Black Orchid

Region 1

Region 2
VHS Video
(Doctor Who Story No. 121, starring Peter Davison)
  • written by Terence Dudley
  • directed by Ron Jones
  • produced by John Nathan-Turner
  • music by Roger Limb
  • 2 episodes @ 25 minutes each
Story: Landing in England in the 1920's, the Doctor becomes a badly needed player on young Lord Charles Cranleigh's cricket team, and the entire TARDIS crew is welcomed to a masquerade ball at the Cranleigh's estate where Nyssa meets a physical duplicate of herself named Ann Talbot. Meanwhile, a mysterious and dangerous figure lurks in the shadows....

DVD Extras include:

  • Audio commentary by Peter Davison (The Doctor), Sarah Sutton (Nyssa / Ann), Janet Fielding (Tegan), and Matthew Waterhouse (Adric).
  • "Now and Then" location featurette (9 min.)
  • Deleted scenes (7 min.)
  • Before & after Location film segment restoration featurette (2 min.)
  • Costumers and period costumes featurette (8 min.) from "Blue Peter"
  • Fifth Doctor Comic Strip featurette (16 min.)
  • Viewer reactions to rescheduling (2 min.) from "Points of View"
  • Photo Gallery music montage (4 min.)
  • Pop-up Production Note Subtitles
  • Easter Egg

In-Depth Analysis Review

by Martin Izsak

WARNING: This review contains "SPOILERS", and is intended for those who have
already seen the program. To avoid the spoilers, read the Buyers' Guide version instead.

This little tale is widely known for being the only "purely historical" story since 1966's "The Highlanders" (story no. 31) at the beginning of the Patrick Troughton era. Pure Historicals are a problematic sub-genre in Doctor Who, often having trouble figuring out what they're really all about, and often having even more trouble holding the interest of the show's core science fiction fans.

"Black Orchid" seems to believe that it is a 1925 period murder mystery, but as we shall see, there is very little mystery in the piece. Although featuring many wonderful ideas and enjoyable scenes, one is easily left wondering, "Where's the story?"

The Mostly Pleasant Meandering

Opening with a lacklustre and somewhat confusing sequence of the catalyst murder that should, according to formula, drive the story forward, this event instead is left so far removed from the concerns of all the rest of the characters we see throughout the first episode that it has virtually no impact beyond being a limp opening.

The rest of the characters are occupied mostly with enjoying themselves, rather nicely inviting the audience to do so with them. The series regulars are introduced quite well, and the TARDIS gets its due with a proper materialization to start things off and a scene in the interior console room juxtaposed with the exterior at the train station. The scanner screen gets its due as well. All you could hope for, in theory.

Dialogue during these scenes is not great however, and the characters don't quite seem at their best. Tegan revealing that she's no longer desperate to get back to her stewardess job is a nice touch, but Adric's curiosity about railways doesn't do anything for the audience, unlike a similar scene with Jamie in "The Evil of the Daleks" (story no. 36) which was at least injected with a good dose of humour. Adric and Nyssa would have done much better asking Tegan to explain some of the rules of cricket, so that members of the audience like myself who need a refresher might have a chance at following the game.

Mistaken identity is a staple of the purely historical Doctor Who story, and "Black Orchid" certainly indulges, firstly with the Doctor being mistaken for an expert cricket player sent to aid Lord Cranleigh's team in a match. Where past Doctors often actively sought out such deceptive means to try to get on the good side of local characters, this false identity is handed to the Doctor on a silver platter by the Cranleigh team, and he seems to go along with it bemusedly to see where it takes him. Fun.

