Medicinal Purposes by Robert Ross

There was a tremendous buzz when the cover of Medicinal Purposes was unveiled by the boys at Big Finish. Lee Binding, for it was he, created a striking image of silhouetted grave robbers – one top hatted, the other wearing a cap – against a fiery backdrop of clouds and Colin Baker. Perhaps the most impressive cover since The Rapture (with its similar motifs of sun burnt orange and silhouetted hat wearing men), it made this release stand out of the "we want more McGann" pack. If there is such a pack which, on the evidence of his three seasons, there probably isn’t any more.

So Medicinal Purposes then. It’s a story about the grave robbers Burke and Hare… except that it isn’t. Not really. Robert "Carry On" Ross revealed in an interview that his original pitch featured Jack the Ripper. This is nothing new – things get changed all the time and for all we know Genesis of the Daleks might not have originally featured the Daleks. Although, given the number of tricks Terry Nation’s pony could do, it is likely. The name is a bit of a giveaway too. But I digress. Medicinal Purposes – or Medpurps as I like to call it – starts with the Doctor and Evelyn on a mission to find Burke and Hare. The Doctor, rather out of character given previous remarks about ends and means, believes them to be valuable contributors to the history of medicine rather than cruel and despicable murderers. Evelyn, being an historian and therefore exposed to the worst of humanity, is less convinced but tags along anyway.

But the fact that Burke and Hare were not the original idea and therefore cannot be considered the focus of the story makes one wonder what exactly IS the focus of the story. Initially it is working out why Burke has seemingly vanished from history. But then he turns up again and little more is made of it. Murders are being committed but the Doctor already knows who dies, when and more or less why so there is no dramatic value in that. The only hope lies, as it has in so many films, in the capable lap of Mr Leslie Philips.

An icon, a show stopper, a man who could charm the pants off a lesbian. The casting of Sir Leslie (as he shortly must become) raised few eyebrows. He’s one of the bigger stars to have appeared in the Big Finish series but he’s the sort of person one would expect to find popping up in Doctor Who at some point. Like Christopher Biggins, the surprise isn’t when they do Doctor Who but that they haven’t done it before. Sadly, although he gives a spirited performance, it is to the detriment of the play.

If Medpurps is unfocused, vague and flabby then Doctor Knox is unfocused, vague and flabby squared. His actions are motivated not by one preposterous factor but by several inconsequential little ones. He isn’t threatening so you never feel any menace from him. He isn’t especially clever, he doesn’t have any particularly good lines and when you get past Philips’s rambling style of delivery you get a human being who has somehow obtained a TARDIS and who has come to Earth for two reasons. Firstly to find a cure for a virus which is destroying all life on an alien planet by experimenting on human beings and secondly to provide entertainment for watching (and paying) viewers. To that end he has encased Edinburgh in a time loop.

Right.

The medical research side feels very forced – added on to the story to justify the use of Burke and Hare when Jack T Ripper proved to have too good an agent. Knox – who isn’t really Knox of course but is still called Knox even when everyone knows he isn’t called Knox – has infected the people of Edinburgh with a virus which is always called flu. He then examines the dead to see what the virus has done to them. People who, unless I’m missing something, didn’t actually die of the flu. And not many of them are dying from it or even suffering in the slightest. Because the gin they drink makes them immune. But Knox, rather than either find another planet to experiment on or move on to analysing this immunising substance, just carries on cutting up the same dead people every time. Even though he knows what the results will be and knows they won’t be of any use. Now do you see what I mean about the story having no focus?

It would probably have been better with Jack the Ripper or some other historical murderer. Maybe even a "real" version of a fictional (and out of copyright) killer. That way they could’ve tightened the story up to what really mattered. Instead we get lumbered with a doctor who isn’t protected from the virus he is unleashing (which is called flu and flu can be caught through the air even though this one can’t) and doesn’t seem to be bothered about finding a cure.

The character played by Leslie Philips – Knox who isn’t Knox – escapes, in true Master style, at the end having suffered a bit but he’ll get over it. Will he make a comeback? It wouldn’t surprise me. He’s a character with no motives, no explanation, no name and no real point but all that could be ironed out. Maybe he’ll fair better next time with someone who isn’t writing their very first ever script.

I desperately wanted to like Medpurps but it ended up being a fairly atmospheric mess.