Review of Doctor Who ‘Black Orchid’ (Series 19)

Neela Debnath

doctor use 300x216 Review of Doctor Who ‘Black Orchid’ (Series 19)In the run up to the 50th anniversary of ‘Doctor Who’ in November 2013, Neela Debnath, with the help of BBC DVD, will be writing a review focusing on one story from each of the previous series of the show. Each review will offer readers a snapshot from every series of ‘Doctor Who’ and celebrate the longest-running science fiction television programme in the world.

It wouldn’t be Doctor Who without a bit of science fiction or fantasy and maybe that’s the reason this serial is so poor. Black Orchid saw the Doctor (Peter Davison), Adric (Matthew Waterhouse), Tegan (Janet Fielding) and Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) turn up on earth and stumble into a cricket game. They are subsequently invited to attend fancy dress party at a house where there are all sorts of secrets, on top of that there is a case of mistaken identity thrown into the mix.

So where are we in the context of the show? Well, we have a new Doctor in the form of Davison’s fifth incarnation. He took over the role as the Time Lord from Tom Baker at the end of series 18 in Logopolis when the Doctor falls off a giant telescope dish during a battle with the Master. A creature known as the Watcher merges with the fourth incarnation and then the Doctor regenerates.

In terms of companions, the sweet and naïve Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) is still with the Doctor but they have been joined by two new companions. Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) made her first appearance in The Keeper of Traken when she helped the fourth Doctor and Adric fight the Master. She joins the Doctor after discovering that her home world of Traken has been destroyed by the Master’s tampering. Tegan Jovanka (Janet Fielding) is an Australian air stewardess who also made her first appearance in Logopolis. She accidentally walked into the Tardis, mistaking it for a police box, and stayed on to travel with the Doctor after her aunt was another victim of the Master. While the Doctor has gained two new companions he also lost one, Romana (Lalla Ward) exited the Tardis in Warriors’ Gate when she left him to start a new life in a parallel universe in E-Space rather than returning to Gallifrey.

Thus the Doctor, Adric, Tegan and Nyssa embark on this rather odd adventure that plays like an Agatha Christie novel, which is unsurprisingly also one of the sources of  inspiration for this serial. The setting is early 20th Century England and it is all very stiff upper lip and proper. As a viewer it is interesting to watch how each of the companions reacts to this time period, with Nyssa amused if slightly confused by her doppelganger, Adric making the most of the buffet and Tegan insisting on dancing the Charleston. All three of them are from different times and worlds and so each will react differently to the situation which is quite amusing.

Although Doctor Who has delivered some strong and involving serials without a sonic screwdriver or alien in sight, it is not the same without some sort of extra-terrestrial touch. As the show went on the science fiction and fantastical elements played a larger part and it is something that has carried on into the new series. In my mind Doctor Who needs these elements because they define the series and I am sure I am not alone in this school of thought.

Black Orchid is rather dull compared to other Doctor Who serials because it has more in common with a bad episode of Poirot than anything else. There are no sci-fi shenanigans to speak of but this is not the only reason that Black Orchid fails. There is very little mystery in this murder mystery, it is all too obvious and the viewer knows very early on who the culprit is – there is no suspense or intrigue to keep the audience interested. It was relief to learn that there were only two parts to Black Orchid and it was great when it ended and normality was restored, well as normal as it gets in the world of Doctor Who.

As this is not a typical Doctor Who adventure, the audience does not really get a sense of the Fifth Doctor. Davison is a great actor which comes across, particularly in the scene where is defending his innocence, however the eccentricity and fun of the Doctor never really seen. He just does not feel like the Doctor here. It doesn’t help that for the most part he is dressed as a harlequin rather than in his cricketing jumper, stripy trousers and hat – not to forget the stick of celery on his jacket. The clown costume would work if it was Colin Baker but it isn’t. For contemporary viewers, this is not the best serial to watch if you are looking to discover the fifth Doctor, even if you like murder mysteries and crime dramas give this one a miss.

DVD & image credit: BBC

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  • Paul F Cockburn

    “It wouldn’t be Doctor Who without a bit of science fiction or fantasy and maybe that’s the reason this serial is so poor.”

    No, the reason this serial is so poor is because the script was a lame Whodunnit; in any case, it lazily relied on the Doctor showing people the TARDIS to clear his name, which counts as skiffy/fantasy plotting in my book.

    It is far too simplistic to denigrate the “purely historical stories” on the merits of one story; you just have to watch The Romans or The Aztecs to see how they CAN work very well.

    Unfortunately, probably too many people, in and out of the BBC, probably think along the same lines. But wouldn’t a purely historical adventure, in which the only SF element is the Doctor and his companions, be the most radical and different kind of story for the BBC to attempt now?

  • Nickscribe

    Although Season 19 is hardly the greatest in the show’s history, why pick ”Black Orchid’ for review merely to use it as a stick to beat good historicals? How about the psychic horror of ‘Kinda’ or the “Sci-Fi in History shenanigans!” of ‘The Visitation’, if that’s what you like? Poor review Neelah!

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