Black OrchidBookmark and Share

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.

Anyway…

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.





EarthshockBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 15 November 2005 - Reviewed by Rob Stickler

Adric’s rubbish isn’t he? Totally rubbish. What did the production team think they were doing when they cast an inexperienced Doctor Who fan as one of the male leads in one of its longest running television programmes? Thank goodness they got rid of him in the end. Except in the last few seconds of Earthshock you won’t be thanking anyone. Part of you will be hoping against hope that this time the dying Cyberman isn’t going to blast the control panel and condemn Adric and the spaceship to a messy dinosaur exterminating end. Why? Because Adric’s death touches us all.

Episode one of Earthshock is, for me, Doctor Who at its best. It’s got some lovely character moments for the Tardis gang; crew doesn’t really describe those four does it? More of a mob (funny how the fifth Doctor’s Tardis seems crowded with four where the First Doctors never did). Including a reference to the previous story in the shape of the ‘Black Orchid’ book (a reference that I really enjoy for some reason). Nyssa and Tegan ‘handling’ the Doctor and Adric is lovely to watch and Davison and Waterhouse perform a couple of great character scenes with style.

The game, meantime, is afoot with a bunch of jump suited pot-holers getting turned into bubble and squeak by something nasty in the darkness! It’s tense, it’s convincing, it’s cheap and it looks great. Naturally it isn’t long before Blue Box Army get blamed for the murders and the Rastan Warrior Robot’s less anatomically correct cousins show up. Then the killer as, in what was at the time a complete surprise, the Cybermen turn up for the first time in eight years. JNT did well to turn down a Radio Times cover, such a surprise would be impossible today. Just like the Master’s anagrams. Episode one of Earthshock is damn near perfect Who.

So what about the rest of the story? The plot itself is simple but so well delivered that it doesn’t matter at all. Sawards script ties in some continuity but not enough to weigh the serial down. Malcolm Clarke’s music, with the exception of the Cybertheme, is a little pedestrian. There is a guest appearance from the boom mike in episode four and an hilarious Cyberslip as the villains negotiate some tricky stairs. Peter Grimwade’s direction is tight as usual. The guest artists are fine though James Warwick is excellent and Beryl Reid, though fine, is an undeniably odd choice to play a starship captain. Of the guests David Banks excels as he delivers a towering performance as chief baddie. His Cyberleader behaves in ways we do not expect a cyberman to. He is without mercy but far from without emotion. His penchant for gloating leads to some great exchanges with the Doctor. He is sadistic, forcing Tegan to watch the destruction of her world. His thirst for revenge upon the Earth and the Doctor is palpable. The words are Saward's but the performance is Banks. He is magnificent. The moment he struts onto the bridge he moves and behaves like a leader. I’m reminded of David Prowse in thinking how stunning it is when people act through that much costume. Many have speculated that this emotional Cyberleader is a mistake, a goof, an item of discontinuity. I say rubbish. I’m sure we can, between us, come up with a reason why Cyberleaders display some types of emotion. Whatever it takes don’t take my vengeful, spiteful Cyberleader away.

We round off this little excursion with a massacre which starts on the spaceship and concludes with the death of the Doctors youngest companion. Selfish, greedy, childish Adric fragged in the stratosphere of a planet he only visited three times but decided to settle on! Does it hurt? Of course it does, it’s the Doctors greatest failure. The twenty-sixth century Earth is only saved by accident and Adric, well. He doesn’t put up much of a fight does he? Adric's death is touching but more than that it’s essential. Every time the sixth, eighth, seventh, ninth or tenth Doctors companion is in trouble I will see in his eyes Adric twisting his brothers belt in his hands. Never again. So join me in thanking Matthew Waterhouse, John Nathan Turner and Eric Saward for that little bit of pain and that extra bit of depth of the Doctors character that is Earthshock.

Thank you.





