Doctor Who – “Medicinal Purposes”

Edinburgh, 1827.

The infamous body snatchers William Burke and William Hare are at large. The local prostitutes dull their fear with cheap whisky. The graveyard owls are hooting. Business is good.

When accidental tourists the Doctor and Evelyn Smythe stumble upon one of Britain’s most lurid, illuminating chapters in history, a simple case of interest in the work of dedicated man of science Doctor Robert Knox, quickly turns sour.

Just what is that time bending Scots mist? Whatever it is may put the very fabric of the universe under threat.

As always.

Colin Baker is the Doctor in Medicinal Purpopes.

Cast
Colin Baker (The Doctor)
Maggie Stables (Evelyn Smythe)
Leslie Phillips (Doctor Robert Knox)
David Tennant (Daft Jamie)
Glenna Morrison (Mary Patterson)
Kevin O’Leary (William Burke)
Tom Farrelly (Billy Hare)
Janie Booth (Old Woman)

Written By: Robert Ross
Directed By: Gary Russell

Trailer – http://www.bigfinish.com/releases/popout/medicinal-purposes-226

X X X X X

There’s no doubt that the Sixth Doctor’s reputation has been rehabilitated by Big Finish.

The trials and tribulations of Colin Baker’s time on television are well documented. For many years, he has been considered the “worst” Doctor, with bad fashion sense, sub-par companions, and only one story, possibly two, that could be considered a solid tale. Baker was the only actor to be fired from the role of the Doctor, and it was handed so poorly he turned down the scene where he regenerates into Sylvester McCoy, forcing McCoy to wear a horrid wig and endure weak special effects during his initial debut.

Thought it all, Colin Baker definitely had the right to be bitter and angry at his treatment. Truly, the part wasn’t lost because of him. It was lost because of poorly-written scripts, horrible programming schedule choices, and a BBC Controller with a grudge against him. However, the years have shown that Baker came to grips with what happened, and that, while small, there were still fans who enjoyed his time as the Doctor, one who was a bit more brutal, much more sarcastic and pompous, but also compassionate and understanding of the people and places around him. When Big Finish got permission to release stories staring the “classic” Doctors, Baker took the opportunity and ran with it. He had the chance to play the Doctor the way he wanted to play him, able to give input to scriptwriters eager to solicit the advice someone they had grown up watching on television! And the fans were in for a treat too. Now, they could listen to the Doctor and Peri go on grand adventures without snickering at, or being distracted by, the choice of dress the BBC Wardrobe inflicted upon her. Also, they could hear the Doctor meet new companions, such as the historian Evelyn Smythe and, in the future, Flip. Most of all, they could hear Colin Baker enjoy the HELL out of himself, not worrying about the BBC or Michael Grade or penny pinching or the moral guardians. From the beginning, Colin was a fan of Doctor Who and now, with a company of people who supported him, he could have fun and do what he always wanted to do; BE the Doctor.

There’s a joke among some of us that the phrase “Colin Baker turns in a great performance” is legally required by law to be included in every Sixth Doctor audio. It’s a bit of a stretch, but Baker is the type of actor who’s performance can elevate an ‘ok’ script to a good one, and a good script into a great one. While Davison, McCoy, and McGann seem like they’ve slept walk through several of their stories, Colin Baker has dived right into each audio and delivered his lines with gusto, always doing his best to be the bright point that plays down any cracks in the story’s foundation.

Well, all things must die.

Medicinal Purposes doesn’t suffer from Colin Baker turning in a bad performance. He takes the dialogue and characterization given to him and delivers it with the same pride and bombast that the Sixth Doctor has throughout his time with Big Finish. The problem comes from the fact that the material is incredibly and utterly against EVERYTHING the Doctor stands for, but Baker delivers it with confidence and pride that it’s very alien nature and just sheer wrongness overshadows the rest of the story, including a daring performance by none other than David Tennant .

