15 July 2016

Book Review: Doctor Who - Damaged Goods

1996 was certainly an important year in the history of Doctor Who: we met the Eighth Doctor in the form of Paul McGann; Jon Pertwee sadly passed away; and I was born. Nearly as important as some of those is the thing I'm going to talk about today: Damaged Goods. As I'm sure you're aware, this was Russell T Davies' first published foray into the worlds of Doctor Who, and actually a startlingly accurate indicator of things to come - and not just in our beloved television series.

The story of Damaged Goods tells you all you need to know about Davies' writing: it appears straightforward, yet is infinitely layered and complex. Brilliantly, though, it boils down to just one woman's tale, the beating heart of the story. This could never be compacted into four episodes and still retain all its intricacies, but I imagine Jonathan Morris found having such a firm anchor to centre events on for his audio adaptation, released last spring, made things a little simpler.

Unfortunately, I haven't yet seen or read all of Davies' work, so this comparison may hold true for other works, but for me Damaged Goods resembles most closely the fantastic eight-part drama Cucumber. Each features three pivotal characters - The Doctor, Winnie and Mrs Jericho; Henry, Lance and Daniel - and the structure of these characters' journeys across the story are remarkably similar. Damaged Goods is one of the Seventh Doctor's biggest failures; he is almost completely helpless, unable to intervene in events, until the very end, by which time over eleven thousand people have died. Henry Best is in a dramatically similar position: he makes one mistake at the start of the story and is caught up in the consequences for the remainder, until a positive stand is taken in the closing stages.

The Doctor and Mrs Jericho only come into contact at the story's climax. In many ways, the book is about the war between the forces these two represent, but they only share a few pages. The key is the relationship linking each of them to Winnie Tyler, which actually pushes her to the centre of the novel. The Doctor leaves her about two-thirds of the way through though, claiming he has bigger problems, when the reality is he could never possibly hope to understand what she's going through. Henry Best and Daniel Coltrane, both lovers of Lance Sullivan, never meet. Until his death about two-thirds of the way through Cucumber, Lance is almost the main character, juggling these two massive characters on either side. One of Russell T Davies' great skills is putting characters into awkward situations and seeing what happens, and that's exactly what he's doing with all six of these figures, as their own meddling comes back to bite each of them. It could be argued that Lance and Winnie are the exceptions to this, another similarity between these two fascinating pieces of work.

This is a gripping novel, with an extremely tragic tale at its heart, and it's a joy reading through the unfolding mystery. Once the N-Form begins destroying things, my attention began to wane as Davies' skill is in his examination of humanity. The sci-fi stuff is all fine, but it's unfortunately nowhere near as captivating as the opening three-quarters. Davies still tries to pedal a few of the relationships he's established throughout the story, such as between the Doctor's thirtieth century friend Chris, David Daniels and Harry Harvey - another trio - but it's just not enough to maintain the quality. The prose is equally as beautiful and as polished throughout the whole book, but the subject matter is not where Davies' talents lie. This could be down to the whole thing being written in five weeks; perhaps another draft or two would have helped things. It's still perfectly good and readable, it's just that this section of the novel can't help but seem a little flat after the rich passages leading up to it.

This was my first encounter with Chris and Roz, former Adjudicator colleagues who now travel with the Doctor. Here, Roz is presented much more as the Time Lord's companion, and Chris as hers, than as equals. While she and the Doctor try and deal with the main plot, Chris is frequently sent off to run errands or investigate, which is how he ends up in the company of David. This is all pretty incidental stuff, but that could be said of the Doctor and Roz's input too. It develops and entertains, and I think cutting Chris would definitely make Damaged Goods a poorer novel. His place is events is integral to the other side of the novel, which is all about repression. Roz is pretty much a gofer for the Doctor, but she's written as highly intelligent and certainly an asset to the Doctor's team. They are a firm double-act, and I suspect the reason why they are shown as being so close is something to do with the next chronological novel, So Vile A Sin

This is a very confusing novel to review. Every single page sells Damaged Goods as an attention-grabbing event, and like all of Russell T Davies' writing, while you're in the midst of it, it feels like this is the best thing you've ever read/seen/heard. Taking a step back though, there are a lot of things to talk about. Yes, a large portion of the story hinges on cocaine; yes, there's a lot of sex, most of it gay; yes, it's discernibly darker than television Doctor Who either side of it. But do these make it worse? If anything, the reverse. This is an immersive world Davies paints, and almost instantly, you are deeply invested in each character, no matter how incidental they turn out to be. Monica Jeffries is one of my favourite original characters in the whole of this book, but her impact on events is non-existent. 

It's been said Damaged Goods is Davies' era of Doctor Who in a microcosm, but I'd say it's much more than that. It's probably the most daring Doctor Who novel I've read, but at the same time it isn't flawless - that was still to come. This is a great book, and I'd actually disagree with a lot of what's been said - bold, assertive and nuanced, I think this is quintessential Doctor Who and quintessential Russell T Davies. 

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