Doctor Who Project: Black Orchid

Why didn’t I leave after the cricket?

The TARDIS may be bigger on the inside than on the outside, but the typical Doctor Who story is larger still: worlds warring, cultures collapsing, aliens attacking, universes unravelling. Terence Dudley’s “Black Orchid” (Story Production Code 6A) shrinks that scope to the quotidian, presenting a simple two episode murder mystery with little on the line except the Doctor’s own fate, and in doing so, produces a tale grander than the usual galaxy-spanning fare. The actors, both guest stars and regular cast, take precedence over special effects and fantastical plotting. While most of Doctor Who‘s best stories are ones that it alone could tell, this noteworthy outing for the Fifth Doctor succeeds because it practically ignores everything unique about Doctor Who—except for the characters themselves.

The Fifth Doctor and Companions at a railway station

After a disorienting opening sequence showing a violent strangulation, then someone who looks very much like Nyssa turning over in bed, then an indigenous South American with a lip plate reading a book, the TARDIS lands on the platform of a railway station in the English countryside on June 11, 1925, where the Doctor is, apparently, urgently expected by Lord Cranleigh (Michael Cochrane). Before the Doctor and companions can catch their breath—to say nothing of the audience—they are whisked away to Cranleigh Manor in a stately green Rolls Royce.

The Fifth Doctor greets Lord Cranleigh

The initial establishment of the Fifth Doctor as a cricketer in “Castrovalva” pays off here, as Cranleigh needs the Doctor to both bat and bowl in the charity game held in conjunction with the annual fancy dress ball given for a local hospital. And bat and bowl he can, hitting frequently for six and taking several wickets to win the game. Director Ron Jones fully utilizes the location shooting to display Peter Davison’s own cricket skills in a loving montage that stretches nearly five minutes, a fair allocation given that the full runtime of the story is under an hour.

Peter Davision as the Fifth Doctor, getting ready to bat

But it is this attention to detail, to a deliberate development of the setting and character, that sets “Black Orchid” apart from the usual Doctor Who story. We see the Doctor reveling in a passion that has, ultimately, nothing to do with the outcome of the story, and yet it is not just a throw-away segment. Dudley draws upon the series’ larger scope, its vast store of lore, by having the local constable, Sir Robert Muir (Moray Watson) give both the Doctor and the audience a momentary pause:

Sir Robert: “A superb innings, worthy of the master.”

Fifth Doctor: “The Master?”

Sir Robert: “Well, the other doctor.”

The reference, ultimately, is to renowned cricketer W.G. Grace, known occasionally as “the Doctor” himself, but the brief possibility that the Master, or more intriguingly another Time Lord, is somehow involved creates a resonance that never quite goes away. Was this a knowing aside, a hint at the true culprit behind the opening murder? Has the Master summoned the Doctor to break his duck?…

The Black Orchid

Well, no, as it turns out. Dudley signposts the arc of the story once the titular black orchid is shown on screen, with reference made to the late George Cranleigh, whom Tegan recognizes as a famous botanist lost on a trip down the Orinoco River. One doesn’t need to have read Jane Eyre to realize English manor houses can have all manner of madness in the attic, a certainty confirmed once the Doctor’s harlequin costume for the fancy dress ball is purloined by someone sneaking into his room via a hidden passage.

Sarah Sutton, Janet Fielding, and, um, Sarah Sutton as Ann, Tegan, and Nyssa

Compounding the mystery, Nyssa turns out to have a doppelgänger in the Cranleigh manor house: Ann, fiancé of Lord Cranleigh (and also of the presumably-late George Cranleigh). Ann and Nyssa are exact duplicates, save for a mole on Ann’s shoulder that Nyssa lacks. There’s no real narrative reason for this doubling; the events of the story could have played out along similar lines without Sarah Sutton needing to pull double duty, but again, it’s a chance for Sutton to stretch her acting a bit, for Nyssa to receive focus beyond being a scientific sounding board for the Doctor. Nyssa gains personality by playing against her mirror image, and Sutton does well to differentiate Ann and Nyssa. Director Jones takes pains to hide Sutton’s stand-in with careful shooting angles and a little CSO magic, and the effect works nicely indeed, particularly when both Ann and Nyssa don the same butterfly garb for the ball as a lark.

The Fifth Doctor pondering his harlequin costume

Jones focuses the camera on the lower half of the mysterious figure (Gareth Milne, credited as The Unknown in the first episode) until he appears in the Doctor’s costume, dancing Ann off wordlessly into the house before attempting to overpower her, killing a servant in the process. He takes her back to his hidden upstairs room, then returns the harlequin costume to the Doctor’s bed. When we finally see George Cranleigh, hidden away from the eyes of the world for years, he is disfigured, with scarring and damage to his face and hands.

Gareth Milne as George Cranleigh

The Doctor, meanwhile, has been trapped in the manor’s warren of secret passages, eventually stumbling upon the original murder victim, stuffed in a closet, before Lady Cranleigh (Barbara Murray) and the indigenous South American (Ahmed Khalil) run into him as they are headed up to check on George, whom they know has escaped. They exhort the Doctor to keep quiet about the murder until the party is over, a request to which the Doctor accedes, a curious deference on his part.

