Usually, when I am reading a book that I know I am planning to write a review of afterwards, I will keep a piece of paper and a pen next to me as I go through it, jotting down any thoughts, notes, quotes, page numbers and so on and so forth that I think might come in handy when writing the piece. When I sat down to begin Damaged Goods, I had paper and pen ready, yet through the entire two hundred and sixty-three pages, the only thing I ended up writing down was the name of someone who phoned for one of my housemates while he was out. I was so involved in this story, I didn’t want to have to let off and miss anything if I could possibly avoid it. This book is compulsive reading.
Broken down to its constituent parts, the story that it tells is a simple one, but this works well because all the best stories do have a simple heart to them. A weapon of unimaginable power is building strength in the same vicinity as a very unique child is working his unknown influence, and the Seventh Doctor, Chris and Roz have to step in and deal with the situation before it gets out of hand. In the latter respect they are not altogether successful, as by the time to the two delicately interconnected plot threads have joined at the conclusion of the book, things have gotten well and truly out of hand, but it could have been a lot worse.
Russell T Davies’ credentials as a writer of television drama are impeccable, but success as a writer in one medium of the craft does not always guarantee it in another. However, with Damaged Goods Davies demonstrates that he is very much the writing polymorph, easily able to cope with the different skills demanded for writing effective, involving prose fiction, indeed doing so with a quality rarely glimpsed in the Doctor Who novel series. His strengths, as might perhaps be expected given his writing background, are in character and plotting, but this is not to say that he is any the weaker on the descriptive front – indeed, it might be argued that his work in television has given him a keener eye for the visual detail, an added edge that less multi-talented writers might lack.
There are only a few occasions during the course of the novel in which things seem to slip a little, and even then only a very little. The character of David musing at one point that things such as Chris fancying him would ‘only happen within the realms of science fiction’ struck me as being needlessly self-referential, and there was another moment involving the same character where we are suddenly and rather conveniently informed that he did not notice some blood stains in his bathroom because he is short-sighted and too vain to wear glasses. It’s not that this is out of character for David as he is portrayed, indeed it’s the sort of thing you would almost expect of him, but that fact that it is mentioned at that particular moment to cover that particular minor plot hole seems a little ungainly.
I’m not entirely convinced about the sections in which Davies writes from the point of view of children either. Yes, he is writing in the third person but it is still from the child’s perspective, and thus many of the thought processes and descriptions seem oddly mature and sophisticated for children of their age, not sitting well with the point of view we are supposed to be viewing. A minor quibble admittedly, but still one worth making a note of I feel as it contrasts with the rest of the novel, in which Davies captures character perspective so well.
The writer himself has gone on record as admitting he thinks he writes character well, and on the basis of Damaged Goods there is very little to refute that argument. Everyone we meet over the course of the narrative, no matter how large or a small role they have to play in what is happening, feels like somebody you could walk out and bump into in the streets. They’re alive, they’re real, they think and react and feel the same as we do, and that makes the events that unfold around them all the more horrifying as we realise how we would fare little better than they do at the hands of such unearthly happenings.
There’s a tendency amongst fans these days to react like vampires to a crucifix when they spot a reference to previous adventures in a novel or audio story, and it’s fair to say there are a fair few of these mixed into Damaged Goods, rather putting the mockers on the later Queer as Folk¬-era Davies who would claim he wasn’t really a die-hard fan at all and he had to get Matthew Jones to check all the references in that particular television programme… Yeah, right! The Vampire wars, Rassilon, UNIT, all kinds of New Adventures back-story… But it’s detail; an extra part of the fabric of the story, and it never gets in the way or feels particularly gratuitous. I’ve never read most of the books either side of Damaged Goods, nor do I have much knowledge of what the Psi-Powers arc was all about (mind you, neither did Davies if his comments in DWM’s 2002 history of the New Adventures are to believed!) but I was still more than able to follow the book because it stands so brilliantly as a well-crafted story all of its own.
It’s nice to have a New Adventure where the Doctor seems like a character who, when not dealing with such deadly situations, seems like a fun sort of person you would actually want to spend time travelling through the universe in all its history with. He’s quirky, interesting, intelligent and although he has that edge of the dark manipulator about him, it’s done with more of the humour that actually characterised McCoy’s portrayal of the character on screen. The only instances in which I felt Davies had failed slightly in capturing the Doctor were the moments where he slaps Winnie, and when he swears in “plain Anglo-Saxon” – although perhaps fortunately, we are not told exactly what it was he said!
