What’s It About?
In 1920s England The Doctor is mistaken for a cricket player sent to join Lord Cranleigh’s team. After the game, the Doctor, Adric, Nyssa, and Teagan are invited to stay for a costume party at Cranleigh Hall. The festivities are short-lived, however, as a killer is hiding in the Hall and he has his eyes set on Lord Cranleigh’s fiancé, Ann—who is an exact look-alike of Nyssa.
“Black Orchid” is largely remembered and spoken of as the first straight historical since Patrick Troughton’s 1966 “The Highlanders.” It is somewhat telling that this is how fans talk about “Black Orchid,” implying that this is the only noteworthy thing about it. On the whole, I think DW fandom sees straight historicals as throwback to an era that has long since passed, which is a shame. I love the Hartnell-era historicals. I was very sad when this style of story was dropped. But I also acknowledge that it can be extremely difficult write one effectively. It is far easier to throw in an alien who threatens history or the status quo and portray the commonly believed stereotypes of the period. The best example of this is, I think, “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” which is far more gaslight horror/adventure than historical. Even when the Hartnell-era historicals got the history inaccurate, there was still the attempt at accuracy. John Lucarotti took seriously the educational mandate of Doctor Who.
And so, while “Black Orchid” truly is a straight historical, it is not of the same quality as those of the Hartnell-era because it is more a series of tropes than it is an attempt to educate as well as entertain. It is a period drama, not a historical. Some of its influences are easy to identify: Wodehouse, with the portrayal of British gentry; Agatha Christie, with the murder mystery/parlor room scenes; and the mad woman in the attic trope which originated with Jane Eyre (although in this case, it is a man, not a woman). In fact, Jane Eyre seems to be a major influence on this story, even down to the climax which leads to a death as the Hall burns. As a result, this story is even less of a historical and more of a media-conversant period piece. If you identify the tropes, you know exactly where the story is going and what the ultimate mystery is. Sadly, I had this story figured out the moment Lord Cranleigh told the story about his brother.
Incidentally, “Black Orchid” has its new Who counterpart in “The Unicorn and the Wasp,” which is also media-conversant as it owes more to “Black Orchid” and BBC and ITV Agatha Christie adaptations than it does to Christie’s actual writing and life. Just replace the madman with a giant, alien wasp, in this case.
If the companions didn’t have much to do in a four part story, they will have even less in a two part story. Adric spends most of his time eating and being teased. Teagan dances a lot (allowing us to finally see her happy, which is nice). Interestingly, Sarah Sutton plays both Nyssa and Ann in this story, and the slight contrast between the characters provides a bit of characterization. A bit.
Davison shines once more as the Doctor, and I finally think I am getting a feel for him. He is a contrast to the Baker Doctor in that he is calm and more reserved. Hartnell, Troughton, and Baker portrayed the otherness of the Doctor (albeit Hartnell’s was an otherness shaped by crankiness). Pertwee was the British dandy. The Fifth Doctor is a British gentleman. This should be perfectly obvious due to his costume, but it took me until “Black Orchid” to finally see it. The Doctor fit in too perfectly at Cranleigh Hall. This isn’t a Doctor who would refuse an invitation to Christmas dinner. This isn’t a Doctor who would run away from socializing when the adventure is over. This is a Doctor who builds relationships (and the character moments have significantly increased throughout this season). This is a Doctor who will stick around and interact with people. He isn’t seeking his next adrenaline high. If I had to level some criticism at him, this is the Doctor at his most . . . bland. I don’t mean this as an insult or criticism. In his novel Timewyrm: Revelation, Paul Cornell explores the idea that each version of the Doctor is an aspect of the Time Lord’s overall Self. The Fifth Doctor is his moral core. He is the stable center of the Doctor’s Self. He is balance. And while balance brings comfort and stability, it is not always dramatically interesting. Hence, this Doctor is constantly at odds with the universe around him, a universe that just won’t seem to stabilize into peace and harmony.
So while “Black Orchid” isn’t the best historical Doctor Who has to offer, and it is extremely predictable if you know its literary influence, it is an interesting look into the psychology of the Fifth Doctor, even if this look is not explicit. This is the Doctor at peace after a few difficult stories. He is taking it easy with a relatively simple mystery.
This will not last.