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Doctor Who: Black Orchid (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Black Orchid originally aired in 1982.

Why would I attack you? Have you done me any harm?

No!

No, then I’ve no reason to harm you. And besides…

Besides what?

Well, it wouldn’t be cricket.

– the Doctor, Ann Talbot and Muir

Black Orchid is pretty damn frustrating. There’s a lot of interest here, but sadly it’s mostly from a technical point of view. This is the first two-part adventure since The Sontaran Experiment. It’s also the first historical story told with no science-fiction elements excluding the TARDIS crew since The Highlanders. It’s also the penultimate adventure starring this version of the TARDIS crew, and the last Fifth Doctor serial before his world is turned upside down in Earthshock. So there’s a lot that should be interesting here.

Unfortunately, the writing is at best generic and at worst actively crap. Black Orchid feels exactly like the sort of thing that the BBC was doing without countless television shows other than Doctor Who, so Black Orchid needs to be able to do it to a reasonable standard. Instead, it feels like a murder mystery written by somebody writing with an Agatha Christie adaptation on in the background. It’s frustrating, because there’s a lot of potential here, but the end result is just disappointing.

Clowning around...

Clowning around…

It is important to contextualise Black Orchid here. Indeed, it’s more interesting for what it is trying to do, as compared to what it actually does. I alluded to this in discussing The Visitation, but there’s a clear sense of nostalgia to Peter Davison’s first year as the Doctor. There’s a clear attempt to anchor the story back on Earth, after quite a few years of the series wandering wildly through the cosmos with little or no attachment to the planet.

So we suddenly have Tegan on the crew, with her quest to get back to Heathrow driving the first half of the season, although apparently she has settled in a bit here. Even discounting Tegan, the show has been very keen to draw the Doctor back to Earth. Indeed, the Doctor explicitly acknowledges this, asking the TARDIS, “What’s the matter, old girl? Why this compulsion for planet Earth?” It seems a conscious effort on the part of producer John Nathan Turner to anchor the show.

A quick stop...

A quick stop…

Similarly, there’s also a sense that the show is looking to the past. The Nathan Turner era has always had a bit of a difficult relationship with the show’s extended history. In fact, by Colin Baker’s first year, it appeared that continuity fetishism had taken root in the series, with adventures seeming to measure their worth by the number of references to past adventures they could shoehorn in. There’s evidence of that in Peter Davison’s second season, with Nathan Turner deciding that every script for the show’s twentieth season should feature a returning alien.

The connection with the past isn’t quite as toxic in Davison’s first year. However, there’s a very clear sense that the series is looking backwards as it tries to figure out the kind of stories it wants to tell. The Visitation, for example, feels like a remake of the Jon Pertwee story The Time Warrior. I think you could make a convincing case that Earthshock is a spiritual successor to the Troughton-era “base under siege” stories. You could even make an argument, as the insightful Philip Sandifer does at TARDIS Eruditorum, that Four to Doomsday is an affectionate throwback to the earlier William Hartnell era.

Try not to look too bored...

Try not to look too bored…

It’s interesting – if not entirely unpredictable – that Nathan Turner’s attempt to mine the show’s past completely avoids the Tom Baker era of the show. Indeed, when Tom Baker refused to return for The Five Doctors the following year, Nathan Turner made a conscious effort to minimise the acknowledgement of that popular period of the show’s history. The anniversary special treated Sarah Jane as a Third Doctor companion, forcing the Brigadier to team up with the Second Doctor, and rather pointedly Nathan Turner declined to include Louise Jameson, who was ready and willing to take part. (And had better reason to be there than many of the characters.)

So it seems clear that the Davison era was looking to the past. While his second season simply looked to familiar monsters for the sake of familiar monsters, at least the first season’s retrospection was a bit broader. There was a sense of blowing the dust off old ideas and trying them again, a sort of “go on, play the classics!” mood that seemed like a more fitting early celebration of the show’s twentieth anniversary than the following year’s decision to pull Omega and the Black Guardian out of mothballs.

