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The Fifth Doctor story "Black Orchid" would be the first and the last of its kind in a number of ways.

A case of mistaken identity in 1925 gets the Doctor and his companions Tegan, Nyssa and Adric invited to a weekend party at a country house. Once there they discover Nyssa is an exact double for the aristocratic Ann Talbot; but there is someone else in the house… someone willing to kill to get what he wants and what he wants is Ann. As bodies start piling up suspicion falls on the Doctor and his companions. With both Ann and Nyssa’s lives on the line can the Doctor escape the noose of accusation and stop the killer?

"Black Orchid" would end up being an oddity for the series in a lot of ways. A glitch in the schedule left the show short two filming blocks and producer Jonathan Nathan-Turner decided to do a two-episode story rather than bump one story back up to a six-parter. While two-parters were not completely unheard of in Doctor Who they had never been prevalent and the last one had been done in 1975. "Black Orchid" would end up being the last until the new series began with its new format.

This episode was also written to be a pure historical, making it the first historical since 1967… it would be the last as well. Nathan-Turner had felt that the show had been drifting into the realms of "science fantasy" in recent years and had wanted to drag the series back to "science fiction" but, the idea of doing a pure historical story (as opposed to the "pseudo-historical" or "sci-fi historical" episodes the show had been doing for years) appealed to him.

Despite being termed a "historical" the story is actually more like a melodrama/murder mystery played out in a historical setting. Past historical stories from Doctor Who featured famous figures or events but there is none of that here. Instead, most fans and critics have compared the story to an Agatha Christie novel. While it is true that it is a murder mystery and that Christie is probably one of the most famous of those types of writers who set their stories amongst the wealthy and aristocratic "Black Orchid" has more in common with writers such as Margery Allingham or Georgette Heyer – whose stories featured healthy doses of humor, a tendency to use period slang, and characters who were sharp, sarcastic, witty and occasionally vapid. The story also had a strong Gothic content with secret passages and characters who suffer from madness.

The greatest problem here is not the lack of sci-fi but rather the lack of a good central villain or villains. By being a two-parter the viewer never really gets to know and fear the villain as much and the revelation of the culprit and the Doctor’s escape from police suspicion seem to come too quickly, too easily, and too casually. While there is a slow build of tension throughout the first episode and the start of the second there is a sudden rush to denouement at the end.

The performances by both the regular and guest casts are solid if mostly unremarkable. "Black Orchid" was the fifth story filmed for the season and by this time Peter Davison had settled into the role and was already putting his own stamp on the character of the Doctor. His co-stars of Janet Fielding (Tegan), Sarah Sutton (Nyssa) and Matthew Waterhouse (Adric) had also gelled into a group of friends who enjoyed working together (a fact that is still evident on the cast commentary track here). The supporting characters here are nearly entirely stock figures and stereotypes but the actors still manage to bring a lot of charm to the roles. Michael Cochrane in particular stands out as Lord Cranleigh as he gives a perfect reproduction of a stereotypical 1920s era aristocrat. The stereotyping, however, becomes wince-inducing with the character of Latoni who is supposed to be a South American native… complete with a plate in his lip, no shirt, and native headband. Politically correct this is not. Where the story really captivates, though, is in the trappings. The setting is lovely, the period costumes are delightful and the vintage vehicles are spot-on.

The DVD is given a compliment of extras to balance out the shortness of the story. There are several deleted scenes, a short bit showing many of the filming locations then and "now", a Blue Peter segment, a bit from a British news/entertainment program called Points of View, a short feature on restoration work done for the episode, "Stripped for Action" – a piece that discusses the Fifth Doctor comic strips which appeared in Doctor Who magazine, and the usual cast commentaries, production/trivia track, and photo gallery. The problem is that many of these extras are either uninteresting or not very well tied to the episode in question.

The deleted scenes actually do add a bit more flavor to the story and help clarify a couple of scenes but the "Then and Now" piece is a bit short. The Blue Peter segment is a trip to a costumer business in London which provided costumes to most of the major TV and film studios of the time. Its connection to "Black Orchid" is only found in a quick mention of the fact that the business provided the costumes for the story. It’s an interesting bit but Americans with no past history with the Blue Peter children’s program are likely to just be bewildered (Superman fans, however, might watch it for a cameo appearance of General Zod’s costume from Superman II). The Points of View segment is also rather uninteresting and actually a bit annoying, being a collection of letters from the public complaining about Doctor Who being switched to a later, broadcast time.

