|And then they killed Adric. The end.|
It’s March 1st, 1982. Tight Fit are at number one with “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” while Toni Basil’s unforgivably awful “Mickey” is at number two. Soft Cell and Depeche Mode also feature in the top ten, while Iron Maiden pokes around just outside of it. While in real news… well, we’ve got here a story that only covers two days, so actually, based on the detailed historical research I do for these posts (aka “look the year up on Wikipedia”) nothing whatsoever happens. Queen Elizabeth opens up the Barbican the day after this story finishes. The Barbican is an interesting little thing – a massive performing arts centre full of good intentions and muddy executions. But I did see a phenomenal RSC production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream there in what a quick check of the Internet suggests was just about their final performance at the Barbican. So that was nice.
While on topic, Black Orchid! Black Orchid is an interesting beast. It doesn’t work at all, first of all, but the reasons why it doesn’t work are almost completely separate from the larger problems that Doctor Who is having in this time period and have very little to do with the story as an idea. Because as an idea, this is the story that really demonstrates how Doctor Who’s relationship with its past can and should work.
The first and most important thing to realize about this story is that it comes after The Visitation. This is a stunningly obvious point, but it’s worth stating anyway. The Visitation restored Earth’s past as a place where the series goes, much as Tegan quietly restored Earth as something that was actually important to the series, it having been almost entirely de-emphasized following The Hand of Fear. And it did so by introducing Earth’s past as the sort of place it’s been ever since The Time Warrior – a place that is visited to do muckabouts in history with cool aliens.
So when Black Orchid comes along and reintroduces the straight historical it’s every bit as much a surprise as when The Time Meddler came along and broke the straight historical. In fact, this story can be read as the inversion of The Time Meddler. In that story we’re led repeatedly to think that we’re watching a straight historical only to discover that in reality we’re watching something else. Here the production repeatedly gestures at the possibility that there is something uncanny in the story, alluding to the possibility that the Master might be involved, for instance. But instead we are repeatedly shown that it’s actually just a 1920s mystery story.
By and large, though, this is a very, very smart thing to do at this point in the series. First and foremost, it shows a relationship with the show’s past that goes beyond merely catering to obsessive fans. There was no loud clamoring for the return of the historical, which has always, within fandom, been viewed primarily as a discarded relic of the early days of the show and as something rightly phased out in favor of more monsters. This is, of course, rubbish. Although I do think that the pseudo-historical is largely a superset of the historical, the idea that the historical was a dead end for the series is simply nonsense. And so returning to it is a heartening sign that the increasing tendency towards mining the series’ past is about finding wrongly discarded approaches and not about mere fetishism. Simply put, trying a historical out is a brave move.
Secondly, however, it’s a satisfying refocusing on the small scale. Much like Kinda, Black Orchid focuses on characters. In Black Orchid’s case, however, this isn’t a choice. It’s a 1920s murder mystery – by definition a genre that requires a focus on characters. Given our premise that Season Nineteen is in part a failed attempt at making Doctor Who into a soap opera this sort of story is a real help – a reminder that Doctor Who can be about the concerns of ordinary people instead of about giant psychic snakes, historical disasters, and universe-threatening dangers. The danger in this story concerns nothing more than a family and their internal politics. One struggles to remember the last time the stakes in a story were so low. And it’s a good thing – a helpful regrounding of the series.c
It’s particularly beneficial to Peter Davison, whose Doctor is very well-suited by this downsizing of scale. As I’ve said before, every Doctor is in part a reaction against his predecessor. And so Davison’s Doctor is defined first and foremost by his comparative lack of dominating presence. One is tempted – doubly so because this story is overtly an Agatha Christie story – to cite Raymond Chandler’s description of the detective in “The Simple Art of Murder,” specifically the bit about “But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.”
That is very much where Davison’s Doctor is pitched. He is not a world-saving hero so much as a good man in a not very good universe who nevertheless loves the universe and wants to explore it. And this is a very important story in developing that because it gives Davison the opportunity for a fantastic performance in a small scale. His protestations of innocence in the second episode and frustrated efforts to get out of the legal system and back to the plot are fantastic. One of the things Davison is phenomenal at is making sure every line he delivers is doing something. This is an important dramatic principle – that every line in a script should involve a character engaging in some active verb in order to attain what he or she wants. Davison, quite frankly, is far better at this than the scriptwriters, and he manages to make every line he delivers into a dramatic action. Pairing that with small stakes helpfully reinforces the character – it means that when we see him, next story, running frantically about a space freighter trying to warn people about Cybermen, that becomes a smaller and more intimate story as well.
Unfortunately, Davison is the only person whose character is helped by this story. Sarah Sutton does well enough, finally getting a story that’s largely focused on her, and she does as credible a job with playing two parts as any actress has. But the quality of her two-character turn only reveals the paucity of characterization she’s getting as Nyssa. Not for the first time the story forgets to give its characters something to do. The prospect of Nyssa trying to talk George down herself is a phenomenal scene. Instead she gets to be kidnapped and flail about. There’s even less to say about Tegan and Adric, who don’t even seem to belong in this story.
