After some snowmen for Christmas, why not a party with food and dancing for New Years’…
The fifth Doctor’s full house. The TARDIS is quite full during the show’s nineteenth season, with no fewer than four companions aboard in the form of the Doctor, Adric, Nyssa and Tegan. Three of whom are aliens and one an Australian. The TARDIS hasn’t had a crew of four since Seasons One and Two, when Ian and Barbara, the Doctor and Susan followed by Vicki made a cosy family unit of sensible parents with teenager and wacky grandpa. The dynamic for the fifth Doctor – more, big brother left in charge of unruly kids – is really quite different. No wonder the abiding expression of Doctor Five is exasperation.
Ten Reasons To Watch "Black Orchid " (warning: spoilers)
- It’s a holiday – we often get the impression that the Doctor and his fellow travellers rocket from one peril to another with barely a chance to catch their breath. Indeed, I’ve even made a joke of the Second Doctor’s apparent “afternoon of fun” consisting of “The Evil of the Daleks”, “The Tomb of the Cybermen”, “The Abominable Snowmen” and “The Ice Warriors” with no gaps in between stories. So it’s nice that we get to see what TARDIS travel is like – or at least what we think it ought to be like – most of the time: turning up places and enjoying all that the local times and spaces have to offer. At least until the murders start.
- The cricket – so, the fifth Doctor has been dressed as an Edwardian cricketer since his regeneration, and suddenly he gets a chance to show off that it’s not a put-on. Just like could-have-been-a-professional Matt Smith as the eleventh Doctor playing football in “The Lodger”, Peter Davison is actually rather good at this, and genuinely clean bowls and hits for six his way through a rapid montage. Well, rapid-ish. In fact, most of episode one is actually a gentlemanly chunk of leisurely sports coverage, leavened by watching Adric and Nyssa – standing in for the Doctor Who fans, clearly – with baffled expressions on their faces. Tegan – that resident Australian, remember – gets to add a touch of character by being just as cricket-crazy as the Doc.
- The costumes – producer John Nathan-Turner had put the show’s leads in much more easily identifiable costumes, almost uniforms (literally in Tegan’s purple airhostess garb), so this is a charming opportunity to see them in mufti. Nyssa and Ann’s matching purple butterflies are the highlight, with their jewelled halter; while Tegan carries off the Twenties flapper look with aplomb. Charmingly, Adric transfers his gold star for mathematical excellence to the collar of his own dress shirt. The Doctor picks the sinister harlequin suit because otherwise how can the villain look suitably menacing when the cliffhanger comes? Oh all right, probably because it’s the nearest to his beige cricket whites.
- The food – and we get to see them eat as well. Specifically, Adric. People say that he eats so much because he’s Alzarian with a faster metabolism, but honestly he’s a teenage boy, have you seen how much we can eat at that age? This is about as much of the story as Adric gets – being scolded by the girls for getting seconds! – along with generally being confused by all the strange cricket terms and cocktails, but there’s also a lovely moment where he’s delighted at the realisation that Nyssa can Charleston. It really is all very convivial.
- The dancing – yes, the Charleston is the featured “period” dance. Nyssa appears to have picked it up almost instantly from Tegan who “learned it for a play”. Tegan – being token human at the moment – is always full of weirdly unexpected bits of knowledge when we need to know something from Earth’s history (real or imagined): like the way that she suddenly comes out with knowing Sir George Cranleigh, the famous botanist and explorer who brought the black orchid back from the regions of the Orinoco. That might be important later(!)
Is this a clue?
- It’s a hoot – ostensibly this is the “Nyssa” story of Season Nineteen: both because Sarah Sutton is given a bigger role due to the unexplained appearance of Nyssa’s doppelgänger, Ann Talbot ingénue fiancée to the man passing himself off as Lord Cranleigh (Michael Cochrane – yes, Redvers Fenn-Cooper again); but also because it’s a formal, courtly story in a period setting (like Traken is faux-Shakespeare world).
…And this comes between the emotion and psycho-drama “Tegan” story of “Kinda” and the boys’ own adventure “Adric” story of “Earthshock”…
However, there’s a lovely little side-story of Tegan charming Sir Robert, the chief constable. He’s an older man clearly flattered by the attention she pays to him. For extra Agatha Christie detail, Sir Robert is played by the redoubtable Moray Watson who was Colonel Bantry in the first of the BBC’s famous Miss Marple adaptations.