It's just not cricket...

It’s just not cricket…

Black Orchid can be seen as an example of this looking to the past. It’s the kind of story that could have been told during the William Hartnell era. However, as with The Visitation and Four to Doomsday, it seems like the ambition of the Nathan Turner era could not match the quality of execution. However interesting the idea of going back to a past that doesn’t feature aliens or monsters or other odd touches, the script is quite simply not up to the task.

There are three main problems with Black Orchid. The first is structural. It’s a murder mystery where there’s no murder for the first half-hour. So we get two halves which have opposite pacing problems. The first half is too slow, featuring padding like a really weird cricket match. I mean, this is good for the Fifth Doctor. I’m sure the character loved cricket. But this isn’t a documentary about a fictional character. We can see one or two shots of the character enjoying cricket and figure out that this is the sort of thing he likes doing. It feels strange for Doctor Who in 1982 to spend five minutes on a game of cricket.

Over the edge...

Over the edge…

The reason for this is obvious. The show is holding back on the murder for the first episode cliffhanger, which is understandable. After all, the biggest set piece in a murder mystery is the murder itself. The rest is mostly talking and plotting and figuring it out. Which is great, but there’s not much dramatic tension. This means, of course, that the first episode is too slow building to the murder, while the second episode doesn’t have enough time to resolve anything properly.

So we end with a weird second half where apparently owning a time travel machine proves that you are not a murderer, because that’s all we have time for. Also, the final confrontation is conveniently and handily resolved when the murderer helpfully throws himself off the roof as the end credits approach. That’s very thoughtful of him, because it’s really the only way that the episode is going to get everything tidied up.

Seeing double...

Seeing double…

The second problem stems from this, in that it’s not an especially interesting murder mystery. There’s no real surprise twist, no way that the pieces we are given suddenly get twisted into a pattern that makes sense. There are no clues that will help the audience reach the conclusion before other characters provide handy exposition. Instead, it’s just a bland and generic period adventure posing as a murder mystery. There’s no hook, no wit, no cleverness. It makes this all rather dull.

The third problem isn’t really one that it’s fair to lump on Black Orchid and John Nathan Turner. It’s really just the logical extension of a philosophy that has increasingly been a part of Doctor Who from something approaching its first episode. Quite frankly, it is the lazy association of deformity and evil, with a healthy side-order of colonialism. Even the Doctor refers to the tribesman living in the house as “the Indian!”, which is problematic of itself.

It's still less ridiculous than Colin Baker's outfit...

It’s still less ridiculous than Colin Baker’s outfit…

George Cranleigh is a deformed monster, pretty much taking the role of the monster in a standard Doctor Who story by virtue of his physical disfigurement. “The Kojabe Indians did that to him,” we’re told. “To them, the black orchid is sacred. And they cut out his tongue. His mind was affected.” It feels disturbingly like a sort of colonial cautionary tale about a white man disfigured and driven insane by those pesky native people.

And, of course, George doesn’t have a voice or a character. He’s credited as “the unknown” in the first part to conceal the twist, and it’s an accurate name. He’s just a generic bad guy in a story like this, without any real development or thought. Even a line about the way his family treated him – keeping him locked away and tied up and hidden from view – might have gone some way towards redeeming this. If we were led to believe that he had been driven crazy by his family’s attempts to treat him rather than his physical disfigurement, Black Orchid might be able to get some small way past the problems of treating him like a monster.

Freak out...

Monster!

That said, this isn’t unique to Black Orchid. After all, George is just filling an archetypal Doctor Who role. The notion of “the monster” is occasionally problematic, to the point where subversions are so rare as to be noteworthy. Doctor Who has a tendency to equate beauty with goodness – it’s a standard trope, but it’s the kind of thing you’d imagine the show would be shrewd enough to recognise as possibly troublesome. Still, Black Orchid is that cliché taken to its logical conclusion, where even a disfigured human is handy enough to fill the role of “monster.”

