“Black Orchid” (season 19, episodes 17-18. Originally aired March 1-2, 1982)
The most succinct description of what sets “Black Orchid” apart from the rest of Doctor Who is that it’s the last of the “pure historicals”—that is, a tale that is set in the past, taking advantage of the Doctor’s ability to travel through time, but otherwise not involving any science-fictional element. In fact, it’s not only the last of them but a weird anomaly, because this is the kind of story that Doctor Who simply stopped doing at all very early in its run. The pure historical is almost entirely an artifact of William Hartnell’s First Doctor era, when the show not only hewed closer to its original mission to educate as well as entertain, but had a much broader conception of what kind of stories Doctor Who should be trying to tell.
I’ve noted before that one of the strengths of Doctor Who is that its format allows it to drop into not just any time or place, but any genre, any kind of story. The Doctor can appear in the middle of a pastiche on Victorian pulp fiction or Frankenstein movies or Asimov’s robot tales, swashbuckle with pirates or match wits with Emperor Nero, teach cavemen the secret of fire or carry the Olympic torch. After the pure historical died out, though, whenever the series played around with other genres, it followed a basic rule: Whatever kind of story the Doctor drops into, it’s always warped into a Doctor Who version of that story. “The Unicorn And The Wasp,” for instance, tweaks the standard format of an Agatha Christie mystery by sandwiching it between Doctor Who’s science-fiction elements—the Doctor replaces the traditional detective figure, and a giant alien wasp replaces the traditional Christie killer. “Talons Of Weng-Chiang” does the same thing with the Sherlock Holmes/Fu Manchu style of late-1800s adventure fiction. But the sci-fi element is always there—without it, you don’t really have a Doctor Who story at all. In the Hartnell era, the pure historicals were the exception to that rule, but that loophole was closed quickly and firmly after Patrick Troughton took over the lead role in season four: His second serial, 1966’s “The Highlanders,” was the last time history would trump science fiction in a Doctor Who story.
“Black Orchid” turns all of what I just said on its head. Usually what we’d be getting is a Doctor Who story playing at another genre. But although it teases us with various seemingly alien elements like the disfigured hands of the mystery man in the attic and the bizarre presence of a lip-plated Amazonian Indian on an English country estate, it’s only pretending to follow Doctor Who’s traditional structure. Nothing is really alien here; it all turns out to have completely Earthly, if outlandish, explanations.
In the end, “Black Orchid” is a non-Doctor Who story that merely features the Doctor as a character. It’s something like Jane Eyre crossed with a Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot-style puzzle thriller. To be more specific, “Black Orchid” falls into the subset of drawing-room murder mysteries where the crime spurs the action but the mystery itself isn’t who did it but why, as in the late-period Holmes story “The Adventure Of The Creeping Man.” Here, we’re presented with a series of strange clues that don’t belong in a respectable Edwardian manor. There’s a rare South American flower called a Black Orchid, a missing-and-apparently-dead botanist last seen in the Amazon, a very out-of-place Indian, a dead body in a cupboard in a male nurse’s outfit, and a horribly disfigured mystery man lurking in the secret passages of the Cranleigh estate. It’s blindingly obvious who the murderer is, but that’s not the point of the story; the real mystery is what all the strange little clues add up to, how the distinguished George Cranleigh became the wheezing horror lurking in the attic, and whether the Doctor can figure it all out before he’s irrevocably accused of the murder. The fact that this is still a genre tale rather than something more realistic also helps explain the otherwise credulity-stretching presence of an identical double of Nyssa—it serves the purpose of allowing her to be involved in a story that is not actually about her at all. (And it’s only the most obvious doubling in the story: We’ve also got our Doctor accidentally impersonating whoever was actually invited to play cricket, two Cranleigh brothers both engaged to the same girl, and two people dressed in the same harlequin costume.)
