Cast of characters –
The 5th Doctor (Peter Davison) – A thousand-year-old Time Lord who flies around in a device looking rather like a police box. Dresses like a cricket player, which for a change comes in handy. Has a bizarre, unexplained, disturbing celery fetish.
Tegan (Janet Fielding) – An Australian air-hostess who joined the TARDIS crew in Tom Baker’s last episode, Logopolis. Noted mostly for arguing a lot and wanting to go home. Well, until she does go home and then comes right back.
Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) – This show’s very own Wesley Crusher. He embodies all that’s best about teenage boys in sci-fi shows, which is, basically, nothing. A mathematical genius and alien from another universe who, of course, looks human.
Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) – A girl from an alien world, light-years from Earth. Her dad turned into the Master back at the end of the Tom Baker era. Like Adric looks human and specifically, looks a lot like…
Ann (Sarah Sutton) – Nyssa’s exact duplicate. This sort of coincidence is caused by a natural force known as “the producers didn’t want to spend a lot of money hiring someone who merely looks similar when they can have someone who looks the same for free.”
Lord Cranleigh (Michael Cochrane) – Your basic Edwardian upper-crust sort. Largely harmless, largely boring, largely uninteresting.
Lady Cranleigh (Barbra Murray) – Your basic Edwardian upper-crust sort. But she has many secrets!
Sir Robert Muir (Moray Watson) – He’s a cop in the Dirty Harry mold. He’s got two slugs in him; one of them’s lead, and one’s burbon. He patrols the mean streets of Cranleigh Hall, only one step from turning into the men he seeks… or possibly not. Also, he hits on Tegan.
Captain Spooky Feet! (Gareth Mine) – The villain of the piece! He has menacing feet, which is all we see of him for quite some time. This turns out to be something of a blessing, sadly.
Ah, Doctor Who. If you own a reproduction of Captain Kirk’s toupee, all the Babylon 5 tie-ins ever made, one of Dirk Benedict’s old cigars or a sample of George Lucas’ urine, you’ll likely still look down your nose at Americans who like Doctor Who, especially the original series. It’s the ultimate in geekiness, leaving even other geeks looking askance.
The original series of the program ran from 1963 – 1989, with a couple interruptions. There was a movie in 1996 (which most fans try to pretend never happened), and then the new series, which started in 2005 and is still going strong.
Internationally, and especially in the UK, the show has quite a following, and why not? Shoddy production values, cheap sets, lousy SFX, mediocre screen plays; this program had it all! When it was at its best, you got some of the greatest science fiction ever put to screen. Things like The Invasion, Genesis of the Daleks, Blink, Human Nature and others remain some of the most fantastic science fiction ever made!
But when it was bad, oh, when it was bad… then you got stinking piles, like The Web Planet, the aforementioned 1996 movie, Planet of the Dead, anything with the Slitheen and Sylvester McCoy’s trifecta o’ crap: Ghost Light, The Happiness Patrol, and the mind-numbingly awful Delta and the Bannermen. You also got our subject for today: Black Orchid.
Black Orchid is an interesting episode in several ways. First, it’s a two-parter, which is rare. Second, it’s the first “historical” episode since The Highlanders, back in 1966. A historical is an episode that has no science-fiction elements aside from the Doctor and the TARDIS crew. These were never very popular with fans, though I rather like them myself. Black Orchid is the last to date.
The episode starts with the usual, very early-1980’s opening credits sequence, showing the Doctor’s face, the title of the episode and the screen credit showing that Terrence Dudley was the writer. So now we know who to blame for the upcoming 50 minutes of pain.
The story itself opens with the inside of an English country manner, where we witness murther! Murther most foul, as a man is strangled by Captain Spooky Feet until he passes out. Note to future murderers: this is not how you kill someone. If you strangle them until they pass out, they will eventually start breathing again. To really get the job done you need to keep strangling them until their heart stops. Just a little FYI.
Captain Spooky Feet is hauled off by an “Indian” with a large (very fake), lip-plate who throws him onto a bed an ties him up. I’m sure there’s probably slash fiction somewhere that goes from this as a jumping off point, but I’d rather not think about that.
