Oct. 11th, 2018

purplecat: Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor (Who:Five)
"So when was the last all historical story?" Tame Layman asked as The Reign of Terror drew to a close.

As if by magic, the randomizer presented us with Black Orchid. I'm very fond of Black Orchid. 1920s period murder mysteries are pretty much peak BBC and it looks much better on its budget than a lot of 1980s Doctor Who. It is deliberately low stakes and it's nice to see that the show can successfully tell a story which consists mostly of a cricket match*, a fancy dress party and, of course, a couple of murders in a stately home.

"It's a shame the acting isn't a bit better," Tame Layman said early in part one - which surprised me a little since there are much worse culprits on the acting front in the history of Doctor Who than we see here. But I suppose it is also true that if your basis of comparison is Poirot or Miss Marple rather than, you know, The Twin Dilemma then at the very least the lack of rehearsal time shows. The performances are all competent but perhaps a little rough and ready. By the end Tame Layman was charmed however.

The whole plot surrounding the disfigured, mentally ill (and therefore murderous) brother and his devoted South American native servant-cum-rescuer-but-still-very-much-servant seems a lot more cliche-ridden and thoughtless now than it did to me in 1982. Obviously, it is riffing off the literature and tropes from fifty years before that, but it is doing so fairly carelessly by taking them pretty much at face value.

I also hadn't remembered, though it was painfully obvious on this viewing, that the whole thing had been filmed in a gale. It was quite amusing, in a way, seeing all the actors gamely behaving as if they were having a lovely party in the sunshine on the terrace while the trees bend in the wind and their costumes are blown around them.

Terence Dudley wrote three scripts for the show of which, I would say, this is the most successful. Four to Doomsday is interesting but crammed with, possibly too many, ideas and fails to quite come to life. The King's Demons lacks the sense of period that this one evokes and has a less coherent story to tell. I have a feeling Black Orchid succeeds more because of our (and the BBC's) familiarity with the time and tropes it is using than because of any inherent strength in the plot or ideas. It basically gets a whole a lot of goodwill for free and is competent enough not to squander it.

Modern Who tried its own version of this with The Unicorn and the Wasp but I don't think it succeeded as well. The science fiction elements pushed aside the murder mystery which became more of a background joke than the centre of the tale. The Doctor and Donna spent too much time pointing out they were in a 1920s murder mystery and not enough time actually being there somehow. I'd love to see the show have another go at something like this though, with more of a focus on inhabiting a particular period (or literary version thereof), and telling a low stakes tale in keeping with it.

* which, incidentally, based on its description in the novelisation is heavily inspired by the cricket match in Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L. Sayers.

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