There’s not a lot to the story itself, which is one of the shortest in Classic-era Doctor Who, only two episodes long when four or six was the norm. That’s the length of one standard hour-long episode of the current series, but it’s also far more leisurely paced, taking plenty of time-outs and tangents. You could justifiably, if uncharitably, call it badly paced, since the bulk of the story doesn’t get rolling until the second episode. But if there’s a lack of forward plot movement in the first half, that at least means there’s more time for the four members of season 19‘s TARDIS crew to have some unhurried moments that focus on their characters, which was never a strong suit of the show when John Nathan-Turner and Eric Saward were in charge of it.
Refreshingly, “Black Orchid” is a pretty low-stakes story. Just a couple of murders and a family with a dark secret, not anything that threatens the survival of the galaxy. And that’s good, because those cosmic menaces start to get boring without some less gigantic problem popping up every now and then, to keep a more human sense of scale in perspective. It’s also a slight enough story that it probably could have been condensed into a single episode. The ending is overly neat, with the luckless George falling to his death from the rooftop and thus not only paying for his own crimes but conveniently making irrelevant the crimes his family committed on his behalf—not least Lady Cranleigh’s almost-successful attempt to frame the Doctor for the murders, which could easily have meant the death penalty for him. It’s lucky for her that the Fifth Doctor is the most forgiving and mild-mannered of any of his incarnations.
Although “Black Orchid” has its charms and makes for an interesting palate-cleanser for a show usually rife with cosmic threats and extraterrestrial armies, I’m glad that it didn’t inspire any further stories in the same vein. It’s an interesting curiosity, but nothing more, to give us a Doctor Who that avoids taking advantage of the quintessential sci-fi elements that define Doctor Who. Sure, you could tell a story about Sherlock Holmes in which he does not investigate a crime, or an Indiana Jones story in which he is not on the trail of some ancient artifact. But why would you want to? Isn’t it a waste of material to put a straight-up Hercule Poirot story in the Doctor Who universe, which has the ability to tell stories Poirot could never touch because they’d be too “unrealistic”? Holmes solves crimes; that’s what I want to read about when I read a Holmes story. The Doctor fights monsters from outer space; it’s what he’s for. “Black Orchid” gets away with breaking this rule simply because it had never really been tried before. But it wasn’t the point of the story, just a superficial gimmick whose deeper implications I don’t think either Nathan-Turner or Saward saw. “Black Orchid” doesn’t explore what it might actually mean if Doctor Who wasn’t science fiction anymore. Certainly not to the extent that the Tenth Doctor’s two-parter “Human Nature”/“The Family Of Blood” does, or the similarly themed Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Family,” the one set in France while Picard is recovering from being captured and assimilated by the Borg in “Best Of Both Worlds.” Both of those stories explore the possible lives that the Doctor and Picard might have if they didn’t have to be who they are. “Black Orchid” isn’t nearly as ambitious, and because of that it isn’t nearly as interesting.
• Continuing with the hints in “Castrovalva” and picked up more directly much later in “The Doctor’s Wife,” there’s a subtle nod to the idea that the TARDIS is somehow self-aware and able to send her pilot to destinations ofd her own choosing when the Doctor wonders aloud why they’ve landed in 1925: “What's the matter, old girl? Why this compulsion for planet Earth?”
• Other nods to Jane Eyre, besides a tortured, violent maniac living in the attic: Because of the masquerade ball, all the Cranleighs are wearing old-style 18th-century costumes that are wrong for the 1920s but proper for Jane Eyre. And of course, the mansion gets set on fire.
• The location used for Cranleigh Hall, Buckhurst Park in East Sussex, was also used earlier that season for the exteriors in “Castrovalva.” Later, it was used in Lenny Henry’s sitcom Chef as the location of his restaurant, Chateau Anglais.
• Upcoming schedule:
Aug. 5: “Remembrance Of The Daleks”
Aug. 19: “Ghost Light”
Sept. 2: “The Seeds Of Doom”
Sept. 16: “The Romans”
Sept. 30: “The Three Doctors”
Oct. 14: “The Deadly Assassin”
After that, what would you guys like to see?