Now we move onto the interior of the TARDIS; the Doctor’s time machine, which currently looks like an old police call box and is famed for being bigger on the inside than on the outside (rather like my ego, but that’s another story altogether). Inside the TARDIS we see the Doctor, Tegan, Nyssa and Adric all hanging about.
Lots of people dislike this group and say that the TARDIS is too crowded during this part of the 5th Doctor’s time. I don’t think I buy that. The 1st Doctor traveled with Ian, Barbra and Susan, and then Ian, Barbra and Vicki. The 2nd Doctor traveled with Ben, Polly and Jamie for a time. Having more than one companion isn’t a problem, provided you have writers who can handle the job. This wasn’t always the case and certainly isn’t the case with this story where Adric and Tegan could have been written as being on vacation or something and the story wouldn’t have suffered a bit.
Anyhow, the TARDIS materializes on Earth, at a train station, in 1925 (11 June, to be exact, though I really don’t care). The crew wanders about for a moment, Nyssa makes some smart-ass remarks about how mass transit systems are “silly”, and then run into a man with a car who seems to be waiting for them. Who is this strange man, you wonder. Why does he know the Doctor? What sinister, dastardly fate awaits the crew of the TARDIS?!
But first a slight, suspense-building digression about the Doctor’s companions.
Companions are humans (generally), and usually attractive women who accompany the Doctor on his adventures. They get to be the “cabbageheads” and ask all the questions that the Doctor doesn’t need to ask. They also get to be targets for exposition and occupy much fantasy time for younger, usually male, viewers.
As mentioned, in the early stages of the 5th Doctor’s stories, he had three companions in the form of Tegan, Nyssa and Adric. Tegan and Nyssa had joined up with Tom Baker in his last story, Logopolis and were written with the 5th Doctor in mind. This leaves fan-favorite, Adric.
Adric had joined up following the 4th Doctor’s visit to E-space and seems to have been written more with Tom Baker in mind. The end result of this is that Adric worked reasonably well with the 4th Doctor, but not quite as well with the 5th. A similar thing happens with Mel, who was created to travel with the 6th Doctor, did one story with him and then spent four episodes screaming her way through time and space with the 7th Doctor. She worked well enough with the 6th, but not at all with the 7th.
Adric had other problems, most of which center around the fact that he’s an overly-smart teenage boy and acts like it. He sulks, he thinks he knows best, he has all the charm and social graces of an elephant in heat and he wears a very stupid outfit. He blazed (some say flamed), a trail that would later be followed by such as Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Lucas from the abominable Seaquest and Seaquest: 2021 (hint to producers: never, ever put the year in the title. It didn’t work here, it didn’t work for Galactica: 1980 and it meant that Space 1999 was doomed from the outset).
The main problem with Adric, as well as Wesley and Lucas, is that, frankly, most teenage boys are jerks, and the last thing they want to see is a kid up on screen acting the way they do, since it highlights their own problems and forces them to see themselves as others do, and few people enjoy that sort of thing.
Me, I’ve always had somewhat of a hard spot for Adric. Back when I first saw these stories I was about 16 or 17 and the character was about the same age (though the actor was about four years older). I was just starting to realize that I was something other than straight, and developed a massive crush on Adric (and to a lesser extent Wesley, though not Lucas. seaQuest was so bad I wouldn’t even sit through it for the eye candy).
Adric was not only what I wanted to be (cute, intelligent), but was also what I wanted to hook up with (cute, intelligent). When the events in Earthshock happened after this episode, I was bloody annoyed, but at least they granted the character a certain immortality.
Amusingly, it turns out that I wasn’t alone in my desires. Yes, it seems that in the UK, Adric is something of a gay icon, and apparently the actor who played him, Matthew Waterhouse, is gay (big shock). I saw a recent picture of him the other week. Yeah, I’d still hit that.
But now back to our exciting story!
When we last saw the TARDIS crew (which I keep accidentally typing as “screw”… I gotta get Adric off my mind), they were being loaded into a sinister car, by a sinister driver, going to a sinister, deadly, dangerous…
GAME OF CRICKET! (cue exciting music)
The TARDIS crew goes off to a cricket match.
