Starring Colin Baker as the Doctor with Maggie Stables and Leslie Phillips >>>
Original full cast play >>> 2 hours approx >>
Burke and Hare, the famous Edinburgh murderers and body snatchers are not as they appear in this excursion into Earth history. Who is the mysterious Dr. Knox, and why isn’t befriending the killers’ documented victims the ill advised tragedy waiting to happen that it should be?
Anyone who remembers Colin Baker’s occasionally lamentable tenure as TV’s Time Lord may not be queuing up to hear one of his audio adventures. But one should remember the unforgiving TV landscape in which the good Doctor existed at the time and understand that in 1986 the BBC’s priority – much less its cash – were not lined up in Doctor Who’s favour. Add to that much turgid tumult in show’s own production office and you have a recipe for disaster. That Baker’s two seasons see him confidently seizing the role as his own is a small miracle, a victory, a triumph over adversity. Almost. The tragic truth of Baker’s brief era is that he had all the qualities needed to be an outstanding Doctor. So, in steps Big Finish productions – valiantly squaring circles and determined to succeed where the television series patently failed. A new lease of life for the colourful sixth Doctor then?
Working on the premise that a man is measured by the company he keeps, Big Finish wasted no time in giving ‘Old Sixie’ a new travelling companion. Unencumbered by pre-judgment and continuity, it allows Baker’s Doctor the chance to mellow. Accompanied here by sexagenarian lecturer Dr. Evelyn Smythe, she is the medicine this doctor badly needed. She pricks his pomposity, mocks his verbose vocabulary and won’t let his bluster go unchallenged. The sixth Doctor we meet in Medicinal Purposes is a much changed man than that of the TV series, and all the better for it.
It is a shame then that having made such strides in successfully softening the character that he starts this play actually praising Burke & Hare for their crimes, arguing that without them and the bodies they sold to the burgeoning medical profession, many lives would have been lost without the knowledge the victims helped to foster. This ‘ends justifies the means’ philosophy doesn’t just runs counter to the spirit and the letter of the series but endangers this Doctor’s new found humanitarian instincts. Colin Baker has always spoken vociferously about the character’s inherent alien outlook but when he’s condoning the murder of innocents I think it takes the theme too far. It’s out of step and not just a bit nasty.
Thankfully, the Doctor’s attitudes are adjusted after he befriends two of the infamous duo’s future victims. Character-wise it gives the Doctor somewhere to go in this story, a journey to make. But I don’t buy it. The Doctor knows the ends never justify the means, something he’s said many times, so to me this character ‘arc’ feels more like a circle.
Leslie Phillips guest stars in these four episodes as Dr Robert Knox and makes a great impression. He’s a silky cat of a baddie, purring softly and never once getting particularly cross. The revelation halfway through the play that Knox is not all that he appears is welcome lifting it from the realms of moribund run-around.
The supporting characters are harlot Molly and Daft Jamie, both destined to end up on the surgeon’s cold slab. Ladies of the night, blood in the gutter and a noisy alehouse are not areas the TV series would have been allowed have wander into. That the series can enter such a seedy, all-too-real world and still be silly old Doctor Who is an achievement, thanks to the dexterity of the script. And Knox is such a delightful rotter, it’s all good fun.
Colin Baker is THE audio Doctor. He’s got a great voice, gets some tremendous lines and allows us to wistfully wonder what might have been had his telly run not been cut short. But why continue to harp on about these old injustices when plays like this are around for us to enjoy. It’s time to erase the overbearing sixth Doctor from your memory and embrace this new, nuanced and far more accessible incarnation. Never waste a good crisis, as they say, and on the evidence here Big Finish and Colin Baker certainly didn’t. Give ‘Old Sixie’ another chance. After this play, I certainly will.
Doctor Who – Medicinal Purposes is available to download or stream from Bigfinish.com
Copyright Martin Gregory 2020