It constantly surprises me how few people love Black Orchid. Yes, the plot is thin, and it relies on some very problematic disability/racial/colonialist/gender tropes from the time period it is set in. But – oh. It’s Doctor Who in the 1920’s! It’s a tiny slice of a murder mystery romp with cricket on the village green, cocktails and the Charleston.
And, I’ll admit, a big part of the reason I have an affection for it is because the TARDIS crew gets to dress up. I really am that shallow.
The opening is one of my favourites – in a clever bit of timing, the TARDIS arrives on the railway platform a moment after a train has come through. As the crew wander around the station, they are met by a chauffeur who has come to bring ‘the Doctor’ to play cricket on the village green. It’s one of those odd coincidences that the TARDIS does rather enjoy, doesn’t she?
Thanks to the Doctor’s topping performance on the cricket pitch, and Nyssa’s odd similarity to the daughter of the house, Ann Talbot, they are all invited back into the home of the Cranleighs, only to become enmeshed in a costume ball and a sinister mystery…
Tegan is at her brightest and most cheerful in this story, coming right after The Visitation where she has finally made (for the first time) the decision to stay with the Doctor rather than insisting on returning back home ASAP. She enjoys the playacting of this period, ordering a screwdriver and cheering on the cricket, even showing off her Charleston kicks.
Adric doesn’t have much to do in this one, but any Adric/Nyssa shippers out there might well enjoy how she scolds him into dancing with her and a later scene when he can’t tell her apart from Ann. He spends most of his time at the buffet table, but manages not to say anything especially annoying which makes this a good Adric story.
It’s Nyssa who gets the actual plot thanks to the double duty played by Sarah Sutton as both Nyssa and Ann. She does a great job considering that on paper the characters are quite similar – young, aristocratic ladies. But Ann has more of a flighty, effortless tone of voice compared to Nyssa’s gravity, and she pulls off the contrast very efficiently. I’m not quite sure of the logic where Ann’s fiancé Charles can tell that Nyssa is not old enough to drink a screwdriver while about to marry the young lady who looks exactly like her, but still…
The fancy dress costumes of this story are central to the plot, and gorgeously designed for each of the cast members. The Doctor’s Harlequin costume, stolen in order to frame him for murder, rather cleverly uses the same colour palette as his usual cricket whites – a ‘costume’ which itself takes on a new relevance when he is allowed to play cricket in it.
Adric’s slightly swashbuckling fancy dress costume manages to be a far more stylish version of what he usually wears, and he has of course added his badge of mathematical excellence to it. Tegan’s outfit is gorgeous and like Adric’s, suits her more than anything else she got to wear for her run as companion – I would not have blamed either actor for hanging on to those costumes for as long as they could.
But it’s Nyssa and Ann’s fancy dress costumes, based on a real vintage pattern, that steal the show: those delicate blue butterfly frocks. Wearing these, the girls are completely identical, leading to some flirtatious fun and then the shocking cliffhanger in which one of the girls is under threat – we only learn in Episode Two that it was Ann who was attacked, not our Nyssa.
That cliffhanger was something I missed out on when I was younger, because our copy of the story had been censored for Australian TV with a bodged edit that actually manages to imply Ann has been strangled instead of merely fainting at the sight of the hasty murder of a servant.
I do like the structure of the story, where the first episode is about the Doctor and his friends being taken in and trusted by the family, and the second is about that lie unravelling. Lady Cranleigh’s own deceit, of course, in concealing her mutilated, mentally damaged (and murderous) older son, comes into play in this second episode. The costumes worn by Lady Cranleigh, Charles and Sir Robert, the main players in the drama, are all particularly glamorous and aristocratic, which only goes to accentuate the appalling behaviour of the Cranleighs in particular.
The scene in which Lady Cranleigh confesses all to old family friend Sir Robert is particularly telling of their class privilege and despicable behaviour – especially when they refer to one of the murder victims as ‘the servant.’
Also, WTF is with Charles pushing his brother off the roof by means of a friendly and inopportune hug? That shot could have been framed rather more tactfully!
The story ends in the aftermath of what appears to have been a rather jolly funeral, with smiles all around. The Doctor and his friends once more in the good books of the utterly amoral Cranleighs – so that’s okay then. Still, the important thing is that they get to keep the costumes, right? Okay, I’ll admit it. The story is not entirely successful, especially as the narrative supports rather than criticises the wrong people. But it’s PRETTY.
The Doctor himself obviously does not hold a grudge about Lady Cranleigh framing him for murder, as a few centuries later he would be romantically drawn towards a young lady wearing exactly the same frock! Her French aristocrat gown was later recycled for Reinette/Madame De Pompadour in the 2006 episode The Girl in the Fireplace.
ELSEWHERE ON 1982
June Hudson interviewed, among other things about designing Peter Davison’s cricket whites. [Verity! Podcast]
Doctor Who 5th [Springfield Punx]
Doctor 5: cricket, trainers, celery [Marlow Inc]
Shifting into Fifth [Tor.com]
The Importance of Being Tegan [Doctor Her]
Four to Doomsday [Radio Free Skaro]
Kinda [Wife in Space]
Earthshock [Mindless Ones]