You don’t believe me? Check this screen cap:
Yes, apparently some wise soul at the BBC though to themselves, “The Doctor dresses rather like a cricketer these days, so why not have him actually play the bloody game?”
I’m American, so I don’t know much at all about cricket. I do wonder why it’s not more popular here, given that we’re in love with big numbers games (football, basketball), and cricket seems to have impressively big scores. Must be the outfits or something.
Anyhow, we some of the Cranleighs now, and the Doctor gets roped into playing cricket as scenes from The Great Gatsby (not the Michael Bay version), unfold around us, including intense questioning of Nyssa as to how it’s possible she looks exactly like Ann. Yeah, you gotta love it when even the characters in the story are puzzled by a large plot hole.
The Doctor gets introduced, prompting Lady Cranleigh to ask “Doctor who?”, and a little bit of me dies inside. More of me dies as we have some “cute” and “witty” dialogue where the Doctor gets confused by references to “the master” and “the other doctor.” Then we have drinks being ordered, something about Adric getting a “cocktail” in the bath (Down, Badger! You’re supposed to be doing a recap here!), and screwdrivers being ordered. Possibly… sonic screwdrivers? See, I can write things just as clever as the people behind this story.
Tegan keeps busy during all this hilarity by noticing a black orchid, and setting up that Lady Cranleigh’s other son disappeared in Brazil while doing botanical research. To my amazement, Tegan knows all about this, because she apparently keeps up on botanical expeditions in the 1920’s. Me, the only one I can name is Bligh’s Great Pacific Breadfruit Hunt, and we all know how that turned out.
It turns out that George, the son who vanished, had been engaged to Ann, the girl who looks like Nyssa and, let’s face it, the plot points couldn’t be more telegraphed had Western Union somehow sent them.
Meantime, we see Captain Spooky Feet struggling against his bonds! He escapes, clubs the lip-plate Indian and makes his way out into the mansion, no doubt setting off on some dastardly deed!
Meantime, the TARDIS crew is invited to attend the fancy dress ball that’s being planned for that very night. They accept, but don’t have costumes. Luckily costumes are quickly found, resulting in Tegan wearing some weird looking greenish thing that actually is better than her usual outfit, Adric dressing as some pirate. Yes, this does a great deal to put the gay rumors to rest. Meantime, the Doctor is given a harlequin costume and Nyssa rather conveniently gets the exact same costume as Ann.
Now I have to call bullshit on this. I mean, come on! Why would Ann order two copies of the exact same costume for herself? It’s made clear later in the screenplay that these are the only duplicate costumes! This makes sense if she knew she’d have her twin there, but she didn’t, and these costumes were clearly ordered in advance.
We have a few more Upstairs, Downstairs moments as Tegan dances the Charleston, Nyssa puts on her costume and we head to the ball, where we get all the 1920’s splendor the BBC props department can provide, and the Doctor finds (and gets lost in), a secret passage. In the room, the Doctor’s costume (one of only two with a mask… get which other costume set has one?), gets stolen by Captain Spooky Feet! Uh-oh! Trouble’s a brewin’!
We go back to the ball, where, sadly, there’s actually a rather nice bit of chemistry that happens in this scene between Tegan and a man named Sir Robert. The two actors seem to have enjoyed working together and the two characters mesh well. Had we seen more of their relationship, this might’ve been a better episode.
Pirate Adric (arr!), meantime, dances briefly with Nyssa, then heads off to graze at the buffet tables. Oh, Nyssa. Trying to make him dance with you is pointless. Either find him a stable boy or play some show tunes, then you might get a reaction.
The Doctor continues to wander about the secret passages, thoroughly lost, until he comes across a book written in Portuguese. He pokes about a bit more and, not once, but twice, manages to find secret passages by the time-honored tradition of giving up, leaning against a wall, and having the door pop open.
As the Doctor snoops, he finds a cupboard, which he opens for some reason, and inside is… a dead body! Eeek! And we go to credits.
