THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

BBC
Black Orchid

Episodes 2 Quite topping!
Story No# 120
Production Code 6A
Season 20
Dates Mar. 1, 1982 -
Mar. 2, 1982

With Peter Davison, Matthew Waterhouse,
Janet Fielding, Sarah Sutton.
Written by Terrance Dudley. Script-edited by Eric Saward.
Directed by Ron Jones. Produced by John Nathan-Turner.

Synopsis: Through a double case of mistaken identity, The Doctor is accused of murder at a country estate in 1920's England.


Reviews

A Review by Jen Kokoski 27/3/97

Short but sweet is the best way to describe this adventure. Perhaps the producer (JNT) merely wanted to prove Doctor Who could still be diverse and not typecast as a sci-fi only show. My only wish was that the plot could have been longer, deeper and enough to really sink my teeth into. Instead, it was over just when I was beginning to enjoy it.


In the Closet by Dennis McDermott 26/4/97

Why? I guess that is the best question that could be asked about this program. It doesn't seem to fit into the Doctor Who universe anywhere, and the simplistic and obvious plot hardly makes it a worthy episode.

So why make this program? So Peter Davison could show off his cricket skills? So Sarah Sutton could play a duel role? So Janet Fielding could show off her figure while dancing the Charleston? So Adric could stuff is face? So we can understand that it-is-not-nice-to-lock-away-your-deranged-and-deformed-eldest-son-so-his-fiance-can-marry-his-brother?

Frankly, I don't know what to make of this story. Perhaps someone can explain it to me, but it is not recommended.


Well Bowled, Sir! by Emily Moniz 18/7/97

Black Orchid has been one of my favourite Davison stories so far. It had many elements that I liked. A great deal of Nyssa in the plot, a bit of cricket to watch in the begining, and the overtones of "The Phantom of the Opera". All of these make for an enjoyable veiwing.

Nyssa has a large role in this story, which makes up for (in my eyes) Kinda. She is rather central to the plot, and has a good bit of screen time. Aside from that, the story is interesting and moves along well. The cricket game made the whole thing worth watching for me, and we got to see Davison play a bit. The twenties language, dress and famed extravagance came through well, even with the imfamous budget. We got to see Tegan dance, but I've yet to figure out if that is a good thing or not. And Adric was his typical self, eating his way through yet another story.

But it was the Phantom overtone that attracted me most strongly. The man's face looks like Lon Chaney's original Phantom in many respects. And his loving a beautiful woman he could never have adds to this similarity. The tragic ending was perfect for the plot that had been developed, if a bit trite and predictable.

Even with the minor problems that have been sighted in other reviews, I find Black Orchid to be one of the better stories of the Davison era.


The Biggest Little Story Doctor Who Ever Had by Mekel Rogers 7/10/00

Black Orchid is one of the best Doctor Who serials of all time. Let me explain why.....

It's easy to understand why the story is regarded as very good but not often given the label of "classic". It is, after all, a two-part nugget in between two giants (The Visitation and Earthshock). However, the real appeal of Black Orchid comes not from any grandiose ideas but rather from it's subtlety, attention to detail, and novel approach.

Firstly, Black Orchid is a completely historical story (something that had not been done since The Highlanders in 1966). The ONLY science fiction element in the story is the TARDIS. This was a wonderful breath of fresh air after experiencing nothing but year after year of monster and space baddie stories. It also gave the BBC a chance to do what it does best.....period drama. The plot almost resembles an Agatha Christie whodunit novel complete with a series of murders in a post-Victorian estate with secret passages and dark family secrets. As a result, the story has very high production values, from the authentic railway station to the Cranleigh Estate to the costumes at the fancy dress party.

Secondly, the guest cast is superb. Moray Watson as Sir Robert comes off as my personal favorite because he mixes compassion and logic into his character rather than being just one of those dumb police officers that are present in so many other stories making wild accusations at the Doctor (Nightmare of Eden comes to mind). Michael Cochrane and Barbara Murray are also quite good as Lord and Lady Cranleigh but it is Sarah Sutton who steals the show playing the role of Anne. Watching the same actress play both the animated, energetic Anne and the reserved, soft-spoken Nyssa made be realize just how good an actress Sarah Sutton really is.

Thirdly, the main four regulars have some wonderful moments. The best character development for any regular in Doctor Who comes during leisure scenes, and Black Orchid allows everyone their chance. We find out that the Doctor always wanted to drive a railway car as a boy, is an excellent fast bowler, and likes to sing in the shower. Tegan's softer side comes through in several great scenes as she shows Nyssa how to dance the Charleston and innocently flirts with Sir Robert at the fancy dress party. Adric and Nyssa have some great moments together (I love the shrug they give each other after hearing all that Cricket terminology), but their best lines come at the dance when Nyssa has to practically order Adric to dance with her: "Not them you idiot, each other. Go on, ask me!". And of course, there's the wonderful scene at the buffet where Matthew Waterhouse gives his best delivery ever. Sarah Sutton walks up, looks at Adric's plate and says: "Is that seconds? You pig!" to which he replies: "YOU could only be Nyssa."

Speaking of great lines, Black Orchid is full of them: "A splendid performance, worthy of the Master," (Peter Davison's look is priceless); "Why didn't I leave after the cricket?"; and my all-time favorite..... "You said he was a friend from Brazil, where the nuts come from," (a wonderful subtle reference to the comedy farce Charlie's Aunt.....the script editor was bordering on genius).

Finally, Peter Davison's greatest characteristics shine through during the climax of the story. Having tried time and again to be polite to his hosts, the Doctor, seeing Nyssa in danger, finally loses patience with Lady Cranleigh's lack of cooperation and delivers a great line: ".....and what will he do when he discovers he has the wrong girl!" Finally, resolving the situation through a gentle plea for George to release Nyssa, we are reminded that the 5th Doctor's strongest quality is his sensitivity.

When it comes to epic adventures, you can't beat Genesis of the Daleks or The Invasion, but if you want a really good story with intrigue, drama, humor, and fun, it doesn't get any better than Black Orchid, easily the biggest little story Doctor Who ever had.


I'm with you Dennis! by Mike Jenkins 20/1/02

This story always seemed more like a subpar piece of Masterpiece Theater or something from Coronation Street (the most evil show in the universe!) than a Doctor Who story to me. Like Invasion of the Dinosaurs before it, it is on the whole, an overrated piece of garbage. The only reason I enjoy stories like this which are travesties of Doctor Who is that Doctor Who is universally good.