The TARDIS materializes smoothly and without hesitation; the first sign to the Doctor that something’s wrong. With Evelyn at his side, the Doctor soon realizes that the pair have arrived in Edinburgh, 1827. The seedy underbelly of the Scottish city drink their worries and problems away, unaware of the fact that walking among them are two of the most infamous criminal in the history of Britain; William Burke and Billy Hare, men who dig up the graves of the freshly dead and sell the corpses to Doctor Robert Knox for medical study. And when graverobbing doesn’t make ends meet, the pair aren’t afraid to indulge in a little light murder to obtain a test subject. Evelyn is disgusted by this…and even more disgusted by the Doctor’s delight. He admits the pair committed horrible crimes, but their contributions to science are, in the end, immeasurable to the advancement of human medicine. He wants nothing more than to shake the hands of Burke and Hare and thank them for all they’ve done. But when he meets William Burke, the Doctor is shocked to hear that the criminal has never even HEARD of Billy Hare…

The second half of the above paragraph should raise the flags of anyone remotely familiar with Doctor Who. The Fourth Doctor quietly asked “do I have the right” when confronted with the chance to destroy the Daleks before they become a threat to the entire universe, before deciding that he does not. The Fifth Doctor looked at the corpses around him in the underwater base, wondering that “there must have been a better way.” The Tenth Doctor breaking the laws of time just so he could be the “Time Lord Victorious” and save the Mars expedition, which ended up backfiring as time reasserted itself.

These moments all hammer home one of the core tenants of Doctor Whono matter what, the ends do NOT justify the means.
The Doctor has killed, but only when there is no other option. Life, all life, is precious and must be defended, and that means saving the one person whose death might save thousands. It’s a tough choice and a moral quandary that will be debated long after we’re all dead and buried. But for the Doctor, it’s not a choice and it’s not a quandary. Every life is sacred, everyone is important. No matter what, the ends do not justify the means. So imagine Colin Baker, who turns in yet another grand performance, cheerfully, almost with childlike glee, saying he can’t wait to shake the hands of two graverobbers and murderers who’s chilling activities have pushed science forward. It is any wonder that my first thought upon hearing this was the image of the Doctor shaking the hands of the people behind the Tuskagee Syphilis Experiment?!? The concept of the Doctor condoning something so horrible under ANY circumstance is completely anathema to his entire character, as out of place as the “secret” of the Doctor’s past in Master. If the Doctor had talked about the murders and criminal acts in terms of “it’s a fixed point in time that can’t be changed, so we might as well look on the bright side…”

I typed those words, and I can hear Colin Baker delivering them with a weary sigh as only old Sixie can. With a bit of apprehensive appreciation, I would have bought his looking forward to shaking hands with Burke and Hare, admiring them even as he admonishes them. It would have perfectly been in line with Six’s characterization. Instead, it is with pure glee as the Doctor greets Burke warmly, like an old friend, and that’s just flat out wrong.

This is the first of three Big Finish audios penned by Robert Ross, known for his books on the history of British comedy, from Marty Feldman to the Carry On series. There are some great concepts in Medicinal Purposes that get lost under the dubious morality and sub-par writing. People are getting sick in Edinburgh, if not being murdered on the streets, and behind it all is the noted doctor Robert Knox. It’s obvious from the beginning that there’s more to Knox than meets the eye, and his verbal sparring match with Evelyn reveals that he just might be the Doctor’s equal…and with the revelation that his house is a TARDIS, perhaps even a renegade Time Lord! Leslie Phillips plays Knox. Phillips is well known in Britain as a comedy actor, who starred beside Jon Pertwee in the sitcom The Navy Lark as well as playing Hactar in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Knox oozes charm and plays cat and mouse with the Doctor through three episodes, including laying a very clever trap for the Doctor, but his very confidence brings about his own downfall. He’s smart, he’s clever, and most of all, he’s politely upper class English, as he lets everyone around him know, making his comeuppance very satisfying. While Knox’s performance is great at the hand of Leslie Phillips, his actual plan and scheme is incredibly complex and falls apart under scrutiny. Knox was perfect as a one-off villain who should have gotten what was coming to him…but history shows that Knox washed his hands clean of the Edinburgh mess, so listeners aren’t surprised when he gets away. He’ll show up again in a future audio in an attempt to give Six a reoccurring villain, much like Nimrod, but Ross doesn’t fully take advantage of the possibilities that a villain with his own TARDIS would entail. It makes Knox come off as nothing more than a second rate Master, Rani, or even a Meddling Monk; not exactly something that would inspire a future appearance.