KindaBookmark and Share

Saturday, 29 October 2005 - Reviewed by Ed Martin

Kinda is remembered as, in a nutshell, “that story everyone used to think was rubbish in 1982 and now thinks is brilliant”. Well, I wasn’t born in 1982 and my first memory of it is watching it after having had some teeth extracted when I was eleven. It’s rather a strange story anyway: imagine what it’s like under the effect of laughing gas. Ten years later I can safely say that all traces of the anaesthetic has worn off and so I can say that Kinda is one of my very favourite stories. Christopher Bailey has gone for the interesting but risky option of presenting the subtexts as what are important rather than the surface details, while refraining from explaining these subtexts in too much detail. This style of storytelling requires a very active viewer; it has taken me a couple of dozen viewings over the last decade for me to really get to grips with it. While then if I just want to pig out with a slice of cake I’ll watch The Androids Of Tara, when I can be bothered to put the effort in it is completely worth it.

The first aspect of the story that’s immediately obvious is the much-criticised set design. To be honest, I never had too much of a problem with it. I admit that the jungle set never looks like a real jungle but I think it serves its purpose, mainly because set designer Malcolm Thornton has stuck to standard plant designs and hasn’t been over-ambitious and presented pedal-bins with eyes like in Planet Of The Daleks. That and I’ve always been rather partial to the colour green, so I’m biased. The studio sets also get criticised for being too plain, but in every case there’s always a splash of colour somewhere to provide some kind of interest, like the jungle out of a window or the psychedelic equipment in the control room. It works well, and I’ll take it over the garish studios of many other 1980s stories.

The introductory scenes are a problem for a lot of stories, as the writers struggle to sustain them without the benefit of their plot to centre them around. The dialogue in the base in these early scenes is slightly stilted, with Todd explaining to Sanders what he already knows – a scene rescued by Sanders’s anger at being told useless information. What helps though is that Simon Rouse, Richard Todd and Nerys Hughes (apparently she gets more fan-mail for this than she does for The Liver Birds) are three terrific actors, and in fact quite show up the regulars when they arrive. Tegan, Nyssa and Adric are possibly the worst combination of companions ever (although I never hated Sarah Sutton), and in this story all three of them are sidelined to an extent: Sutton is written out almost entirely, Janet Fielding gets no lines for an episode and a half despite it being “her story”, and Matthew Waterhouse spends the whole time moping about getting screamed at by Rouse. Also, it’s funny this season watching Eric Saward write out the sonic screwdriver at every available opportunity.

Well, yes, the costumes are a commentary on colonialism. Is it possible to be too obvious simply through the medium of clothes? While it’s hardly subtle though the subtext is never dwelt upon; there are no “blobs” speeches, and the natives aren’t named after a parody of the colonial word for Africans (The Mutants). As far as I’m concerned, that’s the right kind of subtext. The only thing that threatens to push it over the edge is the stereotypical blustering leader – although he soon changes. There is a good dynamic here, in that the expedition is falling to pieces and only Todd can see this properly.

The chimes are enigmatic and assisted by some beautiful sound effects and one of the most hauntingly effective scores of the decade, and electronic music has to be very special to earn praise from me. I would like no know though how they were made, especially since this question is asked in the script but never actually answered. 

The TSS is rather comical on its first appearance, lurching about all by itself, but it does lead to a good scene where the Doctor and Adric are introduced to the colonists. Sanders’s casual mention of “the hostages” is a very effective commentary on the 19th British attitude to the foreign other, but in a time where social concerns are very much rooted in the here and now it is strange to think that Bailey would pass comment on ideas then a century out of date. Also, Sanders’s constant repetition of “they’re just ignorant savages” is overdoing it. The Helix design is very interesting, with this episode effectively building tension by first introducing the Kinda as what they appear to be on the surface and then gradually introducing elements that don’t fit Sanders’s simplistic pattern.