I wish the fans could trash this story as much as they do Warriors of the Deep. Many regard that as the weakest story of Davison's era. To them I say, watch this and Resurrection of the Daleks and then we'll talk poor Davison stories. Warriors of the Deep was a case of a truly remarkable script let down by the most hanous production. This is a case of good production let down by a heinous script and even more heinous acting. It seems like that Python sketch upper class twit of the year to me. I think the younger son of Lady Cranleigh would be more suited to a table lamp then a gorgeous lovely like Ann (or should I say Nyssa?). And this next thing seems to be the most overlooked plot hole in Doctor Who history. WHY DO ANN AND NYSSA LOOK THE SAME? Does it have something to do with the fact that the Doctor can't seem to get the TARDIS to land anywhere but Earth? If Doctor Who had remained the children's story it was almost twenty years before this story was made I could understand this but it isn't.

We pick on classics like Terror of the Zygons and The Android Invasion> but this story gets freedom from criticism simply because it was a return to the purely historical tale. Critics seem to go as easy on it as the fans, which makes it all the more frustrating. If it was some kind of program spin-off I guess that would've been one thing. And for someone looking for a true historical story, myself included, I would've thought this was tremendously dissapointing. The incidentals are mind-meltingly cliched. One can almost forgive Matthew Waterhouse's performance in this story because it's overshadowed by a much bigger world of crappiness, for lack of a better word. This story is right up there with the Stinkburger stylings of Power of Kroll and The Twin Dilemma. I would only recommend it if you're a hard core Doctor Who fan like myself. 0.5/10 and I'm being generous.


The Crying-on-the-Inside Kind of Clown by Andrew Wixon 15/5/02

Another Terence Dudley script and another really odd story - not as indefinably strange as Four to Doomsday, but still pretty unique. The series returns to two formats it had seemingly abandoned long before - the two-episode story, and the pure historical.

Well, it's not really a pure historical, is it? It's a period piece rather than historical drama: there's no-one 'real' in it nor does it touch upon historical events. It's an exercise in literary pastiche - most obviously of the country house murder-mystery, but with shades of melodramatic psycho-horror about it - something that DW had become very good indeed at in the 1970s. While the lack of SF trappings is a little jarring, all the really uncharacteristic material arises from the two-part format.

Episode one of Black Orchid has a playful, relaxed pace, and were it not for the opening murder one might wonder exactly what had caused the production team to lose their minds and embark on a remake of Brideshead Revisited. The second installment is much, much pacier, and the climax in particular feels absolutely rushed. You can view this two ways - either it's a standard story with a lot of padding at the start, or it's deeply atypical attempt at a character-driven tale that gets hung up on the need for standard DW adventuresomeness. I think it's the latter.

There are some really nice guest performances, particularly from Michael Cochrane and the gentleman playing the chief constable, but the spotlight is definitely on the regulars and especially the Doctor. Adric isn't especially well-served (but then again, he's going to be fall-out in another six episodes so why bother) but Sarah Sutton gets a chance to show off her versatility and Janet Fielding cna relax and not just act the bolshy harridan.

But this is Davison's story and it emphasises the uniqueness of his Doctor. He seems genuinely delighted to get to play in the cricket match, gets extraordinarily wound up when no-one believes his story of corpses in cupboards, and sounds genuinely hurt when he's accused of murder. I can't think of another incarnation of the character who'd meekly hang around and let himself be led off to the police station for a crime he didn't commit, let alone voluntarily give the rozzers the run of the TARDIS. Jon or Tom would have clobbered the chief constable, jumped out of the manor window and gone on the trail of poor old George himself. But, for all of this, it's still a valid, convincing, entertaining portrayal.

Black Orchid is a story out of its time. The brevity, the lack of SF elements, the attempts at characterisation - all of these are things you'd expect to find in Season One, not Season Nineteen. No wonder it feels strange. Deeply uncharacteristic, but still rather jolly.


But Seeming So by Mike Morris 30/10/02

A while ago I said that "received wisdom" was, at best, something of a fallacy and quite how its decided what "received wisdom" is can't possibly be that accurate. That idea notwithstanding, I don't think I'm pushing the boat out too much in outlining the general opinion of Black Orchid. On this site alone it garners generally positive reviews, most of which portray it inn a similar way; as an enjoyable little two parter with some fun scenes. The most fulsome praise I can think of is from Mekel Rogers and Joe Ford, who has termed it a "minor masterpiece". I don't quite agree with that (Joe Ford and I not agreeing? Who'd have guessed?) - I'll tell you why in a minute. It has also been dismissed as pointless, overrated trash by other reviewers. Well, most stories get extreme reactions in both directions, but I'd guess the most representative view was expressed in The Discontinuity Guide; "a piece of 1920's whimsy with surprisingly satisfying results". I think this is how most viewers would see it, even though the story opens with a brutal strangulation and closes with the funeral of an insane and mistreated murderer, which goes to show just how odd the Doctor Who interpretation of "whimsy" can be.

I don't agree that the story is pointless; nor do I think that it can be adequately described as whimsy or comedy. In fact, Joe Ford's description of it as a minor masterpiece is closest to my opinion. I only dispute one thing. The word "minor".

Black Orchid is not lightweight, it's not inconsequential, and it should not be dismissed because it's only two episodes long. The truth is that it is easily one of the five best Peter Davison stories, and says far more than most of the longer tales that surround it. Frontios, Earthshock and Planet of Fire - fine stories all - get far more discussion but they aren't a patch on Black Orchid. For too long it has been dismissed because it features a cricket match and a fancy dress party, but doesn't feature an alien. Yes, the story's reception is generally positive, but it deserves so much more.

Of course, it's partially a victim of its own success in this respect. Reviewers dwell on the cricket match and how at home Davison's Doctor seems because it's just so good (although if the Doctor is a "fast" bowler then Ashley Giles is the next Harold Larwood). There's such a lovely Englishness to the whole thing, with all those little asides ("top ho!", "always Smutty at school", "could never remember all those funny Baltic bits") and subtle humour; the chauffeur's knowing tact with regard to Charles Cranleigh's batting ability is a hoot, and Adric and Tegan's mystification with both cricket and 1920's etiquette is great fish-out-of-water comedy, with Sutton in particular turning in a wonderfully subtle performance and Matthew Waterhouse holding his own. Tegan does well too - her reveling in the period, her uninhibited dancing to the Charleston and her flirty behaviour towards Sir Robert are great. And then there's the Doctor, idly humming "I just want to be happy", unable to conceal his glee at the prospect of a good game of cricket, and to be fair his bowling action is pretty good, even if he does get his wickets with a succession of daisy-cutters.

In short; as elegant as a Mark Waugh century, as gorgeous as a Sachin Tendulkar cover drive and embued with the verve and bounce of an Andy Caddick wicket-maiden.

(I'll stop with the cricketing similes now, as I'm aware many people don't understand or even like the second-greatest game in history of time. You are fools, the lot of you. Ignorant savages. Anyway...)

But all the same, it's not as jolly as all that. Lurking over the general jolliness of the opening fifteen minutes is the memory of a man being strangled in the opening scene. And a slight poke beneath the surface reveals something more unsavoury than one might expect. In fact, this whole story might be seen as a study of manners, of appearance, and what lies beneath, developed by creating as dysfunctional a bunch of characters as Doctor Who has ever given us.