There are other smaller script problems. The most obvious is that Black Orchid is apparently what passes for a Nyssa episode. Tegan has her plot about getting home to Heathrow, and Adric will be the central focus of Earthshock, but Nyssa is generally under-developed beyond the role of “the competent companion.” As such, it seems a major miscalculation on the part of Black Orchid to assume that simply putting Sarah Sutton in another role counters as “a Nyssa-centric episode.” Although, I suppose, it does demonstrate that Sutton is – like so many companion actors in the classic series – a lot better than what is asked of her.

... also known as "the Peri Position"...

… also known as “the Peri Position”…

That said, I suppose you could argue that the character of Ann Talbot is another throwback to the classic idea of historical doppelgängers for the regular cast. For example, The Massacre and The Enemy of the World saw William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton respectively playing characters other than the Doctor. It’s an aspect of the show that officially died out after the black and white era, although I suppose you could argue that the guest appearances by future regulars like Ian Marter and Colin Baker demonstrate the principle is still in effect.

Still, this is the first time since The Enemy of the World that a regular has played opposite themselves as a character other than a clone or a duplicate or some other variation of their regular character. And Black Orchid, unsurprisingly, doesn’t do anything with that. It’s just, sort of, well… there. It does allow the adventure to put Nyssa in danger at the climax, but it hardly does Nyssa any real service as a character. Which is a bit of a shame.

The BBC costume department do put on a jolly good show...

The BBC costume department do put on a jolly good show…

Still, Black Orchid isn’t all bad. For one thing, it serves as a nice calm before the storm. This is the last time that this TARDIS crew will be together. I should probably be a bit sadder about that than I am. It’s also nice to see the characters relaxing a bit, without the world to save. In particular, the Fifth Doctor is perfectly suited to this sort of time and place. Peter Davison was always better than the role was written, but he plays a version of the character who is glad that there are no strange aliens to fight or threats to the world, and his biggest concern in the first half is getting locked out of his room.

So we get nice shots of the Doctor playing cricket that ultimately go on way too long. There’s a nice little moment when the Doctor orders “a lemonade with lots of ice”, while Nyssa and Tegan both have screwdrivers. There’s a sense that this is really the closest thing to relaxation that the Fifth Doctor will probably ever feel. Particularly since we now know that the following episode will turn the character into the universe’s punching bag.

"Somehow having a time machine makes my alibi even more watertight!"

“Somehow having a time machine makes my alibi even more watertight!”

There is, in particular, a really weird scene where the Doctor decides to fight a murder charge by letting the authorities into his TARDIS. It’s hard to imagine any other iteration of the character cooperating so fully with the authorities. It’s a sign how timid the Fifth Doctor is, that he doesn’t really seem capable of protecting that most sacred of inner sanctums, the TARDIS. When the Keeper of Traken appeared in the TARDIS, the Fourth Doctor was impressed. Now alien menaces and local constabulary seem to invite themselves inside.

There’s still a sense that Doctor Who is trying to be a character drama that doesn’t know anything about characters. In particular, the whole Nyssa and Adric thing, which feels like it can’t decide if it is or isn’t flirting. We had the two of them “experimenting” in her bedroom in The Visitation and Adric confessing that he’s not good with his hands in Four to Doomsday. Here, they seem to be trying to playfully flirt in a way that is really awkward to watch. And then, suddenly, the script transforms them into a shallow parody of an old married couple. “Is that seconds?” Nyssa asks, catching him at the buffet. “You pig!”

A blooming mess...

A blooming mess…

Black Orchid is frustrating because the premise is so exciting. It is, on paper, something radically different from anything the show has done in the past few years, and teases the possibility that the show might be open to experimentation, to shaking things up. That’s a noble idea, and it’s something that I don’t think Nathan Turner really gets enough credit for. However, there is – as with a lot of this season – a huge gulf between ambition and ability, confining Black Orchid to the realm of notable failure instead of a bold success.

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