Black Orchid ★★★

The Doctor plays cricket and Nyssa meets her double at a 1920s garden party

712

Season 19 – Story 120

Advertisement

“That thing, as you call him, was my elder son George” – Lady Cranleigh

Storyline
The Tardis lands at a railway station in the summer of 1925. The Doctor, Adric, Nyssa and Tegan are taken to Cranleigh Hall where the Time Lord impresses with his cricketing prowess. The local gentry are also agog at Nyssa, who is the exact double of Lord Cranleigh’s fiancée, Ann. They’re all invited to stay for a fancy dress ball, but a danger lurks in the house – Lady Cranleigh’s son George. A botanist-explorer, he went to South America to find a rare black orchid but was tortured by a native tribe. Now disfigured and deranged, he escapes from his attic confinement.

First transmissions
Part 1 – Monday 1 March 1982
Part 2 – Tuesday 2 March 1982

Production
Location recording: October 1981 at Quainton, Bucks; Buckhurst Park, Withyham, East Sussex
Studio recording: October 1981 in TC3

Cast
The Doctor – Peter Davison
Nyssa/Ann Talbot – Sarah Sutton
Tegan Jovanka – Janet Fielding
Adric – Matthew Waterhouse
Lady Cranleigh (Madge) – Barbara Murray
Sir Robert Muir – Moray Watson
Lord Charles Cranleigh – Michael Cochrane
Brewster – Brian Hawksley
Tanner – Timothy Block
Dittar Latoni – Ahmed Khalil
Sergeant Markham – Ivor Salter
Constable Cummings – Andrew Tourell
The Unknown/George Cranleigh – Gareth Milne

Crew
Writer – Terence Dudley
Incidental music – Roger Limb
Designer – Tony Burrough
Script editor – Eric Saward
Producer – John Nathan-Turner
Director – Ron Jones

RT Review by Patrick Mulkern
Further proof, if needed, that Doctor Who can tell just about any story it likes. And you have to hand it to producer John Nathan-Turner for keeping this season varied and colourful, and, in an experimental move, briefly flirting with the programme’s long-lost historical sub-genre.

Rural England in the 1920s may not be up there with the Fall of Troy or the travels of Marco Polo (audaciously attempted in 1960s Who), but this is the first time since The Highlanders in 1966/7 that we’ve seen a purely historical adventure with no sci-fi element other than the intrusion of the Tardis travellers themselves.

There is, of course, a monster/villain of the week in the disfigured, homicidal botanist, and a reasonably engaging country house mystery, which feels like something Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie might have concocted on an off-day.

Black Orchid is an excursion, almost a vacation for the travellers, with a game of cricket, a fancy dress ball, a case of mistaken identity and a doppelganger thrown in to spice things up. This is the kind of story that simply could not have been told a year or two ago. Imagine the fourth Doctor, Romana and K•9 slotting into this high-society milieu. It could never have happened.

As it is, the fifth Doctor is immediately accepted at face value as a well-bred chap, a good egg and, on the cricket green, as a “first class bat and a demon bowler”. Davison gets to demonstrate his cricketing skills in an extended sequence at the stumps, where he looks his most relaxed to date, and is charm itself, even when implicated in the murders at the Hall.

Sarah Sutton at last is given more to do than stand around looking stoic and scientific, playing both Nyssa and aristocratic Ann, who displays a bit more joie de vivre and has hysterics after the harlequin figure abducts her. The video effects showing the doubles together are seamlessly achieved.

Adric contributes almost nothing to the story, apart from traipsing around after everybody else looking constipated, stuffing his face at the ball and dancing on the spot. His only notable line in episode one is the extraordinary: “What do you do with a cocktail in a bath?”

Tegan is really coming into her own now. Right at the start she says, “I did say I wanted to stay with the crew for a while. You can stop trying to get me back to Heathrow.” She’s stopped whingeing and really has a warmth about her. She enjoys visiting the period, flirting with the chief constable, Sir Robert, and finds the fancy dress a “great hoot”. She even knows how to do the charleston.

The prolonged dancing on the terrace is actually quite entertaining, if only because it becomes obvious that the filming was beset by bad weather, with strong winds blowing at wigs and costumes, and party guests jigging about on sodden flagstones. But they persevere. How terribly British!

A distinguished guest cast deliver the goods. Moray Watson has an easy authority, and Barbara Murray is wonderfully grand, murmuring a haughty “Really…” when Nyssa says she’s from the Empire of Traken and not, as Lady Cranleigh insists, a Worcestershire Talbot. The make-up job on the hands and face of her disfigured son is excellent and just stops short of being disturbing. But the distended lip on the Amazonian native Latoni looks more like a Wagon Wheel.

In a break with tradition, the time travellers don’t run off as soon as the immediate crisis is dealt with. For once, they have the courtesy to attend someone’s funeral, which means they must have dallied a week or two at Cranleigh Hall. Perhaps they took the constabulary and Charles and Ann on a few Tardis jaunts in between time.

For some years now, perhaps as far back as Planet of Evil (1975), the Tardis is no longer unnavigable but perhaps temperamental. One minute the Doctor cannot pilot it, the next he can do so with pinpoint accuracy.

For the first time, he invites doubting locals – policemen no less – aboard the Tardis to back up his version of events. He even speeds up the story (“I could get you there sooner”) by flying Sir Robert back to the Hall. The police box is in danger of becoming public transport.


Radio Times archive material

Black Orchid billings
Advertisement

[Available on BBC DVD]