And then there’s the ending, in which the Doctor partially talks George down on the roof and then George conveniently runs off the roof and dies to wrap things up in time for the closing credits. It’s appallingly rushed and fails to provide any actual dramatic payoff to any of the events preceding it. In this regard it’s a typical failure of the sort that’s been infesting the entire season – a character drama created by people who neither understand nor care about characters.
But there’s a more fundamental problem under the hood here, which is the two part structure. It’s not, for what it’s worth, that two 25-minute episodes is too short to tell a good Doctor Who story. For one thing, if that were true it would follow that the new series must be wretched, and it’s clearly not. Rather it’s that the cliffhanger structure is absolutely murder on these stories. In this case we have a murder mystery that doesn’t get the opportunity to get underway until the second of two episodes.
The problem is that the structure that works well for longer stories, in which each episode is a distinct phase of the storytelling, is a mess in a two-parter. By breaking the story into setup and resolution Dudley squashes his entire mystery into an episode too small to contain it while having a first episode that luxuriates in the space it’s afforded to do party scenes and cricket matches. Both of which are lovely bits of texture, or, at least, would be in a four-parter where three episodes were turned over to the murder. Admittedly the murder as it stands can’t possibly sustain that either, and two episodes probably is the right amount of time. The problem is that the murder needs to happen at the 10-15 minute mark in episode one and the cliffhanger needs to be a shoved in pro forma piece instead of a turning point in the episode. This is that rare case where the episode structure is just getting in the way and a contrived cliffhanger would have been so much more preferable.
But, of course, that was never going to work in the twice weekly format where each episode is made with the assumption that the audience might have missed all or most of the other one. The second episode has to be a self-contained unit unto itself because it can’t assume that most of the audience was around the episode before like it could if the preceding episode had aired on the same day. So we’re stuck with a shape for the story that cannot possibly hold the story it’s trying to tell. While it’s difficult, given his other two efforts, to imagine that Dudley would have filled in the character beats this needed given a 45 minute single episode, or that Saward or Nathan-Turner would ever have noticed this problem and worked to fix it, the fact of the matter is that even if he’d wanted to he’d have been hard-pressed to make it work in this structure. And so while two-parters certainly can work, it’s difficult to come up with a compelling case that they can work in this particular timeslot and format.
So what we have in Black Orchid is a flawed experiment. It’s less dramatically satisfying than several less ambitious stories in its season, but one still wants to give it more credit than, say, The Visitation simply because it’s putting some effort towards trying to be a better story and missing spectacularly, whereas The Visitation is aiming at high mediocrity and falls just short of its ambitions.
One final note that needs to be dealt with, because this story is the most problematic example of something a commenter pointed out and suggested be dealt with way back in the Hinchcliffe era. Doctor Who, throughout its run, has an unfortunate relationship with physical disability, tending to equate it to monstrosity. This is, admittedly, a broad trope in action-adventure literature. But the parade of small-sized or facially disfigured people who are also homicidal and evil over the course of Doctor Who is genuinely problematic.
And it’s a particularly nasty piece of discrimination because there’s actually a metaphor to it. It’s one thing when the show just blithely reasserts classism by favoring the middle and upper class and not giving a crap about the working class. It’s another when the pattern of behavior is an active commentary. The use of disability as a signifier of evil is based on the equation of physical disfigurement with mental disfigurement – that what is ugly on the outside must therefore be ugly on the inside. Which is uncomfortably close to something like using people with darker skin as symbols of evil because white is good and black is evil.
And this story goes one step further by linking in primitive cultures – including a South American with a plate in his lip to add that extra level of exoticism and deformity. And having the deformity take place in the dark jungle at the ahnds of savages and… yuck. It’s just a pile of yuck. It’s another example of Dudley writing for the Hartnell era, except this time he’s gone back a few stories from The Savages to The Ark.
And like the crass characterization, it’s something that would easily be at least somewhat fixable. The story is fairly insistent that George retains value and worth, but then shoves him off a roof and kills him instead of dealing with the inconvenience of sorting out some resolution. Again, given Dudley’s overall skills as a writer it’s difficult to imagine that he’d have improved on this even if given the time. Especially because it could have been dealt with even in the time allotted – even a line in which the Doctor suggests that his family’s mistreatment of him is as much a cause of George’s madness as his disfigurement would go miles towards making this a better story. Instead the actions of the family are largely given a pass and George is treated as a great man brought low by circumstance to be praised for his life before his capture.
Instead we get casual cultural imperialism, scorn for the disabled, and yet another failure to actually tell stories about characters. For all that John Nathan-Turner distances himself from the Williams era he manages a remarkable imitation of its essential nature: all the right goals and nothing like the ability to pull them off.