The scenes set in the dark places of the inside are some of my favourites ever (seriously, nitrous oxide is the only way to see this story). The chess scene in particular is one of my favourites; it is the scene I immediately think of when asked to come up with an example of how well written the programme can be, and it is helped by the spooky, macabre performances of Anna Wing and Roger Milner. Also, the sudden appearance of Dukkha is one of the show’s few genuine jump-moments, while demonstrating how well lit these scenes are: the lighting is deliberately contrast-heavy so that some parts of the picture are overlit while others are in shadow, creating a very surreal ambience. Also, because it’s the kind of story that allows for it, unexplained elements such as the strange structure and the possibility that the Mara might be a representation of something else give rise to some serious possibilities for in-depth analysis that I won’t go into here, this being an evaluative review.

Mary Morris as Panna is also a good actress, although Sarah Prince as Karuna is a real weak link; her characterisation as a whiner, coupled with the tooth-bursting pitch of her voice, is something I find intensely annoying. Hindle’s final rant at the end of the first episode seems like a ham-overdose, and it is only now that the very sophisticated writing allows Rouse to show just how good an actor he is. His madness is very subtle: not in acting terms, but in its writing. Small details like his desire to see the Kinda’s fingernails, and his blending of serious issues such as the base’s destruction with minor issues such as the need to hold a rolled-up chart in place of a cane, make this some of the best written insanity characterisation that I can immediately think of. The indications of his paranoia are very convincing, and his sudden bouts of childlike ranting are very frightening to watch.

The Box of Jhana is introduced well: the immediate implication is that it was responsible for the expedition’s previous disappearances, so that Sander’s subsequent reappearance is a real surprise.

The possession of Tegan is a good scene although let down by poor acting, and much as I would defend the set design in this story I have to say that tree is abominable, like part of an adventure playground. It may be an old joke, but if you asked me to point to something wooden it wouldn’t be the tree that springs to mind. Oh, and you can also see Adrian Mills’s fillings, which made me laugh.

The second episode’s cliffhanger is an absolute knockout, although it does turn out to be a deliberate false scare; while appropriate to the narrative it does come as a bit of a let down. That said, if it didn’t get people watching next week then nothing would, and I suppose that was the point. After this however we get to see the Box of Jhana’s full properties: let’s face it, it’s a massive piece of deus ex machina, one of my pet hates in any kind of fiction. It is responsible for the shift in the character dynamic that is so important to the story, it allows the Doctor and Todd to escape (and even gives them a place to escape to) and thereby drive the story into its second half, and is even part responsible for the resolution of the story. Thankfully the extremely impressive presentation, a half-proper explanation for it and the fact that it is introduced gradually rather than thrust upon us at the end stays off the otherwise huge sense of disappointment that I usually feel about this sort of thing. In fact, I quite like it, and all is forgiven at the end (I’ll explain later*).

The Trickster scene is actually quite grotesque and spooky in the very unsettling concept of this story. The Mara-possessed Aris turns up at this point and is frankly a bit of a let down. He rants and raves with the best of them, and is a very ordinary villain in this most extraordinary of stories. The set falls down again here too, as the crinkles and creases in the painted backdrop are clearly visible.

The exposition in this episode is hard to spot, as the plot elements are left to speak for themselves. Even as a nipper, although I had to think quite hard, I never really had too much of a problem with the plot. At this stage only the fine details require filling in. Even the explanation of the Mara doesn't say anything too obvious; it doesn't need to.

The dream sequence is truly amazing, and shows what an innovative director Peter Grimwade was. However, they picked the wrong moment for the cliffhanger: the “it’s the end of everything line” would have been perfect, but instead they bisect the following scene thus requiring a gigantic reprise for episode four. This provides the story’s only really confusing moment where the balance between adequate explanations and subtlety is misjudged; how will attacking the dome help the Mara? After wracking my brain I came up with the theory that the Mara would feed of the ensuing negative emotions, which would seem to fit with Snakedance, but I feel it should have been made clearer here. Mary Morris provides the story’s only casualty here (the missing members of the expedition are only referred to): you’d think that in such a creepy story a 10% mortality rate would seem odd, but it doesn’t as it isn’t creepy in that way.

