Monday, 11 November 2013

Black Orchid written by Terrance Dudley and directed by Ron Jones

This story in a nutshell: The Doctor plays cricket, Tegan has a dance, Nyssa meets her double and Adric stuffs his face...

Fair Face: You can understand why Peter Davison objected to this script, as the Doctor is easily the weakest thing about it. Whilst his companions get to party he is stuck wandering around some dirty old corridors and once he discovers the body all he gets to do is declare his innocence ineffectually. He has no real status within the story, no gravitas; it feels as though he is washed away in the gentle events. Imagine Colin Baker being as awash as Davison, it just wouldn't happen. Sometimes a Doctor needs to stress his dominance and Davison completely fails to do so here and it is the one time I would stress that he is as wet as many of his detractors claim. Black Orchid could lose the Doctor Who banner altogether for all the impact he makes, given any character could step and handle the things that he does (play cricket, find bodies, profess his innocence...). Plus I find it extremely odd how he shows all and sundry inside the TARDIS these days, a far cry from his dangerous reaction to Ian and Barbara walking in during An Unearthly Child. There were a few touches that were nice such as his admission that he used to want to drive a steam train when he was a boy (and you can imagine the Time Lords’ reaction would mirror Nyssa’s) and his glee at being invited to a cricket match is palpable. It's not that Davison is giving a bad performance (I don't think he knows how) but it is an ineffectual one, deliberately so. The actor blames the script (and given Terrance Dudley's other contributions you could almost be inclined to believe him) but any of the other actors in the part - especially Pertwee, both Bakers and Tennant would make a much bolder statement with the material given in Black Orchid.

Alien Orphan: How wonderful for Sarah Sutton to be able to let her hair down after playing prim and prissy Nyssa for a whole season and  get the chance to play up a little hysteria and melodrama in her secondary role of Ann Talbot. It goes to show how much of Nyssa's poker face and ambivalence is a performance. Imagine if Ann and Tegan travelled with the Doctor? The cattiness in the ranks would go off the scale. There are lots of great little moments for Nyssa in this story and given how invisible she is during much of her tenure they are all the more enjoyable for it. I loved her incomprehensible reaction to cricket; pretty much summing it up my allergic reaction to the game. The confusion as to whether she is from Traken, Worcestershire or Escher made me chuckle. Nyssa explains to Tegan that the dancing on Traken is much more formalised on Traken than it is in 1920s Earth which leads her companion to teach her a few steps of the Charleston. Finally these characters are being written as people rather than plot devices and caricatures. The chemistry between Nyssa and Tegan hasn't been this palpable since Castrovalva. They deck Nyssa out in a butterfly costume and she looks stunning and ultimately Sutton seems to relax into a setting and genre she is clearly quite comfortable playing in. Nyssa gets dance and flirt and behave like a young girl about the universe.
How refreshing.

Screaming Harridan: Entirely unrepresentative of the Tegan that plagued the show for three years, if this was your first exposure to the character then you might wonder what all the fuss is about? She smiles her way through most of the story and is extremely pleasant to her hosts, thanking them for their hospitality and generosity. It is such a contrast to her usual foot stamping attitude that you have to question whether Terrance Dudley has ever watched the show before, let alone contributed ones which featured the nadir of Tegan's characterisation (both Four to Doomsday and The Kings' Demons are possibly her weakest tales where she does little but sulk and throw tantrums). Since this is the superior version of her character, I shan't complain too much. She throws herself into the dancing and flirts like mad with Sir Robert. Had she been like this throughout her tenure I would have been delighted. Amazing how much softer Janet Fielding plays the character when she is given the opportunity. 

Pudding Bowl Haircut: Scandinavian? Completely the set of out of character regulars, even Adric is pretty fun in this story (even if his appearance is kept to the absolute minimum, as I have suggested all along). In a setting where he doesn’t have to be a traitor or play and active role in events, Adric thrives. All Waterhouse has to do is stand in the background, make a few suggestive comments (‘I don’t think I could do it!’) and stuff his face and he acquits himself beautifully. ‘Anyway I’d much rather eat’ - I actually laughed at that line! Perhaps Adric would have worked best if he was plonked in the foreground of every story, given a plate of food and told to eat and not connect with events. Amazing how tolerable he is that way.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Positively two peas in a pod!’
‘Strike me pink!’ – the best ever reaction to walking into the TARDIS.

The Good Stuff: Can you think of a story that is more quintessentially British than Black Orchid? The TARDIS lands on a sunny village train platform and the Doctor is carted off in a vintage car through glorious green countryside. He plays cricket on a sunny lawn, shares some (‘Splendid! ‘Top Ho!’) ritzy dialogue and then heads back to a fabulous country manor for cocktails. It's rural upper class Britain epitomised. Whilst it is clearly a studio set, the house has been designed with plenty of detail that sweeps you away in the romance of the period and the grand staircase looks splendid. I really like how the Doctor and company are expected at the train station, it saves all that bother about explaining who they are in the first episode and lets us get on with the story. It's not until episode two where the usual rounds of suspicion begins, subverting expectations. The ball scenes are very nice done and have a terrific atmosphere, but it is a shame that the weather was so inclement on the day they decided to film. Fabulous frocks, a terrific spread and lots of dancing. It is a genuinely thrill to see this particular TARDIS crew letting their hair down, they are always at each others throats and for once they feel like a real genuine group of friends. I'm not certain what is creepier, the harlequin outfit or George's disfigured make up. The fire he sets in the studio is really impressive – I am surprised that they let it build that much given the usual safety regulars or perhaps it is all camera trickery. Considering so little happens in this interlude the rooftop fireside hostage scenario (try saying that three times fast) really packs a punch. All of the performances by the guest cast are excellent, since this a period piece and there are no grandiose villains about everybody is playing their roles for real and they are more effective because of it. Well except perhaps Michael Cochrane (‘Smutty!’) but he is so marvellously over the top it is easy to forgive him. The tragic ending leads to a short but sweet coda, which suggests events unseen.

The Bad Stuff: It a shame Roger Limb chose to use a synthesizer for his music since when he decides to polish the ivory keys he does a rather lovely job. The electronic buzzing that pollutes the story is really out of place. I wouldn’t have even bothered to include all those scenes with George in episode one, wandering around and dribbling as the cliffhanger would have been a much better surprise. Whodunnit – geddit? As a murder mystery this story is trite because it breaks all of the rules, there is only ever one suspect and it reveals too much too early on. It's better to enjoy this simply as a period piece.

The Shallow Bit:Shirking off their 'uniforms'. both Tegan and Nyssa look beautiful. Go figure, JNT.

Result: The most refreshing change of pace for 80’s Doctor Who, abandoning heavy plotting and tangled continuity in favour of atmosphere and frolics. It is incredible fun to watch the Doctor and friends letting their hair down and so close to Adric’s death it is nice to see them gelling together so well. They might all be vaguely out of character but given that in three of those cases it is a move in the shows favour (only the Doctor is absent) it is hard to object too strongly. The direction isn’t fantastic but it doesn’t need to be…this is a quaint trip to 1920’s Britain and Ron Jones can languish shots on steam trains, countryside, cricket matches and fabulous old-fashioned cars. There’s not a lot of tension in this but by God there’s plenty of style: 8/10

1 comment:

Anthony Pirtle said...

I'm not sure that I'd care to watch The Doctor playing cricket more than once every 50 years or so, but at least it seems like something this Doctor would do, unlike Eleven playing football.