Robert Ross’ Medicinal Purposes is a story about which I am definitely in two minds. On the one hand, it’s definitely an above-average story for Big Finish; on the other it has many of the worst features of the new series.
Just to clarify, I’m not talking there about David Tennant, who appears in this story but not as the Doctor, but about the plot and moral tone. The plot is quite simple really – the Doctor and Evelyn arrive in Edinburgh at the time of the Burke and Hare murders. There they discover that Dr Robert Knox, the anatomist who bought the bodies from the two, is actually a time traveller who has put Edinburgh into a time loop, replaying the murders over and over for an audience of interstellar voyeurs.
This is pretty much the template for all the nuWho time-travel episodes – the Doctor and companion go back to meet Famous Historical Personages, and discover a Sinister SciFi Plot – as it appears the producers of the current show do not trust the audiences to have even a 1066 And All That level knowledge of history (The Girl In The Fireplace was a particular low in this regard, not only having TennantDoctor fall in love with the execrable Mme de Pompadour , but then having Rose ‘explain’ her to Mickey as being ‘like Camilla’, which is equally insulting to the late French parasite, the current wife of the Prince of Wales, and the entire audience).
It’s done better here though – partly because the plot is tighter than the average nuWho story and actually makes sense as a plot (with one big exception I’ll come to shortly) but also because of an exceptionally strong set of performances by the main cast (the bit parts are, of course, all hammed-up ‘och aye the noo’ bad accents). Colin Baker and Maggie Stables give their usual superb performances as the Sixth Doctor and Evelyn. By this point Evelyn’s character had been thoroughly thought-out, and Stables’ performance as the character throughout this series is as naturalistic a performance as I’ve ever heard, complementing Colin Baker’s hamminess perfectly, and creating a character for whom I actually feel rather more affection than many real people I know. I’m quite amazed Stables isn’t a much better-known actor than she is.
Leslie Philips is also excellent as Dr Knox, who is portrayed in a way that appears quite consistent with the real man. And while I’ve never liked David Tennant’s performance in nuWho, he’s very good in the role of Daft Jamie, one of Burke & Hare’s victims and one of the main characters in this story – possibly he’s better because he’s using an accent closer to his real one. One small criticism though – his performance is *very* reminiscent of Mickey from The League Of Gentlemen, possibly as a nod to Mark Gattis, the actor who played that role, who has also written and performed in several Big Finish audios.
However, the characterisation of The Doctor is hopelessly inconsistent in this story. To start with, he’s completely amoral, justifying the murders because the ends justify the means (there’s some waffle about how that’s not what he’s really saying, followed by him saying exactly that) and actually wanting to shake hands with Burke & Hare and congratulate them. He then *teams up with someone he knows to be a future victim*, without telling her this, to set time right, before then trying to save people anyway. While individual lines and scenes work – you can imagine the Doctor behaving very callously if necessary, just as you can of course imagine him showing compassion and trying to save people – as a whole, it’s an inconsistent view of the character, one in which he has no real moral centre and no underlying guiding set of principles, just a set of whims and justifications for moving from one plot point to another.
In this, the character is like the Doctor of nuWho, who is completely devoid of personality, just a set of tics and ‘quirks’ that can be moved from plot point to plot point (or, increasingly, special effect to plotless special effect) without regard to consistency or characterisation.
At the end, of course, all the characters who we know are going to be murdered are – the Doctor tries to save Daft Jamie, but a rather-clumsy subplot involving an alien virus means that he would die anyway, so he’s sent back to his place in history.
And the sentence above points to my other real problem with this story – I used the word ‘characters’, but of course these were not characters invented for a science fiction story, but real, living human beings. While I understand there’s a long tradition of using true historical crimes as the basis for grand guignol or gothic melodrama, I find it more than a little distasteful to use the actual deaths of actual people as a source of cheap entertainment. I suspect the writer is aware of this – hence the alien voyeurs – but it isn’t really dealt with properly. And while I know the events were a long, long time ago, it still feels slightly unpleasant to me.
Of course, I think that’s probably just me. No doubt if the human race and civilisation survive that long, in a hundred years the equivalent of Doctor Who will involve an investigation into why both the Moors Murderers and Harold Shipman lived in Hyde, with it being the result of some diabolical alien force or other. There’ll probably be a joke about “…and the greatest monster of all – Timmy Mallet!” which will get a laugh out of two people in the audience obsessed with late-20th-century trivia.
I’ve been rather too hard on this story here, probably because the faults are more interesting to talk about than the good points. It’s actually a pretty good, spooky little story with some very effective moments. But it does leave a little bit of a nasty aftertaste.