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24 September 2014

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Black Orchid

Production Code: 6A

First Transmitted

1 - 01/03/1982 1855

2 - 02/03/1982 1905


The TARDIS arrives on Earth in 1925 where, due to a case of mistaken identity, the Doctor ends up playing in a local cricket match. The travellers then accept an invitation to a masked fancy dress ball, but events take on a more sinister tone as a number of murders are perpetrated at the country home of their host Lord Cranleigh.

The Doctor comes under suspicion but the murderer is eventually revealed to be Cranleigh's brother George, who has been kept locked up in the house ever since returning in a deranged and disfigured state from an expedition up the Amazon to find the legendary black orchid. George mistakes Nyssa for his former fiance Ann Talbot, who looks identical, and takes her up to the roof of the house. He is persuaded by the Doctor to let her go, but then falls from the roof to his death.

Episode Endings

The unknown figure wearing the Doctor's harlequin fancy dress costume grabs Ann - or is it Nyssa? - by the wrists. A passing servant comes to the girl's aid, but the harlequin grasps him about the throat and throws him violently to the floor. The girl faints, and the harlequin crosses to her and reaches out to put his hands around her neck...

On returning from George's funeral, Lord Cranleigh, his mother Lady Cranleigh and Ann bid farewell to the time travellers outside the TARDIS. Tegan is carrying a large box containing their fancy dress costumes, which they have been allowed to keep, and Lady Cranleigh gives the Doctor a further gift: a leather-bound book. The Doctor thanks her and opens the first page. Opposite a photograph of the author is the legend: 'Black Orchid by George Cranleigh'.


The Oblong Box (a brother horribly deformed in the tropics).

Lovecraft's The Shuttered Room.

The Cat and the Canary.

The Ghoul.

The Elephant Man.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Jane Eyre.

Charley's Aunt ('From Brazil, where the nuts come from!').

Raiders of the Lost Ark (opening sequence).

The works of Agatha Christie.

Margery Allingham and Dorothy Sayers in general.

H.G. Wells is mentioned in passing ('I'm afraid, like Mr Wells, the Doctor has a vivid imagination!').

The Doctor sings I Want to Be Happy from No, No, Nanette.

Dialogue Triumphs

Adric : "So what is a railway station?"

The Doctor : "Well, a place where one embarks and disembarks from compartments on wheels drawn along these tracks by a steam engine - rarely on time."

Nyssa : "What a very silly activity."

The Doctor : "You think so? As a boy, I always wanted to drive one."

Tegan : "It's fancy dress, isn't it?"

Lord Cranleigh : "Yes."

Tegan : "Well, we haven't got any costumes."

Sir Robert Muir : "Oh. I was just thinking how charming yours was."


The Doctor reveals that, as a boy, he always wanted to drive a steam engine. [It is possible that Gallifrey once had trains (as seen in the Matrix sequence in The Deadly Assassin). Alternatively, this is an example of the Doctor's long standing fascination with Earth.]

Tegan asks for a screwdriver (orange juice and vodka) at the Cranleigh's cocktail party, enjoys cricket and can Charleston. The Doctor and his companions stay for George's funeral and are given his book Black Orchid as a parting gift by Lady Cranleigh.


[Cranleigh,] 11 June 1925.



Actress Vanessa Paine doubles for Sarah Sutton in certain shots where Nyssa and Ann are seen together.


Police boxes did not exist in the 1920s, so how do the policemen recognise the TARDIS?

Cast & Crew


The Doctor - Peter Davison

Adric - Matthew Waterhouse

Nyssa - Sarah Sutton

Tegan - Janet Fielding

Ann - Sarah Sutton Sarah Sutton was credited on both episodes as playing 'Nyssa/Ann'.

Brewster - Brian Hawkley

Constable Cummings - Andrew Tourell

Lady Cranleigh - Barbara Murray

Latoni - Achmed Khalil

Lord Cranleigh - Michael Cochrane

Sergeant Markham - Ivor Salter

Sir Robert Muir - Moray Watson

Tanner - Timothy Block

The Unknown/George Cranleigh - Gareth Milne Gareth Milne was credited as 'The Unknown' on Part One in order to conceal the murderer's identity, which would not be revealed until Part Two.


