Friday, July 19, 2013

A Meeting of History and Morality

Librarian in the TARDIS, Review 6.03

Title: Medicinal Purposes
Written By: Robert Ross
Team TARDIS: Sixth Doctor, Evelyn Smythe
Adversary: Dr. Robert Knox
Originally Released: August 2004
Range and Number: Big Finish Main Range, #60

Synopsis (from TARDIS Wikia) -
Edinburgh, 1827. The infamous body snatchers William Burke and William Hare are at large. The local prostitutes dull their fear with cheap whisky. The graveyard owls are hooting. Business is good.

When accidental tourists the Doctor and Evelyn Smythe stumble upon one of Britain's most lurid, illuminating chapters in history, a simple case of interest in the work of dedicated man of science Doctor Robert Knox, quickly turns sour. Just what is that time-bending Scots mist? Whatever it is may put the very fabric of the universe under threat...

As always.

My Review:
Yeah, yeah, I know. Another Big Finish Sixth Doctor review... At this point, I’m not so much “bending the rules” as I've outright chucked them out the window. But I figure, the Fourth Doctor got two TV reviews - shouldn't Six get two Big Finish reviews? (besides, I’m discovering that I am having way too much fun with this stuff and I may find excuses to do more beyond November 23).

While finding a TV story for dear ol’ Sixie isn't too terribly difficult (there aren't that many to choose from), pinning him down one audio story is another endeavor altogether (I imagine I’ll have a similar conundrum when it comes to reviewing an Eighth Doctor audio). This is a result of combination of factors - fantastic storytelling, a new lease on life for the Sixth Doctor (you only have to listen to a few minutes of any Sixth Doctor story to know that Colin Baker is having the time of his life with this stuff), and wonderful original-to-Big-Finish companions. And, as far as I’m concerned, the poster child for wonderful original-to-Big-Finish companion is Dr. Evelyn Smythe. How could I stiff Evelyn in being featured in my blogging project? That would be a crime to the world of Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Celebratory Blogs!

(Apparently, I just made that a new sub-category of blogs. Go me!)

Evelyn Smythe is a history professor at Sheffield Hallam University when the Doctor meets her and she takes her profession very seriously. You just don’t mess around with Dr. Smythe - but she will treat you to her famously delicious chocolate cake if you’re having a rough day (she reminds me a lot of Professor McGonagall in Harry Potter, who is another no-nonsense-woman-with-a-squishy-candy-center that I adore to bits). I wanted to give Evelyn some time in these reviews because of her great contributions in the Big Finish canon - but I didn't want to review her first story, “The Marian Conspiracy,” because it’s one that gets a lot of attention (I may fudge the numbers here, but I’m not going to deviate from my mission to shower love on some largely unnoticed stories). Didn't want to do “Arrangements for War” or “Thicker Than Water” or “Doctor Who and the Pirates” for the same reason (that’s not to say you shouldn't listen to those because they’re fabulous and you totally should!) Plus, there are a few where Evelyn is the companion, but she doesn't do a whole lot and there wouldn't be much to talk about for her. But the one that I really liked that I hadn't seen many reviews of was “Medicinal Purposes.”

The basic premise of “Medicinal Purposes” is the time period during which the infamous grave-robbers/murderers, Burke and Hare, were at large in Edinburgh, Scotland. When I started listening to this story, I confess I’d never heard of these guys - or the rhymes or folktales that had materialized around their history. But, doing a little old fashioned research (read: I looked it up on Wikipedia), I learned pretty much all I needed to know to understand this story (and they say Doctor Who’s educational value ended when the Daleks showed up). Just for a quick-and-dirty summary - Burke and Hare were hired by Dr. Robert Knox to supply him with cadavers to study for his well-attended anatomy lectures. They started out with simply digging corpses up from cemeteries, but Knox eventually wanted fresher specimens to study, so Burke and Hare obliged by killing low-class nobodies (mainly criminals, drunks, and prostitutes) and delivering the bodies to Knox for study. It was when the people who attended Knox’s lectures started recognizing the victims that their little scheme got caught.

