Doctor Who: Black Orchid (Episode 121)

It's sad that the commentary track -- in which the actor's lambaste this episode -- is more entertaining than the episode itself.

Doctor Who

Distributor: BBC Warner
Cast: Peter Davison, Matthew Waterhouse, Sarah Sutton, Janet Fielding, Michael Cochrane, Barbara Murray
Network: BBC
First date: 1975
US Release Date: 2008-08-05

You know your show is in trouble when, during the commentary track, your actors begin openly lamenting the many faults of the episode they starred in.

Yet that is exactly what happens with the DVD version of Black Orchid, in which Fifth Doctor Peter Davison, along with Janet Fielding (Tegan), Sarah Sutton (Nyssa, and, in this episode, her British doppelganger Ann), and Matthew Waterhouse (Adric) spend a good deal of time ripping Black Orchid and its somewhat disappointing aspects.

Of course, some context is first needed. Originally broadcast in March of 1982, this particular Who was noteworthy for its complete lack of sci-fi elements (save the TARDIS), as the Doctor and his companions arrive in England circa 1925, where they are immediately whisked away to the estate of Lord Cranleigh (Michael Cochrane), who, it should be noted, is expecting a Doctor (just not this one).

The Time Lord's crew are then introduced to Lady Cranleigh (Barbara Murray) and her daughter Ann, who bears a remarkable resemblance to Nyssa (and thereby allows Sutton to show off a pretty good range of her acting talent). Nyssa and Ann strike up an immediate friendship, soon deciding it'd be fun to confuse everyone by wearing the exact same outfits to the forthcoming costume party that the Cranleigh's are holding. The notion of mistaken identities comes into play quite a bit, especially once a mysterious figure puts on what is intended to be the Doctor's costume, soon causing a small bit of chaos on the Cranleigh estate ...

Yet, despite this being a somewhat generous two-parter, this remains one of the most uninteresting Who stories in the Davison canon, but not due to its lack of science fiction elements: it's because of the massive amounts of incompetence that the Doctor and company display. A good portion of Orchid's first part is spent with the Doctor stuck inside the numerous hidden corridors of the massive English estate, eventually discovering the dead body of a servant, but, really, that's the only high point of his too-long passageway exploration.

Nyssa gets wrapped up into the main plot line and Tegan manages a few witty remarks, but Adric -- as per usual -- does little-to-nothing in this episode, making his presence utterly pointless and time-consuming. Worst of all is when the Doctor is confronted with false murder charges, and, instead of using his interplanetary wit and reason to work his way out of his accusations, he comes off as a bumbling sub-Sherlock, himself achieving freedom only through fortunate circumstance and only the occasional exhibition of bravery.

In the commentary, the cast notes how the show excels at sci-fi tales of woe instead of drawing-room murder mysteries, the cast even speaking ill of the costuming and -- surprisingly -- even the sound. Yet the cast also feel at ease with each other (especially Davison and Fielding), making long, humorous digressions on certain scenes, but spending a good time riffing on Davison's numerous corridor scenes by insisting there should be classes in "corridor acting", to which Davison jokes that he could be teaching a master course on it. Though their camaraderie is infectious, it is still a bit disenheartening to hear the cast speak so dismissively of this two-part historical adventure.

The rest of the DVD special features, however, are rather educational and fascinating. Though the included deleted scenes are pointless in every possible regard, the film-restoration and costuming features are at least worth a curious glance, as is the surprisingly-detailed "Now and Then" featurette detailing the location hunting that was involved for this project, as scenes are placed side-by-side with recent shots just to show how England has gradually changed since the 1981 filming of this serial (and Barry Took's reading of angry letters from Who viewers upset over the show's time change is worth a slight chuckle).

Yet the best bonus is a featurette called "Stripped for Action -- The Fifth Doctor", in which comic notables detail the difficulties in rendering Davison's incarnation of the Doctor for the numerous comic strips that were made concurrently with the show's run (including how the first strip featuring Davison's Doctor was made based on a single bleary newspaper photo describing how the new Doctor was going to be ... Peter Davison).

At the end of the day, however, Black Orchid is far from essential. Though it does serve its unique historical purposes for Who collectors, the lack of action (especially during the dry, cricket-filled first half) makes for somewhat of an anemic TARDIS journey, the end message saying very little about the human condition, much less the Doctor or his companions. Though a worthy attempt, it's quite obvious that 26 years after its first airing, this Orchid has most certainly wilted.

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