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Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
fter bemoaning the last few Peter Davison-era releases, I was excited about the release of “Black Orchid,” a story from his first season as the Doctor. Even though it’s half the length of a typical “Doctor Who” story (it’s only two episodes long), it’s regarded by many a fan as a little gem. But it’s an oddball gem, and not at all what one expects from this series. It has no science fiction elements aside from the TARDIS, and seems more like something that would’ve played on “Mystery!” back in the 80s. It’s noteworthy in that regard, because when the series started back in 1963, the first few seasons often featured such stories, although back then they were usually set against some important historical event. “Black Orchid,” by contrast, is far more intimate, and it isn’t trying to offer up some kind of history lesson seen through the eyes of time travelers.
The story begins with the TARDIS landing at a railway station in 1925. Oddly, a car is waiting for them, seemingly confirmed by the driver asking the Doctor if he’s the Doctor. Are they expected? Further, the driver cannot take his eyes off of Nyssa (Sarah Sutton). The car takes the time travelers to a country estate where a cricket match is in progress. They are met by Lord Charles Cranleigh (Michael Cochrane), and the mysteries are quickly solved. The Doctor is thought to be someone else who was arriving on the train to fill in on Cranleigh’s team (and since the Doctor wants to play, he doesn’t correct him). Further, Nyssa looks identical to Cranleigh’s fiancée, Anne. The Doctor does play a hell of an intense game, while the others enjoy a lovely day in the countryside, and then later everyone is invited to partake in a masquerade. But a figure lurks in the priest holes of Cranleigh Hall, and when people start dying it doesn’t take long for the Cranleighs to point fingers at the person who turned out to be an imposter.
“Black Orchid” is a story of mistaken identities and family secrets, and much of its strength lies in its seeming simplicity. But tear away the veneers of English politeness, and it becomes a strangely sinister tale. It’s really unlike any other “Doctor Who” story ever created and much of your enjoyment of it will depend entirely on how deeply you care to look. It’s perhaps an episode too short – another 25 minutes would’ve allowed for some character development that’s unfortunately glossed over here and replaced with scenes of Peter Davison playing cricket and Janet Fielding doing the Charleston. But those scenes are hard to complain about because they’re just so different for this series, and they add a texture to the story that’s pure class and charm. It’s a good vehicle for Sarah Sutton, who gets to play two roles. Nyssa’s one of the blandest companions ever to travel with the Doctor, but Sutton’s performance as Anne shows that she was capable of more. (Or perhaps it just proves she put more thought into the alien Nyssa than I ever bothered to notice?) The tale also has loads of filmed location footage, and as a result looks better than a lot of older “Who.” As long as you go into “Black Orchid” knowing that it’s a different sort of “Doctor Who,” you’ll find it a pleasant diversion for an hour.
Special Features: A commentary track featuring the main cast is as lively as Peter Davison’s tracks usually are, although Davison himself offers up a much different take than what I did above: He says it’s one of his least favorite stories of his era, that it smacked of lazy writing and, worst of all, fails to be good “Who” simply because it isn’t sci-fi. It almost goes without saying that Janet Fielding doesn’t like the story, since she never seems to care for any of her work on this series. Matthew Waterhouse just seems to agree with them, probably so he didn’t get beat up after the recording session. Sutton alone, perhaps unsurprisingly, likes the story. There’s a featurette called “Now and Then” which revisits the story’s locations, as well as a handful of deleted scenes. “Stripped for Action – The Fifth Doctor” is a look back at the Davison-era comic strips, and features a cool interview with Dave Gibbons (“Watchmen”), who was in charge of drawing the character back in the day. There’s also a “Blue Peter” segment and a bit from a news show called “Points of View,” along with other bells and whistles you expect from a typical “Who” DVD.