Just from reading the Wikipedia entry, the story is morbid and sad enough. But then you have a historian like Dr. Evelyn Smythe who actually meets the victims and to give voice to your own concerns - it’s positively gut-wrenching. Some of the first people the Doctor and Evelyn meet are Mary Paterson and “Daft” Jamie Wilson - who were both victims of Burke and Hare - and they’re such great characters. The Doctor takes a shine to Jamie in particular - noting that the Doctor once had another young friend from Scotland named Jamie (“a noble name for a noble young man”) and if that doesn't break your heart, I don’t know what will (oh, and the part of Jamie is played by a certain Scottish actor that you might have heard by the name of David Tennant. This was the last Big Finish Doctor Who he recorded before being cast as the Tenth Doctor). Evelyn tries to convince Mary and Jamie to get out of Edinburgh - not unlike Donna trying to convince people to leave Pompeii - even though she knows that their deaths are part of history.

The story poses an interesting question of morality - what Burke and Hare did in murdering those people was wrong. But those murders resulted in lots of medical advancements, which eventually would save lives. That’s the basis of an argument the Doctor and Evelyn have toward the beginning of the story and neither one of them comes up with a good enough solution. In fact, it cuts to the heart of Evelyn’s character - she wants to appreciate history and stay faithful to what actually happened, but at the same time she realizes that these are real people and these terrible things actually happened. Evelyn is a kind, tender-hearted person underneath her somewhat gruff, no-nonsense professorial exterior (she’s a lot like the Doctor in many respects and I think that quality of hers is what influences the Sixth Doctor toward becoming a much more softer and mellower person) and it’s tough for her to come to like Mary and Jamie, only to know how it all ends for the both of them.

Even though the Doctor and Evelyn have to let history take its course, it turns out there is another villain lurking around 1827 Edinburgh. It turns out that this particular time period has become a tourist destination, of sorts, for many entities that live outside time. They’re sort of like the Eternals from “Enlightenment,” but not really (at least, that’s what they reminded me of) and their idea of a great vacation is to experience history firsthand by inhabiting the lives of historical figures. Once the historical experience is over, it restarts within the time bubble and the next batch of people get to experience history, but they actually take over the people who lived through it - so, in a way, they keep reliving these horrible events (why this particular point in history has become such a popular tourist destination, I have absolutely no idea). The Doctor has to put a stop to this incessant repetition of time and set history back on its regular course - which means Mary and Jamie and all the other victims of Burke and Hare will die and the world will go on without them (but not without first becoming famous - as Jamie so joyfully observes).

I think this story needed a companion like Evelyn to bring out the humanity in these people.  Other companions could do it as well, but to have someone of Evelyn's maturity, morality and intelligence brings the whole issue to the fore.  Evelyn is a unique companion in many ways, but she reminded me a lot of both Barbara Wright and Donna Noble. This could just be because I watched "The Aztecs" and "The Fires of Pompeii" and listened to "The Reign of Terror" and "Medicinal Purposes" all within a month of each other - (it is the 50th Anniversary - MY TIME MUST BE CONSUMED WITH DOCTOR WHO AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE, right?) - but I could see so many wonderful similarities between these three characters.  Both Evelyn and Barbara have to reconcile their feelings about meeting these historical figures and seeing how human they are, while also maintaining that history must remain as it is.  And then you have Donna's impassioned pleading with the Doctor to "just save someone" at the end of "The Fires of Pompeii" - and as much as Evelyn tries to warn people, she can't.  Especially since the timeline's been messed with so much.  But it's the wanting that makes all the difference in the moral depth of a character and Evelyn has it in spades.

(Drawing these conclusions makes me want to see this little Trifecta of Awesome to meet up in a Doctor Who short story or something. There is a fanfic in which a young PhD student named Evelyn Smythe meets one Barbara Chesterton, who’s come to give a university lecture about the religious practices of the Aztecs. Evelyn and Barbara meet up again years later while Evelyn is traveling with the Doctor - and Six meeting up with Ian and Barbara again is so heartwarming that it turns your insides to goo and your day automatically becomes filled with sunshine, rainbows, ponies and strawberry ice cream.)

On the whole, Evelyn is a great addition to the companion lineup and we are damn lucky to have her along for the ride.  It's not so much that Six needed a humbling influence - he needs what the Doctor always needs: a friend.

Next Time, on Librarian in the TARDIS -
Review 6.04 - The Sixth Doctor meets Winston Churchill. This should be interesting.

Previously -
Review 6.02 - Hello, Doctor. It's So Very Nice to Meet Me.

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