Aired 1 -2 March 1982
‘Black Orchid’ is something of an anomaly at this point of Doctor Who’s original run. Whereas historical stories free of science fiction elements beyond the Doctor and the TARDIS were rather commonplace during the programme’s fledgling years, none had been commissioned since Patrick Troughton’s second story, ‘The Highlanders.’ With that and the fact that the BBC has always been so wonderful at producing period pieces, there’s a tremendous amount of potential and even anticipation as the story beings to unfold.
Unfortunately, a murder mystery with only two episodes to develop and resolve is inherently going to be problematic, especially as the murder itself is understandably used as the crux of the cliffhanger. As a result, the first episode is far too padded with simple conversations and pleasantries along with an extended cricket foray with little dramatic tension added. By the time the murder occurs, there is so little time to examine the fallout and piece together what happened that the resolution is incredibly hasty with a few necessary explanations skimmed over or missing altogether in order to advance the plot more quickly. Worse yet, the murder itself simply isn’t all that exciting, and the script does little to offer unexpected twists or to offer intriguing hints that may help the audience piece together what has happened. The script sets the murder up to be the focal piece upon which the drama hinges, but there’s no real mystery associated with it as the production instead plays out as an ordinary period drama in which there just happens to be a murder.
‘Black Orchid’ also suffers somewhat for giving in to a distinctly colonial viewpoint and suggesting- overtly or not- that disfigurement is evil. The character of George is afforded no development whatsoever, and his family’s treatment of him is hardly given a second thought. George’s plight offers a wealth of potential drama, but there is simply no time after his reveal to have him do anything more but fill a generic role. At the same time, having Sarah Sutton play dual roles again offers plenty of opportunity for unique storytelling avenues, but little is done with this other than all too briefly showcasing how strong Sutton is as an actress.
For all of the missed opportunities that the brevity of the story brings about, ‘Black Orchid’ and its seeming calmness compared to the danger of most adventures serve as an absolute highlight for Peter Davison’s calmer and more subdued fifth incarnation. It’s hard to imagine any other incarnation so seamlessly fitting in with this more refined aristocracy, sharing drinks and playing cricket with the best of them and even willingly working alongside the local constabulary when required. He unquestionably has a very welcoming and engaging personality, something that makes him instantly accessible but that also opens him up for more personal anguish and trouble. Although the script still doesn’t seem quite so sure what to do about Adric and Tegan and is ultimately rather unbalanced and less engaging than a murder mystery should be as execution can’t quite match ambition, ‘Black Orchid’ still must be commended for doing something unexpected with its format and further developing the Fifth Doctor very well.