Even more refreshing is what happens later. Instead of holding on to the fear of letting the locals know who he and his friends really are, the Doctor lets the truth come out, using this to help clear his name, albeit with enough nervous reluctance to suggest he's overcoming an old issue. Maybe he is. Good for him. And so the TARDIS is explained and demonstrated yet again in episode two, in greater detail, with another satisfying "short hop" materialization to boot. Thankfully, Sir Robert Muir is a much more open-minded, well-rounded, and enjoyable character than the usual morons the Doctor often tried to convince in Malcolm Hulke scripts in the Jon Pertwee era, and the very kind of character that was so badly needed in "The Time Meddler" (story no. 17). He even gets to tour the TARDIS interior with some of his men, a wonderful touch that seemed to be previously unthinkable in less modern historicals. Excellent. But still, there is hardly enough "story" here to make this a good adventure to introduce new viewers to Doctor Who. And the popular JNT idea of the cutaway takes its toll on this story - putting an unrelated cutaway scene between people entering the police box exterior and seeing the impossible interior of the TARDIS should be absolutely banned on Doctor Who. Worse, the entire threat in this story seems to be based on cutaway scenes.

"Black Orchid" continues to meander along with little apparent purpose. A cricket match ensues, which the Doctor has gotten involved in. Virtually nothing is done to define the two teams playing each other, or create any stakes in the game that are worth following. It's not even kept obvious which team the Doctor is on. The audience is left to shrug their shoulders like Nyssa and Adric and just sit through a sequence that only seems designed to finally make the fifth Doctor's costume look at home. Hooray for the costume.

A lengthy section of visiting and friendly discussion then ensues, while the idea of Nyssa having a double named Ann Talbot is explored. Contrary to what one might expect, no real mistaken identity plot is made out of this. One is still wondering what kind of story might kick in, as Sir Robert Muir casually mentions the Master, a.k.a. the other Doctor. Even after diffusing the remark, one is left wondering how interesting this story might become if the Master had somehow managed to involve himself in the heart of it.

Then we move on to a costume dance party, with the regulars completely enjoying themselves, Nyssa and Ann having an extra bit of fun playfully trying to confuse their identities, and the Doctor off exploring an empty and somewhat dull set of secret passages, not because of any interesting questions of mystery, but more because he is stuck in them in a variation of the old boring prisoner dynamic.

Intercut with all of this throughout episode one are snippets of our gargling villain's feet, as he interacts quietly with a silent South American, a dead body or two, and the Doctor's masquerade costume. Not very effective.

Where the Deuce has the Mystery Hidden Itself?

Mysteries typically work when an event triggers a line of questions and investigations to which everyone desperately wants answers. Typical murder mysteries involve an exploration of the life of the deceased, in attempts to reconstruct his or her final moments, or to find the killer's motive amongst the deceased's relationships. Of course, if human beings knew how to access their caring for people as much before they lose them as they do afterwards, we could have all that fascinating exploration without the grisliness of murder polluting our stories.

"Black Orchid", however, gets the whole dynamic completely reversed, giving us the murders while failing to trigger much of an investigation. Until the cliffhanger comes along, there isn't a single vocal character on screen who notices, cares, or draws any attention to the man who dies in the opening sequence. Writer Terence Dudley is relying on the audience to care all on its own. Sorry, murder mystery is not my particular cup of tea, and Digby is more interesting alive. He needs at least to be alive in someone's memory.

Even after a rather significant cliffhanger event, it takes quite a while for anyone to notice and start investigating. And when that happens, it's the Doctor and friends who have all the questions turned on them and have to prove themselves and their good intentions. Nothing new there; it's an overused part of the formula of the typical base-defense Doctor Who story, not to mention several other types, usually overcome early in a story's first episode or shortly thereafter. "Black Orchid" has left it too late in the day. By the time we get past this, all the villain's secrets are coming out, all before anyone has had any time to ask questions and build up some mystery.

At last the stakes seem to be raising themselves during an action beat, and the Doctor has some critically good things to do in making the outcome better. Well done.


On first viewing, I was starting to like Black Orchid and get into it near the end of Part Two. George Cranleigh had an interesting backstory involving various tribes in South America and the bizarre flower they worshipped. They obviously needed to be sorted out, and the Master was probably involved with them somehow. I was full of anticipation for the South American section of the story to unfold, along with the deeper mysteries of the piece.