It’s also nice to see Davies gently poking fun at the Cartmel era production team’s attempts to make the character of Ace streetwise and cool, by having the Doctor employ one of her colloquialisms when talking to Carl and Bev at one point convinced it will help him connect, and leaving him rather disappointed when they find his use of the word hilarious. It would actually have been fascinating to have seen Ace used as the Doctor’s companion in such a book as this, set in exactly the sort of time and place she was supposed to have come from, not really a million miles away from the block of flats we so briefly saw when she returned home in Survival.
Things have moved on for the Doctor since those days, however, and instead of Ace we have Chris Cwej and Roz Forrester. I was never entirely convinced of the value of having a couple of companions from the 30th century accompanying the Doctor, because to have them come from so far ahead in the future made establishing identifiable terms of reference for them and the reader difficult. How is it, for instance, that Roz is able to so casually refer to ‘ten quid’ and display a good working knowledge of the football pools, and even in what year the National Lottery was to be launched? You could argue that she is simply very good at doing her background research, but to me it never felt convincing. Yes, there are people around in our century who know a lot about the intimate details of the twelfth, but they’re History professors and the like, not everyday coppers plucked off the streets as Chris and Roz were intended to be. I remember the same thing bothered me when Chris displayed such a passion for Frankie Goes to Hollywood in So Vile a Sin, although as that book comes later in the New Adventures series, perhaps a case can be made for saying that David gave him a tape. David does wear a Frankie t-shirt at one point in Damaged Goods, after all.
Many of the New Adventures – particularly the works of Paul Cornell – have been either lauded or loathed for their constant pop culture references and attempts to seem perhaps post-modern or comically referential. There were only a couple of cases of this sort of thing in Damaged Goods that I didn’t feel sat well – one being the reference to Douglas Adams’ fifth Hitch-Hiker’s novel Mostly Harmless, and the other being two mentions in quick succession of Why Don’t You…? The latter was of course actually produced by Davies for several years, although whether that makes it better or worse I’m not quite sure. Added to this, reading the book from a 2004 perspective reveals a pleasing prototype of the dinner laced with rat poison scene used to such great effect in Davies’ 2003 drama The Second Coming. There could possibly be a sly reference to another of his television shows in page 124, where Gabriel is described as possessing “an eldritch smile,” but then again it could be purely coincidental. As for having a bad guy who looks like Neil Tennant, well, being a bit of a Pet Shop Boys fan I didn’t mind a bit, and it was nice to see that the Doctor had absolutely no idea who Tennant was when he was referenced.
Much mention has been made down the years of Damaged Goods being a more adult, grown-up form of Doctor Who. While this is doubtless true to a certain extent, to me it seemed much more a case of it being a fairly traditional and indeed slightly old-fashioned Doctor Who story told within the adult context of the late 1980s and the editorial environment of the later New Adventures. As the Doctor himself acknowledges to Roz on page 114, “This takes me back, being asked questions, just like the old days.” He then goes on to explain how he has become a different man and the universe seems a lot darker, something which almost hints at Davies perhaps being unhappy at the darker tone the New Adventures had adopted in contrast to the television series. In this in spite of him being held up as one of the finest writers of this kind of Doctor Who, which on the basis of Damaged Goods he undoubtedly was.
I suppose the problem, if there is one, with Damaged Goods is the context in which it is now retrospectively viewed. Because it is the only example anybody currently has of Russell T Davies writing Doctor Who, people have thought that it might be the only way he can write the series – which is clearly nonsense. Had he contributed other novels to the Virgin or BBC ranges, I’m sure we would have seen many different types of stories, but equally well plotted and well characterised. That we haven’t seen such books is of course mainly due to the fact that Davies was busy building a reputation for writing high quality, successful television drama, a reputation that has I hear landed him a rather good job of late…
We no longer need to worry about whether or not Russell T Davies will be writing Doctor Who again. However, I for one would be very sorry if he never returns again to prose fiction, whatever the genre or the style. Damaged Goods is an awesome novel, and bearing in mind it’s the only original novel he’s ever written (his other published prose work being the Dark Season novelisation), think what he’d be able to do now he’s got the experience under his belt…
Despite the continued release of massively restored old adventures onto DVD, over the course of the next twelve months DAMAGED GOODS will almost certainly be the Doctor Who story most revisited by fans. The reason is obvious. When author Russell T Davies wrote DAMAGED GOODS in 1996, he was simply a promising newcomer who had some relatively impressive television credits to his name. Since then, his career has done nothing but rise. He produced, created and wrote QUEER AS FOLK, TOUCHING EVIL, and THE SECOND COMING, was nominated for Sainthood, saved the humpbacked whale from extinction, caused the breakup of the Spice Girls, tricked a Martian invasion fleet to fly into the sun, and was named Producer of the still unseen Doctor Who TV revival. For Doctor Who fans, the last of these accomplishments is naturally the most important.
