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Wednesday, 1 September 2004 - Reviewed by Joe Ford

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.