Doctor Who: Black Orchid
(4 episodes, s19e17-e18, 1982)
It’s more like Doctor Who and the Case of the Missing Drama.
The TARDIS materializes in 1925 at the Cranleigh Halt rail station through a really well-done effects sequence. Tegan is finally onboard with traveling with the Doctor, and the two non-Terran companions learn what a rail station is. A chauffeur gathers the travelers, claiming that the Doctor was expected, and drives them to a cricket match.
Our heroes meet Lord Charles Cranleigh, who joins the chauffeur in staring mouth agape at Nyssa, and the Doctor justifies his wardrobe by winning a cricket match. Tegan is really into it, but Nyssa and Adric (along with this humble watcher) have no idea what’s going on. Regardless, the Doctor’s stellar performance earns them a trip to the house to meet the rest of the family (“Doctor who?“). They also meet Lord Cranleigh’s fiancée, Ann Talbot, who is the spitting image of Nyssa.
Spoiler: It’s a convenient plot point that never warrants an explanation.
Tegan takes notice of a black orchid in a display case, which stands as a memorial to the Lady Cranleigh’s missing son George, an explorer and botanist. Ann was to marry George, but after his disappearance, she was engaged to Charles. The group finish their cocktails (or lack thereof for Nyssa and Adric) and retire to their rooms to prepare for the night’s costume ball. During all of this, a mysterious figure in gentleman’s attire unties himself and skulks about, eventually stealing the Doctor’s party costume and trapping the Time Lord in the house’s secret passageways.
We also learn at pointed (and pretty much useless) bit of information about the Nyssa-Ann pair: One of them has a mole on their shoulder. They use the circumstances to dress in identical costumes as a joke.
Adric, on the other hand, wears his badge for mathematical excellence on his costume. Because of course, he does.
The festivities proceed as the Doctor explores the house and its secrets, but the mysterious figure arrives at the party and invites Ann to dance. They end up back inside the house, and the stranger attacks Ann and kills a servant. After Ann faints, the stranger puts her in a bed and returns the costume to the Doctor’s room. At this point, we finally see his disfigured face.
The Doctor discovers a body in a cupboard, then encounters Lady Cranleigh and her servant Latoni, an Amazonian with a stretched lip. After seeing the dead body, everyone agrees to keep the whole affair silent. The lady and Latoni then go to the room containing Ann; the young woman races to Lady Cranleigh (believing it all to be a dream) while Latoni gathers a length of rope to detain the stranger.
Lady Cranleigh and Ann converge at the site of the murdered servant at the same time as the Doctor, and the Time Lord is framed for the murder and assault. The Doctor attempts to prove his innocence with the hidden body, but the cupboard is now empty. The Doctor’s inadvertent cover story is blown as the (medical) doctor the family was expecting calls with his regrets, and the Time Lord is taken into custody. He asks the police sergeant to stop at the rail station to show everyone a vital piece of evidence, but the TARDIS is missing. Once the group arrives at the police station, they discover the TARDIS (a police box that no key will open), and everyone piles in, casting light on the Doctor’s story.
At the house, the mysterious stranger breaks free of his bonds, strangles Latoni, and sets fire to the room’s door. The Doctor pilots the TARDIS to the manor as Ann learns a disturbing truth. We have it confirmed minutes later as Lady Cranleigh admits that the stranger is really George. He was caught in the Amazon and cut apart by a tribe for disrupting their sacred black orchids, but was rescued by Latoni’s tribe and returned home. Unfortunately, George bursts into the parlor and kidnaps Nyssa, set on being with his former fiancée. The Doctor and Charles rush to the rescue, and when all is said and done, Nyssa is saved and George is killed by accident.
After the funeral, in gratitude for everything the travelers have done, the Cranleigh family give the companions their fancy dresses from the party. They also give the Doctor a gift in George Cranleigh’s book, Black Orchid.
On the upside, the plot moved quickly with little filler. On the downside, it was utterly predictable once the orchid and George’s disappearance were laid out. After that, it became a somewhat painful short story that played on a train car full of Doctor Who tropes. It had no drama and no tension. It was just there.
What saves this serial is the acting and characters. While the Doctor was pretty much relegated to the background, the companions stole the show: Adric’s typical annoyance was nowhere to be found; Tegan was enjoying herself; and Sarah Sutton got a chance to really shine in a dual role, which she played as two individual characters with distinct styles. I’m seriously in awe of her range and skills after this story.
On a sad note, this is the last of the historical (non-science fiction/fantasy) serials in classic Who.
All told, Black Orchid really benefits from rounding up.
Rating: 2/5 – “Mm? What’s that, my boy?”
The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.