The crushing of the doll is a surprisingly poignant moment – it’s heartbreaking to watch the Trickster drop to his knees – and I wonder if it’s significant to the Kinda’s eventual revolt against Aris. The attack on the TSS isn’t brilliantly executed, although it is very interesting to watch the Kinda’s attempts to match this alien technology. When the Doctor tries to reassure Adric, it is funny to watch Adrian Mills in the background watching that tiny flame on his wooden frame with an expression of intense anxiety. Also, Matthew Waterhouse is terrible; it’s disappointing to say that as he’d spent the story in a kind of low-grade naffness that he might just have got away with.

The “you can’t mend people” scene is probably the season’s most iconic outside of Earthshock, and deservedly so as it shows Rouse on absolute full throttle. Here is where the contrivance of the Box of Jhana is forgiven, as Todd has to work hard to convince Hindle to open it. What I love about it is that the solution has been present all this time, but nobody’s been able to actually implement it. A contrivance that can’t be used puts a very interesting spin on the whole idea.

The mirror finale, however, treads some seriously dodgy ground. Conceptually speaking the Mara is one of the best monsters ever (a shame I can’t say that about the visuals), but the idea that it soils itself at its own reaction undermines its power somewhat. The Mara’s relationship with mirrors had to be altered fairly significantly for the sequel, as well. The snake prop does look stupid, in fact almost indefensible, but in a story with so much going for it it’s a drop in the ocean. Plus, I think Grimwade deserves respect for not getting any piece of studio equipment reflected in the mirrors. The final scene is also good, with a pleasant goodbye scene that contains some real life-affirming comments while going easy on the sentiment.

Kinda is a stunning story, to the extent that the rumour that it was written by Tom Stoppard actually sounds half believable (the one about Kate Bush is a bit more of a stretch, however). Its rich themes and narrative depths reach levels other stories can only aspire to, especially given that they are delivered with such style and , on the whole, shrewdness. I consider it the best Davison and one of the half-dozen best stories of the 1980s; it sits comfortably in my all time top ten, in fact. 

*I’ve waited so long to say that.





Black OrchidBookmark and Share

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.





CastrovalvaBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 4 May 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

'Castrovalva' has of course much in common with 'Logopolis'. For one thing it follows on directly from Baker's swansong, and for another outgoing script editor Christopher H. Bidmead also pens it. More importantly, like 'Logopolis', 'Castrovalva' boasts a great central concept, but suffers somewhat from padding in Episodes One and Two. Unlike 'Logopolis' however, the padding in 'Castrovalva' is somewhat better.

The first two episodes of 'Castrovalva' essentially serve to properly introduce the new TARDIS crewmembers, including the new Doctor. In order to do this, Bidmead effectively traps the Doctor, Tegan and Nyssa in the TARDIS and puts them in an increasingly worsening situation; the Doctor's new personality unfolds as he explores the TARDIS in search of sanctuary, and Tegan and Nyssa's characters are really allowed to develop as they are forced to cope without him whilst he recuperates. This works reasonably well overall, largely because of Peter Davison. With the daunting task of replacing Tom Baker, in the eyes of many people perhaps the definitive Doctor, John Nathan-Turner's decision to cast a very different actor in the role is, in retrospect, the only sensible thing he could have done. The twenty-nine year old Davison is certainly strikingly different to Baker in appearance, and over the course of 'Castrovalva' he rises to the challenge of making the role his own. 'Castrovalva' is often criticized for being the first debut story in which it takes the entire length of the story for the new Doctor's personality to settle down; in fact, by the time the Doctor wakes up from a night's sleep in Castrovalva in Episode Three, his personality is pretty much established, the last side effects of his regeneration being occasional dizzy spells. The characteristics of the new Doctor are thus largely evident by this point; often described (often perhaps derogatively) as "nice", he seems to take much more wonder in his surroundings than his often cynical or flippant previous incarnation, and this is made nicely highlighted in scenes such as when he delights at finding celery in Castrovalva ("Definitely civilization!") and when the young girl inadvertently makes him remember Adric. This latter scene also demonstrates one of the other key characteristics of this Doctor, which his is ability to suddenly focus on a problem with considerable intensity; despite a brief lapse in his strength at the end of Episode Three, it is his realization that Adric is missing that prompts him to concentrate on the problem of Castrovalva, and he doesn't visibly relax again after that point until Castrovalva has collapsed and he and his companions are jogging back to the TARDIS. What is also notable is Davison's ability to create an air of fierce intelligence about the Doctor that gives an impression of wisdom far beyond his years, and this I think is the basis of the feeling that the Fifth Doctor is an old man in a young man's body sometimes ascribed to Davison's performance. 

