A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2008.
Somehow, it seems callous to give Black Orchid a bad review – like kicking a puppy. On asking friends what they think of the story, one said: “It’s just a bit of fun!”. Another: “Oh, it’s sweet… It’s harmless.” But when we factor in that Black Orchid is, frankly, quite poor, then something strange is happening. Why is everyone so forgiving?
Here’s a theory: it’s two episodes of Doctor Who that won’t embarrass us in front of our mums. It has ‘mum-friendly’ things in it, like frocks and dancing, rather than a giant fuchsia snake or Anthony Ainley, and nobody says “I know so little about telebiogenesis” or “I wouldn’t dream of interfering with your Monopticons”.
It may sound sane and look pretty – and even prettier today after a spiffing restoration job – but Black Orchid is as insubstantial as smoke. This 50 minutes of froth, often described a ‘country house whodunnit’, is, at best, as ‘why-dunnit’. After all, it’s not as if we’re offered a range of suspects for the crimes at Dalton Hall. From scene one we know the murderer is an attic-dwelling heavy breather in turn-ups and tank top. The story unfolds – well, falls open – with little involvement required from the Doctor and friends, or demanded of the audience. But look! Fancy dress! And isn’t that just the nicest Doctor Who staircase this side of Ghost Light?
The first episode is outrageously padded with an epic cricket montage that feels as a long as a three-day test. (How much more fun would it have been if our hero, for all his bluster and cricket fetish outfit, proved to be rubbish at the game?). Even when the Doctor attempts to join the plot, he can’t seem to find it – instead spending 15 minutes opening and closing doors in a hallway while the storyline is busy stealing his clothes downstairs. Meanwhile, Adric is told he’s a pig for eating spring onions, Nyssa finds she has a twin even more fragile and tremulous than her, and Tegan dulls the pain by ordering a large vodka and tonic – at lunchtime – before flirting with a man twice her age. It’s probably the sort of behaviour that gets her sacked from Air Australia. You can’t carry on like that in Premium Economy.
In deference to younger fans, it would be churlish to reveal the true nature of the killer here. Suffice to say, and we come back to that ‘why-dunnit’, even his given motivation – “he’s mad!” – is suspect. He plots a route through secret passages, steals a disguise, dances a foxtrot and throttles a footman, before ultimately returning his costume, neatly folded, and retiring to his room. Unless obsessive-compulsive disorder is a recognised symptom of his homicidal psychosis, there’s no way this killer will cop a plea of insanity, however stressful his home life might be.
After a nice drive around the county, the story mooches towards a conclusion, where the Doctor’s recklessness endangers more lives (“What will he do when he finds out he’s got the wrong girl?” he wails. Thirty seconds later he tells the killer: “That isn’t Ann!”). Cleverly, the director tries to distract us with some entirely offensive incidental music, which sounds like composer Roger Limb’s cat was left to walk up and down on his synthesizer keyboard. Or Roger Limb was left to walk up and down on his cat. With that in mind, here’s an idea for 2entertain: In the same way some DVDs offer alternative special effects to replace originals that are now deemed too humiliating to show our friends, how about an Alternative Score on a future release? Perhaps to replace some truly excruciating racket, like that on Four To Doomsday or Terminus? Now while I’m sure Murray Gold is far too busy to re-score the Garm, maybe he has some eager protégé who fancies a crack at it? It would be a fascinating experiment to see how the mood of a familiar adventure can change with its music – certainly more interesting than giving Liza Goddard a new laser effect – and how an 80s Doctor Who soundtrack can be improved by the addition of elements once considered irrelevant; such as melody, harmony or musical instruments.
Although this is priced as one of the range’s ‘no frills’ releases, it still fields a generous range of extras, with the highlight being an enormously entertaining commentary. Peter Davison is the king of commentaries, and here he’s teamed with his two charming companions and Adric. And what fun! While Sutton has some happy memories of Orchid – she actually got some acting to do – her colleagues hate it with a passion, Davison most of all. The points he makes about the flaws in the production are perceptive, profound, and suggest that even in his youth he was more TV literate than either scriptwriter Terence Dudley or director Ron Jones.
There’s no ‘talking heads’ documentary covering the production of the story, but Richard Bignell does deliver one of his Now and Then tours of the Black Orchid filming locations. While Richard’s attention to detail is laudable, the problem is that the sites used in 1982 were chosen because they still looked like they did in the 1920s. And today they, well… still look like they did in the 1920s. A cross-fade of Quainton Road station ‘Then’ and ‘Now’ just shows the TARDIS prop disappearing, like some shonky roll-back-and-mix. And as proof that there’s such a thing as too much detail, even in a fan production, the voiceover reels off a long list of locations that weren’t used for Black Orchid – an entirely useless catalogue that only serves to take us all a minute closer to our own deaths. However, if you like that sort of thing, here are some other locations that weren’t used for Black Orchid: my house, your house, my mum’s house, the house next door to my mum’s house… Oh, and several others. I hope you’ve found that information enriching.
Also offering little new insight are a half-dozen deleted scenes, featuring some driving, a close-up of a Brazilian, the Doctor opening yet another door, and the news that someone has received a phone call (I won’t reveal who, to maintain the suspense). In addition, Nyssa and Ann perform a particularly annoying dance, which shows that the ‘double’ was a good four inches taller than Sarah Sutton. Couldn’t they have dug a little trench for her to stand in? The director should have done it – he obviously wasn’t busy.
The BBC archive provides a contemporary clip from Points Of View. “Please can we have more monsters and fewer girls?” complains viewer Robert Moore of Hampshire. Host Barry Took infers that Robert’s feelings will change as he grows up. Personally, I wouldn’t bet on that. There’s also a Blue Peter film report from Berman’s and Nathan’s costumiers, which starts sensibly enough, turns insane, and just happens to include a clip from Black Orchid. But be warned… it also offers up presenter Simon Groom in his underpants. And very 1980s underpants at that.
The final gem on this disc is another instalment of Marcus Hearn’s Stripped For Action history of the Doctor Who comic strip – here remembering the superb Fifth Doctor stories from this very journal. These epic, Romantic adventures had a profound effect upon the early development of this reviewer – though perhaps not as much as that Simon Groom footage – and it’s a treat to see artist Dave Gibbons and editor Alan McKenzie discuss their work. Sadly, there’s no sign of Steve Parkhouse – one of Doctor Who’s most creative and influential writers, working in any medium. I hope the production team resorts to blackmail, bribery or kidnap for the Sixth Doctor instalment, where Parkhouse’s involvement is simply essential.