Well, actually, we don’t, though that’d be the standard place for a Doctor Who cliffhanger, but, hey, why end the episode on one dead body, when you can end on two?
See, down at the dance, Captain Spooky Feet has appeared wearing the harlequin costume. He finds Ann and dances with her for a bit, then shuffles her off into the house. She tries to engage him in conversation, and he ignores her. As she tries to leave, he grabs her, she screams for help, and a servant carrying a very heavy blunt object comes to save the day! Of course, he starts by setting aside his impromptu weapon and attacks Captain Spooky Feet single-handed. CSF gives the guy a front-facing shoulder rub (?), which kills him (?!). Ann screams and faints, and we go to the credits!
So there’s part one. Twenty minutes of set-up, five minutes of action, and a lot of yawning. Pirate Adric (arr!) and Tegan are completely unnecessary to the plot, which is stupid and contrived, and so far there’s nothing to really make this episode work. Perhaps part two will be better? Perhaps, but do you think I’d be writing about it if it were?
Part two opens with a recap of the last scene from part one. This is great if you, like the original audience, saw it on a different day. Otherwise, it’s just kind of annoying, because you get to see the servant massaged to death again. Oh, the show later claims he died of a broken neck, but I’m not buying it.
The Doctor, meantime, is still wandering around the passages when he runs into
Lady Pompadour Lady Cranleigh and the Indian lip-plate guy. They exchange lines for a bit, and the Doctor casually mentions a dead guy in a cupboard. They run off to have a look and, of course, the body is… well, actually, it’s still there, which is a surprise, cause you’d expect that, in a work of fiction like this, the body would be gone. No, still there, so kudos to them not falling into that trap.
CSF drops the costume back off in the Doctor’s room, taking care to fold it neatly. Around this time we also get a good look at the guy, and, I gotta say, his makeup isn’t bad. Oh, it’s not great, but it actually works pretty well and looks mildly scary. I do have to wonder, however, exactly what it was that did this to him. It’s later explained that this is (shock and surprise), George, the missing son, who had been tortured by Indians in the Amazon, which broke his body and mind. I suppose I can almost buy that they did this stuff to his face, but no, not really.
Anyhow, George has now managed to find Ann laying in a bed recovering from the shock of watching him brutally massage a man to death. He advances on her, she wakes up, screams, and Indian lip-plate guy comes to the rescue, bringing out some rope as Ann flees into the arms of Lady Cranleigh.
We return to Pirate Adric (arr!) grazing (try some of the sausages… yeah, and some milk… oh, baby…), with Nyssa bitching at him for eating so much. Lord Cranleigh, in the meantime, is summoned inside the house where he hears all about the murder and the attack on Ann. The Doctor shows up at this point, of course wearing the harlequin costume, and Ann screams bloody murder.
Sir Robert shows up at this point, and it turns out he’s the head of the police hereabouts. He takes control of things, establishes that there was only one harlequin costume (still two of the costumes Ann had, and I’m still wondering why), and then asks the Doctor to explain himself. Naturally the Doctor says that he’s a Time Lord and came here in his H G Wells-style time machine. Buh?
Well, ok, I mean, I guess there was no possible other way the Doctor could’ve escaped from this mess? Right? I suppose? I know the Doctor’s pulled the whole, “I’m an alien from the future!” thing before, but I don’t really get why he’s doing it here.
Anyhow, he can quickly see that yeah, no one’s buying what he’s selling. He turns to Lady Cranleigh for help and, shock and surprise, she denies knowing anything about a dead body. Sir Robert goes with the Doctor for a look-see at the body and in the cupboard they now find a doll. No corpse.
I take back what I said earlier! Jesus H Dalek on a crutch! They didn’t skip the cliché, they just put it on hold! Argh, I hate this story!
Off in George’s room, we see the Indian sitting around reading a book as George rather easily escapes from his bonds. Apparently being a great native hunter doesn’t train one well in the art of knot-tying. George kills the Indian and sets the door to his room on fire.
Yes, that’s his great plan to escape. The door is locked, so he sets it on fire. Actually, it’s not a horrible idea and it does work, but I’m pretty sure that’s only cause the screenplay calls for it to. In reality if one sets fire to a large, solid, probably oak door, the smoke would kill you long before you were able to kick down the burning remnants of the door.
