Today’s Netflix viewing was “Black Orchid,” the fifth episode of season 19, broadcast in March, 1982, and featuring the Fifth Doctor, Nyssa, Tegan, and Adric. I requested this particular episode because I read somewhere that this was the last purely historical story ever produced. The only science fiction elements in the story was the Doctor, the companions, and the TARDIS: no aliens, no spaceships, no death rays. It’s also odd because it consisted of only two parts. The vast majority of classic episodes were 4-6 parts.
Spoilers, by the way.
The episode is set in the 1920s, when the TARDIS lands for some unknown reason in a village in England and the Doctor is recruited to play cricket with Lord Cranleigh. After demonstrating superior cricket skills, he and the TARDIS crew are invited to attend a masquerade party, and are provided costumes. While the Doctor is getting dressed, he gets locked in the secret passages that riddle the mansion, and someone steals his costume and commits a murder while wearing it. The Doctor then arrives as the party in costume and is accused of the murder, but it turns out that Lord Cranleigh has locked away his insane and disfigured brother in the house, and it was he who committed the murder.
Though the episode wasn’t objectively very good, I actually really enjoyed it, simply because it was different. First, we got to see the Doctor actually playing cricket, and he looked the happiest I’ve ever seen him. I think the Fifth Doctor’s ideal life is simply playing cricket on a sunny day with tea and friends. The TARDIS crew got the chance to interact with each other (and other people) socially, rather than just reacting to a stressful situation, though I have to admit that poor Adric only got to show how much of a grumpy wallflower he is. Tegan actually got to enjoy herself for once, dancing at a party and making friends. Sarah Sutton got some variety, playing both Nyssa and a girl named Ann Talbot, a lookalike who is the fiancee of Lord Cranleigh. The pacing of the episode was better than a lot of classic series episodes, since they had to cram it all into two parts and didn’t have long ponderous scenes of actors in stiff alien suits marching slowly across fields.
The biggest problem with the episode was that while it tried to be a murder mystery, the plot was trite and there was nothing to solve. Early on, the audience is shown a mysterious figure skulking about and stealing the costume, so there was no suspense for them, and the Cranleighs knew who the killer was the moment they heard about the murder (though they were willing to let the Doctor take the blame for it, to keep their secret safe). Meanwhile, the Doctor is arrested as soon as the body is found, so he isn’t the one who solves the murder.
The episode would have worked far better if it was more like a real murder mystery, with the Doctor and his companions gathering clues and solving the mystery while being under suspicion themselves. Perhaps Adric should have been the one whose costume was stolen, so that he got more to do in the episode, and there’s a question as to whether or not he actually did it. (Though, Turlough would have been a better fit for that part.) In fact, that’s what I had hoped “The Unicorn and the Wasp” was going to be: an Agatha Christie-like murder mystery with a real, non-alien culprit and dramatic tension. While I do like that episode, it disappointed me that the sleuthing was minimal and the murderer turned out to be just another alien. Both episodes held such promise as good mysteries, and sadly, fell flat.