For example, let's look at the situation of Ann Talbot. Even setting aside the question that her former fianc?is a disfigured prisoner in a hidden part of the house and has developed a liking for strangulation, there's something downright weird about the whole thing. Look at it in isolation; Ann Talbot's fianc?has been supposedly killed, and not long afterwards she gets engaged to his brother. No matter how breezily the Cranleighs treat this, it's decidedly odd and leaves one wondering. And, cleverly, the script doesn't bother answering the obvious questions. It's possible, of course, that Ann fell in love with the younger brother after George's death - but perhaps she simply sees him as an inferior replacement for George. Then again, perhaps she was always truly in love with Charles, but was pushed towards the elder son by the incomprehensible nature of family politics. Or is she a gold digger, attaching herself to the Cranleighs to further her standing? Does her bubbly exterior conceal a more manipulative attitude? Or then again, has she been pushed into this situation by her family and the Cranleighs in an almost arranged marriage, as is hinted at by Lady Cranleigh's statement that they are delighted to "have her in the family after all?" Speaking of family, where the hell are all the Talbots anyway?

And then, there are question marks over Charles also. There are subtle indications that he is jealous of his brother, who "stole all the thunder", and one wonders if he isn't proud of the turnaround in fortunes. From being the dull younger son, Charles has suddenly appropriated his brother's fianc?and inheritance, while the man who overshadowed him has been reduced to a beast. How has Charles taken all this? Why is George so terrified of him? Has Charles been mistreating his brother? Are the ropes for the safety of others, or a form of revenge?

Freud would have had a field day. Beneath the appearance of a simple couple of nice but not particularly intelligent people, there's something quite twisted about all this. And appearance is a key point, because it's a concept that crops up a lot. Lady Cranleigh imprisons her own son to keep up appearances; George Cranleigh is treated as a monster because of his appearance; Nyssa's appearance is a key plot point; the killer dresses up in a costume and mask; there are frequent statements of "there's more to this than meets the eye" and suchlike. Tellingly, even the party is a costume party.

Then, beneath the appearances there are things concealed, ranging from a disfigured son to a ten-bedroom priest hole. Hidden away from prying eyes, with varying results.

Set against all this is the question of curiosity and poking beneath the surface, which leads to torment; the Doctor is an obvious example, but George Cranleigh's plight is also down to his curiosity. The characters constantly withdraw from prying too deeply into others' affairs, and seem to regard it as the height of bad taste. "Our curiosity has been vulgar enough", says Lady Cranleigh, in relation to something no more vulgar than asking where Nyssa is from. "Please, there's no need," she says when the Doctor starts to explain his presence in a private part of her house. Even the Doctor joins in, wondering "Why do I always let my curiosity get the better of me?"

All in all, more than anything, this story is about the repressed, conservative "keeping up appearances" nature of its period. It's about veneer, about concealing nastiness. And if you think I'm overanalysing a nice game of cricket, a key scene points strongly towards this. "Doctor who?" the Doctor is asked in the house, and Charles Cranleigh says "He's requested to remain incognito, and I think we should respect that..."

There's manners, but that's ridiculous. It's simply unbelievable that a family would invite a man into their home when he refuses to even give them his name. And there would have been an easy way to avoid this moment of implausibility; in any other story the Doctor would have trotted out a John Smith alias and we'd think nothing more of it. The fact that he doesn't do so here simply makes no sense, unless viewed as what it is; another reference to the central theme of a deceptively thoughtful script, which like all the characters it creates passes itself off as something altogether more innocent.

And so, the story invites comparisons with another, which has a similar setting and a similar theme. Yes, that's right; as in 50% of my reviews I'm going to talk about Ghost Light for a bit.

The comparison between Black Orchid and Ghost Light is particularly satisfying, though. By accident, these stories seem to have emerged as a pair, or even a diptych. In some respects they are carbon copies of each other, but in others they couldn't be more different. What they are, in fact, is an almost identical premise developed in radically different ways.

The period is similar, the setting is the same (large country house), the theme of appearance features heavily in both, and even the basic plot is identical - nasty/dangerous/insane/misunderstood being is imprisoned in a concealed part of the house, watched over by his former companion, and his presence twists the rest of the house into a strange half-life in which actions are carried out as if in a stageplay. It's even possible to draw a parallel between Charles Cranleigh and Josiah Smith, emerging from the shadow of the imprisoned creature and becoming the master of what was once George's / Light's.

And yet the parallels are absurd at the same time, because the stories take their premise in completely different directions. Where Ghost Light immerses itself in huge SF ideas, Black Orchid adopts a light, airy feel. Ghost Light portrays the protagonists as twisted and evil, but Black Orchid carefully refuses to demonise anyone, instead giving us a story of good people who have done terrible things. Ghost Light takes the post-modern approach, dwelling heavily on its themes, while Black Orchid simply weaves them all into a deceptively simple storyline. Even the design interprets the same basic setting in completely different ways, with the large spaces and open-plan house in Black Orchid being worlds away from Ghost Light's locked doors and twisting corridors. And while the Seventh Doctor's condemnation of "turn all the atlases pink" and the Victorian veneer is unquestionable, the Fifth Doctor doesn't judge the Cranleighs in the same way. He actually stays for the funeral at the end, an expression of solidarity with people who have done terrible things and have tried to frame him for murder.

And so we come to the crux of the matter. Ghost Light is a period commentary more than anything else. But Black Orchid, far from being a comedy, is a tragedy. It's the tragedy of a family trapped by society. It shows us a woman who has done terrible things to a son she loves, and only realises the extent of her crimes when he is taken from her. One might also guess that she loses the man she loves (presumably - Sir Robert would appear to be part of the family), as he is notably absent at the funeral. And she undoubtedly loses her social standing, but gains the realisation that it was never that important anyway.

Lady Cranleigh; what a creation, and what a performance by Barbara Murray. I love the way she's such a mass of contradictions - open and friendly one moment, stabbing the Doctor in the back the next, the wonderful naivety of her belief that the Doctor "will come to no harm, he is innocent", and finally we see the genuine pain in her eyes when her son is killed. It's one of a whole host of wonderful and serious moments in the story, most of which have been overlooked. For example, the scene where George Cranleigh hides from Ann Talbot's gaze when she comes around is wonderful, foreshadowing the brilliant scene in Caves where Sharaz Jek hides under the table. There's the thumping cliffhanger to Part One - the image of the Harlequin straightening up and turning to Ann Talbot is extremely memorable. Ann Talbot's "How could you?" is one facet in Sarah Sutton's wonderful performance, and Nyssa's fear on the rooftop is another. There's the wonderful way that the Cranleighs turn from effusive hosts to downright hostile in the blink of an eye, the horrifying and pathetic sight of one brother killing another with an embrace, and then there's Davison's two great moments. The first is when he yells "What will he do when he finds out he has the wrong girl?", his frustration at the pathetic pretences finally spilling over into a moment of pure rage; and then, as a counterpoint, there's the simple grace with which he accepts the gift at the end. Lovely final scene, with one last twist; the manner of George Cranleigh's death seems to have been swept under the carpet, giving us nasty facts concealed even at the conclusion.

