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21 August 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 598: Black Orchid, Episode One

Dear diary,

Perhaps fittingly, considering the nature of the story, Black Orchid has always seemed to be the black sheep of Season Nineteen. It’s not disliked in the way that, say, Time-Flight is (I don’t know anyone who actively hates this story), but then, it’s not a story that anyone really likes either. Much like The Smugglers or The Savages, it’s just a story that’s sort of… there. As with other recent stories, I’ve just looked it up in Doctor Who Magazine’s recent poll, and it places at 156 - only one place below one of Davison’s other two-part adventures, The Awakening.

But then, I’ve always quite liked Black Orchid. It’s a bit of a departure from everything around it, though I think that works in its favour. It’s the only time after The Highlanders in 1966 that the programme even attempts to do a ‘pure’ historical adventure with no alien involvement outside the TARDIS and its crew, and it’s a chance to really see the four time travellers having some fun on their adventures. Because of the two-episodes-a-week broadcast pattern of the show at this point, I think you can afford to take a week out for a story like this - we’ll be back with a blast to space-age extravaganza next week (and how!)

No, Black Orchid is a chance to the TARDIS crew to stop and take a breather after the last few stories. All in all, they’ve had a rough couple of days. From the Doctor’s regeneration, to being caught up in Monitor’s plans, Tegan’s mind parasite, and starting the Great Fire of London… it’s no wonder that this particular make up of crew have been somewhat at each other’s throats for a while. This story is an opportunity for the Doctor, Adric, Tegan, and Nyssa to take stock of themselves and simply enjoy being around each other. That they end up caught in a murder mystery is just typical of the Doctor’s lifestyle, but compared to all their other recent adventures, I’d imagine that being accused of murder is quite a pleasant Sunday afternoon! You can tell that they’re all feeling a lot calmer even before they’ve left the TARDIS, because Tegan has decided that she actually wants to stay for a while (I’d forgotten that bit - I thought she didn’t actually say anything to the Doctor at all before being upset at staying behind at the end of the season), and they’re not arguing for a change!

Once we’ve headed off into the story itself (I hesitate to call it an ‘adventure’), everyone is allowed to just enjoy themselves. The Doctor finally gets to play cricket properly, and Tegan loves watching the game (while Adric and Nyssa are completely baffled by it, which I love!), and then they get to head off, dress up, and go to a party. You know it’s a very different kind of Doctor Who story when, half way through, you’ve got Tegan teaching Nyssa the Charleston, and the Doctor heading off for a shower! It’s all very frothy, and I find that a nice change from the kind of things we’d usually be getting.

That’s not to make the story sound overly like filler, though. There’s plenty of tension and unease woven in under all this frivolity and I think that might be my favourite part of the story. In the opening moments, we’ve got lots of strange goings on in a country house, and then we see ‘Nyssa’ tucked up in an old fashioned bed. Moments later we’re aboard the TARDIS, and there’s Nyssa again, with no mention of those other events! Arriving at the station, there’s a car waiting to collect our travellers, and the driver confirms that the man in the cricketing gear is the Doctor (prompting a wonderful look of bafflement from Davison). There’s even mention that the Doctor is almost up to the standards of ‘The Other Doctor’ - The Master! Of course it gets turned on its head and revealed to be someone completely different, but it’s a great way of playing with the viewer’s expectations of a Doctor Who story.

So yes! I’m all for Black Orchid, and I’d quite like to see the modern series do something along similar lines - a one-off historical adventure with no alien involvement beyond the TARDIS. Something with a threat that’s very down-to-Earth and doesn’t have massive consequences for anyone outside the characters we’re given on screen. I think it would be a nice change of pace for a single week - much as I imagine Black Orchid would have been back in the 1980s.

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Susan McCauley