This story really fell from grace in my estimations. My dad bought this story as a VHS set that also contained The Visitation. At the time, I thought The Visitation brutal and complicated, but I rather enjoyed Black Orchid, I think mainly because at the time I also quite liked cricket!
With age (and a loss of interest in cricket) however, my appreciation has increased for the former, and reduced dramatically for the latter. To be fair, Black Orchid isn’t actually a bad story. The producers had the good grace to recognise that it couldn’t stretch beyond a two parter, and it is unashamedly a simple historical tale. The interplay of having Sarah Sutton play both Nyssa and her lookalike Ann Talbot is really quite well done, and you cannot fault the quality of acting or the sets.
The trouble is, that even for a two parter there’s an awful lot of padding, and no real sense of menace or threat. What they were aiming for is what Russell T Davies would later achieve in The Unicorn and the Wasp (incidentally, one of my favourite stories from the new Who) – the magic of bygone times in the style of a period drama, with the intrigue that comes from a Doctor Who story. All the ingredients are there – the companion lookalike, the TARDIS crew ending up at the country house by mistake, and the discovery of dead bodies. But watching it with grown-up eyes, the serial is depressingly pedestrian.
It is also the serial that more than any other demonstrates the ‘crowded TARDIS’ problem. Nyssa gets a starring role (two starring roles in fact) and poor Adric and Tegan are reduced to comical food consumption and unusual dancing respectively – and not much else. It is clear and evident why the producers would choose to reduce the team to three in the next serial, Earthshock.
That said, there are some genuinely lovely touches. There’s something very charming about the Doctor opining that as a child he’d always wanted to drive a steam train, while the cricket match is still a very enjoyable scene – a classic equivalent to Matt Smith’s virtuoso footballing appearance in The Lodger. And that rather sums up Black Orchid – nothing jars when you watch it, but it doesn’t leave much impression on the imagination. It’s arguably this low because, unlike other serials in this area, one senses there’s not a huge amount that could have been done to improve the base material.