As is well-known, Doctor Who started off with a desire to be at least somewhat educational–bringing up both scientific and historical concepts in a way that allowed children to learn about them. This was most obvious in the “pure historical” adventures of the 1960’s, where the Doctor and company would interact with the likes of Marco Polo and Richard the Lionhearted. Though this focus fell by the wayside in most of the show’s history, recently you can see Chris Chibnall doing his level best to teach his audience about less celebrated points in history. And every once in a while, a Big Finish audio comes along that has the side benefit of informing its listeners about real-world people and events. Medicinal Purposes is one such audio–at least it was for me.
Spoilers (for real)
The story focuses on a chapter of British history of which I knew absolutely nothing–the infamous Burke & Hare murders. Apparently, in 1828 in Scotland, these two guys named William Burke and William Hare went on a murder spree that took the lives of 16 people. The corpses were then sold to a Dr. Knox for medical research, something which various laws in place at the time limited to being done only bodies that had died under certain circumstances, leading to a shortage. The whole thing went on for about ten months before Burke (and his wife) were brought to trial thanks to Hare cutting a deal and giving evidence.
Medicinal Purposes, by Robert Ross, features the Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) and Evelyn Smythe (Maggie Stables) arriving into the midst of this time in history, but discovering that something is not as it should be. Details don’t line up with what the Doctor knows to be the historical facts, and so deeper investigation is called for. Eventually, they discover that Dr. Knox is not who he claims to be, and that there is something peculiar going on with time.
The story is interesting but uncomfortable, especially because the Doctor is strangely admiring of what Burke & Hare were doing: while acknowledging that murder is wrong, he points out repeatedly how their crimes led to actual advancements in medical science. He also interacts with several people that he knows are going to be amongst their victims–notably Daft Jamie and Mary Patterson–and seems overall far more concerned with ensuring that history follows its course than with saving anyone’s life, and sometimes does this directly to the characters’ faces.
It’s all supposed to be part of the show’s thematic development, wherein it explores the Doctor’s alien nature and detached perspective (following on from events in the last Sixth Doctor audio–Arrangements for War). I appreciate the attempt to explore different aspects of the Doctor’s personality, but it still comes across as jarring and a bit unpleasant, and certainly seems at odds with the Doctor’s usual response to a rash of serial killings.
The guest cast for the story includes David Tennant who does a good job as Daft Jamie (the story was released in August 2004, less than a year before he debuted as the Tenth Doctor in the closing moments of The Parting of the Ways.) And Leslie Phillips, who played the villainous being calling himself Dr. Knox, reprised the role in another Sixth Doctor audio several years later.