The character of the new Doctor, whilst not fully established until the story reaches Castrovalva itself, is nevertheless developed over the first two episodes; initially hugely erratic, the Doctor's personality is undefined early on, with Davison getting a chance to flex his acting skills by briefly impersonating his four predecessors. Once the Doctor enters the Zero Room, we get the first proper glimpse of his new persona, and this is scene sporadically throughout Episode Two. By placing the TARDIS in danger, Bidmead creates a situation in which the Doctor is forced to struggle against post regenerative stress, and his almost frantic concentration on reaching the TARDIS control room in a wheelchair is an early indicator of the intense focus that he is capable, as mentioned above. But despite this, he nevertheless spends most of Episodes One and Two in a considerably weakened state, and with Adric a prisoner of the Master this allows Bidmead instead to focus on Tegan and Nyssa. Following the events of 'Logopolis', it is likely that Tegan and Nyssa would be suffering considerable grief, Tegan having just lost her Aunt and Nyssa having lost, well, everything. Rather than dwelling unduly on this and risking turning the series into a soap opera, Bidmead piles crises on top of the pair of them, forcing them to cope first with the Doctor's ill health, and secondly with the TARDIS' impending doom, thus giving them something to focus on. This brings out the best in both companions, and shows how effective they can be in the absence of Adric. Thrown together by really rather strange circumstances, they quickly become a team, Nyssa's gentle, analytical nature in sharp contrast to Tegan's more hotheaded, instinctive, and ultimately more confident character. The two thus complement each other surprisingly well. This becomes evident when it is realized that Episodes One and Two contain a vast amount of expository dialogue between the pair of them, especially at the end of Episode One, but the relationship between the characters is such that it seems reasonably natural for them to be explaining the plot to each other. With Nyssa's scientific knowledge and Tegan's natural tendency to take charge of a given situation, they thus carry the first half of the story between them.

The relative merits of an actor are largely down to subjective opinion; I've never had a problem with either Janet Fielding or Sarah Sutton, but I can only agree with Matthew Waterhouse's detractors, and it is here that he really starts to grate. Waterhouse is diabolical as Adric from start to finish, his angst whilst trapped in the Master's web embarrassing to behold. He is utterly unable to successfully convey either anguish or rage, and he is cringe-worthy throughout; the scene in which he tries to convince the Master that he has switched side is woeful and it beggars belief that the Master would fall for it. Anthony Ainley meanwhile is variable here; after the destruction of the Master's credibility at the end of 'Logopolis', the character partially redeems himself here, his obsession with destroying the Doctor through the most elaborate and humiliating means entirely in keeping with the Master's past motivations. Yet Ainley is given some dreadful dialogue, mostly when talking to Adric ("I'll burn through your barrier, boy!") and although he tackles it reasonably well, he's often horribly tacky in the first two episodes, especially his ghastly pantomime cackling on the scanner screen at the end of Episode One. He is far better in the last two episodes and plays the Portreeve rather well, again demonstrating, as when he played Tremas that his shortcomings as the Master are partially due to interference from the production team. Once he unmasks in Episode Four, he's quite good, his gloating and his desperate need to see the Doctor one last time before he destroys him played with reasonable conviction and an air of suppressed frustration. His final moments in 'Castrovalva' however are simply awful, as he repeatedly bellows "My web!!!" in over the top fashion. Nevertheless, he's far better than he was in 'Logopolis', his ludicrous malevolent chuckling kept to the barest minimum.

