It’s fairly clear, within minutes of their commentary track for Doctor Who: Black Orchid starting, that the majority of the participants in the story aren’t very fond of it. At all.
Peter Davison is perhaps the most scathing, calling it a “lazy story”, that Terence Dudley got out of the drawer and turned into a Doctor Who episode. And let’s be frank: there aren’t too many elements you’d associate with Doctor Who in Black Orchid: the show’s clearly done historical stories exceptionally well in the past, but this has not a jot of science fiction in it, leading the commentary team to speculate that it’s a Miss Marple-alike story that Dudley, for reasons easily explained by the sieve-like plot, couldn’t sell.
And yet this reviewer at least doesn’t mind it too much. There’s not a great deal to it, granted. It’s a two part mystery set in the 1920s, that – despite its total 50 minute running time – still manages to shoehorn around five minutes of Peter Davison playing cricket, another few minutes of Nyssa and Tegan dancing, and umpteen shots of Adric, er, eating. Yet it’s breezy enough (literally and figuratively) to watch, and passes before your eyes perfectly harmlessly.
The premise is that the Doctor, Adric, Nyssa and Tegan (for this was in the days when the Tardis was full of companions, a choice criticised in the recent commentary track for The Five Doctors) arrived in England in 1925, where thanks to a case of mistaken identity, they’re scooted off to Cranleigh Hall for the aforementioned cricket match.
But behind the scenes at Cranleigh Hall, things are amiss. There’s a double for Nyssa for starters, in the shape of Ann Talbot (both, naturally, are played by Sarah Sutton), a strange man with some ring like device coming out of his mouth (it’s hilarious, to be fair) and a series of murders. There’s also a fleeting reference to the black orchid flower, which justifies the title of the story. Just.
In the midst of all of this is a fancy dress ball, which sees Nyssa and Ann confusing everybody by wearing identical outfits, while the Doctor ends up in a strange harlequin costume, just minutes after it was used by the murderer. If there was much substance to it, this would be the part where the plot thickens. But it never does.
With a script that sees people doing things that defy logic, and with not a great deal of meat to the fairly obvious plot, it’s fair to say that Black Orchid is no classic. But it’s still surprisingly good fun, especially given the opinions of those who were in it!
Which leads us neatly to the main DVD extra, a commentary track with Peter Davison, Sarah Sutton (the only one to like the story, primarily because it did something a little different), Janet Fielding (who is on great form again, verbally bouncing off Davison) and Matthew Waterhouse. There’s no director or writer here, meaning it’s very much a non-technical, actors’ commentary. And it’s an absolute hoot.
They’ve marked their card within minutes by declaring dislike of the story, and from there they’re happy to royally rip the piss out of it. “None of us come out of this well”, muses Fielding towards the end, with the track also pointing out the variable weather in the main outdoor sequences, Davison’s hatred for the costume he had to wear, the lighting, the script holes and chest hair!
There is some meat in here. John Nathan-Turner’s dislike of six part episodes was the reason they ended up with a two-parter here (and the terrific Earthshock was to follow next), and the make-up designer apparently went on to work on Shakespeare In Love! Plus there’s the sequence where stuntman Gareth Milne nearly kills himself by throwing himself too far off the top of a building. Fortunately, that particular incident had a happy ending.
It’s a very entertaining, rather than particularly informative track on the whole though. And it is very, very funny.
There are a few more extras, too. A nine minute featurette called Now And Then talks about the locations used in Black Orchid, and looks at what has happened to them since (one location was previously used on Doctor Who in the story Castrovalva). It’s quite interesting, and certainly well presented.
Then we get a segment from Points Of View, presented by Barry Took at the time, with people writing in to complain about Doctor Who being moved around the schedules. It’s replete with the snotty voiceover woman of Points Of View of old, and even employs a robotic voice over one particular letter. “More monsters and fewer girls”, asks one scribe. “They do nothing but talk and shriek!”. Turns out he was only ten!
An interesting Blue Peter segment, running to around nine minutes, only actually covers Doctor Who towards the back end of it. It’s a small item where Simon Groom and Sarah Greene go and visit a costume company, who happed to have provided the outfits for Black Orchid.
Then there are some deleted scenes, which extend the drive from the Tardis to Cranleigh Hall, add in police officers discovering the Tardis at a railway station, and a few bits and bobs at the fancy dress party. These are well presented, with existing scenes in black and white, switching to colour when new footage kicks in.
A small restoration feature is also diverting, highlighting the before and afters of the process. It uses on-screen captions to do this, and while you won’t watch it again, it’s nonetheless interesting to sit through once.
Stripped For Action, meanwhile, follows a similar feature on the recent The Time Meddler DVD, and is around 16 minutes looking at the comic strip adventures of the fifth Doctor. There’s a lot of substance here, and it’s well worth checking out.
Rounding off the package is a good info-text track, the PDF listings from the Radio Times, and a photo gallery slideshow. Plus there’s quite a good trailer for the upcoming DVD release of The Trial Of A Time Lord. That said, having sat through the entirety of said story on more than one occasion, it’s a tricky one for a trailer to encourage you to sit through again!
In all, a good catalogue release for a decent Doctor Who story. The highlight is the commentary track, for sheer entertainment value, but the smattering of additional extras also keep the high standard of Doctor Who discs going. Next up is The Invasion Of Time in May, and we can’t wait to see what they do with that…