I never got around to reading DAMAGED GOODS when it was first published; as with many of the books of this era (through no fault of their own) I found myself simply far too busy to get around to it. I knew of its impressive reputation and was pleased when I eventually secured a copy. So when I finally opened the cover I already knew that this Davies guy would be The Producer, The Writer And Main Pooh-Bah Of Doctor Who. I found myself giving the book more scrutiny than I otherwise would have, simply to see if I could find clues as to what sort of series he will create based on what he had written here.
Upon completion of the book, I realized that this approach is, of course, absolute nonsense. What I didn't get out of the book was that the new series will feature two ex-cops as companions, or will take place in a London housing estate, or will feature big, evil monsters from Gallifrey's past. What I did take away was the book's fabulous attention to detail, Davies' ability to create sympathetic, flawed, interesting characters, and his talent for pulling them all into an engaging plot that gives each person an important part to play.
Doctor Who on television almost always worked when it had interesting and believable characters. Whether the characters were realistic was another matter entirely, and while the concepts sometimes dovetailed, this, I feel, was rare. Sharaz Jek (to pick an example totally at random) is a fascinating creation whose obsessive behavior is believably conveyed. But you couldn't imagine him at the far future's equivalent of a supermarket, because within the actual story of THE CAVES OF ANDROZANI it made more sense to have a collection of archetypes rather than someone you would expect to meet on the street (or in any place outside the confines of the story being told). Davies manages to express both in his only Doctor Who novel (so far), which is a fantastic bonus as far as I'm concerned. His characters are interesting, believable, and also realistic. This formula certainly wouldn't be appropriate (or possible) for every Doctor Who story, but here it works, and thanks to Davies' skills, it works extremely well. DAMAGED GOODS is fantasy grounded in realism, which can't be an easy thing to successfully pull off.
Getting to the book itself, one of the first wishes I have is that hopefully with the new series in production, Davies will find some spare time to write some more novels (or novelisations), because his prose is wonderful. His sense of timing, his ability to effectively pace the story, and his sense of setting the proper atmosphere is superb. A scene with a dead corpse returning to life is exactly the right amount of creepy and sinister. It's nicely evocative of those Hinchcliffe-era horror stories without containing anything that feels like a retread or a copy. Pieces of it reminded me at times of the psychological horror/thrillers that Stephen Gallagher wrote in his post-Doctor Who days.
Although the story is great from cover to cover, I found myself most enjoying the little things that the book did. Little moments of humanity liberally scattered through the sections of pure horror... and, of course, the novel's themes. In DAMAGED GOODS, the dead past never really leaves the living present. Apart from the obvious zombie rising-from-the-dead parallels, there's a depressed middle-aged man who talks to the voice of his dead wife in his head, and secrets from character's pasts that never quite seem to go away. Constant and subtle repetitions of the book's themes go a long ways towards making the book coherent and powerful. The "damaged goods" of the title conveys a theme that is shockingly horrific. The more I thought about the book's content, the more I appreciated it. Revelations towards the end echo subject matter introduced earlier, making me gasp not only at the twist, but also at how deviously it subverted and built upon the seemingly innocuous prior passages.
So, what can we take from DAMAGED GOODS to look towards how the new Doctor Who series will turn out? The subject matter, the number of continuity references, the balance of humor to drama? No. At the moment, we just can't make meaningful predictions without making them so general as to be worthless. The only important thing to take from DAMAGED GOODS is that Russell T Davies is a damn good writer, and if he writes half as well for Doctor Who today as he did eight years ago, then I expect to be very pleased with the results. If you had told me six months ago the new producer for TV Doctor Who was named "Russell", I think I would have been ill. But reading DAMAGED GOODS has given me a lot of hope that Davies is the right Russell for the job.
