No Need to Gild the Orchid

Review of Black Orchid (#120)
DVD Release Date: 05 Aug 08
Original Air Date: 01 - 02 Mar 1982
Doctor/Companion: Five, Tegan Jovanka, Nyssa, Adric
Stars: Peter Davison, Janet Fielding, Sarah Sutton, Matthew Waterhouse
Preceding Story: The Visitation (Five, Tegan, Nyssa, Adric)
Succeeding Story: Earthshock (Five, Tegan, Nyssa, Adric)

It's time to throw a little love the Fifth Doctor's way, as he is currently the most under-represented (percentage-wise) in my reviews. And, since I was short on time, why not start with a nice, quick two-parter?

Besides its length, the other advantage of delving into Black Orchid is the fact that it is a "pure historical," one in which there are no science-fictional plot elements (aside from our heroes' presence outside their own time, and the brief use of the TARDIS to hop between locations). It is, in fact, the first pure historical since the Second Doctor's second outing in The Highlanders (more than fifteen years prior), and the last to be broadcast on TV to date.

However, some have suggested that new showrunner Chris Chibnall might bring back the pure historical (an idea I wholeheartedly support). Reviewing how such a story can work—and work well—is thus a fine exercise.

Our story begins when the TARDIS brings her crew back to Earth in June of 1925, where strange things are afoot at the Cranleigh family manor. As has often happened, the TARDIS crew walk in at just the right time for a case of mistaken identity to take hold, though this time there's a twist—not only is the Doctor taken to be the anticipated replacement cricketer, but Nyssa is the spitting image of Charles Cranleigh's fiancée Ann.

The Doctor takes advantage of the opportunity to play cricket (quite well, too—I'm sure writer Gareth Roberts had this story in the back of his mind when he arranged for Eleven to play football in The Lodger), and Tegan cheers him on as Nyssa and Adric look on as bemusedly as I. Once everyone returns to the manor, talk turns to the fancy-dress ball scheduled for that evening, and the Doctor and his Companions are invited to stay.

Just as amazed as the others at Nyssa's resemblance to her, Ann decides to have some fun. She acquires identical butterfly costumes for the two of them, and they proceed to make everyone guess which is which. (Predictably, this eventually results in another case of mistaken identity.)

In the meantime, the strange events in the household culminate in a pair of murders and the Doctor being mistakenly accused, due to his unique harlequin costume. In fact, the main thrust of the whole story is this behind-the-scenes intrigue, which has absolutely nothing to do with aliens or advanced tech or bouncing around in time. Sometimes one doesn't need those trappings to tell an engaging story about the Doctor and his friends.

That is, as far as I can tell, pretty much the point of this story: to have an interesting mystery that, because it's set in the 1920s, can't easily be solved with something simple like a call from one's mobile. Although I dearly love Doctor Who's fantastical (sort of science) fiction, now and again it's refreshing to have our heroes come across something more mundane—not a planetary culture they (at least the Companion(s)) have never experienced before or unfamiliar biotech or an invasion.

Further, these two episodes could easily have been cut to the length of one modern-day episode. I don't want to see the kind of stories we've had over the last ten series go away, but a few pure historicals thrown back in the mix would be welcome. The best stories are driven by character anyway; there's no need to gild the lily (or orchid, as the case may be) with speculative fiction elements just to be able to put the "This is science fiction!" label on it.

All we really need in order to watch and enjoy is the Doctor being the Doctor.









Sometimes The Doctor himself is enough of a scifi element.

I agree, it isn't necessary to have a "monster" in EVERY story. That's how we get Daleks and Cybermen shoehorned into stories that really don't need them. Watching The Doctor take on a company dumping toxic waste into the lake or some other real world problem has a certain appeal. Or The Doctor going to the Earth 100 years in the future to see the consequences of climate change.

By Kara S (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

I really hope Chibnall does some pure historicals.

By mrfranklin

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