14 Mar 2004Black Orchid, by Paul Clarke
01 Sep 2004Black Orchid, by Joe Ford
15 Nov 2005Black Orchid, by Ed Martin

It is perhaps ironic that having mildly criticized 'The Visitation' for being straightforward and almost inconsequential, I am about to praise 'Black Orchid' for the same reasons. It is one of the finest examples of a the two part format, a charming period tale with just enough of a plot to justify itself but far more to offer besides.

The plot of 'Black Orchid' essential concerns the horribly disfigured, mentally ill and love sick George Cranleigh, discoverer of the eponymous Black Orchid who has been kept secret and safe by his mother in the grandiose Cranleigh residence. He commits several murders, mistakes Nyssa for his lost love Ann Talbot, and then dies tragically. It is as simple as that, and fits the short length of the story without events seeming rushed. It works as a story because of the characters. It is hard not to feel sympathy with George, and the makeup used on Gareth Milne for the role makes him look both pathetic and horrifying. The decision by Lady Cranleigh and her other son Charles to keep George's ghastly predicament is entirely understandable given even the most basic grasp of what asylums at the time were like, and the fact that Ahmed Khalil's Ditoni refers to him as his friend emphasizes the fact that the Cranleigh's actions are motivated by compassion. 

But 'Black Orchid', whilst ultimately about George Cranleigh, manages to be about much more. For the first and only time, we get to see this TARDIS crew really relaxing. The Doctor gets to play cricket and has just taken a bath when the secret door in his room first sidetracks him. His companions get to dance and enjoy a party, which benefits them enormously; having decided to stay with the TARDIS crew for the moment, Tegan is far less bad tempered here than she can be, and seeing her smile as much as she does here and dance the Charleston with delight demonstrates how likeable she can be under the right circumstances. Even Adric is likeable here; with a need for only a limited emotional range, Matthew Waterhouse is adequate, and seeing the character greedily piling food high on his plate is a daft but welcome character moment that reminds us that he is basically a teenager, without resorting to portraying him as an obstreperous tosser. Nyssa, perhaps surprisingly, again gets little to do here, but Sarah Sutton of course gets the chance to show that she can in fact act, by also portraying Ann Talbot, a far more emotional character than the quiet, reserved Nyssa. The doppelganger storyline is an old and tired cliché, but one which Doctor Who invariably does well, not only here but also in 'The Massace of St. Bartholomew's Eve', 'The Enemy of the World', and 'The Androids of Tara'. It is a trivial aspect of this story; when George abducts Ann at the start of Episode Two, he picks the right girl; the only purpose of the doppelganger subplot in this respect is to drive the dramatic climax. But it also serves to show Nyssa relaxing too, as she is carried along by Ann's playful suggestion that they dress alike, and she obviously enjoys the joke. 

For such a short story, 'Black Orchid' is therefore worthy of considerable praise. It is also worth noting the way in which the Doctor convinces Sir Robert that he is telling the truth about who he is, by the simple expedient of showing him the TARDIS. This is something he would perhaps normally not do, but there is a suggestion of gentlemanliness about Robert that makes it seem like the logical thing for the Doctor to do. 'Black Orchid' is also very well made, benefiting like 'The Visitation' from superb location filming and excellent period sets. The acting too is first rate, especially Barbara Murray as Lady Cranleigh, Moray Watson as Sir Robert, and of course Michael Cochrane, a man who plays English aristocrats without peer, as Charles. 'Black Orchid' is indeed inconsequential, but still remains a charming diversion from the norm for the series. And in the overall context of Season Nineteen it gives us a chance to see this TARDIS crew at its best before it is irrevocably changed…

Filters: Series 19 Fifth Doctor Television

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 is 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. 

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 actresses 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 servant 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 its 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. Its 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 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 Mater!”) 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.

Filters: Series 19 Fifth Doctor Television

Black Orchid. Is that the coolest title of them all or what? I know the flower in question was only jammed into the story so as to provide said title, but even so it’s got such a great ring to it.


Small scale, time-out stories can be very effective when done right; stories with simple plots have the advantage of not requiring any clumsy exposition. When they’re done wrong they can be terrible, like Boom Town, but occasionally one comes along that has the subliminal effect of making the viewer snuggle into the sofa rather than hide behind it. Black Orchid is such a story, and aside from a few minor quibbles I love it to pieces.

A major criticism this story receives is that its status as a whodunit is demolished by us seeing the criminal every step of the way (okay so we don’t see his face, but we see who it isn’t). This would be a fair point were it not for one simple fact: this isn’t a whodunit. Terence Dudley was a professional writer and I’m sure such matters probably crossed his mind while he was writing it; he has produced instead a blood-relative to the whodunit, a story where the hero, whom the audience knows to be innocent, has to prove that innocence before he gets banged up for a crime he didn’t commit. Such stories can be very good and dramatic in a time’s-running-out way, and often stand up to repeated viewings better than mysteries that have little going for them once the truth is known.

The story opens with a servant being strangled; for such a gentle story this is a very dramatic opening, even if it is a dream sequence and even if we don’t see either murderer or victim above the knee. After this start though it winds down, and opens properly with some excellent location footage of a 1920s railway station. In terms of period detail Black Orchid scores very highly, especially the fantastic studio set of the main hall. Historically-set stories almost always look great in the location scenes, but such quality in studio wasn’t beaten until Ghost Light seven years later (not that there were a great deal of period pieces in that time, however).

