"Why this compulsion for planet Earth?"
Black Orchid is quite the oddity.
It's a two-parter, for a start, and in fact that works pretty well. Sometimes shorter stories can feel a bit crammed, but that's not how this one feels. Saying we had no desire to see any more sounds a little cruel, but we really don't think this could have been stretched any further.
Then there's the non-SFy nature of the story, with the only science fiction elements being a bunch of aliens in a flying wardrobe. Much has been made of Black Orchid being the first historical since the Hartnell years, but no, it's not. It's actually that BBC fave, the period drama. Here's how to tell the difference. Does it contain Real Historical Personages and educational facts? Historical. If, on the other hand, everyone's rich and lives in an enormous house and wears expensive clothes - and this will be easy to establish because of the endless lingering shots of it all - then that's yer basic period drama. Case closed.
So Black Orchid's very pretty to watch, then. But what about the plot? Well, you'd be forgiven, somewhere through the first episode, for thinking that it's dispensed with a plot altogether. Given the loving coverage of the Doctor's cover drives and yorkers, for a minute we thought we'd tuned into Test Match Special by mistake.
Eventually, the plot creaks into motion, but since it turns out to be a horribly predictable cross between a country house murder mystery and the Phantom of the Opera, we think we preferred the languid shots of people saying "Topping!". No stone is left unturned in the effort to stuff in as many cliches as possible (see what we did there?). From the exotic companion in the skimpy loincloth to the disfigured villain nursing a secret passion to the hidden passage to the mistaken identities to the body in the cupboard to the desperate yet pointless flight to the rooftop, it all treads a well-worn path.
The good news is that character-wise there's some interesting stuff going on. Well, for one of the characters, anyway. Not, surprisingly, for Nyssa - Sarah Sutton gets to play two roles, but since Ann is, when not embarrassingly screamy, just Nyssa-on-uppers, she doesn't get to make much of an impression with her increased screen time. Tegan is as dull as usual, the dubiously edifying spectacle of her dancing the Charleston notwithstanding, and Adric is a total passenger who spends most of the time tripping over feet and stuffing his face. And the supporting cast, including the villain, never rise above the level of cliche either.
No, what's really interesting in Black Orchid is the Doctor. Not, however, in a good way. None of the other Doctors would behave anything like the Fifth Doctor does here, and thank God, we say. One wuss is more than enough.
He starts off as he has before, by letting Tegan bully him and make snarky remarks. (Can you imagine her criticising the Fourth Doctor's driving?) And it's all downhill from there. He lets the secret door passage close behind him, trapping him in the corridor. Duh! Secret doors always do that! You'd think he'd have learned by now - as he very well knows, since he berates himself for his own stupidity. Urgh. Then he lets Lady Whatever frame him for murder and meekly allows himself to be led away by the police like an obedient little lamb.
Then, as if all that weren't bad enough, he's bursting to show off the TARDIS. Good God! Get a grip, man! When we think about the First Doctor's cold rage when Barbara and Ian wandered in, it makes us want to weep. And to top it all off, he lets Evil Villain make off with Nyssa while he hovers impotently at the bottom of the stairs.
All in all, it's an object lesson in why he's our least favourite Doctor. However else their behaviour varies, all the other Doctors are characterised by an unshakeable confidence. And while they're not all necessarily cool under pressure, even the panicky Second Doctor is nowhere near as limp and useless as this incarnation. In fact, it's sheer luck that he doesn't manage to kill Nyssa off altogether. He says: "What's he going to do when he finds out he's got the wrong girl?" Hmm, yes, good point, Doctor. It's a teensy bit surprising, then, when he takes it upon himself to bring the villain up to date on this point - right when the villain is waving Nyssa over the edge of a rooftop. Given that said villain had offed several red-shirt extras already and the Doctor has zero idea of how he's likely to take the news about Nyssa, this is pretty bloody risky. If we were Nyssa, we'd give the Doctor a good smack.
The ghastly spectacle of Dr Feeble aside, the other interesting aspect of Black Orchid is witnessing the desperate struggle to turn what's essentially an adult story into something suitable for children. Did anyone really think Elephant Man kidnapped Ann so that he could beat her up? No, didn't think so. (This aspect of the story would have been even more obvious had a strike not stopped them from completing a couple of planned scenes where George perves at Ann in her bedroom. Eww!) Having set up this situation, they then go out of their way to sanitise it, dancing around the obvious with all that stuff about how the Doctor has no grudge against Ann and how Nyssa has never done George any harm. It's all very silly.
Like we said, an oddity. Not that it's actively terrible or anything: what with the beautiful setting and attractively filmed period detail, it's by no means an unpleasant watch. But we're not entirely sure it's Who either.
MORAL: Do not pick the flowers.
IT'S NOT CRICKET
We hear the thwock of the cricket ball hitting the bat and a ripple of applause - then the umpire signals a wide. Where's your guide dog, ref? And as for the Doctor calling himself a fast bowler...
Nyssa and Ann are obviously supposed to be about the same age, yeah? Not only is Ann engaged, she was engaged two years ago too, so we can assume she's supposed to be an adult. Why, then, all that stuff about Nyssa only being allowed orange juice because she's one of "the children"? And why do Nyssa and Ann look the same, anyway? Is it supposed to be just one of those cosmic coincidences?
Michael Cochrane, who plays Lord Cranleigh, has more recently had a topping time chewing the scenery in Perfect World as Paul Kaye's revolting boss the Marketing Manager.
TEARS OF A CLOWN
The Doctor thinks the Harlequin costume is an excellent choice for him, and frankly, we couldn't agree more.
They're all supposed to be having a jolly old time outside, yet there's obviously a Force Ten gale howling. Mind you, in our experience with English parties alfresco, that's pretty much par for the course.
WRITTEN IN LARGE FRIENDLY LETTERS
Pretty prescient of the police to recognise the TARDIS, given that police boxes hadn't yet been manufactured.
YOU WON'T BE WANTING THESE FLOWERS EITHER
Now, we've never exactly thought of Tegan as a model of sensitivity. But in the middle of the sober post-funeral scene, her glee at scoring the costumes surely qualifies her for some kind of tactlessness award.