Matthew Kresal opens the pages of the 1996 Russell T Davies Doctor Who novel, Damaged Goods.
Almost twenty years ago, and nearly a decade before he became the man who regenerated Doctor Who on TV for a new century, Russell T Davies made his first contribution to the series in an entirely different medium. At a time when Doctor Who was off the air and being continued via the Virgin book ranges, a then up-and-coming Davies would write what is still his only novel for the New Adventures. With it having been recently adapted as an audio drama by Big Finish, now seemed an opportune moment to finally take it off the shelf and read Damaged Goods, a novel which is often regarded as one of the best books to come out of the Virgin New Adventures.
The thing that struck me most while reading this is the same thing that struck me while watching the Davies era of New Who: The man can write great characters. There simply isn't a single badly written character in the whole book, and Davies ability to get a character across so simply and effectively on TV is there on the printed page as well. There's Rita, the cocaine addicted waitress we meet in chapter two for example, who appears for that single chapter but is so well defined that you almost feel like you know her by the time it's over. With his ability to do that, Davies really fleshes out the full supporting cast once the story shifts to its main setting and we're introduced to the troubled Tyler family, the ruthless and resurrected drug dealer the Capper, the old woman Mrs. Hearn who holds many secrets, and the upper-class Eve Jericho. These are just some of the characters we meet in the space of 263 pages, and each and every one of them is fleshed out, explored and delved into as we discover just who they are and the role they have to play in the events unfolding. The results are at times remarkable with the cliche of “characters that leap off the page” being more than applicable under the circumstances.
Then there's the setting: the Quadrant housing estate in London, 1987. It's hard not to think of it as a predecessor of sorts to the Powell Estate but it's far more than that. The Quadrant is almost a character in its own right: the seemingly ordinary hiding something extraordinary underneath. It's a place full of secrets with people almost hidden away, tension hanging in the air almost continuously. The Doctor at one point sums up each of the flats found in the Quadrant as being like a fortress, an apt description of perhaps the most down to earth setting you'll ever encounter in a Doctor Who book. Yet, like he would do nearly a decade later, Davies proves that the extraordinary often lies just beneath the surface if we're willing to look for it.
What really separates Damaged Goods from the rest of Davies' Who writing (and why he stopped it being reprinted ahead of the show's return in 2005) is just how adult and dark it is. While the council estate setting and character situations are definitely familiar to those of us who came to know Rose Tyler and the Powell Estate, Davies handling of those familiar elements is anything but. The story revolves around drugs, something that would be a major taboo even now for the New Series, with emphasis placed on the less than sunny lives and times of those in the Quadrant, with sex, expletives and violence all being front and center. While the social issues being explored here are familiar Davies territory, the tone of the novel isn't so much Doctor Who but that of Torchwood (especially the bleak but brilliant Children Of Earth). This is Davies doing what he never did on TV and what some are still crying out for even now: a non-family friendly Doctor Who.
Yet while Davies is famous for his characters and characterizations and he creates a good sense of atmosphere, there is one fault of his that is here. The man is infamous for his plots, lack thereof and infuriating endings. The plot is an ultra-slow burner, even at 263 pages, with it being at times almost more of a portrait of life on a housing estate than a science fiction novel. Then suddenly, with fifty or so pages left, the plot explodes and begins to rush by at an incredible pace and with elements that firmly remind us that this is in fact a Doctor Who story. Yet by then it's almost too late to salvage the plot as the finale turns into something of an precursor to that of The Next Doctor thirteen years later. If you're looking for Davies to do a good plot to go with his characters, this isn't the place to go at all.
There's another side-effect of that focus as well. The three “main” characters of the book who are meant to be the seventh Doctor, Chris and Roz (Adjudicators from future Earth introduced in the earlier New Adventure Original Sin) seem like supporting characters at times, as the book seems to focus more on Davies' own creations. It's almost like reading a Doctor-lite story, until those last fifty pages or so, as the Doctor and companions seem to wander about almost aimlessly inside the novel. Yet once again Davies proves his ability to right strong characters, especially in his capturing of the seventh Doctor, who comes across incredibly well when he does appear. Indeed, reading Damaged Goods felt less at times like reading a Doctor Who novel then reading that very thing Davies is often accused of turning the New Series into: a soap opera. Davies often does seem swept up in his characters and their back stories at expense of anything else.
At the end of the day, Damaged Goods features all the hallmarks of Davies later writing for when the show came back, both for the good and bad. Good in the form of characterizations but bad in that the plot is slow to unfold and then is over with in a flash. Yet it's also far darker than virtually anything Davies gave his in his nearly five years as show runner on the New Series. While I can't quite sing its praises as others have done both here and elsewhere, I can recommend it at the very least as a curiosity and at best as Davies only novel.
Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't
have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the
Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.