Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Main Range 060. Medicinal Purposes by Robert Ross (August 2004)

The debut Big Finish script from Robert Ross – best known as a chronicler of British comedy through the ages – is much darker than you’d expect from a man with such a resume. Medicinal Purposes takes us to the evocative world of 19th century Edinburgh – one of my favourite cities in the world, and one which curiously enough allows you to feel as though you’ve stepped back into the 1820s if you go down certain half-deserted streets. This is the Edinburgh of Sir Walter Scott, and, a tad later, of Robert Louis Stevenson – and indeed there’s a definite whiff of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde macabre about proceedings (which Ross ties into the story in a crowd-pleasing little touch). If Hinchcliffian horror is your thing, then grave-digging and brutal nocturnal murders are perfect material for a Doctor Who story. In fact, permitting the Doctor to meet Burke and Hare is just the sort of homage I can imagine Holmes doing in 1977. The central mystery of why Burke appears to be forgotten – taking a familiar pair and making the unusual decision to split it in two; Holmes without Watson, Tom without Jerry – is a nice hook for the earlier parts of the story, although this is a slow one to get started.

Evelyn, who’s lamentably side-lined in this one, observes early on that her travelling companion is “not like the Doctor I know and love”. She’s not wrong. He starts off rather bumbling – blustering his way through his first meeting with prostitute Mary Patterson – but soon develops an uncharacteristically gleeful interest in Burke and Hare. Quite why he is so enthused about meeting two such odious types – especially for a mere narcissistic name-drop, merely to be able to have said he’d told them, “Well done and keep up the good work!” – is difficult to explain. He’s got a pragmatic view of the West Port Murders, taking in the bigger picture, considering them a fundamentally beneficial advancement in terms of human anatomical understanding; if that means brushing under the carpet that they murdered a few insignificants, surely there’s still a teleological justification? (see Evelyn’s cynical take on the Doctor’s philosophy of pragmatism: “The Doctor balances every hardship, every heartbreak, with the positive result. The broken eggs are fine if the omelette tastes good.”) With the obvious caveats that the Doctor is written differently from adventure to adventure, the issue is this simply isn’t the Doctor we left at the end of Arrangements for War. Very, very oddly managed placing when it comes to character continuity. The relationship between the Doctor and Evelyn doesn’t feel right, either, as it’s far too antagonistic – I suppose all sorts of incidents could have happened between the two stories, but even so, look at his “didn’t you appreciate that I’d be concerned?” anger when Evelyn returns from an undercooked police custody subplot. The Doctor of Arrangements for War would’ve asked straightaway if she was alright.

One of the big draws in the cast is Leslie Phillips, who’s frankly exceptional as the infamous, sneering Doctor Robert Knox, sitting in his laboratory and soliloquising as if directly to his avid listeners; I look forward to seeing him around in future releases, if his escape here is anything to go by. He’s the elite figure here, both in his traditional role as an educated medical man and his guise as a visitor to puny Earthlings from beyond the stars, he too insisting on “the wider picture” and jeering about “you or your class”; as with the last couple of releases, there’s an angry Trainspotting-style undercurrent to all the bodysnatching (“another philanthropist, satisfying his need for constant attention by sucking the lifeblood of the poor unfortunates that populate this fair city of ours?”) – after all, it’s only the “whores and peddlers” they go after. As a polar opposite, David Tennant is cracking as ever playing the giggling, childlike local “halfwit”, Daft Jamie. Between his performance and Ross’ scripting, I feel they bypass silly parody and land squarely in “sympathetic portrayal”. He’ll break your heart. It goes without saying that Glenna Morrison is just spot-on as Mary, inhabiting the role perfectly, imbuing her with gutsiness and vulnerability in equal measure.

