13/09/10 “Black Orchid”
Tegan : It's fancy dress, isn't it?
Lord Cranleigh : Yes.
Tegan : Well, we haven't got any costumes.
Sir Robert Muir : Oh. I was just thinking how charming yours was.
I was quite looking forward to watching this story, and at the same time not because I was worried the thinness of the story would detract from what I knew would be my enjoyment of the production values. While the story certainly wasn’t complicated (which is just what a two-parter warrants!) it had a refreshing and fun quality to it. Companions always reflect on the fun and adventure of being in the TARDIS, but most of the time, all we see is death, destruction, and despair. Rarely do we ever see companions enjoying themselves and letting their hair down a bit; this is particularly relevant when discussing the TARDIS-full of Tegan, Adric, and Nyssa. After all, as so many people have noted, Tegan spends most of her time in the TARDIS complaining, and she and Adric snipe at each other, leaving Nyssa to be calm and yet a bit boring. Tegan was clearly having a wonderful time in this story, and Adric and Nyssa were enjoying it too, even though for them it was all new. It gives “Earthshock” even more of a poignancy.
As Vanessa Bishop noted, part of what makes this more Doctor Who and less Dorothy L. Sayers is the lack of mystery throughout! The opening, where one man seems to kill another with horrible squelchy noises (or, as Jamie said, we’ve been witness to a strange sex act!), is arresting and provides enough tension through the rest of the proceedings that at least we aren’t bored but likewise aren’t too worried about the murders not to enjoy the costume ball along with the Doctor and the companions. It’s an interesting juxtaposition with the (much) later “Unicorn and the Wasp,” which I also liked, but that was intrinsically much more involved with solving the whodunit. That story also seemed a lot more cynical; in “Black Orchid,” though there were mysterious and sinister undercurrents, none of the characters were really sordid or villainous (at least, that we could tell). The poor man in the attic was no more evil than Mrs. Rochester, and like her, he perished on the roof of the house.
As you will no doubt have guessed, I was enchanted with the costumes, particularly Tegan’s which was similar to a ballet costume. I was impressed at how Ann’s costuming was able to make her and Nyssa unrecognizable (though how she managed to have exactly similar costumes with only a few hours’ notice doesn’t make much sense—wasn’t the second wife in Rebecca planning that costume ball for weeks?). The Pierrot was a bit too glam—“Ashes to Ashes” anyone?—but then this was right after the glam robot of “The Visitation.” I thought there was maybe a bit too much dancing, but Tegan’s unabashed delight in doing the Charleston brought out a nice side of her. Similarly, I thought Sarah Sutton was given a lot more leeway to act when she played Ann, and though the double act has been done to death, it was a wonderfully Gothic idea. The great big house with its extended “priest’s hole” was also quite Gothic, and as I remarked to Jamie, Doctor Who is always burning poor wretches with acid in some weird homage to Phantom. (Alas George Cranleigh could never be the Phantom as his tongue was cut out! What’s up with that? What South American tribes go around deforming and mutilating Westerners as a matter of course? I think that was the most weakly researched bit of the plot. Though, to be sure, it was an element that in a way was recycled in “Unicorn and the Wasp” with the Indian ayah.)
I thought there was also maybe a bit too much cricket, as well. This was very well-filmed and at last gave the Fifth Doctor some justification for Edwardian cricketing gear. The idea of the Doctor wandering around a subterranean lair in a dressing gown was an amusing, if completely unrealized, riff on the Phantom-y theme. The poor Doctor’s disbelief at Lady Cranleigh’s betrayal really did epitomize poor misused Fifth Doctor. It would have been funny if, as Jamie suggested, the “strike me pink” officer and the others all became companions so that the TARDIS was full of silly humans and a Trakenite and an Alazarian (the quips about Esher were lightly amusing). And Adric, when not stuffing his face, had some moments of kindness toward everyone.
Of course, no one would suggest such light fare for every story in the Doctor Who repertoire, but as someone rightly pointed out, it was the first and last “pure” historical since 1966. They should make more!