Black Orchid [Classic Doctor Who]

Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but until recently rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between.  This has changed in the last couple of years as I have been using birthday and Christmas money to buy some of the old episodes, usually enjoying them with one or two of my nerdier daughters. This year, though, my wife and I bought a year of Britbox for each other as a gift, which gives me access to nearly all of classic Who.

Black Orchid

Starring Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor.
Companions: Sarah Sutton as Nyssa, Janet Fielding as Tegan Jovanka, and Matthew Waterhouse as Adric.
Written by Terence Dudley.  Directed by Ron Jones. Produced by John Nathan-Turner. Script Edited by Eric Saward.

Format:  2 episodes, each about 25 minutes long.
Originally Aired:  March 1982 (Episodes 17-18 of Season 19)

For the second time in recent months I was with one of my daughters and decided to watch a Doctor Who serial from the classic era. Thanks to Britbox, the whole series sits before us as an option. My daughter chose a Fifth Doctor story, that has Adric in it–she’s not a particular fan, as far as I know, but she’s seen Castrovalva, Kinda, The Visitation and Earthshock, so it’s the period of the show that she’s most familiar with. Given the time frame that we had available, I chose Black Orchid (over Four to Doomeday), a story that’s notable for Sarah Sutton’s double role and because it’s often referred as the show’s only latter “historical” adventure.

Spoilers Ahead!

Back in the old days of my Doctor Who fandom, I was always introduced to Black Orchid as an historical adventure, as mentioned above. But really, it has very little in common with those sorts of adventures, as we used to be used to from the early days of the show. Historical adventures were always characterized by a lot of interaction between the Doctor and the real-life historical people and places that are featured. What is true, however, is that the story has no alien or science fiction elements aside from the Doctor, the companions and the TARDIS. It happens to take place in earth history, but the history has little to do with it.

As such it’s an unusual thing, as there has been no other televised Doctor Who before or since that fits the same description (unless one counts the first episode of An Unearthly Child, perhaps?)

At only two episodes, it would have been hard to find time to include a monster or some other science fiction threat. Indeed, at two episodes, there was barely time to develop the terrestrial threat that the story does include.

We meet George Cranleigh, the troubled explorer, and for some reason he is preoccupied with his brother’s fiancée Ann. But all the actual development and revelations are pretty scant–when they do come they mostly takes the form of a big exposition-dump by Lady Cranleigh during the story’s climax, where she rattles off the relevant information to Sir Robert, in more-or-less a single breath.

Still, much of Black Orchid works pretty well. The plot builds slowly as the show’s regulars hang out with the Cranleighs and play an extended game of cricket.

This was a jarring use of time when I first watched the story years ago but I appreciate it now–these scenes are good fun a rare chance to see the characters in a different light than normal.

It’s especially good to see Sarah Sutton get to do the double role as Nyssa and Ann Talbot. Ann is of course a lot less brave or resourceful than Nyssa, but much more emotional which gives Sutton some nicely different material to play. She does a strong job distinguishing between the two women.

There are some other good performances as well, notably Janet Fielding who gets to show some rare enthusiasm for Tegan in her traveling, and Moray Watson as Sir Robert Muir.

And of course Peter Davison himself is always good fun. His enthusiasm for cricket is very real, and he’s got some good reactions (and good dialogue) as he is trying to deal with being accused of murder.

All the business with the Doctor interacting with the police is also enjoyable, and the plot overall is satisfactory in spite of some inconsistent pacing. Where the story really falls down is in the lack of complete development of George Cranleigh and his obsession with Ann, and the rushed resolution. At the end its said the Doctor and crew hung around for George’s funeral, and when Lady Cranleigh makes a gift of his book the Doctor says he’ll treasure it. But why would they hang around with this family that has caused them so many problems (Lady Cranleigh literally attempted to get him arrested for murder) and there is nothing on screen to indicate why the Doctor would treasure anything that had to do with George Cranleigh.

And though much of the story’s scenes are well staged, there are a few that are terrible. Specifically, this again has to do mostly with things that George does. He murders the servant James in a badly realized sequence that involves the guy running across the room to put his things down on a table before attempting (and failing miserably) to save Ann. He attacks Latoni, who proves the be the most incompetent of guards, failing to look at his prisoner at all even after he has already escaped once and murdered two people. And at the end he falls off the house in the most unconvincing and awkwardly-directed accident.

These moments definitely hurt the show. Almost everything with the regulars is really good, and almost everything with the main villain is really bad, which makes for a pretty inconsistent final product.

Still, it’s short, which means that even when it’s weak, it doesn’t wear out its welcome. I think in spite of its flaws it’s a decent entry in the season, and forms a nice bridge between The Visitation and Earthshock.

5 thoughts on “Black Orchid [Classic Doctor Who]

  1. It’s been good so far (just started Davison’s second season). Unlike the Baker years, I’ve only seen Davison’s stories once each so I’ve forgotten a lot more.

  2. I can almost envy your opportunity to freshly enjoy classic Doctor Who for the first time, compared to how many re-watches I’ve had of the show over the decades. I was quite an addict by Davison’s time and especially because of VCRs. With stories like Black Orchid, I could have had an entirely new outlook on it for the first time in this century than when I first saw it in teens. Specifically how I would now more sensitively reflect on villains like George Cranleigh whose actions are driven by their traumatic mutilations.

  3. With me it was PBS: there was a long period with nothing but Baker so I rewatched repeatedly. Then it was Davison followed by Baker, followed by McCoy so I didn’t catch anything more than once. And yes, it’s a real kick.
    The disability cliches in Black Orchid are not good. It’s still a lot of fun.

  4. Indeed, even for all the fun stuff in Doctor Who, certain cliches aren’t good. I find that so long as a show like Doctor Who still permits us all the freedom to think as a good sci-fi show should, then I easily find it in my heart to get passed all the drawbacks and embrace a good story like Black Orchid.

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