Sir Robert rounds up the TARDIS crew and hauls them off for questioning. Along the way they stop at the train station, since the Doctor has decided to show off the TARDIS to the police. Well, it’s not at the station, so they continue on to the local constabulary offices, where we find out that, ha-ha, the TARDIS was taken there by some police officers. Cute.
The Doctor takes Sir Robert and an officer into the TARDIS and they all go “ooooo, aaaaah, wow!” for a few moments and then, in one bit that actually was rather smart, Sir Robert basically says, “Yeah, ok, so you’re a time traveler. Big whoop. You could also still be a murderer.” That actually impressed me. It was a good bit of thinking on the part of the writer to have someone say that, and it’s only a pity that the rest of the screenplay wasn’t as good or intelligent.
Back at the old Cranleigh place, Lady Cranleigh has come clean about everything and the dead body from the cupboard has been reported. The Doctor offers to take everyone there in the TARDIS which, amazingly, behaves for a change. This is good, because a few episodes of the Doctor, Tegan, Pirate Adric (arr!), Nyssa, Sir Robert and some other cop in the TARDIS adventuring around would’ve probably sucked hardcore.
Inside the hall, George is menacing Lord and Lady Cranleigh when the TARDIS team show up. He grabs Nyssa and runs off with her, heading towards the roof, which is the sort of thing you just know will end in the type of death certificate that contains phrases like “impact crater” and “splash radius”.
Lord Cranleigh and the Doctor run up to the roof where George gives Cranleigh a very light tap, causing his Lordship to fly back dramatically. The Doctor gets George to look down and see that Ann is on the ground and he has the wrong girl. George gets all, “whoops, my bad,” and releases Nyssa, only to rather pointlessly and stupidly fall to his death when Cranleigh moves to thank him.
We go forward a few days and see the 1920’s people wearing black and bidding farewell to the TARDIS crew. Tegan is holding a big wrapped box and feels the need to ask if the Cranleighs are really sincere in giving them their costumes as presents. *sigh* I mean, I know this was clearly designed to establish what’s in the box, but it seems very ham-handed. I’m sure there’s better ways this could’ve been done or, better yet, they could’ve just left out the point and, indeed, this scene, entirely.
Anyhow, Lady Cranleigh gives the Doctor a copy of a book called The Black Orchid, everyone boards the TARDIS and they set off for their next exciting adventure as I claw my eyes out from boredom.
This was such a pointless, stupid episode. The cliché of two people looking exactly the same has been done to death in far better works than Doctor Who. It’s been done in Star Trek: The Next Generation in a way better than this. Come to think of it, it was also done in Star Trek, and in Star Trek VI and… well, you get the idea. Hell, this was even done during the Second Doctor’s tenure in an episode called The Enemy of the World, where we learned the Doctor’s exact double was an evil dictator!
Beyond that, there’s the entirely pointless presence of Tegan and Adric. Had this story been done with just, say, the 3rd Doctor and Jo, it might’ve worked out a lot better. But, no, since we have everyone we have to use everyone, though mostly what happens is Tegan dancing a little and Adric grazing a lot (and looking oh-so-sexy).
The ending here was sudden and contrived. There was no real mystery as to who the killer was once we knew that George Cranleigh was “missing”. Since it was a two-part story, there wasn’t the usual amount of time to build up any real conflict or suspense and really, the whole thing just came off as a half-assed attempt at doing an Agatha Christie story which, sadly, Doctor Who tried to do with the 10th Doctor running around fighting a bunch of wasps (no, not the Cranleighs; actual insects).
Even the cast hated this episode. One of the benefits of owning the DVD was listening to the commentary from Davison, Fielding, Sutton and Waterhouse as they complained their way through this story. A couple times they apologize to anyone who likes the show, then continue to rip on it. It’s actually pretty funny.
So that’s Black Orchid. Let us never speak of it again.
Next time! The 1996 Doctor Who movie! Prepare yourself for opera, regeneration and the gayest version of the Master ever put on screen!