CLASSIC DOCTOR WHO: Black Orchid


March 1982

'It's fancy dress?'

'Yes'

'Well, we haven't got any costumes'

'Oh. I was just thinking how charming yours was.'

The first two-parter since 1975 and the first purely historical story (e.g. no science fiction elements except for the TARDIS and the Doctor) since The Highlanders, Terence Dudley's Black Orchid is much more than it seems.


On the surface it's fluffy, period drama and another of those quiet little stories in the vein of The Visitation. It has really lovely location filming, particularly the train station and the cricket match scenes and, despite some studio sequences suffering from being slightly over lit, the sumptuous production design for Cranleigh Hall is another example of that old adage 'period is what the BBC does best'.

It's also got a great guest cast. Barbara Murray, Moray Watson and Michael Cochrane all seem to get into the swing of things really well, with Murray and Watson especially bringing sophistication and experience to the story. The regulars all get a bit of time in the limelight too - Davison continuing to develop the vulnerable 'brother-figure' Doctor and flashing us in his dressing gown (anyone else get a little thrill from that sight of Doctor flesh?...not seen since Pertwee pranced around in the shower in Spearhead), Sarah Sutton at last gets something to do other than burble on about telebiogenesis, Janet Fielding does the Charleston and Matthew Waterhouse confirms that Adric is a greedy little gay boy after all. We'll get back to his 'crush' on the Doctor in Earthshock...


So just put aside for a moment all these fluffy bits and rather lovely, witty one-liners - much of it coming from the comedy displacement of the Doctor and crew adjusting to 1920s mores - and you'll find Orchid really is, at heart, very black. In fact, its hidden depths elevate it somewhat from its also-ran status for me. Yes, it can be a bit dull if you're not really in the mood for it but if you want to see an Agatha Christie whodunnit given a bleak Freudian twist then this is for you. And it's all so terribly, terribly English, don't you know - hence the cricket, the frocks and the English country house. Perhaps producer Nathan-Turner had one eye on the penchant for English nostalgia and the Brideshead market in the U.S.

Why so black? Well, the Cranleighs are a right weird bunch and Terence Dudley's script (definitely his best for the series) is an odd little tale rather out of time. He still thinks it's the 1960s, bless, so this does come over a little old-fashioned even for the 1980s. However, he goes all Gosford Park on us and you've got a mother locking up her own disfigured son George (there's a whole 'disfigurement in Doctor Who' vibe that this is plugging into), his fiancee decides to get engaged to his brother Lord Cranleigh and he has a sibling rivalry bordering on the Oedipal about all the attention that his brother George had. And what the heck are those ropes for in the bedroom?


So we've disfigurement, jealousy, sadism. Orchid is about surface respectability and the murkier depths of family shame being constantly in flux. It is about upper class manners being maintained in the face of encroaching liberalism (the Charleston was viewed as an outrageous dance), the English stiff upper lip (emulated literally by the Indians minding George) determination to maintain one's appearance despite all around you going to Hell.

There are masks and costumes that further add to the dislocation of the English veneer. Murder, dark emotions, death and blame are constantly being covered up, excused, put away or locked away. Could George be the personification of sexual madness - a man rendered inarticulate of his feelings, desire and senses? He has become bestial after his brush with the dark side of nature and he's been punished for his curiosity. If there is ever a story about the repressed British then this is it. It's like a dark version of the dinner party scene in Carry On Up The Khyber.


But Orchid isn't a comedy. This ends with the death of a deeply frustrated and physically and mentally scarred man whose mother locked him up to maintain her dignity. Murray really understands this aspect of the character and plays this confused woman - from accusing the Doctor of murder to the fragile funeral mourner - with great sensitivity. Sarah Sutton is also rather good as Ann Talbot/Nyssa. She manages to subtly create two separate characters within one frame and it shows you that with the right material she can deliver. The cockiness of Talbot, with English stuffiness and reserve despatched by George's molesting advances, and then Nyssa's genuine fear as the house starts to burn down is a fine showcase for Sutton's talents. Pity she didn't get any more stories like this.

Tegan is all flirty and shows off to great comic effect and Adric doesn't quite know how to handle all this girly stuff and finds great comfort in that other Freudian notion - rabid consumption - and diverts his carnality into clearing the dinner table. The Doctor ends up inviting all and sundry into the TARDIS to prove a point after a rather frustrating day nipping along secret passages (more Freudian imagery there) and finding natives with big lips strangled and dumped in cupboards. Passages, closets, bedrooms - it's all heavily symbolic and a deliberate homage to Dorothy L Sayers, Ellery Queen and Christie.