When Forbidden Planet first hit the cinemas, it was dismissed as a cheesy and amusing SF B-movie. It was some time before anybody picked up at the Freudian imagery and the possibly twisted subtexts. By the same token, Black Orchid pretends to be bright and breezy but it's actually dark and twisted and tragic. The cheerful opening only makes the turn of events more shocking; and although it's been said that the murder-mystery is too obvious, I'd argue even that is deliberate, as the viewer knows the extent of the Cranleigh's crimes in advance.

And so, two episodes or not, this is Doctor Who at his best. It's sad and happy, funny and moving, exciting and thoughtful, light and dark. All the performances are excellent and it's hard to find any kind of flaw.

I'll treasure it.


Nice setting, shame about the plot by Tim Roll-Pickering 26/3/03

After an absence of nearly sixteen years the historicals make a brief reappearance with this story, taking the TARDIS crew to an upper-class country house in 1920s Britain. This is a period made familiar by many period dramas and books and it allows for an interesting little story that tries to merge the series with the genre.

A major plot point is the similarity between Nyssa and Ann but fortunately the entire story does not revolve solely around this element. Instead we get a brief exploration of the way of life for an upper-class family and how the values of the period require certain aspects to be kept firmly locked away. Unfortunately the realisation of the story isn't the best as there is little mystery about who is committing the murders - thus eliminating all the other characters as suspects - whilst the Doctor establishes his credentials with the police not through his actions over the course of the story but rather through showing them the TARDIS as a quick solution to the problem. The result is a plot which is clearly telegraphed and unexciting. However there is more to this story as the setting is developed well and allows for some good character development for some of the regulars.

This story is notable as being the only time in the television series when Davison's Doctor actually gets to play cricket (though he gets more practice in comic strips such as The Tides of Time and has it brought back to him in The Stockbridge Horror) and there is much clear enjoyment. As often happens the Doctor is mistaken for someone else and exploits the situation to his advantage. This story takes place on a more limited scale than many and thus allows for the character to be exposed well in the more down to earth environment of the story. Sarah Sutton has the dual role of Nyssa and Ann Talbot and manages to carry off both of them easily though the story is not long enough to fully develop the latter. Nevertheless it gives Sutton a chance to shine when often there can be competition for space amongst the three companions. Matthew Waterhouse has much less to do in the story and Adric makes little contribution beyond stuffing his face at the ball. The guest cast give reasonable performances but few make any spectacular impact.

The sets for the story work well, though it does feel that the railway station is not 1920s authentic due to the abandoned second platform being all too clear. Otherwise the story is a competent production that compares well to contemporary period dramas. It is unfortunate that the plot is weak and telegraphed but otherwise this brief story is a welcome one-off return for the historical stories. 7/10


A Review by Joe Ford 17/2/04

It is so sad when you re-watch something you have thoroughly enjoyed in the past and found it to be lacking through older (but not necessarily wiser) eyes. You feel cheated, like all that time you have invested in the story has been for nothing, either that or you are getting more cynical and critical, as you get older. Either way, it is not good news.

Black Orchid does not really fall under this category although when I slipped it into the player recently I got the impression that Simon enjoyed it more than me. It is always good to remember how you felt when you saw a story for the first time and how refreshing it is to watch without knowing what is going to happen. And although I feel I should review the story on those terms, recapturing that sense of gosh wow watching it with my partner, but there are some inevitable failings brought to fore thanks to repeated viewings

There were a few problems I noticed this time that I didn't notice or chose to ignore on previous watchings. Chief among them is the bitty direction, how the camera switched angles to incorporate Ann and Nyssa but never really achieves this convincingly. When you can see how the director is trying keep the actress's face out of shot then it become immediately obvious what he is trying to achieve and loses a lot of its effect. There are lots of sudden sharp twists of the camera leading to some sloppy editing, Nyssa and Ann deciding to wear the same costume is a fab idea but poor editing leads to them interrupting each other ("Isn't that topping?" "Quite topping!"). I realise this was being made in a hurry and is unfair to compare the standards of today's television but if the show could edit itself as well as Androzani then it should be able to do so here too.

Also it pains me to continue my tirade against Peter Davison's portrayal of the Doctor but he is so utterly ineffectual in this story to defy belief. Paul Cornell gave a wonderful piece in the Fifth Doctor magazine that DWM released early in 2003 that had me in stitches. Davison plays the part with energy apparently, he is the picture of the British aristocracy, he is generous and touchy feely. Hmm... he's also dead boring. Am I honestly expected to look under the mask of his acting, to find meaning in his corridor wandering and detachment from the main plot, perhaps if Davison did something worth watching in the first place people like Cornell would not have to 'look beneath the mask' and see what is happening. What's wrong with surface acting anyway?

The real problem with the fifth Doctor is that he fits in so well in Black Orchid. The bland world of British aristocracy, where they clap effeminately, drink screwdrivers in their baths and hold fancy dress balls. He is so accommodating, so polite and so gentlemanly; in all respects he is a lovely guy. And this why he is so tedious because watching somebody slot perfectly into a story with no issues is as good as making him invisible, no tension or trouble and therefore no drama. Or excitement. Forgive me but I think variety is the spice of life... and good television drama and a bit of character conflict would not go awry here.

Even when he is arrested and charged with the death of Digby the serveant the Doctor accepts his fate with the barest shrug of the shoulders. He gives a quick defence of his actions and then sits down and practically asks to be handcuffed. Gee whiz if this was the sixth Doctor fireworks would demolish Cranleigh Manor.

"All aboard! All aboard! Step on board the number 40 TARDIS! Available to take you to any destination in the universe for a very reasonable fee!" The Doctor takes three more people into the TARDIS in Black Orchid as well as the three companions he already has! Rather than fight his defence in a rational and intelligent manner, revealing the plot of George/Black Orchid to the police (which he clearly has figured out) he introduces three policemen to a technological wonder light years ahead of their time. What is wrong with this guy? He cannot surely think this is a reasonable course of action! Well obviously because he does it again in the next story and then skip over a season and again in The Awakening. How these people accept the interior dimensions without going ga-ga is beyond me. The Doctor's logic is lacking in a most severe fashion.

The only time Davison actually feels like the Doctor in this and not Peter Davison in a period drama is at the climax where he scales the staircase and fights through the burning house to rescue Nyssa, calmly (of course) talking George into letting her go. But one moment in two episodes is quite unacceptable.

