The first thing that often gets said about Black Orchid is that it is the first historical story since The Highlanders, which spectacularly misses the point and is… well, wrong. Those Hartnell (and one Troughton) historical stories were all about the Doctor and his companions getting involved in events in history, and generally major events. They didn’t end with The Highlanders, but after that point simply followed the example set so brilliantly by The Time Meddler, and threw some aliens into the mix as well to make them more interesting. In fact, the very last story before Black Orchid, The Visitation, has far more in common with the Hartnell historicals than Black Orchid.
Much is often made of the endless possibilities Doctor Who offers, that it can do anything and be anything. To a certain extent that is true, but in practice there has always been a formula to it, and it has very rarely deviated from that formula. So here is the choice of story categories that Doctor Who nearly always slots into:
(1) The Doctor goes back into the past and gets involved in an historical event. Sometimes there are aliens involved. In fact, if the screen is in colour, there are always aliens involved.
(2) The Doctor travels into the future (from our point of view) and gets involved with some aliens or future humans up to no good.
(3) The Doctor visits Earth in the present day and tries to stop an alien invasion.
(4) The Doctor visits Earth in the present day and tries to stop a mad scientist.
Virtually every Doctor Who story is one of those, and even those that seem to be doing something different still tend to fit broadly into one of the usual categories. For example, The Celestial Toymaker and The Mind Robber are still just variations on (2), and Mission to the Unknown is the establishing bit of an episode before the Doctor has arrived, extended out to a full episode. There are hardly any occasions where Doctor Who is not in fact formulaic in this way. Looking at the classic series, this is really the only example, although The Trial of a Time Lord tries to be a courtroom drama instead. Black Orchid is a “none of the above” story, so what is it instead? Well, basically the Doctor turns into Miss Marple for two weeks.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, and we are not a million miles away from one of the usual formulas anyway. If the dark secret in the house had turned out to be an alien (or the victim of a mad scientist perhaps) then we are kind of in (3) territory but with the contemporary setting slightly skewed. Let’s face it, 1925 is hardly the Doctor travelling off to meet cavemen. We still have basically recognisably modern-day humans here, just slightly more posh ones. So how does Doctor Who fare as a kind of murder mystery / crime drama thingy? As a one-off, not too bad, and with only two episodes it’s a nice little side step. But it has one major problem…
Black Orchid is following the formula of an Agatha Christie whodunit. But there’s an issue with that, because the answer to “whodunit?” has to be “nobody”. The whole point of a murder mystery is challenging the viewer to work out which one of the suspects we are being presented with perpetrated the crime, but everyone is at the cricket match when the first murder is taking place, so all the established characters have alibis. If that led to a Jonathan Creek-style twist where one of them had actually managed to commit murder from a distance without actually being there, that would be fabulous, but no, it’s just somebody different we haven’t seen yet. So I’m all for a little experiment where Doctor Who goes all Poirot on us, but if you’re going to do that then actually do it properly rather than just paying lip-service to the genre by giving us the trappings of a murder mystery without thinking out a plot other than “somebody hidden in a house”.
So what else does Black Orchid do? Well, it gives us a double-for-one-of-the-regulars-just-by-chance storyline. This is an incredibly tired idea, and is never really convincing unless (a) you have an actor like Patrick Troughton who is so utterly brilliant that you forget how silly it all is, or (b) you happen to have an actor who really has a twin – step forward Xander from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Having said that, at least it gives Sarah Sutton something interesting to do. Up to this point she has been woefully under-utilised, with the writers tending to have more fun with mouthy Tegan or brattish Adric and presumably find them easier to script.
What it really does do well is the overall visual impact. This is on really safe ground here, because period drama was (and still is) the BBC’s speciality. It is one of the things it has led the world in doing and here we have a genuine feel of 1920s England and a holiday atmosphere. The story is also carried very well by a decent guest cast, and the regulars are all clearly enjoying themselves (although they have tended to express a totally justified dislike of the scripts since then, they were clearly having a happy time filming them) and this comes across as rather a cosy viewing experience. It is an entertaining mid-season diversion and a breath of fresh air, but it does not seem quite like Doctor Who. As a one-off, that’s absolutely fine, and despite all its problems I have to admit to having a big soft spot for Black Orchid. RP
The view from across the pond:
This is one of those times that I have to piggyback directly on Roger’s words. First, Roger chose the exact right word: cozy! Black Orchid is a cozy viewing experience. It’s different from all other stories of the era. No aliens, no spaceships, no alternate time-lines… just a period piece that the Doctor finds himself visiting. There’s a cricket match, a lazy train station, the Charleston, a beautiful mansion… we even have a wonderful “payoff” moment when the Doctor is able to prove to the local constabulary that the TARDIS is real! And it’s a wonderful moment, too! The whole crew fits nicely into the story; no one seems like an extraneous companion. Yes, even Adric! And that brings me to my second point of agreement: I too have a big soft spot for Black Orchid.
What I stand behind is that Doctor Who has the flexibility of experimenting with ideas and it does it well. It may frequently be formulaic within certain parameters, but if you go that route, we can say every piece of science fiction goes back to H. G. Wells. (For instance: alien invasion: War of the Worlds; time travel: The Time Machine; mad scientists: The Island of Doctor Moreau; mutant creatures: Food of the Gods… the list goes on!)
Since the BBC is marvelous when doing period pieces as well as mysteries, and this is both, how could it go wrong?
Well, we’ve covered that. It goes wrong by making the murderer just someone we haven’t seen yet. But even that is of minor significance because this is Doctor Who. That means that while the who was just a question of someone we hadn’t seen yet, there’s the what that remains a mystery until the second act. Up until that point, all we see are legs, but we hear guttural sounds leading the viewer to believe we may be dealing with a monster. So while the mystery is broken about the unidentified inhabitant of the house, it is maintained as we don’t know what to expect when the individual is revealed. That’s when we meet … George. I’ll leave that for the viewer to determine what they think.
Of limited interest in this story is the idea that there are two Nyssa’s. It functions only to throw George off balance, literally, and allows him to see that he made a mistake.
My biggest complaint with the story is fairly minor: not knowing what to do with George since he is clearly a sorry character who befell seriously hard times, but who also murdered people in his own home, the writers didn’t seem to know how to wrap his story up. So his brother decides to offer him a hug. …And George freaks the hell out, stumbles backwards and plummets to his death! The End. As endings go, this was no Hans Gruber fall. It was tragic, unnecessary. It was sad! The viewer didn’t want to see George die. We wanted some kind of peace for the poor man, not see him resting in it! It feels like they ran out of time and wrapped his story up. But all of that still leaves it a good, easily watchable, cozy story.
The Doctor may not be the next Poirot, and that’s fine. But for a two-part adventure, his attempt at detective work is a welcome respite from his typical adventuring. To watch the whole thing in one sitting takes under an hour. Give it a shot; you’ll like it.
If you don’t like it, I’ll forgive you for being wrong. Meet me on the roof, and I’ll give you a hug. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Earthshock