The harlequin is also a rather redolent symbol too - for it equally sums up the Doctor as a childish and capricious individual and George as a darker, confrontational force, unformed and unadjusted. The harlequin figure is the scene of tension throughout the story. Is he the good Doctor or is he the monster George...or is he both? And what of the Black Orchid itself? Because it is black one assumes its symbolism is reversed and here instead of it being an emblem of fertility it is the opposite. It represents curiosity damned, procreation nullified. A flower with a double aspect - one which takes back what it gives.

With its two part format, juxtaposing of surface and depth, Black Orchid sits as a companion piece to the later The Awakening in some respects. Granted, there is no alien influence in Orchid save for the Doctor but there are themes in both that are complimentary, especially those concerning fertility. So despite it's often flippant tone, Orchid is a tight bundle of psycho-drama wrapped up in period packaging with a real sense of desolation at the conclusion. Certainly one of Davison's better stories and far subtler than the thud and blunder of Earthshock which would follow.

DVD Special Features:
As usual the Restoration Team work their magic and spruce up the picture and sound. The film sequences here are particularly lush. So much so that the inclement weather in the party scenes is a really obvious continuity problem. The DVD also offers a number of features.

  • Commentary - cast members Davison, Fielding and Waterhouse tear the story to shreds with Davison revealing a particular hatred of the script and the harlequin costume. Sutton appreciates the story more, especially as it gave her more to do. It's all in good spirit though even if they aren't that complimentary to what is at best a reasonably entertaining two episodes.
  • Now And Then - Another of Richard Bignell's lovely day trips to to the locations.
  • Points Of View - Great to see the witty Barry Took putting down the various complaints about the programme's timeslot and lack of good monsters.
  • Film restoration - The Restoration Team offer a look at how their collection of feather dusters and Mr. Sheen makes the old footage sparkle like new.
  • Blue Peter - Simon Groom and Sarah Greene visit Berman‘s and Nathan‘s in 1982, the film and television costumiers, and shuffle into a few sweat stained cossies from the series. Groom strips off to his underpants!
  • Stripped For Action - The Fifth Doctor - Another in the continuing series of excellent documentaries that detail the comic book history of the series. The Fifth Doctor strips were always considered as some of the best ever done and this shows you why.
  • Deleted scenes - If you like more dancing footage then you'll love it.
  • Photo Gallery - adequate collection of stills with some lovely shots of Davison in cricket mode. I can see why he was embarrassed about the harlequin cossie judging by some of the publicity shots here. Some good design images too.
  • Production Subtitles - quite brief and not quite as full of trivia this time round.  
  • Coming Soon, Radio Times listings and continuity...
Black Orchid (BBCDVD2432 - Region 2 DVD - Cert PG - Released 14th April 2008)

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Comments
3 Responses to “CLASSIC DOCTOR WHO: Black Orchid”
  1. Man... you put a lot more thought into this than I did, and I wrote a multi-page recap of it! (http://wilybadger.wordpress.com/2009/07/05/the-worst-of-doctor-who-black-orchid/ if you are curious)

    I found it insufferably dull. I did enjoy the chemistry between Tegan and Sir Robert Muir, plus given my eternal fixation on Adric, it's nice to see him, but beyond that? Meh.

  2. Oh, wonderful, wonderful, what a perfect review.

    I'm always in two minds about Black Orchid - I'm forever swayed by the stunning, spooky, Target cover art for the book... It's one let down is the unnecessary, idiotic "let's just show them the inside of the TARDIS" device (used again in poor old Warriors of the Deep).

    As an Adric devotee of old, I loved your analysis... But a bit of sympathy for the kid is due - already an orphan, he's had his (hot as hell) brother die on him, lost his dog (K9), his rather haughty yet fondly tolerant stepmother (Romana) and finally his father figure and mentor (the 4th Doctor).

    What does he get in return? Unsympathetic hetero hell: a young Doctor out to dazzle the ladies, one of whom is Doctor-infatuated Nyssa, and Tegan, who's an Aussie redneck and can't stand poor, tragic, emotionally stunted Adric.

    As of Castrovalva, he'd lost everything, and ought to have stuck with the Master. They could have had a real sub/dom scene going for them there...

  3. FRANK says:

    Oh, I like your analysis of the Adric/Doctor relationship. It's very true that by Earthshock poor old Adric had had enough of those women in the TARDIS and all that heterosexuality! It's certainly something I will be highlighting in my next review.

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