The real strength of 'Castrovalva' is the concept of the town itself, a continuation of the idea of Block Transfer Computation first scene in the previous story. The ending to Episode Three is superb, as the Doctor, Tegan and Nyssa start to discover the truth about the "dwellings of simplicity", and the M. C. Escher inspired nature of the town is revealed by a shot through the Doctor's window. The real strength of the concept however lies in the supporting characters, as the Castrovalvans are gradually convinced of their true, artificial nature. The Castrovalvans get some great lines, most notably Derek Waring's Shardovan; his understanding of the problem with the history of Castrovalva is a key moment and the character's realization of his origins is a powerful moment, eventually summarized by the great line "You made us man of evil, but we are free!" and his ensuing sacrifice. By making Shardovan, Michael Sheard's Mergrave, and Frank Wylie's Ruther such well realized and likeable characters, Bidmead is able to increase the impact of the discovery that they have all been created by Adric and the Master. The scene in which the Doctor asks them to point out specific locations on a rough map of Castrovalva works very well, because their unsettled responses to what he is trying to show them begin to demonstrate that for all that they are fictional creations of a madman they are people in their own right. This makes the truth about Castrovalva all the more poignant. 

The direction of 'Castrovalva' plays a large part in its success. Fiona Cummings wrings an impressive amount of drama out of a rather wordy script, and the cliffhanger ending to Episode One is very dramatic despite the fact that it consists of Tegan and Nyssa explaining what is happening in raised voices whilst the Master guffaws on the scanner screen. The realization of Castrovalva's collapsing space at the end of Episode Three is decently achieved, although it does look rather dated now. Paddy Kingsland's incidental score helps considerably, enhancing the tension when required but also creating a relaxed atmosphere during the initial scenes on the planet housing Castrovalva. The costumes of the Castrovalvans also look great, be they the elaborate hunting garb of Mergrave and Ruther or the day-to-day clothing of the townspeople. Having said that, the Portreeve's hat is absurd and could be taken as far more conclusive evidence of the Master's lunacy than anything seen in 'Logopolis'. The sets used for Castrovalva are impressive, and surprisingly well lit to resemble natural light, something of a rarity during Doctor Who in the eighties. This means that the studio sets feel more in keeping with the location footage than usual, although on this occasion the location footage is perhaps not the bonus that it usually is; whilst it looks nice enough, the scenes of Tegan and Nyssa transporting the Zero Cabinet across the landscape feel like an excuse to pad out five minutes of air time and make Episode Two drag somewhat. 

In summary, 'Castrovalva' is flawed and occasionally feels like it is treading water, especially during the first half, but manages to impress nonetheless. As an introduction for the new Doctor and as a means of tying up plot threads from 'Logopolis' it works perfectly well and prepares the way for the new season.





The VisitationBookmark and Share

Sunday, 14 March 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

After the multi-layered and rewarding 'Kinda', 'The Visitation' is a far more straightforward Doctor Who story and by comparison with its predecessor seems almost shallow. Nevertheless, it contains much to enjoy. 

The plot of 'The Visitation' is very simple; an alien spacecraft lands in an historical period of Earth, and its small number of occupants decides to exterminate the population so that they can have the planet for themselves. Rather like a cross between 'The Time Warrior' and 'Terror of the Zygons' in fact. Add to this one android, only a single supporting character of any real note, and some mind-controlled locals, and it all adds up to pretty standard fair. Nevertheless, this standard fair immediately evokes a feeling of traditional Doctor Who, and setting any kind of story produced by the BBC in a period setting virtually guarantees decent sets and costumes. 'The Visitation' is no exception, and whilst it lacks the depth of 'Kinda', it benefits from looking far more impressive, with an authentic looking mansion house, convincingly scruffy peasants, and some fine location filming. 

