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Doctor Who complete reviews: Black Orchid


The Fifth Doctor is given a 'historical' to forget...

Black Orchid (Doctor Who)

A couple of years ago, Doctor Who Magazine ran a contest in which you could win the chance to commentate on an episode of Survival. Foolishly, I decided to enter with a less than glowing review of Black Orchid. Needless to say, it didn't win, for one of the possible reasons. A) Peter Davison et al came up with a more scathing review on the accompanying DVD commentary; B) 200 words isn't enough for me to write everything I want, since there's more waffle in my writing than the entire output of Bird's Eye; and C) It was rubbish anyway.

Another potential reason is that in theory, Black Orchid shouldn't warrant such harsh criticism. It's a mid-season diversion with a down time, holiday feel – Doctor and co travel back to the Roaring 20s to play cricket, eat food and dance at the swanky Cranleigh abode. That's all.

But then having seen the thing again, I'm reminded of why I put the boot in. The above description may sound fun – the problem however, is that Black Orchid is so teeth-grindingly twee and naff that the Russ Abbott parodies of the era seem authentic by comparison.

Black Orchid, in principle, is a murder mystery. Right at the start, we're shown a close-up of a hapless butler being throttled and chucking his tray of snooty cuisine to the floor. The difference though, is that we know whodunnit. It's the unseen shuffling chap who's impersonating Darth Vader with a streaming cold.

"Black Orchid could have been assembled by a 15-year-old on work experience at the BBC, on the back of a signed photo of John Nathan Turner"

Given that murder mysteries are always good for a laugh, you could be forgiven for thinking that the next 45 minutes will be full of thrills 'n' spills 'n' twists 'n' turns. In actual fact, Hercule Poirot could solve the mystery in 30 seconds flat - it wouldn't tax ze leetel grey cells in a month of Sundays. And what's worse is that the whole story's way too simplistic, so much so, that the end product could have been assembled by a 15-year-old on work experience at the BBC, on the back of a signed photo of John Nathan Turner.

But in actual fact, a quick glance at the opening titles will reveal that Terence Dudley's back for more after his equally linear Four To Doomsday. This time around, the script for Black Orchid is groaning at the seams with an unholy fusion of 1920s clichés and idiotic dialogue. So that means plenty of “Top hole!!”s and “By jove!!”s and “Strike me pink!!”s. It's a bit like thinking that a script in 2070 will refer to people in 2010 stomping about in hoodies and bellowing “Yo man! Isswickiidinnit?” like a Fatboy from EastEnders' fan club.

"Barbara Murray opts for a hammily misplaced impersonation of Lady Macbeth as Lady Cranleigh"

Barbara Murray as Madge in 'Black Orchid'And then the silly lines flow thick and fast. “Brazil?” “Where the nuts come from...” - or even worse, “What do you do with a cocktail in a bath?” “Drink it, old boy” - a line that's made even more cumbersome by Matthew Waterhouse's clunky delivery. The end result is that perfectly respectable actors of the calibre of Moray Watson or Michael Cochrane look distinctively uneasy with proceedings, as if they've been prodded with a stick while appearing on an All Star Record Breakers skit. Elsewhere, some of the actors choose to overact the thing terribly, as if to draw attention away from the ropey script – Barbara Murray, for example, opts for a hammily misplaced impersonation of Lady Macbeth as Lady Cranleigh, especially in her OTT revelation that the shuffling lunkhead who killed half the staff at her abode is actually her son, George.

Incidentally, for such a snooty piece of work, you'd think that she'd be called something posh like Cruella or Camilla or Christina – but no, she is in fact called...


Suitable name, eh? Apparently, earlier drafts called her Vera. And then Doris. And then Ivy. But no, Madge was deemed the perfect choice for such a woman of high status. So remember that the next time you tune into Benidorm to see wizened battleaxe Madge trundling about on her mobility scooter and puffing away thirty to the dozen now that her beloved Mel has gone to the great sunbed shop in the sky.

But incredibly, Murray's Madge is positively subdued when compared with Sarah Sutton's Ann. Now I've been less than charitable to Nyssa in the past, saying that she gets little more to do than stare blank-faced into space and chip in with the occasional dull comment about telebiogenesis or some other fascinating topic. But having sat through Black Orchid, I can see why that's all that Nyssa does – because Sarah Sutton can't do melodrama for toffee.

Amazingly, Ann is the spit of Nyssa – what are the odds, eh? (Just be glad that there's no Adric lookalikes lurking around in the universe.) Ann is engaged to upper crust toff Lord Cranleigh, and is delighted when her new doppelgänger friend pops by for a visit. By contrast though, Ann – who whimpers her way through the episodes with what looks like a dead whippet on her head – is much more animated than Nyssa. She gets very excited at her jolly old plan to give Nyssa the same dress at the fancy dress ball that day. I say, what fun!

