Reviewed: The Black Archive #8 – Black Orchid

Doctor Who stories are a little like meals. Caves of Androzani, for example, is a gourmet steak, braised over a slow flame and drenched in organic blue cheese sauce, fresh greens, and hand-cut chips. It is a dining experience to be savoured, Instagrammed, and Tweeted over ambient lighting, preferably in the company of someone you love. Those in positions of power will get to write a review – although that’s where the analogy comes juddering to a halt, given that a good review can make or break a restaurant; in the case of Androzani, that ship sailed a long time ago.

Black Orchid, by way of contrast, is a sausage roll from Greggs. It is light and lukewarm and it’s over before you know it, but sometimes you’re in a rush and it fills up a hole. It is, ostensibly, a strange choice for a Black Archive title, at least this early in the range and as the first Fifth Doctor story covered. Greggs do not make the headlines unless they’re starting a home delivery service or dealing with the damage control from a price hike. Like a good bowel movement, many people eat sausage rolls but no one really talks about it.

And yet here it is, discussed and deconstructed and dissected into another of Obverse’s periodical missives, neatly bound and running just a little shy of a hundred pages. This one is the work of Ian Millsted, arguably best known for Back Issue – although he does write westerns under a pseudonym, making him a curiously appropriate choice for this volume, given its themes of deception and dual identity. Millsted wastes no time in establishing the story’s comparatively ambivalent reputation among fans, pointing out that it is a favourite of John Nathan-Turner, before acerbically adding “Make of that what you will”.

At first glance, it’s business as usual. There are the usual thematic splits – Millsted parses his appraisal of the Cranleigh family’s predicament into two distinct chapters, dealing with the known (the murder mystery) and the unknown (the notion of mental illness). He spends an entire chapter on colonialism, paying close attention to Kinda (which occurred earlier in the season and which bears closer relation to Orchid than is obvious on a first viewing). It is impossible to do this without conceding the colonial aspects of the Doctor himself – something Millsted approaches without fear, meaning that the elephant in the TARDIS is not only acknowledged; it is fed and watered and then led back to its enclosure. “The Doctor,” he writes, “is an aristocrat. He is part of a ruling class. Let’s be clear about that.”

Thus it continues: doubles and doppelgangers, cultural appropriation, and the role of the harlequin (the Doctor’s fancy dress costume of not-quite choice) are all placed under the microscope with more or less equal credence. For the most part, it works, although some of the discussions seem to cease rather abruptly, and a dull and inconsequential chapter on structure is a misstep. More pleasing are the appendices – a brief reflection on whether Black Orchid counts as a pure historical drama, as well as a Wiki-esque summary of the Cranleigh family’s appearances in other media. (They turn up, in some form or another, in no fewer than three of the books. Who knew such a seemingly disposable family had so much shelf life?)

One thing Millsted does particularly well is to give Black Orchid a historical context – not just within the period in which it’s set, but within the period in which it was broadcast. “There are three stages that most people go through in their relationship with Frankenstein,” he writes in chapter two, and you know what’s coming before he gets there. “I will call these the Aware, the Pedant, and the Smartarse.” His analogies with Jane Eyre – which shares many themes with Orchid’s narrative, chiefly involving a mad relative in the attic – are telling, particularly given the BBC’s lavish treatment of Bronte’s book in 1983, just a year after Black Orchid‘s original transmission, as Millsted is keen to point out. (Anyone who watched that BBC production will remember, as I did, the scene in episode 7 when Jane is surprised in bed by Bertha Rochester; I suspect I may not have been the only one who suffered nightmares.)

There are oddities – or at least what appear to be oddities, until you delve beneath the surface. For instance, Millsted spends an entire chapter on cricket, which initially seems excessive (why not an entire chapter on the Charlston? Flapper dresses? Adric’s metabolism?) until he ties it neatly into both the story’s colonial aspects and the history of Doctor Who in general, including several paragraphs on whether the Doctor really was a fast bowler (spoiler: he wasn’t). The author fuses exhaustive lists of baseball-themed movies with personal recollections about The Dish: it’s obvious that he’s done his homework, even if at least some of it is anecdotal. The bottom line is that Millsted likes cricket, both as a spectator and an amateur enthusiast, and it is in this story that cricket plays its single biggest role, however ostensibly inconsequential to the narrative. Perhaps we shouldn’t begrudge him that.

Despite the occasional rough edge, it’s a joy to read, largely because it’s obvious that Millsted had an awful lot of fun writing it. The style is almost wilfully colloquial: this is a less formal text than some of the others, and while such an approach takes some getting used to it makes for a greatly enjoyable experience, marred only by one or two careless errors (memo to Obverse: Peter Capaldi was in Children of Earth, not Miracle Day). It’s quirky but informative, at once whimsical and mildly eccentric, a touch prosaic on occasion but never less than accessible, and adorned with multiple layers that are there for the unpacking – much like the story it chooses to analyse.

The Black Archive #8: Black Orchid is out now from Obverse Books.

  • The Lazy Womble

    I am tempted to get this volume. On the other hand maybe not. I know Black Orchid is not held in high regard. (I think Peter Davison is not keen on it) But I really like the story.

    • bar

      Me too Womble; but then, I like Cricket, and literary fiction of the era in which it’s set, and Nyssa. Not so much a sausage roll as a fairy cake and mocktail. Interesting contrast between that and Ghost Light – Redvers like Cranleigh, & a mad woman in the basement.

    • Philip

      Oh pish. Black Orchid is wonderful. Do it, Womble! 😉