Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Serial 120: Black Orchid

Doctor: Peter Davison (5th Doctor)
Companion: Nyssa, Tegan Jovanka, Adric

Written by: Terence Dudley
Directed by: Ron Jones

Editor's Note: Hey, kids. Matt here to intro Cassandra back for this week's blog. Don't worry, though. I'll be back next week for "fun" or something. (God help me). But for now, Cassandra's gonna take us through a lovely little two part Davison ditty. It's not very long, but let's be honest: there's not a whole lot to say (as she'll probably tell you). Enjoy!

Background & Significance: "Black Orchid" is an anomaly.

When Johnathan Nathan-Turner was planning for Peter Davison's inaugural season as the Doctor, he managed to get enough of a budget to make 28 episodes--two episodes up from the previous standard. Instead, however, he decided to allocate those two extra episodes to making the pilot of the failed spin-off show K-9 and Company. So much for that.

Now with two less episodes to make, and having a staunch aversion to the traditional six-part serial, JNT decided to go ahead and have a two-parter, which hadn't been seen on the show since "The Sontaran Experiment" way back in Tom Baker's first season.

Another thing that separates "Black Orchid" from the norm is that there are no sci-fi elements in the story at all. In fact, it's very much a standard murder mystery in the vein of an Agatha Christie novel, even taking place in 1920's England. In an era of Doctor Who marked very heavily by big science fiction concepts and ideas, this serial stands out much like a sore thumb.

But you don't necessarily need the big bendy concepts for a good Doctor Who adventure, which this serial proves quite well. While highly atypical, "Black Orchid" is a fun little interlude, which is exactly what our TARDIS crew needs before heading into something like "Earthshock" (the following serial). This story, in the context of the entirety of Season 19, serves as the calm before the storm, a simple, entertaining adventure before the plunge into the next.

It also serves as a sort of spotlight on Nyssa, which is great, because I love Nyssa. It's a nice highlight of Sarah Sutton's acting abilities, much in the way the previous story "Kinda" is for Janet Fielding, and "Earthshock" is for Matthew Waterhouse.

And murder mystery. Did I mention murder mystery? Everyone loves a murder mystery.

But enough of all that. Let's take a closer look, shall we?


Part 1

Two-part stories are strange because they almost never happen in the Classic series. Far more often, you’ll see the four-parter, or the six-parter, or even the seven-part beastie. Obviously the longer stories save on budget expenses like sets and hiring guest cast, and are usually slow and stretched out and a wee bit agonizing, but the four-parter? Four-parters are typically gold. JNT wasn’t wrong when he said that four part stories are the optimal length for classic Doctor Who, which is why he wasn’t keen on producing six-part stories. By his time, the four-part serial structure has been pretty much perfected: introduction, furthering the plot with more mysteries and fun and games, exposition and wheel-spinning, end game. I know we talk a lot about narrative structure of the various serials here at Classical Gallifrey, but we’re writers so we’re into this sort of thing. Bear with me.

In terms of structure, this serial is odd. It seems to me like they didn’t have enough story to spend two episodes on, but at the same time it feels like a highly condensed four-parter, based on this first episode alone. Watching seems to take a long time, but this is probably because nothing really happens in this episode. We get the Doctor playing cricket, we get high society schmoozing, we get Nyssa and Ann’s double act, we get Tegan dancing the Charleston (she's also totally into this old guy, Sir Robert. Seriously, they flirt a lot. It's kind of weird and a tad uncomfortable. Who knew Tegan was into older guys? Maybe she's just in it for the money.) and Adric drawn to the food table. Sure, we do get concrete intriguing things having to do with the mystery at hand, like the creepy mouth breather we only ever see the feet of, and the Doctor wandering through mysterious secret passages, as well as the Native guy with the crazy lip and the murder of the man at the very beginning. But these elements are all very much set up, not even building toward anything in particular just yet.

It’s interesting to compare this two-parter to the more modern two-part stories that show up without fail in each season of the newer series. While it seems that the two models should be and are very similar, I’m not entirely convinced that’s the case. The Classic two-part story and the modern two-part story do share things in common, like the first episode being primarily set up for the events to play out and come to a head in the second. But in this…. This episode doesn’t feel like it’s driving towards anything. And that’s my main complaint with it. I enjoy it because it’s fun and a good time and hello Davison in a bath robe, but it feels like a standard first episode of a typical four-part story, when what it really needs to be is elements of the first three episodes of a typical four-part story. It’s lacking punch and a driving objective.

The cliffhanger itself is kind of lackluster from this perspective; instead of the game-changing oh shit moment it’s meant to be (dude just murdered a guy in plain sight for god’s sake), it’s watered down by the fact that we’re not even sure which girl this crazy guy kidnapped—Nyssa or Ann. Perhaps it’s not intended to matter, but it ultimately does. We’ve just met Ann, and even though she and Nyssa look like twins, we’re not as invested in her as we are with Nyssa. So it really makes a difference which character has been put into danger. Yes, we’ve had many instances of the Doctor/Companion in big scary danger cliffhanger before, but that’s because they work. We care about these characters, so if they’re in a precarious situation, of course we’re going to want to come back the following week and find out what happened to them. But that level of connection and sympathy just doesn’t happen as effectively with guest cast, or if it does, then rarely so.

