Behind the mask: ‘The Black Archive: Black Orchid’

❉ Obverse Books’ Black Archive series puts another Doctor Who serial under the microscope: This time, 1982’s ‘Black Orchid’.

Black Orchid, as a ‘Doctor Who’ story, falls into an odd area. Many of the people involved in the making of it are quoted as not being fond of it. Critics are divided, some finding it enjoyable, others distressed either by what it could have been or by the outdated racial stereotypes. And, at least in some American fan circles, this two-parter has been discounted as ‘the one where the Doctor plays cricket.’

At first glace, it doesn’t necessarily seem like the stuff of a Black Archive installment. For one thing, it’s extremely short; for another, our hero spends much of it behind a mask and wandering through hallways. But writer and comic reviewer Ian Millsted finds plenty to talk about in the series’s eighth installment, largely with regards to the serial’s relation to the overall show’s past and future.

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Not overlong itself, even compared to the other Black Archive books, this installment divides up the story into a variety of elements: class structure, the concept of twins, the historical and theatrical significance of the Harlequin in Western culture… and, yes, cricket. But the elements explored in the book go above and beyond what might normally be expected. There is a great deal of deep analysis done here, and the sheer amount of research or knowledge (or a combination of both) that went into constructing this analysis is impressive in itself.

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This instalment in particular demonstrates something that’s especially nice about the Black Archive series as a whole: the ability to analyze ‘Doctor Who’ as a whole without pitting era against era, without saying ‘this is what Classic did that New can never hope to do’ or vice-versa (in fact, ‘Classic’ and ‘New’ as terminologies are shied away from — ’20th century’ and ’21st century’ are the more accurate, less connotative terms of choice throughout the series). The chapter on class structure and the semi-regular reminders that the Doctor is a Time Lord, especially, reminds us of the strong thematic links between eras. It’s always pleasant to see the various authors in the line regarding ‘Doctor Who’ as a whole and evolving show, rather than the fortresses of two warring camps. Too, it’s a testament to how willing the authors are — how willing they have to be — to be critical without being insulting, to be thorough without being luvvie.

For better or for worse, this volume feels quite thorough at 98 pages, even as an analysis of a 20th century story. Of course, this is largely because of the length of its source material. But, too, Millsted wastes no time with padding. This results in the oddness that is extremely short chapters that seem surprisingly short, yet have covered everything thoroughly. I’d often find myself staring at the tail end of a final paragraph, wondering where the rest was, then realising that everything had been addressed and I wasn’t wanting for information at all. It makes for a quick, tidy read — one could easily revisit both episodes of ‘Black Orchid’ in an afternoon and cap it off with a quick read of this.

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Most of all, though, Black Orchid the book gave me a new appreciation for a ‘Doctor Who’ story that gets largely passed over in American fandom, likely because of how intrinsically British it is when it comes to class, society, and that ever-present game of cricket. The deep dive into literary analysis stripped away any of the old misconceptions that left me feeling all right with not going back for a rewatch for many years. And, though it’s certainly not afraid to point out the places where Black Orchid failed at its intent or could have done better, it’s still appreciative and positive in its look at the story. I’m glad to see that the Black Archive series is continuing in this vein and that, as it approaches its tenth volume, none of its original intent has been dampened.


❉ The Black Orchid will be available from 1 November 2016. To order a copy, visit the Black Archive website.

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