19.5 – “Black Orchid”
It’s all gone a bit Downton Abbey as The Doctor arrives in 1925 to find himself embroiled in a life-or-death…cricket game, followed by a nerve-wrecking masquerade party in which his plucky companions are forced to…eat canapés and dance the Charleston. A small misunderstanding with the police is then quickly resolved. Maybe this time travel gig isn’t all bad all the time?
“Black Orchid” tends to be remembered these days for its singular claim to fame: it’s the only televised Doctor Who story in the past 47 years to contain no science fiction or fantasy elements whatsoever apart from the TARDIS and its crew. It would be nice, in the light of its production team’s obvious agenda to restore some of the spirit of the 60’s era, to think of it as the first historical since 1967’s “The Highlanders”. But it isn’t really even an historical. There are no well-known historical figures or events anywhere to be seen, nothing really that would provide the meat of a schoolchild’s history lesson. Which I think puts it in a category all of its own: really, an incredibly bold experiment in pushing the limits of the Doctor Who format. And while its 45 minute length seems fairly unextraordinary today, let’s not forget that a sub-4-episode adventure had only been seen once since the 1960’s too. Here’s a story that’s fearlessly going to all sorts of places that no one in the 1982 audience could really have been expecting it to.
Terence Dudley, last seen writing the gloriously barking ideas-fest that was “Four To Doomsday”, seems here to be taking delight in subverting the audience’s expectations. The Doctor arrives at what appears to be a sleepy English railway station only to find a chauffeur waiting for him personally – surely a trap laid by The Master, The Dream Lord or some other foe? Something lurks in the bowels of the Cranleighs’ country house, kept out of shot and instantly identifiable by its heavy breathing as some kind of horrible monster. Nyssa is confronted by her doppelgänger in the person of Lord Charles’ fiancee Ann Talbot, which couldn’t possibly be a coincidence, could it? And yet if we think at any point we know how this type of thing inevitably plays out, our expectations will be cleverly dashed. At every turn, “Black Orchid” simply refuses to do what a Doctor Who story is supposed to do.
In fact, it doesn’t even do what a Season 19 story is supposed to do. In a deeply nonplussing way, given how shrilly Tegan has been demanding to be returned to Heathrow up until now, suddenly she’s decided she likes being part of the TARDIS crew and is willing to stick around for a while. And, wow, does this story benefit from this completely out-of-character change of heart. Freed from the obligation to act as though time travel is about as much fun as walking around in a pair of sodden woollen socks, Janet Fielding’s Tegan is allowed to have a whale of a time for a change: dancing, ordering herself screwdrivers and flirting with the English aristocracy. Meanwhile, The Doctor is busy showing off Peter Davison’s amazing cricketing skills and, thanks to the identical double plot line, Nyssa gets more to do than stand in the background quietly doing useful things that will advance the story when her TARDIS-mates finally get tired of hogging the limelight with their childish histrionics.
Speaking of which, Adric gets to be the fish out of water for a change here, semi-hilariously misunderstanding the nature of a “cocktail” (even the TARDIS must hate him if she’s failing to translate words just to spite him), sulkily refusing to dance and being called out for piggery as he heaps his plate high at the buffet. Yes, he’s a charmless teenage oaf here, but it sure beats him cockily asserting himself to be the smartest person in the room and selling out The Doctor “because Adric knows better” at the drop of a hat. In fact the idea of Adric being confident and Tegan ill-at-ease in futuristic scenarios and vice-versa in historical settings is quite an attractive concept for an ongoing series. If this TARDIS complement sticks around for a while, and we see lots more historical-type stories instead of the invariable science-falutin nonsense, maybe things will start looking up.
Of course we couldn’t have a story be entirely about the TARDIS crew having a relaxing weekend somewhere nice for a change. That’s actually against the law. The Doctor gets lost in a secret passage while wearing a rather fetching bathrobe; the monster in the attic borrows his masquerade costume, engages in some light manhandling and molestation of Miss Talbot and then disappears in time for The Doctor to be asked some very difficult questions about the trail of dead servants that appear to be wearing his metaphorical fingerprints around their necks.
And in its way, Act II of Black Orchid is as ground-breaking as the first. The Doctor is in quite a pickle now, but the lovely thing is that it’s all of his own creation. The Cranleighs, who know perfectly well that he’s innocent, are confident that our good Doctor will not be sent down for murder. The difficulties arise when it becomes clear that The Doctor is a mysterious impostor who lied and connived his way into a cricket match, a rather opulent party and the freedom to roam the Cranleigh house unobserved – the sort of thing we’re entirely used to The Doctor doing every week of course, but which, viewed objectively, make him seem likely to be a charlatan or crazy at best, at worst a thief or foreign spy. As the situation starts to appear more and more hopeless for our trans-temporal freeloaders, it’s clear that they’ve only themselves to blame!
But, beautifully, the episode wrongfoots us yet again. Just when we think The Doctor’s found a situation he might not be able to resolve, he resolves it – not by reversing the polarity of the neutron flow or blowing something up (the sonic screwdriver’s gone, mate…live with it) but just by being straight with people for a change. I’m a Time Lord, from Gallifrey, would you care to come for a spin in my TARDIS, Sir Robert? Sergeant? And the sky doesn’t fall, no one tries to detain him, or dissect him for science, or confiscate his time machine to reinvigorate the British Empire. The monster is revealed to be not a monster but a tragic tormented soul desperately trying to reunite himself with his beloved. And if the love triangle between the Cranleigh brothers and Ann Talbot is resolved a tad conveniently with his accidentally fatal fall as George startles away from a brotherly hug, at least it wraps up the story without needing to resort to pantomime villains and diabolical wrongs to be righted before the closing credits. Real life is regularly more complex and interesting than that. The adventure ends with The Doctor being handed a work called “Black Orchid” and promising “I shall treasure it”.
A Doctor Who story that turns everything formulaic about the show on its head, that gives most of the regulars unusually fun things to do and that, at an economical two episodes long, definitely leaves us wanting more. This really is a treasure, and too good a piece of writing to be forgotten except as a footnote sandwiched between two more “eventful” hostile space alien extravaganzas. It may be the polar opposite of earth-shattering, but “Black Orchid” is a thing of subtle beauty and rewatchable forever. A smashing 8/10.
Written and edited by Matthew Marcus