Part 2

This episode is also rather strange to watch. It has an odd feel to it. If this were to be expanded into a standard four-parter, this episode should, logically, feel like a part 4, right? Instead, what we have here is an episode that feels like parts 2, 3, and 4 all smooshed together into one twenty-three minute segment. The resolution, even the conflict of the Doctor’s arrest along with the reveal of Lady Cranley’s secret, aren’t fleshed out enough or given enough time to simmer. I feel like we should have had some of this introduced in the first part, instead of indulging in cricket matches and dancing.

If we were to have the cliffhanger be the Doctor’s arrest, or something similar, and give him the whole episode to kind of work things out Sherlock Holmes style, racing against the clock and George Cranley’s imminent escape from his room, I think it’d be a lot more compelling. As it stands, though, it’s terribly rushed and I think it ultimately hurts the episode and the serial as a whole.

What I do love about this episode is the Doctor. I haven’t really talked a whole lot about him yet (shocker), but I really love him in this. The last time I did a Fifth Doctor serial, I kinda came out as a self-professed Peter Davison fangirl, and that still stands here, even though he’s out of his dapper cricket costume for most of it (again, hello bathrobe). But as far as his characterization goes, I think it’s absolutely greatness.
People give Davison a lot of flak for being kind of a pansy, not really heroic, a more vulnerable and human interpretation of the Doctor. But I say that’s rubbish. Even though his arc ultimately builds to that most heroic of moments in his final story, the seeds of that are planted here. What isn’t heroic about racing into a burning building after a crazy man has just abducted your friend? Exactly.

I really love the way Davison plays it too. You can tell he’s concerned first and foremost about the safety of his new friends instead of indulging in his own smarts as he would have done, say, in the previous incarnation. He has a chance to explain the mystery surrounding the Cranley house and who is responsible for all the dubious murders, the illuminating aha! moment of exposition that makes all the clues fall into place, but instead he defers it to someone else, jumping headlong into the situation at hand. And I love how urgent he gets when Nyssa’s kidnapped, it really illustrates quite well how much he cares about his Companions and making sure no harm comes to them.

Of course, he’s not the Doctor without his smug moments, like when he invites Sir Robert and the sergeant into his TARDIS to prove that he wasn’t lying and is, in fact, completely innocent of the murders he was accused of. Davison also plays this quite well in his performance, just the way he carries himself and his facial expressions and his tone of voice. They really contribute a lot to the scene, and he’s really recognizable as the Doctor here.

I just love his interpretation of the Doctor, how it’s layered and complex and it’s just really well done and a lot of fun to watch.

Which I guess is what this serial ultimately comes down to—an entertaining little interlude that is just, well... fun.

Final Thoughts: This serial is... not as good as I remember it being.

Which is not to say I don't like it. Quite the contrary. In fact, if you got that vibe at all while reading this, then I failed as a writer and conveying my thoughts. I enjoy this serial, I think it's fun and at times funny (Adric stuffing his face with food), and it's a nice little interlude before the big heavy comes around in the next serial.

It's not without its flaws though, which I talked about already. I think it really suffers from not having quite enough story, or at least, not having it fleshed out enough. And I think a contributing factor to that is the two-part nature of the serial. In a longer serial, you get the chance (and are really forced to) develop your ideas more in order to sustain the story over the course of however many episodes. But this... I dunno. It almost seems like not enough thought went into it. The pacing is all weird and not balanced.

Ultimately, though, I do enjoy this for what it is. It's interesting seeing the Doctor interacting purely with people, no spaceships or aliens or sci-fi elements involved. He feels a little bit like a fish out of water, and yet very much at home at the same time. It's a pretty interesting character study opportunity, really. I also really like the spotlight we get on Sarah Sutton. She pulls off playing both Nyssa and Ann quite well, and I'm convinced that while they look the same (and are played by the same actress), they're two entirely different people, so kudos to her.

Next Time!: First Doctor! Ian and Barbara and Vicki! Daleks! Mechanoids! Pointless runaround! Robot Doctor! And a companion departure that makes me smile. Mad Man Terry Nation is at it again and Matt's back next week to tell you all about it. "The Chase"! Coming next Tuesday!


  1. Black Orchid just felt a bit pointless. When I watched it, I thought 'Where's the story?'

  2. I love "Black Orchid." In fact, I think it's the only time my partner and I avoided listening to the DVD commentary after watching a serial, because we'd heard how Davison and company trashed it and didn't want them to spoil our enjoyment. I disagree only with your feeling that Part 1 "takes a long time"; I find it splendidly paced (and by far the stronger episode) precisely BECAUSE nothing happens! There's not one moment -- that wonderful cricket match with the Doctor leaping around like a giddy schoolboy, Tegan's nutty Charleston, Nyssa and Ann flitting off like butterflies, Adric blankly stuffing his face -- that I'd want to trim. Terence Dudley tended to write nice civilized serials where people sat around and engaged in smart repartee, but plots were not his strong suit. Part 1 plays to his strengths: nothing happens, but it's got some great setups and lines, and it's beautifully designed and shot. It's in Part 2, where he drags in the plot, that he fails, but Part 2 gets by anyway, in part because of the good will built up by Part 1. I can't imagine this serial working with any other Doctor, classic or new, but it seems perfect for Davison and his crazy crew. It's one of my favorites.

  3. I am also a Davison fangirl, and not in the least bit ashamed to admit it! And I also adore Black Orchid, especially the scene where Peter actually bowls the guy out in shot, (a shot which was supposed to be cut), nice rescue of Nyssa, Adric showing something of an interest in Nyssa (thanks for the next bloody episode, twerps), and of course, Peter in the bathrobe. And the cast commentary on the DVD is hi-la-ri-ous!