- It’s a genuine historical – (by which we mean entirely made up history) for the first time since Jamie joined the Second Doctor in “The Highlanders” and for the last time in the series so far we have a story set in the past with no “science fiction” elements (i.e. monsters) at all. It works perfectly well without them, and really the series should – at least occasionally – make or use of the fact that the social mores of the past could be as alien and dangerous as any Zygon gambit.
Look - real history. Ish.
- It’s a delightfully unexpected afternoon – Lady Cranleigh (Barbara Murray) turns out to be a complete bitch. Faced with the possibility of social embarrassment if she admits that her elder son is not so much dead as off his chump, she prefers to drop the Doctor in it by making him look increasingly crazy himself.
This never happened(!)
She’s hardly naïve enough to believe her own excuse that “no harm will come to him; he’s innocent”, especially since she’s taken active steps to undermine his alibi. Of course, the entire story hinges on this attitude of: “I’m very posh so you have to believe what I say”. That’s probably why the Doctor ends up trying his “I couldn’t be the murderer – I’m a Time Lord” line. Obviously it gets him nowhere, but he is trying to out-posh everyone else. (Though if anyone actually knew any other Time Lords – the Master, the Monk, the Rani, Borusa, Rassilon and the rest – that would probably see him convicted even faster!) However, the Doctor’s waspish put down to Lady Cranleigh as he is led away is a perfect moment of the fifth Doctor’s character – his politely-expressed vast irritation that since he stopped being Tom Baker the Universe seems to have stopped behaving like it owes him one.
The Unexpected Lady Cranleigh
- It’s all a rather massive coincidence – the story only kicks off because Lord Cranleigh’s chauffeur is expecting a substitute for the cricket match who prefers to be known only as the Doctor, the genuine ringer having missed his train. And that’s before we get to Nyssa and Ann being dead ringers too. It all smacks of being highly contrived, yet appears to pass off as “just one of those things” that happen when you travel about in time. Though really, it’s more like the Seventh Doctor trying to fix a holiday for his earlier self to make up for that thing he does in “Cold Fusion”. There’s even a steam engine for him to enjoy! (Though wouldn’t Cranleigh’s End have been a funnier name for the railway station than Cranleigh Halt, all things considered?!)
- Strike Me Pink – it isn’t really true that the Doctor gets off by just shuffling the entire constabulary into the TARDIS… but it can look that way. Of course, by claiming that he has a Time Machine (when challenged about his identity), he’s made everything else that he says – about secret passages, and finding a second body, and an Indian with a lip… from Brazil… where the nuts come from (manic expression and trembling lip)… all being the reason he’s only just come downstairs so cannot be the killer – sound ridiculous. Demonstrating that the TARDIS is real, helps to establish he’s not lying, at least not about that – Sir Robert does remind him (quite sensibly) that there’s still a murder to account for. Fortunately, though, the younger Cranleigh has confessed all to Ann, and so they’re going to come clean to the authorities. Which is what really clears the Doctor’s name.
With the police summoned back to Cranleigh Hall, the Doctor promises to get them there faster by TARDIS. However, given his abject inability to control his Time Machine during this season – we’ve spent most of the last five stories trying and spectacularly failing to get Tegan back to Heathrow – you have to suspect that there are months of hilarious adventures with Terileptils and Androgums for the Chief Constable in Time and Space between departure and arriving back at the Hall. Don’t think Big Finish haven’t thought about this!
This will work out just fine...
What Else Should I Tell You About "Black Orchid "?
Don’t listen to the DVD commentary. Peter Davison, and especially when egged on by Janet Fielding, will often give a bitchy commentary on the goings-on. But it’s usually a funny bitchy. This one, it appears, that the cast had a really horrid time making it. Thanks to the miracle of video-cassette (on which this was recorded) you cannot really tell that it’s absolutely bucketing down in the scenes outside on the terrace. So Davison and crew all hate it. Which is a shame, because it’s actually rather good.
If you need one, my score:
Episode one is a total charm; episode two goes off the rails completely, but the downbeat ending gives it a sense of dignity.
If You Like "Black Orchid", Why Not Try…
"The Robots of Death>/em>" – the costumes! The courtly manners! The mystery! The insane killer who likes dressing up! The clues are all there.
"The Unicorn and the Wasp" – all the period charm and whimsy, and for added Agatha Christie detailing… yer actual Agatha Christie. The explanations make about as much sense too. Christopher Benjamin and Felicity Kendal are worth the money on their own.
Meanwhile on the other side…
From the upper crust of Agatha Christie-land to the Alpha Class of the Year Five Billion (and a bit); another mystery and another villain driven crazy by their looks. And some evil cat nuns.