to llook at.

In addition to those Extras detailed below, there are also the regular inclusions of a Photo Gallery (4:41), pdfs of the Radio Times listings for the story, an Easter Egg (0:51) of Continuity Announcements (“And now on BBC1...”) and a superb Coming Soon Trailer for the upcoming release of Trial of a Time Lord.

The feature and all extras bar the Commentary are subtitled.


Audio Commentary
Poor Sarah Sutton. There are times during this less-than-complimentary commentary from the four TARDIS inhabitants when one gets the impression she thinks far more of this story than her three companions, but never quite gets up the nerve to say so. It’s a shame she doesn’t, because it’s an otherwise completely negative track, with Davison in particular laying into the story. The yak tracks featuring him, Sutton, Janet Fielding and Matthew Waterhouse are always candid but this is exceptionally so - any fans of the story will be disappointed to hear how little regard the actors have for it. Sometimes very amusing, one is still relieved at the end that there were only two episodes in the thing, as any more of the nitpicking from the four might have begun to become tiresome.

Production Subtitles
Given the brevity of the story, these subtitles are surprisingly sparse this time around, and not quite as crammed full of trivia as usual. There's also the odd error that creeps in, making this one of the less successful editions of this regular feature on the Who DVDs.

Deleted Scenes (7:05)
Don’t be fooled by the running time, much of this extra is taken up with showing the parts of the episode where the missing scenes, most of which involve extra dancing, would have slotted in.

Now and Then (9:04)
Richard Bignell’s featurette details the locations used in the story, revisiting them today to see how they’ve changed since the Doctor dropped in and is a fun, informative extra.

Film Restoration (2:42)
A look at the work the Restoration Team have done on improving the visual quality of the story, concentrating on the location work in particular. There’s one caption that flies by far too fast, but aside from that this makes for a good explanation of some of the more technical processes involved in sprucing up Doctor Who for the digital age.

Blue Peter (8:39)
Simon “Knockers” Groom and Sarah “Going Live” Greene pay a visit to Berman‘s and Nathan‘s, the film and television costumiers responsible for kitting out the actors in Black Orchid as well as many other productions down the years in this extract from the perennial magazine show in 1982. As ever the mischievous Groom is the star, finding an excuse to strip down for his art and show us his underpants, while Greene has some fun at the costumier’s expense.

Stripped for Action - The Fifth Doctor (16:10)
The second in what is intended to be a complete series across the Classic Who DVDs detailing the comic book adventures of the Doctor in his many incarnations. Following the First Doctor’s episode on The Time Meddler here Who luminaries such as Gary Russell and Alan Barnes discuss the short but briefly stunning run of Davison strips in Doctor Who Magazine. Things fell apart a little once artist Dave Gibbons (also featured) left, but editor at the time Alan McKenzie, the final contributor to this piece, can look back on the era, short as it was, with a great deal of satisfaction, which is reflected in this enjoyable feature.

Points of View (2:27)
“Please may we have more monsters and fewer girls. They do nothing but talk and screech and are not at all interesting.” Quite right too. Robert Moore’s sensible missive is just one of many complaints the BBC’s feedback show was apparently receiving during this era, most complaining about the shift to a timeslot too late for the Doctor’s younger viewers. A wry Barry Took handles the complaints and shows that POV was doing sarky putdowns years before Ann Robinson appeared on the show.

Any story which puts Adric on the sidelines by distracting him with a large plate of food can't be all bad. That said, it's far too slight to recommend unreservedly, and the extras, good as they are, don't justify a purchase if you end up disliking the main story. Still, there is something about it, even if the Doctor himself doesn't seem quite sure...

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out of 10

Last updated: 28/06/2018 14:36:32

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