The Doctor was given a book and opened it to the first page. I couldn't read what was written there, but it must have been profound, because it triggered Part Two's cliffhanger. Next week, I tuned in eagerly for Part Three and was most baffled and upset to be watching something called "Earthshock", which didn't seem bad at all in itself, but I didn't want to see it yet if it carried on from Parts Three and Four of "Black Orchid" which I'd somehow missed. I wondered if TVOntario had got their tapes mixed up and broadcast the wrong episode.

Only when the season's broadcasting continued with Part Two of "Earthshock" did I look back at "Black Orchid" and realize that I had actually seen all there was of it. My first experience of a Doctor Who story that was NOT four episodes long. Unforgettable.

So not all that great an ending on writer Terence Dudley's part. The interesting challenges of the Cranleigh family trying to accept George back into their family, or of the local friendly police deciding what to do with him regarding his crimes, all given the writer's cop-out. Bumped-off accidentally. The writer, though not his protagonists, attempting to use violence to resolve his plot. It felt unresolved on my confused first viewing, and still feels unresolved now.

Production Values

Roger Limb does the incidental music in this one, beginning the run of his least successful Doctor Who work. Starting off by reusing not the interesting, emotional, recognizable bits of his score from "Four to Doomsday" (story no. 118) but rather the more random, unnotable links and cues, he embellishes these with added high pitched instrumentation that adds little weight to what was already a pretty airy story. The most stand-out element is a three note phrase played with a high piano sound, the last two of those three forming what I call the "semitone drop", also known as the Achilles' Heel of Roger Limb Doctor Who music.

To do a semitone drop, basically you play any note very briefly, and then drop one semitone to hold the note below it for as long as suspense is necessary. The higher your pitch, the sillier it sounds. Bill Murray made fun of something very similar on the piano in "Ghostbusters", commenting that ghosts hate that. So do I.

The cliché is perhaps most at home in the murder mystery setting, hence it isn't too out of place here, and isn't marring a classic in this case. But long story short, "Black Orchid's" incidental score is nothing to write home about. Semitone drops abound all through the uninspired cues, and it never quite makes itself memorable otherwise.

By contrast, the 1920's dance source music tracks from "Debroy Somers' Savoy Orpheans" and "Irving Berlin" easily steal the show musically and create a fun mood for the party scenes, aided by all the excitement Tegan shows for "The Charleston" in particular. Not the best technical recordings, unfortunately, but great stuff nonetheless.

The acting is of a high calibre in this one, with particularly strong performances from Michael Cochrane as Charles Cranleigh, Barbara Murray as Lady Cranleigh, and Moray Watson as Sir Robert Muir. Sarah Sutton is excellent as ever as Nyssa, and great to see in the decidedly different characterization of Ann, but Ann's portrayal gets a bit theatrically phoney when the script turns her into a wimp - the style of the times more than anything else.

All in all, there are a lot of scenes in this story showing the characters enjoying themselves and having light-hearted fun, which is a welcome breath of fresh air. It's particularly nice to see Adric get to enjoy a party and supper at this point in the series.... Even though it doesn't really work as a mystery and isn't particularly gripping, it still remains a lovely little piece that helps balance the offerings of season 19.

International Titles:

Deutsch: "Die schwarze Orchidee"

Magyar: "Fekete orchidea"

Français: (L'Orchidée Noire)

Русский: "Чёрная орхидея"

This story has become available on DVD and VHS video.
DVD NTSC Region 1
for North America:
in the U.S.
in Canada
DVD PAL Region 2
for the U.K.:
VHS Video
NTSC A in the U.S.
NTSC B in the U.S.
NTSC in Canada
PAL for the U.K.

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Read the In-depth Analysis Review for the next story: "K9 & Company: A Girl's Best Friend"

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