Highlighting the Doctor against his companions and he comes up even worse because for once the unworkable team of Adric, Tegan and Nyssa actually works! And why? Because of their cultural differences. It is a joy to see just how different each of them are from each other and yet realise how they have come to relax in each others company. When they all step from the TARDIS there is genuine warmth there, it is unspoken but very apparent, Tegan is smiling (swoon), Nyssa gently mocks the Doctor's train obsession and Adric is culturally curious. Later scenes of Tegan and Nyssa in the bedroom dancing the Charleston are wonderful, a real sense of femininity in the show, two strong female characters relaxing in each other's company. And how Nyssa and Tegan both chide Adric for his food obsession without prompting the other suggests a strong brotherly affection without ever explicitly saying anything.

But rubbing shoulders with this much more soothing atmosphere amongst the three friends are the cultural differences which highlight just how alien Nyssa and Adric are whilst Tegan's humanity is brought to fore in a more likable way than ever. The trio sit there and watch the Doctor play cricket, Tegan clapping and cheering and the Alzarian and the daughter of Traken shake their head in disbelief at this bizarre human ritual. Nyssa gently mocks the Charleston suggesting the dancing on Traken is "much more formalised and far more complex". Adric's huge stomach suggests Alzarians have a high metobolism (after his similar pig out in Kinda). And watching Tegan in the company of Sir Robert, ignoring his age and flattering him, joking with him and having a wiggle on the terrace is quite delightful, after stories full of Tegan's psychotic neuroses it is such a relief to see she is also charming, pleasant to be with and engaging. I would love to meet the Tegan of Black Orchid.

As for the story itself... well it's fabulous of course! The one thing you can always trust the BBC to look gorgeous is a period drama and in the traditions of Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Sense and Sensibility, Black Orchid has a sumptuous production. It's not just the aged location work, the wonder of the steam train, the lush green cricket fields, the characterful exterior of Cranleigh Manor but the atmosphere stretches to the detailed sets, the luscious ball costumes and the delicious grainy camera filter. It all looks very genuine, the characters say what you would expect them to say ("Ripping!" "Topping" "Smutty!") and behave politely and are beyond reproach.

Why shouldn't we have an episode where the Doctor and co take a break from all the mosters and villains and problems of universe and settle down for a breather with a game of cricket, a dance and some good company. It annoys me when people call this story inconsequential and unimportant just because it doesn't have the extinction of the dinosaurs or the Great Fire of London, the events in this story are just as important as those, they are essential to see because we finally get to understand why the companions travel with the Doctor. It is crucial to have a little human drama in each season of Doctor Who, a constant reminder that although we are dealing with Cybermen and Terileptils, there are also stories about people to be told just as effectively, actually probably more effectively because the costumes and reality do not let them down. The first episode of Black Orchid is practically flawless in this respect; so utterly different from episode four of The Visitation it highlights the shows possibilities very well.

And I must congratulate the wonderful Sarah Sutton for her extreme theatrical performance as Ann. What a beauty! Terrance Keenan recently said he wasn't fond of Nyssa because she was boring and here we have a choice opportunity to see just how truly terrible she could have been! Ann is the exact opposite, childish, emotional, a real wimp; she delights in the unexpected and enjoys playing around with people. Fabulous for one story but could you see her in all the others of this season, I think not! In the opposite corner you have Nyssa cultured, a bit spunky (I love the bit where she cons Adric and jumps into the Charleston) and funny ("What a very silly activity!"). She screams a bit too but she is faced with a disfigured man and a blazing fire so I guess we can give her that one. And Sutton plays both to the hilt, truly finding her place in the show by this point.

The other performances are all highly engaging with particular praise for that 'tip top' chappie Michael Cochrane as Charles. His dialogue may be hugely mannered ("Ripping performance old chap, come over to the house and meet the Master!") but he has an energy and smiliness about him that wins you over completely. His dashing hurry to rescue Nyssa by scaling the walls of the house is stupid but heroic.

Barbara Murray and Moray Watson both excel as Lady Cranleigh and Sir Robert, never less than one hundred percent convincing. It is their astonishingly mature performances and the period atmosphere that puts me in mind of the Hartnell historicals and this is in turn just as compelling as they were. Shame it never led to any more pure historicals but it is a nice reminder all the same.

Black Orchid remains a favourite of mine, a Davison story that refuses to outstay its welcome and at two parts doesn't feel as if it requires more time either. It has a beginning, a middle and an end plus a tiny coda that adds to the realism of the piece. Despite having the worst delivery of any line in the entire Doctor Who canon which still causes a spontaneous burst of laughter from myself and any who might be watching (in this case Simon when Tegan bursts "You are in for a surprise!"). Davison may let the side down but there is lots in the story's favour, the atmosphere, the sting in the tail, the realistic companions, the production... for that one fault it is still my favourite story of the Davison era.

A historical gem.


A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 10/4/04

Black Orchid is remarkable in Doctor Who terms, in that for once it sees the TARDIS crew actually relaxing and enjoying themselves. The story`s period setting helps too in creating an atmosphere. Obviously drawing on Agatha Christie, the murder mystery premise is refreshing in its simplicity. Production values are strong, as you might expect from the BBC when it comes to a historical production and the cast are all strong (even Matthew Waterhouse for once).This is Sarah Sutton`s story really and despite sharing her dual role, she does prove that she can act when given the opportunity.

At two episodes Black Orchid fulfills its purpose and entertains, resulting in an enjoyable piece of Doctor Who.


A Review by Keith Bennett 15/4/04

I remember really liking this story when it was first shown over twenty years ago, and after my latest viewing, I still do.

The first episode in particular is wonderful. Being a passionate cricket fan, I love the Doctor's gleeful contribution to the game he loves so much, and, of course, he has to win the game for them. If he can save planets, he can save a cricket match. The lovely air of the first episode... the party atmosphere... the period setting... Tegan's enthusiasm, and Nyssa and Adric's bewilderment at such things as this strange English sport... all make it wonderful viewing. I agree with Joe Ford that the Doctor and co. don't need to always be shown saving the universe; this story is a wonderful diversion. And it's nice to see the three companions actually getting on for once (even with Nyssa and Tegan chiding Adric for his appetite).

The only real problem with all this is that it's almost a shame for there to be a problem the time travellers have to deal with - what a pity to interrupt the delightful time they're having.

Onto the second episode, things are pretty good, but not great. I also agree that the Doctor showing everyone the TARDIS is a rather bewildering way to try and prove his innocence (I remember thinking that when I first saw the story as well - the TARDIS was really overused in the Davison era).

However, I do not agree with Joe's views of Peter Davison's Doctor. Well, I agree he is "nice", etc, but I like that. It's his own spin on the travelling Time Lord. I don't find him bland at all.

