(Classic) Doctor Who Historical Costumes: Black Orchid


I’ve looked at some of the best historically-set Tom Baker Doctor Who serials, and next up is what many call the last “pure historical” Doctor Who story. By that, they mean that there are no sci-fi or fantasy elements other than the Doctor and what he brings with him. That style of historical is was only done rarely during the first and second Doctor’s eras. Black Orchid (1982) is a short ‘n sweet two-parter where the fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) and his companions Nyssa (Sarah Sutton), Tegan (Janet Fielding),  and Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) land in 1925.

At Cranleigh Halt railway station, the Doctor is mistaken for a cricket player — appropriate, due to his costume. Though I really wanted one of his space-born companions Nyssa or Adric to comment about why are all these other people dressed just like the Doctor? Tegan, being an Australian flight attendant from the 1980s, would already recognize the cricket whites. Basically, this extended scene gives Peter Davison a chance to indulge his love of the game.

Dr Who, Black Orchid (1982)

As he’s such a good player, he and his companions are invited to stay at Cranleigh Hall, where they’re throwing a charity masquerade ball. Oh, and a murder has happened, which the Doctor will discover … and another murder happens, that he’ll be accused of. The murder-mystery is terribly obvious, of course, and it’s all an excuse for the characters to enjoy some fancy dress. Plus, one of the young ladies in the house is twinsies with Nyssa — actress Sarah Sutton gets to play a double-role as the posh young Ann Talbot. Double identities and masks then becomes a theme. It’s all quite cute and light and fun, with a bit of casual racism thrown in (was that lip-plated South American Indian necessary?), which seems par for the Doctor Who course of this era.

Dr Who, Black Orchid (1982)

Nyssa, on the left, meets her doppelgänger Ann, on the right. Ann is wearing a nice sporty 1920s dress with a dropped waist and sailor-style collar.

Dr Who, Black Orchid (1982)

Better view of Ann’s dress. The collar has both the sailor collar & an interesting detail below that.

What about the costumes? The 1920s stuff is perfectly nice, as it should be when you’re drawing from the vast BBC warehouse of early 20th-century garb. The masquerade costumes are more “modern costumey” than “1920s-does-costumey” IMO, but it’s fine, especially in one notable case that I’ll get to in a sec. The costume designer for this Doctor Who serial was Rosalind Ebbutt, who has worked her way through quite a few of the Beeb’s TV shows, period and otherwise. She also did the costumes for The Buccaneers (1995), The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1996), Emma (2009), six episodes of Downton Abbey (2011), and currently Victoria (2016-).

Dr Who, Black Orchid (1982)

At the cricket match, Lady & Lord Cranleigh are quite posh. She has a great hat, a lush brown velvet coat, & flashy scarf & hat trim.

Dr Who, Black Orchid (1982)

Back at the estate, we see Lady Cranleigh has perfectly waved hair underneath her hat, & she’s wearing a brown dress with self-trim.

Dr Who, Black Orchid (1982)

Speaking of hair, young Lord Cranleigh has 1920s-style trimmed & slicked-down hair, while the Doctor’s hair is longer & floppy. It’s a little touch that some modern (& non-BBC) shows don’t do for early 20th-c. dramas.

Dr Who, Black Orchid (1982)

Promo shot of Nyssa, the Doctor, & Tegan’s masquerade costumes. See? Just “costumey.”

Dr Who, Black Orchid (1982)

Nyssa (& Ann) is a butterfly, Tegan is a flower fairy (ish), & Adric is a pirate (ish).

Dr Who, Black Orchid (1982)

This dress does look pretty when the wind kicks up.

Dr Who, Black Orchid (1982)

Ann had the idea that she & Nyssa wear the same costume, of course.

Dr Who, Black Orchid (1982)

The fitted shape of these dresses just don’t say “1920s masquerade” to me.

Dr Who, Black Orchid (1982)

At least the excuse for Tegan’s hair is that she IS from the 1980s.

The one costume especially worth pointing out is the fancy-dress outfit Lady Cranleigh wears. It’s a lovely yellow 18th-century gown that was later used on an extra in Annie Lennox’s “Walking on Broken Glass” music video in 1992 and again in the rebooted Doctor Who in 2006, “The Girl in the Fireplace,” worn by Sophia Myles as Madame du Pompadour.

Dr Who, Black Orchid (1982)

Can just barely see that the stomacher has hooks & eyes on the side, which is a vast improvement over sewn-in stomachers or the dreaded back-lacing.

Dr Who, Black Orchid (1982)

She’s carrying a folding feather fan, which is a cute nod to the 1920s.

Dr Who, Black Orchid (1982)

Lots of nice embroidery on this yellow gown. Oh & the Doctor tromps around in a dressing gown too.

Dr Who, Black Orchid (1982)

Hard to tell in the poor quality of the Amazon / BritBox stream, but I think the fabric of this 18th-c. gown as a pink/peach undertone. Whatever, it’s pretty!

Murder-mysteries rarely have happy endings, so it’s not a huge spoiler to see mourning garb. Plus, it’s more top-notch ’20s stylings.

Dr Who, Black Orchid (1982)



Are you a fan of Doctor Who historicals? Do you remember Black Orchid?


About the author

Trystan L. Bass

Twitter Facebook Website

A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

10 Responses

  1. Susan Pola Staples

    I vaguely remember this one. Dr. Who us on my perennial rewatch list. I need to see them again. But the nonfrock series I’m streaming are The Windsors (hilarious) Lucy Lawless in Murder is My Life and Dublin Murders.

  2. Roxana

    I adore this one. It’s so nice to see the crew, especially Tegan, just enjoying themselves for a change – before everything goes pear shaped. And the lip was necessary to add to the unbelievable quality of the Doctor’s story.
    The looks on Adric and Nyssa’s faces as they watched the cricket match were uncannily similar to the looks on the faces of my American Who club as our sole English member tried to explain the game to us.

  3. Constance

    I could never bring myself to watch anything with sci-fi or time travel elements…never understood the premise of this show. But it sure gets its share of love lol

  4. mmcquown

    I remember it as being especially entertaining. I’ve seen a number of interesting historical outfits on the show, often with no especial historical context.

    • MoHub

      The original concept of the program was to teach children about history using a sci-fi framework. The first seasons included the Crusades and the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, in addition to the Aztecs, Rome, and the French Revolution.

  5. Jamie LaMoreaux

    You’re incorrect about the first two doctors not having historical episodes with few Sci fi reasons. most of them were erased or lost. but the first doctor was mostly history visits: the Aztece, Marco Polo, the French Revolution, ancient Rome, etc. the second Doctor had the Highlanders, and a few others, not at many as the first doctor. then Tom Baker had a few. but that was it until the new series. now THEY never go historic without an alien in it. which is tiresome and dull. they also VERY rarely dress correctly, which is bizarre as no one seems to notice a woman dressed for 2019 in 1850! at least the earlier doctors companions dressed correctly for the era!!!! the Doctor even referred to Sarah Jane Smith in Pyramid of Mars as Vicky!

  6. Daniel Milford-Cottam

    The butterfly costume at least isn’t entirely unlike some of those late 1910s/early 20s transitional type evening/dance frocks, so I give it a pass.

  7. SciFi Costumes Gallery

    Ebbutt definitely had a flair for very colourful designs, her other Classic Doctor Who gig ‘The Greatest Show in the Galaxy’ had a lot of very colourful outfits even if none were ‘scifi’…except, maybe Nord’s piped denim biker deal…

    She did one (well, two) ‘proper’ scifi gigs too, The Flipside of Dominic Hyde & its sequel Another Flip for Dominic…