The opening TARDIS scene, a bane of the early Davisons where the three inexperienced companions uneasily struggled to act like they had chemistry, is better than most and is over quite quickly (which might be why, now I come to think of it). Upon emerging from the ship, the story’s gentle pace allows for some great dialogue that enriches the atmosphere rather than coldly advancing the plot. However, the cricket match goes on a bit too long – it all seems a bit indulgent, although it is unusual to see upper class people on TV (it’s now shockingly politically incorrect to portray people who live above the poverty line), and some of the dialogue (“ripping performance, old boy!”) is a bit sickly for my tastes. I should point out the scene where Davison bowls out that extra, which competes with the birth of his children to be the Proudest Moment Of His Life, but really I’m just frustrated that it goes on far too long. It shows up the story’s biggest weakness: it is poorly paced. The main dramatic arm of the plot, the Doctor’s murder accusation, doesn’t happen until the second episode which means that the first episode contains nothing of note in terms of the narrative. While this allows for some great characterisation, a chance to develop the ambience and the occasional good witticism (it’s a very smoothly written episode), it does mean that there is an awful lot of padding for such a short story; perhaps it could have done with a bit more exposition in this first instalment. Having just praised the writing, the “Master” line is another indulgence that is only just carried off and the “Doctor Who?” routine is dragged out yet again like the gimp in Pulp Fiction being released from his cellar. Spotters of goofs can look out for the moment when Barbara Murray (playing Lady Cranleigh) backs into a painting in the scene where Nyssa and Ann are introduced to each other.

Nyssa’s doppelganger contrasts with the realistic tone of the story (not counting stock elements like the TARDIS, obviously), driving it into the realm of magic realism; the presence of Latoni the Brazilian tribesman is also incongruous as his presence there is not explained until right at the end.

Adric gets a small, neglected role in this story and if it were anyone else (with the possible exception of Mel) I’d say that was a bad thing. Tegan’s ‘Charleston’ routine is annoying (mainly because Janet Fielding, although she would improve later, grates horribly at this stage), and the idea that she should be rehearsing it only to do it for real in a few minutes is silly and contrived. Sarah Sutton’s acting as Ann is also poor; her very serious, somewhat staid acting style just about passes for the ultra-prim Nyssa, but when it comes to a character who is occasionally called on to express emotions from time to time she seems very forced and artificial. She also struggles to make her physical tasks look natural: note the scene in the second episode where she runs from the bedroom in tears, as she can be seen clearly and deliberately pushing the chair over as she runs past rather than knocking it.

Roger Limb’s electronic score, while not terrible in itself, doesn’t sit well with a period setting (a problem throughout the 1980s), but this isn’t a problem for the masque scenes where there are authentic period songs playing. One thing I’ve always wondered though is that since this is set in the 1920s nobody has the Australian pegged as a criminal. 

The Doctor’s gothic pastiche of secret corridors and hidden bodies is given remarkably little emphasis, and the cliffhanger really does suffer from the story not being a whodunit; it comes at the point between the two sections of the story, after the plot-light beginning but before the dramatic ending, and the fact that someone who is not the Doctor is trying to murder someone who is not Nyssa lacks the kind of impact I imagine it was intended to have. Afterwards though Ann makes her accusation and much as I enjoyed the opening I am glad it’s finally started to get moving. It is a gripping scene, spoiled only by the Doctor’s “I am a Time Lord, I have a time machine” routine that is inappropriate to the story.

Calling Nyssa, Tegan and Adric accessories to murder is an attempt to inject more tension that misfires as it makes absolutely no sense and is never subsequently mentioned. The TARDIS being moved from the railway station is padding, and it being revealed to anyone who wants to see is also annoying (after all, it was the Doctor’s fear of being discovered that began the series in 1963) but it’s the smug, self-congratulatory presentation of the scene that galls me rather than the actual content itself. 

The disfigured George (an excellent and disturbing piece of makeup) breaks out of his room by burning down the door – an impressive piece of pyrotechnics for a studio scene and a similarly good stunt as he crashes through the flames. It also creates a very logical and uncontrived resolution, whereas in a lesser story everyone would simply run to the rooftops for want of somewhere better to go. George’s backstory is similarly good, an appropriate scene of exposition which differs from others by not involving two characters who know the plot explaining it to each other anyway for the benefit of the viewers.

The confrontation on the roof is very good and dramatic. George Cranleigh is a sad and tragic figure, played surprisingly sympathetically by Gareth Milne. Only his final death is disappointing (despite being another good stunt), as it is difficult to believe why Lord Cranleigh would suddenly dart forward to embrace his crazed, insane brother while he is perched on the edge of a rooftop. The final scene is excellent though: in an extraordinarily touching and enigmatic finale (in a way I can’t quite put my finger on) the Doctor is given a copy of George’s book Black Orchid – but the author’s photograph is not of George but of his brother. Maybe it’s just me, but I think it’s a very poignant ending.

Black Orchid is a pleasant little story spoiled only by small problems such as its poor pacing. Even so it is a refreshing break from John Nathan-Turner’s and Eric Saward’s usual production style, that got back on full swing in the next episode. It got it right where the other Davison two-parters got it wrong: it aims low, and consequently scores high.

Filters: Series 19 Fifth Doctor Television