The actual story itself? Basic, which was all it needed to be. I see this not so much as a story with characterisation growth, but characterisation growth with a bit of a story.

And, really, I think Doctor Who could do with more of that. Not often, but certainly every now and again.


A Review by Brian May 1/3/07

Black Orchid is a lovely little story and one of the triumphs of the Nathan-Turner years. It's so refreshingly different, the first two-parter since 1975 and the first proper historical since 1966. It takes the same approach as the last two such adventures from this latter period - The Smugglers and The Highlanders - with the historical backdrop being precisely that: a backdrop for an adventure, and not a history lesson.

It also does the best justice to the incumbent TARDIS crew: the overcrowded "fifth Doctor family". Seeing the travellers relax, unwinding and enjoying themselves is fantastic. Although, having said that, Adric is still superfluous to requirements; the character remains an obnoxious brat and Matthew Waterhouse doesn't help by making no effort beyond the odd (attempted) winsome smirk. But that's not the case for Tegan and Nyssa. It's one of Janet Fielding's best performances, simply because there's no demand for her to be the loud and whiny bugbear we're usually lumbered with and have quickly tired of. Tegan is allowed to laugh, flirt, show off her Charleston moves and basically have fun. The same applies to Sarah Sutton as Nyssa - but only as Nyssa. Frankly I think she's terrible as Ann; her attempts to play the young English toff are unconvincing, proving the actress lacks the intended scope. But as with Tegan, the joy lies in the chance to see a new side to a rather one-note companion. Her talking about her dancing skills is one such moment; like Nyssa generally, it's subdued, but the smug boastfulness is present, and it's wonderful.

Peter Davison is also excellent. From an on-screen point of view it's the first time since Castrovalva that he's allowed to show an impressively broad range. From a recording perspective this was made straight after, which goes to show that the actor had stamped his own idiosyncrasies on the character by this time. There's the big kid who loves trains and cricket. Now I hate cricket (and I'm Australian; we do exist!) but the match scenes are wonderful, especially as we have the Doctor - and Davison - showing off with gusto. Elsewhere his dewy-eyed, baby-faced naivety makes him an easy scapegoat; he's also perceived as a bit of a nutter, and is capable of wonderful humour, especially his sarcastic, deadpan and hapless "That's very kind of you" when being read his rights by Sir Robert.

The regulars are well-served by a wonderful guest cast, speaking their best BBC English in a production that's so BBC they can't put a foot wrong - with one exception, Constable Cummings, who delivers lines like "No key will unlock it" and "Strike me pink!" quite atrociously. But him aside, it's a marvellous collection of acting talent. The direction is good; all the manor and countryside scenes are well shot, as are the cricket match and the ball, and the strangulation of the servant at the end of part one is very realistic. Period drama should be just as standard fare for BBC directors as well as actors, and for the most part Ron Jones pulls it off. However there is some sloppiness: there are several moments when Sarah Sutton's body double can be clearly be seen when Nyssa and Ann are together - and it doesn't help that she's several inches taller! But overall Jones could do worse (and he did: Time-Flight, Arc of Infinity; but with stories like these he didn't stand a chance!).

The only other fault with Black Orchid is the incidental music; it's too 1980s/synthesised for the period feel, leaving us to only wonder what magic Dudley Simpson might have created. But overall this is a smashing outing, invoking the spirit of 1920s Agatha Christie, the Chimneys stories in particular, although it's far from being a simple murder mystery. It's a dark and disturbing tale of family secrets, inspired by everything from Jane Eyre to Virginia Andrews, all slotted into the Who framework with such consummate ease you wonder why it hadn't been done before.

So whether the current trend in Who fandom is to deify or demonise JN-T, or if you have the more balanced view that he had his ups and downs, it must be accepted that Black Orchid is definitely one of the highlights of his time at the helm of Doctor Who. 8.5/10


A Review by Finn Clark 23/1/09

I love Black Orchid like a brother. It's one of those era-defining stories, which don't even have to be any good but can still plant a flag to show "Doctor Who woz here". It's utterly charming and there's nothing else like it.

This is of course because it's nonsense. Delightfully executed and blessed with the perfect Doctor, but also with a script that's dribbled from the well of Terence Dudley's incompetence. Look at the man's work. K9 and Company, Four to Doomsday, Black Orchid and The King's Demons, plus Meglos as director rather than writer. The most memorable thing in any of those stories is the K9 and Company title sequence. He could pen a nice novelisation, but as a scriptwriter he should get down on his bended knees and thank the heavens for Peter Davison. A Terence Dudley story is an amiable and rather pointless little thing that ambles around briefly on the fuel of its own charm, then dies. This worked surprisingly well with the 5th Doctor, but imagine replacing him with Mad Tom and cringe.

Or to show the other side of the coin, imagine a version of K9 and Company rewritten for Peter Davison. That could have been rather lovely. It would have been... hang on, it would have been Black Orchid!

Let's put the boot into Black Orchid some more. (Remember, I'm only saying all this out of love.) You have a script fuelled by so much coincidence that you expect the Black Guardian to have been behind it. Smutty's cricket star misses his train, the TARDIS arrives at exactly the time and place to perpetuate this misunderstanding, George Cranleigh has escaped on today of all days and of course Ann Talbot looks like Nyssa. You have the plot resolving itself in episode two while the Doctor's not looking. You have the Doctor discovering a fresh corpse, then going back to get changed into his Harlequin costume and go out to join the party as if nothing had happened. Why, might perhaps the plot want him to be falsely accused of murder? The daftest part is that sorting out that point only wanted two more lines of dialogue, since the Doctor's already agreed to Lady Cranleigh's request not to tell the other guests about the body. She wants everything to seem normal. This of course leads to the risible subplot of the Doctor facing an accusation that's never going to stick in a million years, all under the authority of a genial old buffer at a fancy dress ball. The next story after this was Earthshock. I love Season 19.

However my biggest problem with the story is George Cranleigh. This is theoretically a tragic Phantom of the Opera story, but its central figure is a null. George Cranleigh as a human being doesn't exist. He's not mad, sad, pitiable or anything else. He neither speaks nor emotes. He's a monster, not a person. He kills for no reason whatsoever and can have no rational reason to suppose that in his current state Ann Talbot will respond to him with anything but horror. Barbara Murray and to a lesser extent Michael Cochrane (who also played Redvers Fenn-Cooper in Ghost Light) almost convince you of his reality through their reactions, but if you're looking to the supporting cast to do the story's job for it, there's a Sarah Sutton-shaped hole in the picture. Thus the climax is rubbish, since the tragic central character would have barely convinced as a sock puppet.

Oh, and the cricket is topsy-turvey. Cranleigh's chauffeur says they won the toss and chose to bat because they were awaiting their star guest, yet Cranleigh seems to be expecting a batsman and is pleasantly surprised that the Doctor can bowl too. The actual game is merely silly on TV, but the novelisation turns it into something less believable than picking up dropped gold with a magnet. Oh, and Peter Davison couldn't be a fast bowler if you strapped him to a bullet train, but hats off to the guy for taking a wicket on-camera.

