What a complicated life Lady Madge Cranleigh (Barbara Lane) leads. Her mutilated, mentally ill son George (Gareth Milne) is repatriated from South America, accompanied by a local tribesman, Dittar Litoni (Ahmen Khalil). So she imprisons said son within her enormous home, employing the tribesman as his nurse. Cut off from the love of his family and fiancée, confined 24 hours a day, is it any real surprise that George goes a little troppo?
He longs for contact with his fiancée, Ann (Sarah Sutton). But Ann has moved on, and is about to marry George’s brother Charles (Michael Cochrane). Madge, unwisely, keeps them all under the one roof. In hindsight, not the best move.
Things get out of hand when George, desperate to make contact with Ann, crashes a costume party. For a madman, he’s surprisingly calculating. Finding his way through a labyrinth of secret passages, he steals a fancy dress costume meant for the Doctor (sporty Peter Davison), one which fortunately conceals his face, and uses it to crash a party Madge is holding. Having stolen a dance with Ann, he attempts to steal away a few moments with her. When she takes fright, there’s a struggle with a footman, who is killed. But George has enough presence of mind to return the costume back to the Doctor’s room. Handy, and unlikely, I think.
Madge meanwhile makes a few odd choices of her own. She and the Doctor discover the body of another servant, hidden in the secret tunnels. Now would seem like a good chance to fess up. Instead, she decides to keep the whole thing to herself, and weirdly, the Doctor agrees to keep her secret. She doesn’t want to disturb her party guests with news of a murder, which is some extreme lengths to go to avoid social embarrassment. But then this is the woman who locked up her injured son to avoid social embarrassment, so she has form.
Inevitably, the footman’s murder is discovered. With two men dead, you might expect that now Madge will finally come clean. But you see, because George was wearing the costume allocated to the Doctor, she sees an opportunity to allow the Doctor to take the fall. Why she feels the need to do this is never explained. As she says herself once the Doctor is arrested, “He will come to no harm. He is innocent”. So at best, she has bought herself a little time. But to do what exactly? Perhaps she is hoping the mystery will go unsolved and she can go back to imprisoning her disabled son.
But no, it can’t be that because her next step is to confess all to Charles. The audience is kept away from that revelation, but perhaps it went like this:
LADY CRANLEIGH: So Charles, I have some news. Your brother’s not dead. He’s alive and horribly disfigured. Goodness knows the fuss this would cause, so I’ve been holding him captive in a secret room in this house. No, it’s fine, I’ve given him a private nurse. Yes sometimes he has to be tied to the bed, but it’s for his own good, don’t you agree? Anyway, it was all going swimmingly until he killed a servant, escaped, dressed up in the Doctor’s costume, assaulted Ann (whom he still believes he’s engaged to. Yes, that will need sorting out at some stage.) and killed James the footman. Anyway, it seemed best to let the police think the Doctor was responsible and Sir Robert’s such a dear old friend, I’m sure he won’t charge me with obstructing a murder investigation. While they work out that the Doctor’s innocent, we should work out some way of making both murders look like unfortunate accidents and then we can go on keeping George locked up out of sight. So thinking caps on! Shall we get James to fetch us some tea? Oh no, that’s right, he’s dead.
The Doctor leads a pretty complicated life too. But sometimes the situations he finds himself in seem served up to him a little too conveniently. In The Doctor’s Wife we find out that the TARDIS chooses many of his destinations. Surely Black Orchid is one of those occasions. How else would the cricket loving Fifth Doctor be manoevered so neatly into a scenario where he can indulge in his favourite sport? And where his companion Nyssa (Sarah Sutton again) can meet Ann Talbot, her exact double? As this Doctor said in another adventure, “what worries me is the level of coincidence in all this.”
Look, Black Orchid doesn’t make a lick of sense. But if we wrote off Doctor Who stories on that basis, we’d be condemning a large swathe of the series. Still, there’s stuff to admire here. Sure, Part One is full of unlikely incidents (the Doctor takes the place of another cricketing Doctor, the Cranleighs readily accept that the Doctor has no name), but in Part Two when these oddities finally start to be questioned they serve to increase suspicions about the Doctor and we feel him sliding into real trouble. Also, the silent killer in the harlequin’s costume is nicely spooky and it gives the story its most enduring image. And the whole thing looks very handsome in an acclaimed BBC period drama kind of way.
Plus it gives Sarah Sutton a chance to display her versatility, playing a gushier, more ebullient character than prim and proper Nyssa. (Although points must be deducted for the perfunctory and confusing way we’re shown Ann before the TARDIS arrives. Where’s the big reveal when Ann turns around and we see she’s Nyssa’s twin?)
Sutton’s a capable actress and Nyssa is a pleasant enough character, so it pains me to say that Nyssa’s a little too bland to be a fully engaging companion. Peter Davison’s on record as saying he thought she should be his Doctor’s sole companion, but surely Nyssa just doesn’t have enough spunk to hold an audience’s interest?
Davison was comparing Nyssa favourably to fellow companion Tegan (Janet Fielding), who too often was left to complain her way throughout a story. But in Black Orchid she’s a delight; feisty but fun loving and fun to be around. She’s exactly the companion you want Tegan to be, but she rarely is. However you have to question her judgement when late in the story she hotly declares that “the Doctor is no imposter!”. When actually, having taken that tardy cricketer’s place and kept quiet about it, that’s the one thing he clearly is and everyone knows it. Better lay off those screwdrivers, Tegan.
Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) fairs worst of all the regulars. He should have been left behind in the TARDIS to do some sums or something, as he’s completely surplus to requirements here. The most he gets to do is eat his own body weight in BBC buffet during the fancy dress ball. Terence Dudley’s vivid novelisation of this story at least offers him a smidgen more interest when he gets asked to dance by a man.
A conflicted Adric then sets about overcoming his fear of dancing, and despite his earlier reluctance finds he has something of a latent talent in the toe tapping department. “All at once a wave of happiness overcame Adric,” the book gushes. “He was doing it. Yes, he was doing it and felt wonderful!”. I like to think of it as Adric’s out and proud moment. If only to liven the whole thing up a bit.
ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: “Top hole,” says Charles in Part One. “Top ho,” say the subtitles. Where is this ho exactly?
LINK TO Invasion of the Dinosaurs. Both feature misguided, rather than evil villains.
NEXT TIME: This is the day the Sun expands. Welcome to The End of the World.