David Tennant came over from Dalek Empire to put in a great performance as Daft Jamie, but this is a troubling story with a murky narrative and murkier ethics.
Have a trailer (with lots of David).
The Doctor and Evelyn arrive in 1827 Edinburgh, an infamous period when bodysnatching and murder intersected with medical science. To Evelyn’s dismay, the Doctor seems more enthusiastic about meeting the perpetrators than the victims of this grisly Gothic horror show. They are soon rubbing shoulders with a cast of colourful and unsavory characters: criminals, prostitutes, half-wits and the sinister Doctor Knox.
I found this audio unsettling both in content and presentation, not because it’s thought-provoking (although it certainly is that), but because several elements seem slightly off.
“I wouldn’t have missed this for anything!”
“Your taste in hobbies is getting alarmingly concerning, Doctor. Grotesque, even.”
Some parts of the story to be unfocused, muddled, meandering, with scenes that have little forward thrust. Others focus on petty, inconsequential interactions, while larger ethical, dramatic, horrific, action- or plot-related points are downplayed. The drama is undermined by a problem common to many historical Who stories, that the Doctor and Evelyn can’t participate too much lest they tamper with history. Finally, although there are some interesting plot complications, some of the twists feel contrived, awkward, or not fully developed.
I also had a few bones to pick with the actual content. The Doctor’s ethics have been problematic ever since he kidnapped two schoolteachers and picked up a rock, but still, for the most part, he’s a good guy. And this is “softer Sixie” we’re talking about, not the regeneration-sickness strangler or the Seventh Doctor at his most ruthless. I find it hard to believe he would be “delighted” to meet a pair of murderers. Beyond that, he seems almost indifferent to the suffering of several guest characters, and he commits a few reprehensible acts that are right up there with that rock.
Evelyn scolds the Doctor tepidly for his questionable ethics but mostly goes along with him. Perhaps, after the last few tragedies, she’s become resigned to the fact that they can’t save everybody, but still, I expect her to be more upset that it’s happening yet again. And what happened to the touching emotional rapport between Evelyn and the Doctor, tempered by Arrangements for War? It seems attenuated.
Finally, while it’s a small detail, there were several scenes just begging for Evelyn’s secret to slip out, especially in view of the audio’s name. I felt like someone dropped a plot thread, or at least a stitch.
Yet despite all my quibbles, this is such a good cast that they carried me through most of the rough patches. Colin Baker’s sterling performance is convincing even when the things he’s saying don’t quite sound like the Doctor. Maggie Stables is always a gem as Evelyn, although I think she, too, may have struggled to find the emotional focus in some scenes. David Tennant shines as Daft Jamie, putting real heart into the story. And Leslie Phillips’ congenial, dangerous, charismatic Doctor Knox is an interesting foil for Six.
Because of the cast, it’s still a reasonably good audio. It just has some problems, so that in the end, I was less than satisfied by the whole.
I did like the Doctor’s paean to his companion Jamie. That was heartfelt and in character, unlike his admiration of the bodysnatchers.
The most maddening thing about this story was that there were so many unfulfilled clues that pointed to Knox being “A Time Lord or something.” I really, truly, for certain thought he must be the Meddling Monk (or the Rani, except I know Rani Elite is her first BF appearance). What about Mary herself recognising the Jeckyl and Hyde reference, and pretending not to? What about Knox pretending to be the Doctor’s old enemy, Hyde to the Doctor’s Jeckyl? It’s as if Chekov’s gun turned out to be a water pistol and remained over the mantlepiece for the entire play.
In lieu of the Monk scheming rather ruthlessly to ensure major medical breakthroughs a century or so early, the story results to the paper-thin contrivance about the alien virus (what aliens? What life cycle? What world?) and then tries to plaster over that with the “peep show” contrivance (again, what aliens?)
Most of all, I keep falling back on the Doctor’s questionable actions in this story.
He spends far too much time justifying various characters’ deaths as “destiny” instead of fretting that he can’t interfere. Contrast that indifference with his admiration for Burke and Hare and his interest in Knox’s research. He chides Knox for arrogance, deception, stealing a TARDIS, callousness towards his “lab rats,” but look in the mirror! His ghoulish delight in the “thrill” of the events unfolding is exactly parallel to Knox’s paying clients. Yet the script barely calls him on all his blatant hypocrisy.
The Doctor’s cynical exploitation of Jamie is a bridge too far. Again and again, he tells the boy (and Mary) to trust him, even while he’s trying to ensure their deaths. He talks over and ignores obvious signs of Jamie’s physical distress as he falls ill. To add insult to injury, the Doctor drags Evelyn to a a public hanging, as if he’s totally forgotten apologising for all the other horrible things he’s forced her to endure and see. He casually uses Jamie as a murder weapon to kill Knox, then discards Jamie after he’s fulfilled his usefulness. In the end, the Doctor and Evelyn are direct accomplices to Jamie’s murder, bringing him back to the right time and place to die.
That’s worse than noninterference. That’s active interference on the side of evil.
On top of which, there’s the troubling subtext that maybe the Doctor was treating Jamie as exploitable, subhuman, and not worth protecting because of his mental handicap. He seems to be acting on the Knoxian view that it’s all right to perform medical experiments and murder on paupers, prostitutes, and the mentally ill for the “greater good.”
Lofty words about making Jamie famous and praising his honourable name don’t really atone for that. Nor does it help to claim the ends justify the means, an argument the Doctor has opposed so many times. The Doctor’s excuse to Evelyn is that he’s not human and doesn’t share her morals. Grudgingly, she accepts that. I don’t.