Director - Ron Jones

Assistant Floor Manager - Val McCrimmon

Choreographer - Gary Downie

Costumes - Rosalind Ebbutt

Designer - Tony Burrough

Film Cameraman - Peter Chapman

Film Editor - Mike Houghton

Incidental Music - Roger Limb

Make-Up - Lisa Westcott

Producer - John Nathan-Turner

Production Assistant - Juley Harding

Production Associate - Angela Smith

Script Editor - Eric Saward

Special Sounds - Dick Mills

Studio Lighting - Fred Wright

Studio Sound - Alan Machin

Title Music - Ron Grainer and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, arranged by Peter Howell

Visual Effects - Tony Auger

Writer - Terence Dudley

Bottom Line - from The Discontinuity Guide

'Quite topping!' A little piece of 20s whimsy sampled into Doctor Who with surprisingly satisfying results. The only SF-free historically based Doctor Who story after 1966.

Analysis - from Doctor Who, the Television Companion

Black Orchid marks the very welcome return of the pure historical story - although, as David Richardson pointed out in Skaro Volume Two Number Five, dated June 1982, it does not really have all that much in common with the classic historical stories of sixties Doctor Who: 'Instead of having an adventure set around a particular event in Earth's history, such as the fire of Rome, here we have a plot that could have occurred in the present day and been little different for it. Fortunately much of Black Orchid was spent creating the mood of the 1920s... For the first episode at least, we were presented almost with a total party atmosphere, a leisurely trip back in time. The story of George Cranleigh need not have taken place in the 1920s, but the fact that it did made both episodes true masterpieces.'

The BBC has always excelled at making period drama, so it is perhaps no surprise to find that Black Orchid has uniformly high production values. In terms of style it has often been compared to an adaptation of one of Agatha Christie's classic crime novels, although Vanessa Bishop argued in In-Vision Issue Fifty-Nine, dated August 1995 that such comparisons are rather misplaced:

'If by mentioning... Agatha Christie we mean a "whodunit", then this canny little two-parter has deceived us, because we never, at any point in the story, have to ask ourselves that question. From the opening moments we know exactly who the killer is - it's the character with the breathing problem in the jacquard sweater and the brogues...

'In some ways it's the Doctor Whoiness that gets in the way of it all. The [series'] insistence on showing you everything robs you of the key element in a "whodunit". Each of the characters must appear to the viewer as equally innocent or equally guilty as each other. But no - the opening murder is committed when the house is all but empty; all the suspects are at the cricket match so all have perfect alibis. Instead of the Doctor's harlequin costume simply appearing at the dance, we see it being taken from his room by that fellow in the brogues, and instead of the Doctor producing an alibi of being lost in the corridors of Cranleigh Hall, which would seem as shaky to us as it does to his hosts, we actually see it.'

One very pleasing aspect of the story, and in particular its first episode, was noted by Paul West in TARDIS Volume 7 Number 2, dated May/June 1982: 'Peter Davison's zest for cricket was handled in this episode perhaps more effectively than in any other, when the traditional English cricketing scene was skilfully integrated with the gradual build up of menace at the manor. This was highlighted in a cunningly witty reference to "the master" - W G Grace (but see above, Ed), momentarily mistaken for the Doctor's old-time adversary.'

Another bonus is Sarah Sutton's dual role as Nyssa and Ann, which gives her a little more to do than usual. The 'double' idea has admittedly been done to death by this point but, as Mark Gillespie observed in the same issue of TARDIS, this is not a story that calls for any great originality: 'Oh look. Another double. Perhaps that was the only slightly less than credible part of Black Orchid, the rest of it being refreshingly inconsequential in the affairs of the universe. No planets saved, no invasions thwarted and no enslaved civilisations liberated, just a relatively small domestic problem centred around a family with a dreadful secret... Not the most obvious situation for a Doctor Who story, and in a season where the TARDIS crew save the Earth from all sorts of nasty fates, an easily forgettable one. Black Orchid however has a certain intriguing charm that is difficult to pin down but leaves a definite impression upon one's mind.'

The only pity is that the success of this experimental two-parter did not in the end lead on to further historical adventures in later seasons. 'Black Orchid was an excursion,' wrote Richardson, 'nothing more nor less. It lacked the depth of a true historical story, and could hardly be called a classic, but it was a greatly enjoyable mid-season break.'

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This episode guide is made up of the text of The Discontinuity Guide by Paul Cornell, Martin Day and Keith Topping, and Doctor Who: The Television Companion by David J. Howe and Stephen James Walker.

The Discontinuity Guide © Paul Cornell, Martin Day and Keith Topping 1995.
Doctor Who: The Television Companion © David J Howe and Stephen James Walker 1998, 2003.

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