Monday, 25 October 2010
Medicinal Purposes written by Rupert Ross and directed by Gary Russell
What’s it about? 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? What ever it is may put the very fabric of the universe under threat. As always.
Softer Six: I cannot believe Big Finish are still managing to milk old Sixie for fascinating character insights. After over 15 releases he is still the superior audio Doctor and is still managing to surprise me. I have always been a fan of Colin Baker’s Doctor – Trial of a Time Lord came out when my Dad went to prison and my sister had a breakdown and I cannot tell you how therapeutic that box set was at the time, it took me away from all my cares and might explain why I have huge affection for such a loathed story – I am not one of those people who was appalled by his violent streak and acidic nature on the TV. Actually I found it a refreshing return to a Doctor I could believe in after three seasons of the fifth Doctor being awfully nice to everybody. However I wont deny that Big Finish have managed to take a controversial character (and wronged actor) and managed to mould him into something far more appealing to the masses and less abrasive, more approachable. Maybe he lost a little of his edge but considering he went from the bottom of most peoples ‘best Doctor’s’ poll to the very top in some cases prove how successful this transition has been. However stories such as Medicinal Purposes prove that the caustic, ethically challenged and the cuddly, ‘favourite Uncle’ sixth Doctor can be married together with some style. I love the discussion between the Doctor and Evelyn about the Burke and Hare murders, it is a superb example of how spiky and unpredictable their relationship continues to be and exposes the Doctor’s alien morals in some style. The fact of the matter is that he doesn’t condone the Burke and Hare murders but he can see the bigger picture and when you take into account the evolving benefits to medical science of their nightmarish reign of terror it almost makes it acceptable. Its not a likable viewpoint and I really respect writer Rupert Ross for pushing the point as far as he does and for Colin Baker for taking on this morally unprincipled attitude and playing it to the hilt. Evelyn’s appalled reaction makes it all the more balanced and you are left wondering who actually has the more relevant point of view. When I was angling towards the Doctor I realised how darkly suggestive this story really was. Great stuff.
At the start of the story he is tinkering with the one lady who has always held his hand throughout their adventures and focussing his mind (the TARDIS, not Evelyn!). She is the one constant thing in his life when even his own people have let him down and shares all of his memories. He admits that some companions leave deeper imprints on his hearts than others (I wonder how shallow the imprint for Dodo is?). Minutes into the story and the Doctor pulls a hooker! He reminisces about Jamie saying it is an honourable name and his Jamie threw himself in mortal danger for him on a regular basis (this is a nice precursor for City of Spires). Apparently his only weakness is soliloquising! His tastes in hobbies are becoming alarmingly grotesque and has an incredible thirst to meet Burke and Hare. The Doctor admits, ‘the names you drop have to bounce!’ When talking about his feelings towards the murders the Doctor reminds Evelyn that the universe is not broken down into good guys and bad guys. Does the possibility exist that fifteen murders saving the lives of thousands is justifiable, historically speaking? The Doctor’s philosophy is if you want something you should take it! Knox condemns him as a philanthropist sating his need for attention (there might be something in that). Thinks rudeness isn’t a crime and only shouts when he gets impatient. His morality kicks in when he believes that people are being killed for no good reason, unfortunately if there is no benefit to the act he cannot stomach it. Knox considers himself the Doctor’s intellectual equal. Lets not let Baker do a Scot’s accent again. The Doctor has had a lot of experience of the strange and his TARDIS is ‘so 20th Century!’ Arrogantly, the Doctor assumes that Knox is a Time Lord because he has a TARDIS and has all his illusions shattered to learn that others are far more adept at manipulating Time. How harsh is the Doctor when he tells Mary she should be dead! He only half listens to people. Wit never fails him. When the sixth Doctor tells his nemesis to get a new thesaurus you know he has been bested by an even more loquacious foe! Finalising this newfound jaded morality the Doctor tells Knox he has no problem tricking Knox into being infected with a virus that might kill him. In a scene that mirrors Terror of the Autons the Doctor admits that he hopes he meets Knox again.
Learned Lecturer: Its really interesting that after a string of stories which have climaxed in the death of likable characters and dealing with Evelyn’s reaction to that, we now land in a period where they know people are going to die. As stated above it leads to an attention-grabbing clash of morals between the Doctor and Evelyn. How’s a girl supposed to feel when compared to a rickety old box?
The Doctor understands that one day she will find her own path. She is mistaken for being the Doctor’s wife who has caught her husband looking for trade! She admits she likes a bit of a moan every now and then (she’s just so real). Pedantry doesn’t suit her. Knox manages to insult Evelyn’s age and class in one sentence, much to her chargin. If she had known there was going to be so much running involved she would have bowed out a long time ago! Evelyn fails Knox’s history test, failing to spot his anachronistic literary reference. Described as a mature lady the Doctor has alighted upon as a travelling companion. Wow, listen to Evelyn when she is arrested by the police…I wouldn’t want to be on the other end of that tongue! She is very precious about things sometimes. I love love love the fact that Evelyn has not only had the most incredible character development over her excellent run of stories but that development has really affected how she feels about their adventures now. At the end of this story she understands that they have to take Daft Jamie back to the right place so he can be murdered by Burke and history will be put back on track. This mirrors the end of Pirates but now Evelyn can see the bigger picture, even if she doesn’t like it. She takes some comfort that Jamie finally managed to earn his fame and found a place in her heart.