It’s funny that a story about William Burke and Billy Hare sees one of them pushed to the side. Poor Billy Hare as played by Tom Farrelly barely gets any screen time, absent save for a few scenes of moral dilemma and his execution by hangman’s noose. Kevin O’Leary’s Burke gets the large bulk of the pair’s screen time, successfully pulling off the “will do anything for a coin” type. It’s not about the science or the advancement of knowledge, its one more drink and another pass at a soiled dove, specifically Mary Patterson as played by Glenna Morrison. As a lady of ill-repute who wants more in life, it was very refreshing to hear her call the Doctor out when he reveals that her destiny has been set in stone and there’s nothing he can do to help her, an angry outburst as opposed to hopeless pleading. Maybe I was just happy someone was calling the Doctor out during this audio…

…because it sure wasn’t Evelyn. If the Doctor’s characterization is the biggest misstep that Medicinal Purposescommits, then the way Evelyn is handled is easily its second biggest. After her character arc’s progression in Project: Lazarus and Arrangements for War, sitting back and “tut tutting” the Doctor mildly is incredibly out of place. She’s seems to be more upset at the way Knox treated her and how Mary kept thinking she was the Doctor’s wife than she was at the Doctor! She gets in a nice bit of verbal sparring with Knox as she walks into his trap, but that’s the high point of her time here. Evelyn’s presence is barely felt in this story, and she really needed to be more prominent to counter the Doctor’s attitude. Instead, Ross just has her mild disagreement noted, even at the very end when everything happens the way history said it should.

Medicinal Purposes biggest claim to fame is the presence of one David Tennant, returning to the Doctor Who main range one final time before departing to official become the Tenth Doctor. Tennant is the standout in the supporting cast as he plays Daft Jamie, a historical figure who would be one of Burke and Hare’s final victims, a young man who’s best described by Mary as “touched in the head.” Jamie knows what’s going on, as his mental condition allows him to see the truth behind Knox’s plan, but he struggles to explain what he sees. Tennant really sells the frustration of Jamie as he sputters and tears at his hair, all while doing what he can for Mary. The Doctor, with a soft spot for “a young man named Jamie,” does his best to help him even as he knows his ultimate fate. Tennant’s performance is really moving, and I’ve found myself saying the words “Jamie famous!” every now and again in recent days.

Everything about this story, however, falls back to Colin Baker. It doesn’t matter that the story is decent enough and the supporting cast is solid and, as always for Big Finish, the sound puts the listener right into the heart of 19th century Edinburgh with footsteps on cobblestones, drinks clinking together, and Knox’s house/TARDIS materializing and de-materializing. It doesn’t matter that the Doctor finds quiet frustration and resignation in the fates of those he meets during his time in the city. It doesn’t matter that the Doctor appreciates someone to match wits against in Robert Knox, a man almost approaches being close to his level of intellect. It doesn’t matter that the Doctor manages to save the day even as he, regretfully, puts history back on course. All that matters is that Colin Baker turns in his standard top-notch Big Finish performance across the board. But in doing so, he gives credit to the concept that the Doctor would be gleeful when it comes to the act of murder, and that doesn’t fit with any single aspect of the Doctor’s personality. The strength of Colin’s performance only adds to the overall cognitive dissonance.

I can’t call Medicinal Purposes a “bad Colin Baker” performance, but it’s definitely the first one I didn’t enjoy.

Synopsis – A decent plot and a strong cast are sadly overshadowed by a script that gets a major aspect of the Doctor’s personality wrong in every way possible and a performance by Colin Baker that only serves to support it. 2/5.

Next up – The Multihaven, ­a vast array of religions and faiths housed in one harmonious community, ­appears to offer the perfect sanctuary in which to convalesce. But under the guidance of the charismatic Laan Carder, one religion seems to be gathering disciples at an alarming rate.

Paul McGann is the Doctor in…Faith Stealer.

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About cobiwann

A guy who's into a niche fandom of a niche fandom - the Big Finish audio plays of "Doctor Who." Also into the show itself, both old and new, plus pop culture and a smattering of human insight.
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2 Responses to Doctor Who – “Medicinal Purposes”

  1. Cygnia says:

    My poor poor fluffy-haired Glaswegian ferret boy…

  2. Aidan says:

    I think you sum this one up well. Colin’s good in it but it doesn’t really feel right. I didn’t care for Knox and I didn’t understand why he was brought back a few years later for Assassin. A bit of a mess really but, as you point out, that really is a rarity for Colin releases.

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