With very little characterisation of the various villages on display, the only real character of note aside from the principle villain is Richard Mace, a thespian come highwayman who almost steals the show. If I was feeling uncharitable, I might suggest that writer and new script-editor Eric Saward should have found the character easy enough to write for, as he apparently appeared in three BBC Radio 4 plays also penned by Saward, but the fact remains that he is a hugely entertaining character. Michael Robbins plays Mace with aplomb, bringing out the characters various characteristics (an amusing combination of alternating cowardice and courage, wit and bemusement) to great effect. In particular, Mace almost forms a double act with the Doctor which is great fun to watch, the former a man out of his depth and struggling to cope, the latter increasingly impatient with his new friend's struggle to grasp concepts new to him, including aliens, androids, and spaceships. The problem with Mace however, is that Saward seems so interested in writing for him that this has obvious repercussions for three of the regulars…

'The Visitation' is the first Davison story in which, for me, the excess of companions is painfully obvious. In 'Castrovalva', Adric's abduction by the Master sidelined him and allowed the story to focus more on Tegan and Nyssa, whereas in 'Four to Doomsday' and especially 'Kinda' Nyssa was to a greater or lesser extent kept in the background to allow the story focus on Adric and Tegan. Here, with Mace effectively acting as an additional companion and stealing some of the limelight, Saward juggles Tegan, Nyssa and Adric more or less equally, which actually makes it more obvious that he doesn't really know what to do with them than actually having one of them sleeping in the TARDIS for the duration of the story would. Nyssa admittedly gets to show off her scientific background by assembling the TARDIS' sonic booster and destroying the android, but for the most part the three of them take it in turns to either run around in search of each other and the Doctor, get captured, or follow the Doctor around so that he can explain the plot. On the other hand, whilst none of them get the chance to shine, none of them especially annoy; Adric inevitably comes close, but it goes without saying by this point that his character is childish, petulant, and obnoxious. Waterhouse is at least better here than in 'Kinda', although points are deducted for his unconvincing stumble when Adric sprains his ankle. In addition to all of this, the more irritating aspects of Saward's writing are on display here, although perhaps because Anthony Root is script-editor on this story, they are kept to a minimum; nevertheless, the early scenes in the TARDIS in which the Doctor and his companions recap plot elements from 'Kinda' for no good reason create a horrible soap-opera feel that will become increasingly evident during Saward's tenure as script editor. 

The main villain of 'The Visitation' is the Terileptil leader who is reasonably well scripted and who is convincingly acted by Michael Melia. The Terileptil leader is pretty aggressive, bad tempered character, and Melia conveys his short temper very effectively. Unfortunately, he's also a bit one-dimensional; Saward attempts to flesh out Terileptil culture by scripting lines about their dual obsession with art and war (the Terileptil leader objects to the idea of a life without grace and beauty) and he also makes it clear that the leader is an escaped convict who probably doesn't fairly represent all Terileptils, but it all feels like a bit of a token gesture. Having said that, the Terileptils' appreciation for art is reflected in the design of the android, which makes for a nice touch. It probably doesn't help that nowadays any alien race that it is ruthless but obsessed with honour automatically reminds me of a certain race from a popular American science fiction franchise that I'm none too fond of, but that is hardly Saward's fault… Despite all of this however, the Terileptil leader makes for a suitably nasty and ruthless villain, and he also benefits from a great costume, which makes early and effective use of animatronics in the series. Since I've mentioned the android, it also works well as a silent and impassive enforcer and its costume is impressive, save for the cricket gloves, which always look like exactly what they are. 

Finally, I should mention Peter Davison, whose performance here is one of my favourites in the role. He is increasingly frustrated and irascible throughout, which really gives the impression that all of the authority of most of his previous incarnations, plus a great deal of knowledge and experience, is trapped in too young a body. Unlike the Fourth Doctor, the Fifth seems to find it more difficult to inspire trust in his companions, possibly because he appears to be not that much older than they are. This is especially true in Episode Four, when he obviously grows tired of being constantly questioned by Adric and Tegan and frequently snaps. It is an interesting interpretation, and one that will remain in evidence throughout much of Davison's tenure in the role. Moreover, it is another reason why 'The Visitation', for all that it feels largely inconsequential, remains thoroughly pleasant to watch. And if none of that convinces you, it's worth watching for two other things: the Doctor starting the Great Fire of London, and the destruction of the sonic screwdriver!