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Tuesday, 15 November 2005 - Reviewed by Ed Martin

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.