Ahmed Khalil, Barbara Murray, and Peter Davison as Dittar Latoni, Lady Cranleigh, and the Fifth Doctor

No sooner does the Doctor get back to his room and join the party as the harlequin—a call-back to the Fourth Doctor’s own contemplation of clown garb for a costume—than Ann, rescued from George’s room, accuses the Doctor of murder. Lady Cranleigh feigns absolute ignorance about the Doctor’s prior whereabouts, denying that he showed her a body in a closet upstairs and acting completely befuddled by the notion of a visitor from Brazil with a lip plate.

There’s not much true mystery by the time the second episode starts, but the interest in “Black Orchid” stems not from the overall plot but from watching familiar characters deal with a befuddling situation without resorting to sonic screwdrivers or Venusian aikido or even technobabble. The Doctor and companions simply overstay their welcome, charmed as they were by the setting and the warmth with which they were received. They cannot explain who they are or where they come from, and are in danger of being arrested, in itself not an uncommon predicament. But violence or even escape isn’t the answer—the small stakes of the story remove those courses of action from consideration. They have to talk their way out of it, with a little help from the TARDIS.

Janet Fielding and Moray Watson as Tegan and Sir Robert Muir

The rapport that Tegan establishes with Sir Robert earlier in the story comes into play here, another example of a character getting room to develop, to breathe, leading to positive plot movement. Tegan shows a great interest in the time period, and beyond her knowledge of famous botanists of the ’20s, she’s rather a keen dancer as well, Janet Fielding being possessed of a mean Charleston step. Tegan and Sir Robert banter back and forth as they dance, softening the chief constable enough that he’s willing to give the Doctor some leeway.

Despite threatening all of the companions with a murder charge for being the Doctor’s accessories, in the particular sad-yet-determined tone only Moray Watson can deliver, he remains both a man of duty and of some honor. When the Doctor finally finds the TARDIS, which the local constabulary moved from the train station to the police station, Sir Robert allows him to open it. Upon entering, the befuddled constable gathers his wits with remarkable speed, his first impulse being to apologize to the Doctor for arresting him under false pretenses.

Peter Davison, Ivor Salter, and Moray Watson as the Fifth Doctor, Sergeant Markham, and Sir Robert Muir

By the time the TARDIS makes a quick and surprisingly precise trip back to Cranleigh Manor, George has broken free once more by setting fire to his locked room. He grabs Nyssa, thinking her to be his beloved Ann, and hauls her to the roof. Both Lord Cranleigh and the Doctor make their way after them, and together they manage to convince George to let go of the frightened Traken princess. But when the brothers go to embrace, George falls to his death by accident, a too-tidy ending that nevertheless has earned its tragedy.

A rooftop confrontation

Dudley takes quite a lot for granted in “Black Orchid,” in particular eliding the realization by a good half-dozen people that time and space travel is possible. Ann, too, accepts the death of her former fiancee, hidden in a locked room for years by her new fiancee and his mother, without much consternation. Granted some time has passed, the Doctor and companions staying for George’s funeral, but there’s no feeling of consequence to the story, a let down for an otherwise solid character piece.

A tidy ending

The main cast, as noted, gets ample time to actually act, to inhabit the characters in moments of reflection, enjoyment, and relative tranquility. Sarah Sutton and Janet Fielding in particular seem to have a blast with the script. Peter Davison continues to hone his portrayal of the Fifth Doctor, with a particular resignation creeping into his personality; this Gallifreyan has little patience with Earthlings in particular, chiding the TARDIS for having a “compulsion for planet Earth” and throwing his hands up in frustration rather than trying to wheedle out of the situation as a prior regeneration might have done.

Matthew Waterhouse as Adric, eating like the growing boy he is

Matthew Waterhouse, alas, is left out of the fun in “Black Orchid,” with Adric spending almost all of his screen time standing at a buffet table, larding up his plate with seconds, thirds, and fourths, much to the vocal consternation of Tegan and Nyssa. Adric does attempt to go to Nyssa’s rescue at the end, but there are already two action heroes on their way to the roof; not much call for a gangly teenager with a belly full of salmon mousse to pitch in. Still, Adric’s final chance to shine will soon come.

Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor

Doctor Who would never have reached nineteen seasons if every story dwelled on the small scale, on family secrets and hidden shames and minor mysteries, on personal interrelationships at the expense of action and fast-moving plots. Any number of shows, many produced by the BBC with the same guest actors and same costumes and props, do so both better and more consistently. No, Doctor Who will always, necessarily, be of a grander scope, featuring villains more concerned with conquest than class and monsters driven by primal rage rather than inchoate longing. But every so often, the show needs to step back from galaxies in peril and slow things down. “Black Orchid” is the first real pause the series has had since the “The Ribos Operation,” and before that one needs to reach back to some of the First Doctor’s stories, where the only peril falls on the Doctor and his companions rather than the universe at large. The TARDIS may intersect with relative dimensions in time and space, but Doctor Who is at its best when it also intersects with human dimension, the most important of them all.

(Previous Story: The Visitation)

(Next Story: Earthshock)

Post 125 of the Doctor Who Project

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