Nevertheless in Black Orchid, all this becomes a good thing.

What I love about this story is how perfectly it inhabits its length. It has two episodes to waste and by jiminy, it's going to piss about in them. A cricket match! A fancy dress party! We have everyone's reactions to Nyssa to maintain the threat of a plot, but that's not really necessary. It's gliding along on that charm I was talking about. It nails that languid 1920s country house pace which was so mutilated in The Unicorn and the Wasp. Thus the story's quirks become delightful. I simply roared at the Doctor explaining to these Agatha Christie characters that he travels in time and space. "Strike me pink." Of course, the subplot of him being arrested for murder is absurd padding, in a story so insubstantial that you could almost call the plot itself padding too, but that's why it's so lovely. I adored the lack of silly misunderstandings when everyone meets Nyssa. They simply find it extraordinary and jump to no silly conclusions. Also consider this... in a story where one of the companions has a double, it's the Doctor who gets arrested due to mistaken identity.

The charm is boosted by some delicious dialogue. "Could there be Talbots near Esher?" "Not possible. The hunt isn't good enough." I'm also fond of, "My brother stole all the thunder there. A positive Odin." Despite all the rude things I've said about Terence Dudley so far, this is the story where his Dudliness really works.

It's also worth pointing out that this is a good story for all four regulars, something with which other stories struggled despite having twice as many episodes. Sarah Sutton is rubbish of course, but that's not the fault of the script and in fairness she does manage to differentiate between Ann and Nyssa. Meanwhile the Doctor plays cricket, Tegan dances the Charleston and Adric eats food. This is funnier than it sounds and in fact one of Adric's best moments in Doctor Who. Yes, I do realise what I've just said.

My only real grumble is that I think Peter Davison isn't at his best. Instead of giving his usual masterclass, here he's merely excellent with a couple of off scenes. The opening TARDIS scene is an example. Admittedly he's basically acting on his own, but that's a skill he would hone to an art over the course of his three years. Oh, and Janet Fielding's costume is less distracting than we'd get in Enlightenment, although showing much decolletage might have got a bit dangerous when Charlestoning.

The relaxed pace also lets us enjoy the production values better. The shots can dawdle on the antique cars or the stunningly beautiful sets. The South American Indian looks cool too, while the whole thing is simply dripping with location filming. Black Orchid looks more impressive than The Unicorn and the Wasp, despite having being made on a budget that would have barely paid for David Tennant's replacement toenail clippers. Its main failing is the stiffness of the split screen effect when Sarah's on-screen as both Nyssa and Ann, although I feel like a churl for criticising a 1982 production on those grounds. One of the problems with those shots is that they tend to involve Sutton, Fielding and/or Waterhouse, so there's a performance issue at work too. Didn't they have anyone standing in on the masked side of the shot to supply an eyeline?

There's a curious phenomenon at work here. I adore Black Orchid and despise The Unicorn and the Wasp, but let's not kid ourselves that had this been first broadcast in 2008 it wouldn't have been ripped to shreds. This is a fascinating example of a story triumphing almost because of its flaws. By that I don't mean that it's "so bad it's good" kitsch, but instead a genuinely charming piece of work that moves at the correct pace for its chosen genre and is never less than thoroughly entertaining. It's lovely to be allowed all this frivolity. It's also worth celebrating that this is a Doctor Who story about a flower. As a defining moment for the 5th Doctor in his debut season, I wouldn't lose it for worlds.


A Well Deserved Thank You! by Nathan Mullins 11/8/10

Black Orchid is an odd episode, one that barely lasts long enough to really soak up any real substance. The first episode is, to say the least, quite charming. However, two episodes just isn't enough for an adventure to really 'kick off'. But, I must say that the episode itself sits among some other poor ones; for example, the Visitation was set beautifully, though the aliens were pretty naff and the ending was pretty unusual, in the sense that, when I watch the episode back, it looks as though it is unfinished, or at least needs some work. However, Earthshock is a delight, and should be heralded for what it is, a real adventure. Not only is it exciting, but memorable, in terms of Adric gets the chop, and the TARDIS loses one of its many companions. But let's get back to Black Orchid, shall we? Yes, yes we shall!

The way in which the first episode is set, I applaud! I really have to take my hat off to the TARDIS landing the Doctor right in the middle of absoloutly nothing. There's no immediate danger, and nothing for the Doctor to do, but play cricket. I suppose Peter Davison's outfit for this episode came in handy. Though, the way in which the other characters are dealt with - for example, Adric stuffing his face with food and Tegan dancing the Charlston - is just silly; couldn't the companions do something worthwhile? Only Nyssa gets an opportunity to shine in this episode and, to be honest, I do favour her as the definitive companion but surely the other characters were given an unfair display in show casing their characters.

The 5th Doctor is not hmself in this episode, and what I mean by this is that his character, for example, in Castrovalva seemed a lot more sure of himself than in this particular episode, and I just want to say that Peter Davison cannot sing! Well, in Black Orchid he can't! I think we did not get to see the best of the 5th Doctor in this episode because of how badly executed it was. If Black Orchid had been longer and the characters plots were all easily made up of different jobs for them all to be getting on with, then perhaps the story would have been rather interesting in terms of a 'real' murder mystery, and not a 'sloppy' murder mystery.

Before I went out to buy this episode, I read a lot of reviews for Black Orchid and did find them to be quite true after I sat down to watch the episode. I was quite sorry for not really taking anyones advice not to buy this episode, which I am now as it sits above my wardrobe with all my other DVD's and I tend to wonder what possessed me to buy it! So everyone who said this episode is not particularly rated, I am sorry and I should have listened to you all! There may be some people who do not like sitting through either a four parter, or six parter, because they find them to be utterly boring, but I on the other hand prefer those stories because they have a lot of substance that has a lot to offer the audience. Like for instance the entertainment factor, as well as a decent plot, whereas stories that last only two episodes do not showcase much. But in this case, I am talking about the classic era of the show, and not the modern show, as it were, because the modern era of Doctor Who always seem to get it right. Two epsiodes are enough to entertain, when the show has a steady pace, action - here, there and everywhere - and has the ability to tell a decent story, as well as entertain.

Black Orchid is an odd episode, with not a great deal on show, and though the acting is 'all right' to watch, there is nothing that really has the ability to shock or excite the viewer. So, I would have to rate this story as 6/10, for a decent setting, 'all right' acting, a worthy stab at showcasing a cricket match through the eyes of the 5th Doctor, and proving to the world that in hoping to move on from sci fi and the outer reaches of space, the classic era of the show did their best to drop the Doctor and his companions off on a crummy adventure that led to nowhere fast!


