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Doctor Who (Classic): “Black Orchid”

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“Black Orchid” (season 19, episodes 17-18. Originally aired March 1-2, 1982)

The most succinct description of what sets “Black Orchid” apart from the rest of Doctor Who is that it’s the last of the “pure historicals”—that is, a tale that is set in the past, taking advantage of the Doctor’s ability to travel through time, but otherwise not involving any science-fictional element. In fact, it’s not only the last of them but a weird anomaly, because this is the kind of story that Doctor Who simply stopped doing at all very early in its run. The pure historical is almost entirely an artifact of William Hartnell’s First Doctor era, when the show not only hewed closer to its original mission to educate as well as entertain, but had a much broader conception of what kind of stories Doctor Who should be trying to tell.


I’ve noted before that one of the strengths of Doctor Who is that its format allows it to drop into not just any time or place, but any genre, any kind of story. The Doctor can appear in the middle of a pastiche on Victorian pulp fiction or Frankenstein movies or Asimov’s robot tales, swashbuckle with pirates or match wits with Emperor Nero, teach cavemen the secret of fire or carry the Olympic torch. After the pure historical died out, though, whenever the series played around with other genres, it followed a basic rule: Whatever kind of story the Doctor drops into, it’s always warped into a Doctor Who version of that story. “The Unicorn And The Wasp,” for instance, tweaks the standard format of an Agatha Christie mystery by sandwiching it between Doctor Who’s science-fiction elements—the Doctor replaces the traditional detective figure, and a giant alien wasp replaces the traditional Christie killer. “Talons Of Weng-Chiang” does the same thing with the Sherlock Holmes/Fu Manchu style of late-1800s adventure fiction. But the sci-fi element is always there—without it, you don’t really have a Doctor Who story at all. In the Hartnell era, the pure historicals were the exception to that rule, but that loophole was closed quickly and firmly after Patrick Troughton took over the lead role in season four: His second serial, 1966’s “The Highlanders,” was the last time history would trump science fiction in a Doctor Who story.

Except once.

“Black Orchid” turns all of what I just said on its head. Usually what we’d be getting is a Doctor Who story playing at another genre. But although it teases us with various seemingly alien elements like the disfigured hands of the mystery man in the attic and the bizarre presence of a lip-plated Amazonian Indian on an English country estate, it’s only pretending to follow Doctor Who’s traditional structure. Nothing is really alien here; it all turns out to have completely Earthly, if outlandish, explanations.


In the end, “Black Orchid” is a non-Doctor Who story that merely features the Doctor as a character. It’s something like Jane Eyre crossed with a Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot-style puzzle thriller. To be more specific, “Black Orchid” falls into the subset of drawing-room murder mysteries where the crime spurs the action but the mystery itself isn’t who did it but why, as in the late-period Holmes story “The Adventure Of The Creeping Man.” Here, we’re presented with a series of strange clues that don’t belong in a respectable Edwardian manor. There’s a rare South American flower called a Black Orchid, a missing-and-apparently-dead botanist last seen in the Amazon, a very out-of-place Indian, a dead body in a cupboard in a male nurse’s outfit, and a horribly disfigured mystery man lurking in the secret passages of the Cranleigh estate. It’s blindingly obvious who the murderer is, but that’s not the point of the story; the real mystery is what all the strange little clues add up to, how the distinguished George Cranleigh became the wheezing horror lurking in the attic, and whether the Doctor can figure it all out before he’s irrevocably accused of the murder. The fact that this is still a genre tale rather than something more realistic also helps explain the otherwise credulity-stretching presence of an identical double of Nyssa—it serves the purpose of allowing her to be involved in a story that is not actually about her at all. (And it’s only the most obvious doubling in the story: We’ve also got our Doctor accidentally impersonating whoever was actually invited to play cricket, two Cranleigh brothers both engaged to the same girl, and two people dressed in the same harlequin costume.)

There’s not a lot to the story itself, which is one of the shortest in Classic-era Doctor Who, only two episodes long when four or six was the norm. That’s the length of one standard hour-long episode of the current series, but it’s also far more leisurely paced, taking plenty of time-outs and tangents. You could justifiably, if uncharitably, call it badly paced, since the bulk of the story doesn’t get rolling until the second episode. But if there’s a lack of forward plot movement in the first half, that at least means there’s more time for the four members of season 19‘s TARDIS crew to have some unhurried moments that focus on their characters, which was never a strong suit of the show when John Nathan-Turner and Eric Saward were in charge of it.


This is a rare chance for the main cast to cut loose a little and stretch themselves in ways the scripts usually don’t allow them to (but should have). The biggest beneficiary of this is Janet Fielding as Tegan, who gets to actually smile and have fun and dance for once, instead of being stuck with her usual role as the complaining shrew. Sarah Sutton also gets to shake off some of Nyssa’s wallflowery tendencies and show a more mischievous side. Even Matthew Waterhouse, though still annoying as twerpy Adric, gets a more sympathetic, little-brothery aspect to his twerpiness with the scenes where Tegan and Nyssa tease him like older sisters about eating too much, and the way his inability to understand why he’s supposed to ask Nyssa to dance reflects both an off-worlder’s inability to understand Earth culture and a young boy’s inability to understand girls.


