The TARDIS materializes in 1920s England, and immediately the Doctor finds himself the guest of the Cranleighs who hope his cricketing skills will help the home team. Confused, but glad of a nice reception, the crew meet their hosts and enjoy a lovely day of cricket and cocktails, followed by a fancy dress dance. There are turned heads when the Cranleighs meet Nyssa; one of their own, Ann Talbot, is her exact likeness. Uncanny. Spooky, even. But Nyssa and Ann turn this into an opportunity for fun at the dance. However, doubles and mistaken identity turn deadly. A man is strangled to death, and the only witness, Ann Talbot, identifies the killer as a man in a mannequin costume–the one the Doctor has been given to wear. The Doctor needs to prove his innocence, and find the real killer before there are any more killings, least of all his own…
SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!
Pure historicals, where there are no BEMs (Bug-Eyed Monsters) and alien tech, used to be a mainstay of Doctor Who in the Sixties (“Marco Polo,” “The Reign of Terror,” “The Crusaders,” “The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve,” “The Highlanders” to name a handful). However, when Terrance Dicks took over as script editor in the 1970s, the pure historical all but died out, giving preference to stories of alien interference in Earth’s past (e.g., “The Time Warrior,” “The Pyramids of Mars,” “The Masque of Mandragora”). “Black Orchid” marked the return of the pure historical, albeit for only two episodes. And it also marked the last time this format would be used in Classic Doctor Who. Clearly, audiences liked their BEMs and alien tech.
One of the criticisms leveled against “Black Orchid,” and one I think is fair, is the fact that, for most of the story, it’s like an Agatha Christie murder-mystery, and the TARDIS crew could have been anyone. They don’t bring insights or knowledge from their alien lives to bear on the story. The Doctor, Tegan and Nyssa fit right in with the period, and Adric becomes the awkward teenager. Granted, there’s not much character development you can do in two episodes, and that’s another part of the problem. Producer John Nathan-Turner’s aversion to the six-part story, which was popular in the 1970s (Tom Baker’s era had at least one six-parter per season), led him to divide the twenty-six weeks he was given for season nineteen into six four-part stories and one two-part, as opposed to five four-part stories and one six-part story. The result is a story with a lot of potential, but much that could have been developed, particularly in terms of character.
That said, I think there are commendable elements to “Black Orchid.” First, it’s a good story. The plot’s fairly solid, with a mysterious creeping man, family secrets, and a puzzle to solve with dire consequences if assumptions are allowed to go unchallenged. The Black Orchid of the title is a prize flower shown to our heroes near the beginning, which turns out to be the big clue that helps the Doctor solve the mystery. Second, it’s a period drama, and if the BBC know how to do anything, it’s period drama. This means the costumes and the sets are excellent, and totally believable for the era. Even the Doctor’s Edwardian cricket outfit doesn’t seem too out of place. The acting is, for the most part, top notch, with Sarah Sutton being given the opportunity to shine in the dual role of Nyssa and Ann Talbot. She manages to bring enough nuance to each part that the observant Whovian should be able to tell when she’s being Nyssa, and when she’s Ann.
Once again, Adric gets the short straw (see the previous three stories). He really doesn’t have much to do, and when he is doing something it’s either dancing badly (and complaining about it), or eating. The Doctor doesn’t need his help to solve the crime, and, indeed, no-one really needs him to do much of anything. So he doesn’t do much of anything. Part of this is the consequence of having three companions and only two episodes. Some are not going to have much to do. But in a way, this also helps build up to Adric’s finale in the next story. He’s the odd-one-out, distant from the Doctor, awkward with the girls, and feeling left out and surplus. This just makes the resolution of his character arc all the more heartbreaking–read my review of “Earthshock” for more about that.
I was a bit surprised at how well Sir Robert and the police constable accept the TARDIS. Sure, they are bewildered when they see the interior, but when they step out and find themselves transported from the police station to the Cranleigh’s, they don’t seem at all perturbed. I would have liked to have seen a bit more reaction from them. Also, the ending is a bit abrupt. Lady Cranleigh presents the Doctor with the “Black Orchid” book, which the Doctor says he will treasure. Close up on the book’s title, and that’s it. Sure, the book is a memento of the adventure, but, unless I’m missing something, it’s not particularly poignant. We know of George Cranleigh’s affection for the flower, and the trouble it got him into–that was the Doctor’s big clue, after all. The book only confirms what we already know.
There are some Whovian points of interest at the beginning of the story. First, Tegan says she wants to travel with the crew some more, so the Doctor doesn’t have to worry about getting her back to Heathrow just yet. Perhaps a bit surprising after all she’s been through, but maybe she didn’t realize until the beginning of the last story how much she had grown attached to her new friends. Also, the Doctor says that the Great Fire of London, which they caused at the end of the last story, would have happened anyway whether they had been there or not. This appears to be a reference to the “fixed point in time” concept which has become a big part of the New Series, explaining why the Doctor cannot prevent certain historical events, and their devastating consequences, from happening (e.g., the destruction of Pompeii).
To sum up, this is a good, enjoyable story. The die-hard Whovian ought to see it, and the casual Whovian would enjoy it, but not really be missing much if he or she skipped it.