Review [Doctor Who]: "Black Orchid"

19×5. Black Orchid
Writer: Terence Dudley
Director: Ron Jones
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The Doctor is mistaken for an expected guest at the home of the 1920s upper-class Cranleigh family, where what seems like a light-hearted cricket match and costume ball gives way to a murder mystery with the Doctor as a suspect. The culprit turns out to be George Cranleigh, a former explorer who had his tongue cut out and has since gone insane, kept hidden in the family’s home under the cover story of having gone missing. Nyssa, whose appearance is near-identical to that of Ann, George’s former fiancee who is now engaged to his brother Charles, finds herself in danger when George gets loose.

Review: “Black Orchid” is an odd little serial that has its appealing elements but relies a little too much on “because-the-writers-said-so” plotting for me to give it a full recommendation. It’s the first two-part serial since “The Sontaran Experiment,” and much of the first episode is spent in a light-hearted “TARDIS crew on vacation” mode, but then it steps into more serious territory and raises questions that it never completely answers.

Seeing the main cast in a more relaxed setting is a welcome change of pace, especially with a larger-than-average TARDIS crew. Tegan, who has typically been the most easily intimidated by the dangers that they encounter, has nevertheless decided that she’d like to continue traveling with them for a while and clearly enjoys the party at the Cranleighs’ house. Meanwhile, Nyssa shows herself to have a playful side when she agrees to wear the same costume as Ann and keep everyone guessing as to who’s who. The Fifth Doctor continues to emerge as a more relatably human incarnation than his predecessor, proving himself to be a skilled cricketeer and revealing that he had wanted to drive a train car as a boy. (It’s actually a little strange to hear the Doctor refer to childhood – I don’t recall seeing children in any of the Gallifrey serials, and it doesn’t seem like the Time Lord aging process works the same way as that of humans.)

Underneath all the mirth, however, is a story of an upper-class family that has prioritized keeping up appearances, even to the point of keeping George as a virtual prisoner in their own home. When the initial murder victim is discovered, Lady Cranleigh asks that it be kept quiet until the party is over, and later she allows the Doctor to be blamed for the killings in the assumption that he’ll eventually be cleared. What exactly do the Doctor and his companions think about all this? It’s not entirely clear, because a considerable portion of the second episode is occupied with the Doctor getting arrested and eventually winning over the skeptical police by showing them the interior of the TARDIS. The Doctor initially agrees to keep quiet about the first death until the police arrive, but if he recognises the social customs that prompt Lady Cranleigh to behave as she does, he never really says anything about it.

At a more basic level, the serial employs two rather blatant contrivances to set these events in motion. One is the near-perfect resemblance between Ann and Nyssa, which is apparently meant to be nothing more than a coincidence. Maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree given that Doctor Who has so many humanoid aliens in the first place, but this feels like a stretch given that Nyssa is not only unrelated to Ann but is not even human — it seems incredibly unlikely that this would “just happen,” much less in a situation where people also “just happened” to be expecting an unnamed “Doctor” right when the Doctor turns up. The other is the nature of George’s mental illness — whatever it might be. I say that because the serial tells us nothing other than that he’s insane. Okay, fine, but plenty of people suffer from mental illness, even severe mental illness, but still don’t just randomly murder somebody the way George does. Does he have PTSD? Is he delusional? Psychotic?

All this culminates in a somewhat ham-handed ending, where Charles convinces George to let Nyssa go and moves to embrace his brother, but George recoils or flinches and falls off the roof to his death. Perhaps this could have been convincing if we understood more about George’s mental illness or what sort of relationship Charles has had with his brother, but without that background, it feels like the script forcing an abrupt tragic ending rather than letting the story and characters develop naturally. There’s a brief epilogue in which we see that the TARDIS crew have stayed on to attend George’s funeral – as has Ann. Is she still planning to marry Charles? Again, the script is simply silent.

While I wouldn’t argue that “Black Orchid” should have been four episodes, I might say that three would have been more suitable – the extra time might have allowed for more substantial development of the guest characters and a clearer understanding of George’s behavior. As things stand, it has a promising setup but doesn’t fully deliver on its potential.

Rating: **1/2 (out of four)

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