And of course Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor gets to indulge in a long scene on the playing field to show that his cricketer’s outfit wasn’t merely an affectation—in fact, he’s a first-class player in his own right, scoring a century (more than 100 runs) in his first time at bat. Putting the Fifth Doctor in the Edwardian age, by the way, is perfectly appropriate not just because he dresses like an old-style cricketer, but because of Peter Davison’s previous role on All Creatures Great And Small, which was also Nathan-Turner’s former home. The cricket scene gives “Black Orchid” a distinctly British flavor over and above the norm, not least because it makes no allowances for people who know nothing about how the game is played or who famous players like W.G. Grace were. So Americans might miss the joke that Grace’s nickname really was “The Doctor,” hence the momentary confusion when his name is brought up. (It’s not likely that the two men would have been mistaken for each other, considering that Grace looked more like one of the guys in ZZ Top.)


Refreshingly, “Black Orchid” is a pretty low-stakes story. Just a couple of murders and a family with a dark secret, not anything that threatens the survival of the galaxy. And that’s good, because those cosmic menaces start to get boring without some less gigantic problem popping up every now and then, to keep a more human sense of scale in perspective. It’s also a slight enough story that it probably could have been condensed into a single episode. The ending is overly neat, with the luckless George falling to his death from the rooftop and thus not only paying for his own crimes but conveniently making irrelevant the crimes his family committed on his behalf—not least Lady Cranleigh’s almost-successful attempt to frame the Doctor for the murders, which could easily have meant the death penalty for him. It’s lucky for her that the Fifth Doctor is the most forgiving and mild-mannered of any of his incarnations.


The worst problem with “Black Orchid” is wrapped up in its full-fledged embrace of the Agatha Christie-style mystery story, and it’s the same kind of thing that troubles the Victoriana-themed “Talons Of Weng-Chiang”—namely, you can’t just uncritically restage something from an early-20th-century genre, particularly when you’re being inspired by a writer whose book titles were sometimes infamously racist. “Black Orchid” parallels the expected Doctor Who monsters with the old-school mystery genre’s accepted equivalents, a non-white person and a physically and mentally disabled man, and it doesn’t do a stellar job of challenging the stereotypes that it capitalizes on. Latoni, George Cranleigh’s Indian guardian, turns out to be loyal, intelligent, well-read, and good-hearted, and not the threat we’re first led to believe he might be. But George himself is less easy to accept; he’s a tragic figure, but the story comes dangerously close to saying that his horrifying ugliness is the same thing as being evil. I don’t think it does quite go that far, but it still doesn’t sit well. On the other hand, Lady Cranleigh is arguably the real villain here anyway; none of this would have happened if she'd have taken better care of George or, later, admitted what he'd done instead of framing an innocent person.

Although “Black Orchid” has its charms and makes for an interesting palate-cleanser for a show usually rife with cosmic threats and extraterrestrial armies, I’m glad that it didn’t inspire any further stories in the same vein. It’s an interesting curiosity, but nothing more, to give us a Doctor Who that avoids taking advantage of the quintessential sci-fi elements that define Doctor Who. Sure, you could tell a story about Sherlock Holmes in which he does not investigate a crime, or an Indiana Jones story in which he is not on the trail of some ancient artifact. But why would you want to? Isn’t it a waste of material to put a straight-up Hercule Poirot story in the Doctor Who universe, which has the ability to tell stories Poirot could never touch because they’d be too “unrealistic”? Holmes solves crimes; that’s what I want to read about when I read a Holmes story. The Doctor fights monsters from outer space; it’s what he’s for. “Black Orchid” gets away with breaking this rule simply because it had never really been tried before. But it wasn’t the point of the story, just a superficial gimmick whose deeper implications I don’t think either Nathan-Turner or Saward saw. “Black Orchid” doesn’t explore what it might actually mean if Doctor Who wasn’t science fiction anymore. Certainly not to the extent that the Tenth Doctor’s two-parter  “Human Nature”/“The Family Of Blood” does, or the similarly themed Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Family,” the one set in France while Picard is recovering from being captured and assimilated by the Borg in “Best Of Both Worlds.” Both of those stories explore the possible lives that the Doctor and Picard might have if they didn’t have to be who they are. “Black Orchid” isn’t nearly as ambitious, and because of that it isn’t nearly as interesting.


Stray observations

• Continuing with the hints in “Castrovalva” and picked up more directly much later in “The Doctor’s Wife,” there’s a subtle nod to the idea that the TARDIS is somehow self-aware and able to send her pilot to destinations ofd her own choosing when the Doctor wonders aloud why they’ve landed in 1925: “What's the matter, old girl? Why this compulsion for planet Earth?”


• Other nods to Jane Eyre, besides a tortured, violent maniac living in the attic: Because of the masquerade ball, all the Cranleighs are wearing old-style 18th-century costumes that are wrong for the 1920s but proper for Jane Eyre. And of course, the mansion gets set on fire.

• The location used for Cranleigh Hall, Buckhurst Park in East Sussex, was also used earlier that season for the exteriors in “Castrovalva.” Later, it was used in Lenny Henry’s sitcom Chef as the location of his restaurant, Chateau Anglais.


• Upcoming schedule:
Aug. 5: “Remembrance Of The Daleks”
Aug. 19: “Ghost Light”
Sept. 2: “The Seeds Of Doom”
Sept. 16: “The Romans”
Sept. 30: “The Three Doctors”
Oct. 14: “The Deadly Assassin”
After that, what would you guys like to see?

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