Why I Enjoyed Black Orchid by Yeaton Clifton 6/12/11

Are you tired of buying DVDs where the commentary always says good things about the story?

Do wish, just once, you could hear the whole cast of a TV show say everything bad about that show?

If the answer is yes, then the DVD of Black Orchid, with commentary by Davison, Fielding, Waterhouse and Sutton, might be for you! The four of them managed to say everything mean about the story, but in case you were not with them in their tirade, they conclude, "We apologize if you enjoyed it." Instead of accepting their apology, I thought I would write this review just to explain what works about the story for me.

Black Orchid is best known as the last of the so-called historical Doctor Who stories, and the only historical story created for Doctor Who in the age of color TV. The group of travelers goes back to 1920s and do not encounter anything other than themselves that could not exist in the 1920s. Visually, the images are very good because even in the 1980s the BBC was good at producing this kind of historical imagery. The story is fast paced, being finished in 2 episodes. It is commonly said that historical stories did not command good ratings, but Black Orchid averaged 10 million viewers per episode. Other historical stories with very strong ratings were Marco Polo and The Romans. Another claim is that historical stories are not really science fiction; Davison made this claim during the commentary. Black Orchid is true to the concept of science fiction: science fiction involves stories about how people respond to technological change or social change; in this case the technological change is the reality of time travel itself. Some Doctor Who fans do not enjoy this kind of story, but the general public is not tired of stories about people who go back to the 1920s and have fun; after all, millions of people went to see Midnight in Paris this year. Woody Allen's recent movie featured a person traveling back to the 1920s: no aliens, no monsters and the earth did not almost end. On the whole, Black Orchid was probably more creative than Midnight in Paris and produced at fraction the budget that Allen commanded. So this may not be in the taste of the typical Whovian, but it is a solid and respectable kind of sci-fi adventure.

The general storyline has the character of something from a pulp magazine written in the twenties. The villain is a phantom of the opera character, disfigured in South America, and the general story is one of action adventures and fighting. It certainly is not a tame cozy mystery story of the sort that Agatha Christy would write. Reasonable comparisons might be made to Tarzan or Indian Jones. It is a light, silly action story that gives the main characters a chance to be themselves, and it gave Sutton and Davison a chance to show us that they can act.

What made the story fun was seeing the characters have fun. The image of the fifth Doctor as an athlete is well remembered, and it indicates that the Doctor is happy forgetting the universe and playing cricket. The companions were also eager to forget themselves later at the party. Tegan is as eager as anyone to dance and have fun. Nyssa, for her part, is delighted to discover that she is the space alien double to a normal human, Anne. Adric wants to eat, and seems sure that he can get away with eating a lot even if it offends, and that is a part of his character. It turns out our heroes have put themselves in considerable danger because they are imposters at party where a murder happens. Recreational time travel is not safe. After they get in trouble, the resolution of the crisis is fast paced, and fun.

There is a great deal to enjoy about Black Orchid, especially if you watch it just before you watch Earthshock. I give the story 7/10. The Stripped for Action mini-documentary about 5th Doctor strip stories: 8/10 - but it is very short. The audio commentary I give about 3/10 - it does show nerve, but it is tiring. I wish they had ended with a joke like: "that is the whole review from Statler and Waldorf", or "the kind and generous Master paid for these comments". For that matter, some of the complaints about Black Orchid placed here, on The Doctor Who Ratings Guide, just seem more profound than anything on the commentary.


23 years ahead of its time by Antony Tomlinson 3/3/13

Can you guess the story from the description? Running at around 45 minutes, it focuses on the character development of the Doctor and his companions, who get to joke and banter with each other in a perfectly realised historical setting. Surrounding them are a group of subtly realised characters who exhibit both warm humour and touches of menace. At the same time, a heart-rending personal drama gives dark and ultimately tragic undertones to a charming, if relatively inconsequential tale.

Is it The Unquiet Dead? Tooth and Claw? A Town Called Mercy? No, it's Black Orchid, the story which, almost by accident, showed how Doctor Who could survive into the 21st century.

By the early 1980s, it was clear that the format of Doctor Who was getting stale. Weeks and weeks of 25-minute episodes per story had worked in the 60s and 70s, but didn't fit in a world of Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica, with their weekly doses of intense, high-budget, self-contained adventures. Already, by 1982, the Doctor Who team had dumped six part stories, and would soon experiment with 45-minute weekly episodes. It was a series in search of a new format and new direction.

Season 19 saw the production team, freed from Doctor Who's past with the departure of Tom Baker et al., able to experiment with the show and decide the shape it should take in the future. The Season 19 story that they ultimately chose to define the on-going show was Earthshock: all harrowing action, guns, and returning monsters. This was a mistake. The series would have had a better future had they taken Black Orchid as their model.

As Russell T. Davies realised with Rose in 2005, what Doctor Who thrives on, and what makes it a national TV phenomenon rather than a cult, is the fact that it focuses on the experiences of normal people encountering a magical, if dangerous universe alongside the mysterious but joyous character of the Doctor. The series does not need complex sci-fi plots spread out over four weeks. It just needs enough of a plot per week to get the heart racing and to give the characters something to react to. That is why it is "small", human stories like Father's Day, The Empty Child or The Eleventh Hour that we remember and care about, rather than "big" sci-fi epics like The Stolen Earth or A Good Man Goes to War.

In Black Orchid, they cracked the formula which eventually turned Doctor Who into a 21st-century hit. In less than an hour, we are charmed by our leads, amused by the witty dialogue and able to indulge in this experience of a distant world alongside our mysterious guide. There is also a heart-breaking plot behind this all, which is not the most important part of the adventure, but which produces themes and emotional resonances that keep adult audiences intrigued while the children hide from the monsters.

We just love being there, as we later love spending time with the 21st-century Doctors as they eat chips, attend parties or play football in the park. Given time to relax, Peter Davison is able to bring a charm to his character that he wouldn't have much chance to exhibit again until The Caves of Androzani. For once, we want to be with him (compare this to The Visitation, where it seems impossible to imagine anyone wanting to be part of the whining, permanently harassed TARDIS crew).

It is a shame that the production team let this opportunity pass. It is easy to see that in the early 1980s, dominated by the films of Spielburg, Lucas, Scott and Cronenburg, harrowing sci-fi action/horror seemed the more promising route for a series like Doctor Who. However, it was a mistake to try and compete with US blockbusters. For, Black Orchid had the unique selling point of being something that only the BBC could make. A series of on-going, short, punchy, character-driven Doctor Who stories would have kept audiences on board in the 80s (and possibly the 90s). Instead they got the chaotic, nerdy plotlines of Resurrection of the Daleks, Trial of a Time Lord, or Battlefield. So, audiences turned off.

It took 23 years for that lesson to sink in. Thanks, Russell T. Davies.