The restoration piece is not nearly as interesting as others on other discs and does not provide much in the way of new insights into the process and problems of doing the work. "Stripped for Action" is probably the strongest of the extras and interesting for comic book fans since it gives some insight into the history and process of that work. Also, as fate would have it, the very stories being discussed in this piece are the ones currently being remastered and reprinted by comic book publisher IDW under the title Doctor Who Classics.

Finally, there is the cast commentary. As I mentioned before, the friendship and teasing relationship that existed between Sutton, Fielding, Davison and Waterhouse is still in evidence as all four appear on the commentary. While this leads to quite a few amusing anecdotes and verbal side-trips (in particular, Peter Davison’s pride in doing all his own work for the cricketing scenes) the cast does seem unnecessarily hard on the episode and, as the session is unmoderated, the actors tend to talk over and interrupt one another and it can be annoying trying to hear what everyone is saying.

The plot has all the clichés of melodrama here: mistaken identity, characters in the wrong place at the wrong time, doppelgangers, a touch of gothic and a dashing hero (or two in this case). The extras are in general not anything that helps lift the DVD into an exceptional range but, due to the shortness of the story and the extras, the price for this DVD is rather cheap. Taken as a whole, the story is "Doctor Who does a murder mystery" fluff but an entertaining time can be had as long as you don’t expect anything more than that.

Doctor Who: Black Orchid is available from BBC DVD priced $14.98.




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  • Andy Oliver

    Andy Oliver Jul 11, 2009 at 9:48am

    I always liked Black Orchid despite its rather lightweight rep. And hey, we actually get to see Davison playing the proper cricket in this one. I wish I had more time to pull out my Who DVDs at the moment...

  • Tonya Crawford

    Tonya Crawford Jul 11, 2009 at 8:40pm

    It is still one of my favorite stories. Like I said, as long as one goes in expecting only some light entertainment it is a fun story. I adore the 1920's setting -- the '20's and '30's are some of my favorite periods in history for culture -- I love a lot of the music, the writing, the movies and the stage of that time period. There is some convincing arguement as well that this story was partially what inspired series 4's "The Unicorn and the Wasp". This idea that Doctor Who did an Agatha Christie story without Agatha Christie so then they decided to do an Agatha Christie story WITH Agatha Christie.

  • Andy Oliver

    Andy Oliver Jul 12, 2009 at 11:10am

    Interesting thought there about Black Orchid/Wasp and the Unicorn. The '20s setting is largely window dressing - a hook to hang the story on - but perhaps it did inspire that (new) season 4 story. Even Adric comes across as quite a rounded character in Black Orchid so it does have its hidden depths. ;)

  • Tonya Crawford

    Tonya Crawford Jul 12, 2009 at 10:34pm

    Well, I think the arguement goes that the whole thing is of a set actually -- the 1920's ISN'T window dressing -- it's PART of the whole mystery thing. The idea is that Black Orchid is more like an Agatha Christie story or a Margery Allingham story (which, if spun out is pretty interesting since Margery Allingham introduced her character of Albert Campion in the story "The Crime at Black Dudley" in 1929 and Peter Davison would go on to star as Albert Campion in the MYSTERY! series) or, as I alluded to, a Georgette Heyer mystery. The writers were essentially doing what MYSTERY! did so well -- film versions of mystery books and set them in the time period they were written. So, essentially, what "Doctor Who" was trying to do here was ape a MYSTERY! presentation but without having to actually attribute (and then pay for) using an actual plot from a famous writer like Christie, Allingham or Heyer. "The Unicorn and the Wasp" instead reversed that and took the point of view of involving Christie herself in a manor murder mystery that is, on the surface, similar to the plots in her stories. In short, "black Orchid" aped Christie (et. al.) but "The Unicorn and the Wasp" put Christie herself into the mix.

    At any rate, you know there is a little part of me that is sad that "Who" has completely abandoned the straight historical. I mean, I know why they did it but a part of me thinks it would be fun to have them throw another one in sometime just to surprise people. A kind of "Hey! Look! The bad guy isn't an alien or a crazy mad scientist, it's just an ordinary human being who is a terrible person!"

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