There’s a strong vein of visceral yet clinical unpleasantness in Medicinal Purposes, extending to the kind of language Robert Ross uses. The drama positively wallows in gruesome imagery, dwells in the opium-addled, whisky-soaked parts of the brain (“your mind goes to pulp”), and lingers on blood, grime and dismemberment, dissecting its metaphors with as much surgical precision as Knox would his cadavers. Structurally, there doesn’t seem to be much that’s particularly innovative about this – parts one and two gives us the grim-dark period colour, parts three and four segue into the more supernatural elements (the use of the TARDIS noise to reveal Knox’s celestial origin is particularly good, but the waffle about the virus is a tiresome info-dump & should have been relayed to us more seamlessly or dramatically).

Except then we hit the “reprise” at the start of Part Three, calling to mind Part One’s almost identical opening, with Knox having taken Burke’s place. Was the original version we heard the accurate one, or is this? Someone is meddling with what we all “know” to be the historically accurate story of Burke & Hare – and on a smaller scale but similarly, Mary and Evelyn give vastly different accounts of the brawl in Part Three. And then Mary dies and the deceased apple-seller emerges on the scene, and it all builds to the story’s biggest twist – the cliff-hanger to Part Three, as we learn we’re in a sequence of repeating events, characters trapped in Knox’s experiments, the truth hidden in mist. They’re going to keep dying, over and over, and it’s utterly inevitable (here, at least, I appreciate this story’s placing, coming after a string of tales in which Evelyn has been unable to save people – Ross really brings that theme to a head).

The big draw is thus that what we thought was one type of story has in fact turned out to be another, something I always enjoy from my Who. We have been missing a bigger picture of our own – that this is no historical, but a more eccentric story. “Knox”, the orchestrator of it all, is not merely an experimenter, but an artist, inventing his own fictions, a showman like Vorg, palming off the repeats of the “Burke and Hare Experience” all across the galaxy, “rewinding the tape” over and over. Murderous history as common-denominator entertainment. It’s not hard to tell which other Big Finish writer this most resembles; yes, Ross is in some way doing a Shearman, and even though Robert the Second isn’t quite as good at it as Robert the First (the characters aren’t as good and the tightrope-walking between humour and horror isn’t as well-trod), it’s always a pleasure to come across something this little bit more idiosyncratic. The denouement, in which Daft Jamie plays a pivotal role, is clever, sombre, and moving. With its narrative coup de grâce, Medicinal Purposes feels like a holdover from the more experimental crop of 2003 stories, and that can only be a good thing.

Other things:
The whisky-swigging apple-seller is right out of the Robert Holmes Guide To Writing Characters Like The Old Woman By The River In The Talons Of Weng-Chiang.
Darlington pulls up his bootstraps with a terrific score.
Much like the ending of Arrangements for War, Sixie is still rhapsodising about the TARDIS, “the woman… the only one who shares all my memories”, much to Evelyn’s amusement.
The Doctor to Evelyn: “You will find your own path to walk, and you will walk it without me.”
“When in confusion, look to the stars, not the gutter.”
“I used to know a Jamie. It’s an honourable name you have there – a very honourable name.”
“We are all actors at some stage, or on some stage, for that matter, are we not?” – truer than we know when we first hear this line.
“I do wish Burke and Hare would bring in the occasional fresh ones…”
There’s a great bitterness in “clever people need comfortable pillows.”
“Imperfections are so fascinating, don’t you think? They make a work of art a masterpiece.”
For the second time in three audios: “Flesh is weak, Hare.”/“Yeah, I know, and yours is weaker than most.”
“The good folk of Edinburgh have the limited attention span of a goldfish in a bowl. And on the outside, with nose firmly pressed against the glass, ghoulishly looking in and observing, is Knox.” Very Pink Floyd.
“You can’t outrun inevitability…There’s no point in even trying…goldfish in a bowl, doing the same thing over and over again without ever realising it. This has all been pre-arranged, pre-planned, pre-performed even. We arrived in the middle of a well-rehearsed run-through. This, all this, has already happened. There’s nothing I can do to stop it!”
The Doctor “never drinks when on duty.”
“Quite honestly, I find your braggadocio rather tiring.”
“You’re a human! It’s that distinct lack of humanity that gives you away.”
“We should go. Jamie is about to become famous… He’s got what he always wanted. A place in history. A place in people’s history. A place in mine, and yours.”

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