"At least Sarah Sutton gives it her best, especially with such lousy lines – but the end performance is so roaringly over the top that it goes into slingshot orbit around the moon"

Sarah Sutton as 'Ann' in 'Black Orchid'In part two though, Ann displays some of the worst am-dram histrionics on TV, just outside of Bruce Forsyth lookalike Katie Weasel's hideous performances on The X Factor. You could cut the girl some slack, given that she's just witnessed her butler being throttled by a mad harlequin. But Sutton's performance as Ann is so nails-down-the-blackboard ridiculous. “Waaaarggghhh!!” she wails. “Ooooohhh, ey hed such an awful dweeem!!!” And then confronted by the news that Lady Cranleigh set The Doctor up in order to save her son, she goes into further meltdown. “How cood yooo?” she blubs like a baby. “Ohhh, how coood yoooo??!!??”

Hmmm, well at least Sutton gives it her best, especially with such lousy lines – but the end performance is so roaringly over the top that it goes into slingshot orbit around the moon. The fault though, can only lie with the sub-par writing – even the Helen Mirrens and Judi Denches of the acting pantheon would have trouble bringing a milksop like Ann to life.

Janet Fielding as Tegan Jovanka in 'Black Orchid' (Doctor Who, 1982)What's even more odd is that the regulars are pigeonholed into unusual roles. Teabag is uncharacteristically chipper, loving the fancy dress party, flirting with old rascal Sir Robert, and indulging in some of the worst Charleston dancing seen outside of Baron Greenback lookalike Ann Widdecombe's performances on Strictly Come Dancing. Adric, in the meantime, is reduced to standing around and eating about 126 portions of stale chicken and limp lettuce buffet – making him the Ro-land Browning of Doctor Who. If only he hadn't been blown to smithereens in the next story, a vocation as a Masterchef food critic was clearly waiting for him with open arms.

The Doctor, however, is the biggest casualty of Black Orchid. Admittedly, the story starts off well for the Time Lord, and it plays well on the incarnation's love of cricket. Before you know it, he's become a one-man winning cricket team, batting and bowling his way to victory after a man called – er, Smutty – apparently recommended the fellah.

So far, so good. But sadly, it's downhill from here. The rest of the story gives The Doctor absolutely bugger all to do, apart from wandering aimlessly round the passages of the Cranleigh manor, and then getting framed for a crime that he obviously didn't commit in the first place.

"One minute, you're saving the day against the Daleks or the Cybermen, the next you're getting arrested by what appears to be Mr Plod from the Noddy books"

Peter Davison in 'Black Orchid'What's worse is that The Doctor meekly goes along with this outrageous charade. Whereas the Third and Fourth incarnations would have given as good as they got, the Fifth just protests ineffectually like a wimp and then agrees to going to the police station without so much as a shrug. Talk about a comedown in fortunes. One minute, you're saving the day against the Daleks or the Cybermen, the next you're getting arrested by what appears to be Mr Plod from the Noddy books.

No wonder Peter Davison doesn't rate this story highly. Black Orchid makes his Doctor look like an ineffectual laughing stock, easily drawn in by Lady Cranleigh, and then simply giving up when framed for the murder of the butler. It's a shame, the last few stories showed the potential of the Fifth Doctor, but all that potential's just been thrown away by lazy characterisation and poor plotting.

Production-wise, Black Orchid's a mixed bag. Ron Jones makes his undistinguished debut with rather bland, unimaginative direction – although it's a case of making a silk purse out of a sow's ear. The location filming would have looked impressive if the team wasn't filming in a wet 'n' windy October. And Roger Limb's ineffectual keyboard twinkling is a bit of an annoyance.

Having said that, the production values are, at least, strong. The interior designs from Tony Burrough are excellent, very authentic, with great attention to detail – so are Rosalind Ebbutt's well-researched and colourful costume designs. They lend the production a classy air that's not really warranted, given the less than immaculate script.

As I said, the story shouldn't really get so strong a reaction, given that it was only meant to be a light-hearted interlude before the trials of Earthshock. But the heavy-handed clichés, trite dialogue and poor characterisation are huge obstacles that get in the way of enjoyment of the story. The end result is as jarring as Teabag gleefully waving her fancy dress costume in the faces of the Cranleighs at George's funeral.


John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.

Check out John's previous Doctor Who review, The Visitation

Read more Doctor Who articles at Shadowlocked


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