Standout Performance: How long have I been waiting for the unbeatable Leslie Phillips to appear in a Doctor Who story? He’s a consummate actor and fills this story with some many wonderful scenes, butting heads with the forceful sixth Doctor and laughing in his face. Knox is one Big Finish’s best original villains; he’s dispassionate, murderous, misogynistic, oozes confidence, style and has a voice like dripping honey. He gets all the best lines as well, ‘Evil is much more fun. We get all the best lines…’ Wonderfully effete and menacing, Phillips’ smooth and growling voice is perfect for audio. David Tennant deserves kudos for taking on a potentially irritating character in Daft Jamie and making him childishly sympathetic.
Great Ideas: This is not your ordinary Doctor Who story – prostitution and brutal murder in the first few minutes! I love the history of Burke and Hare, I took a fantastic trip up to Edinburgh and went on a ghost tour of Gravefriars graveyard and so as soon as it was mentioned I was thrilled. The idea is touted that you can achieve more in death than you can in life. Something has gone very wrong with time when nobody has heard of William Burke. Can knowledge be considered a treasure? The Doctor calls body snatching ‘admirable, but not honourable.’ Six of Hare’s children died and the Doctor touchingly tells him that he will help to save the children of the future with his ghastly acts. Knox’s morality is gorgeous, he thinks the bodies hidden six feet under and locked away in mahogany exposes outdated laws that prevent the advancement of medical science (and when you think of donors today he does have a point). He also complains that the world would be better without whores and peddlers. Knox deliberately exposes himself as a time traveller by revealing his knowledge of Jekyll and Hyde 30 years before Stevenson was born. Probably the most horrible moment in this macabre story comes when Burke says he wants to pay Mary to sleep with him before they kill her (ugh!). Knox has a second hand TARDIS which he bought from a Nekistan dealer on Gryben (lovely references to Gallifrey) and sells time travel at the right price. The Doctor describes Knox as a sick time meddler playing God. I love the idea of time being manipulated being described as ‘chapters jumped’. Knox is a profiteer standing on the shoulders of giants, a force for destruction, a showman wallowing in the cesspit of human foibles (I think the Doctor is compensating for his foes mastery of language!). Knox is offering the ‘Burke and Hare Experience’, a circus of the grotesque where paying customers can be planted in Edinburgh 1827 and play Burke or Hare, sleep with Mary, murder consequence free. Knox merely takes the next lot of customers back and starts the whole process again, wiping out the last set of customers actions. He’s replaying time over and over, stretching this period until it threatens to snap. The mist is a déjà vu inhibitor, blocking out the memories of the real people in the scenario that are living this period over and over. It’s a peepshow for the dirty old men of the universe! The real Hare is hidden away in another time whilst other people play his part. Deliciously the Doctor draws Knox out of his time bubble and infects him with the virus so he cannot go back in time and rewind it.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘He saw blood?’
‘I do wish Burke and Hare would bring the occasional fresh one.’
‘Clever people need comfortable pillows.’
‘The broken eggs are fine if the omelette tastes good.’
‘I wouldn’t give you a farthing for your destiny.’
‘I have the right to do as I damn well choose’ I have been waiting an age for a villain to tell the Doctor that!
‘The police are dim but no-one’s that dim forever.’
Audio Landscape: My one complaint in this otherwise highly atmospheric tale is the continually replaying anachronistic football chant during the tavern scenes. What are a bunch of Man Utd supporters doing in the past…oh Knox brought them? Given the bloodlust of the overall experience they are probably Millwall fans. The story opens with rumbling thunder, a busy nighttime street and a shrieking Scots crone screaming murder. Evelyn’s voice echoes hauntingly down the dripping tunnels. Owls hoot in the mist swathed graveyard and we hear the creaking hinges of a grave being opened. A horse screams profusely in the distance. Knox scribbles with his pen by crackling firelight and his laboratory bubbles with experiments. We hear horses clip clopping on the cobbles and church bells ringing in the distance.
Knox has an impressive sounding TARDIS. Rain attacks the roads. Evelyn bashes on the police cell door with a tap dripping nearby. There is a loud and destructive pub riot. We get to experience Burke’s execution, the crowd hungry for murder.
Musical Cues: After his Keff McCulloch inspired madness from The Harvest, David Darlington returns with his best score in ages. It’s creepy and adds to the general feeling of wrongness that creeps into the script. I loved the urgent string work as the Doctor tries to rush Evelyn and Jamie away.
Isn’t it Odd: There’s some odd subplot about a virus that I barely understood and felt distracted from the much tastier notion of the ‘Burke and Hare Experience’ which would have been more than enough to sell the story.
Result: Wowza, this is a cast to die for! Baker, Stables, Phillips, Tennant and the others attack this gorgeously verbose and colourfully worded script with some vigour and with the added atmospherics this is an extremely pleasurable story to listen to. My one complaint would be that some of the scenes seem overlong and you could probably trim the fat a tad in places, cutting the virus subplot and tidying up the confused episode three. However Ross manages to approach this period of history in an unusual and thoroughly entertaining way with some unpredictable moments and a fantastic role for both the Doctor and Evelyn. The atmosphere of the period bleeds from every scene and the dialogue is little sipping a rich fruity wine, explodes on the lips and leaves a glorious aftertaste. Medicinal Purposes is not an especially popular Big Finish release but I found it a very pleasing story: 8/10
Artwork by Simon Hodges @ http://hisi79.deviantart.com/