Following a bit of a dip in quality with The Death of Art, the New Adventures get back on track with this excellent urban horror tale. This is a much more assured debut from a new Who author, and if this is Davies first ever novel then this really is an astonishing performance. Surprisingly it even manages to slip in a cameo reappearance from the previous novels Brotherhood, and although I’m getting a little tired of the rambling and unfocused ‘Psi-Powers’ arc, at least it appears to be building up to a grand finale now.
What’s so surprising about Damaged Goods is that it’s constructed around such a familiar idea. While not quite as clichéd as ‘aliens invade Earth’, or ‘someone’s been interfering in the timelines’, the idea of basing a story around the idea of a dangerous mislaid piece of Gallifreyan technology must have been old hat even back in 1996. What makes this such an enjoyable read is the flawless execution.
Every character is vibrant and alive, with compelling and believable backstories. The plot unfolds in a glorious corkscrew, with perfect pacing teasing out the revelations to the final page - there are no meaningless pages of the TARDIS crew running from place to place to pad out the story here. Instead the novel focuses it’s first half primarily on getting inside the heads of its cast, and this pays of with an action packed finale filled with people we actually care about. This climax is an absolute corker, with the terrifying N-form being one of the most fearsome opponents I can remember. There are literally thousands of deaths in this novel, but for once it doesn’t feel as though these are being used for cheap effect, and one cant help but feel sympathy for the Doctor’s plight. We’ve had plenty of scenes in the past of the Doctor being put in his place for looking at the bigger picture, but the two words spoken by heroine Bev Tyler at the novels close strike close to the heart.
This is one novel that’s hard to fault, with even the predicted low comedy of Chris getting unwittingly involved in gay culture being bypassed for something less obvious. The only real downside here is that seven years later Damaged Goods remains Russell T Davies sole contribution to the Who range. While some lesser authors have gone on to carve out careers churning out mediocre pulp in the intervening years, what could we have been missing? Damaged Goods is my 55th New Adventure - and the best thus far…
Sometimes you can mix different genres well, as An American Werewolf in London mixed horror and comedy. Other times, the gestalt does not turn out very well; witness the ungainly merging of gritty police drama and old-style movie musicals that was unleased upon the viewing public as Cop Rock. One must always be careful not to dismiss the conventions of one type of story to satisfy the otherrobbing Peter to pay Paul, as it were.
Science fiction is not meant to be real. It is supposed to create an alternate world (past, future, fantastic, horrific, whatever) that, at best, is supposed to show the reader/viewer aspects of this so-called real world that might not readily be apparent (or to disguise such aspects from the censors, but that's another story entirely). When you try to be grittily real in a science-fiction story, and by that I mean setting it in modern times and focusing on modern problems, you lose the element of comparison, for your alternate world is the same as the one the reader/viewer wakes up in. Not necessarily a good thing.
Call me an escapist if you want, but if I want a dose of the Problems of the World and Man's Inhumanity to Man, I'll pick up the newspaper. I don't buy science fiction, especially not Doctor Who, for a lesson in modern sociology. I certainly would not have bought Damaged Goods had I known that is precisely what I would be getting.
The story starts off in a rather depressing housing project in England during Margaret Thatcher's tenure as prime minister, populated with low-income families, junkies, retirees, perverts and other assorted flotsam of humanity. The Doctor, along with Roz and Chris, arrive in pursuit of a rather strange batch of cocaine -- one that leaves some victims with their head split open.
One of the pushers, an unsavory character called the Capper, immolated himself some time after sampling this killer coke. A few nights later, he's back from the dead and wanted to continue business. This does not go over well on the streets, as even drug lords look askance at zombies.
Meanwhile, there seems to be something going on between one of the poor families of the project and a rich woman with a seriously ill child. This has something to do with the poor family suddenly having a lot of money at Christmas some ten years before, a memory the daughter is having to blot out of her mind
The problem with this book is not that it is badly written. It's actually quite well written; the characters do have some personality to them, the plot meanders a bit, especially during the inevitable separation of one or more companions from the Doctor which leads the story in many directions at once (at least this better than Nyssa getting a cold and staying in the TARDIS the entire story), but it is not a bad book. The problem is, as I said, the mixing of gritty reality and science-fiction, and here it does not work. Especially as two-thirds of the way through the book, the story takes one of those quantum-leaps into the stratosphere that Doctor Who is famous for. Unfortunately, it's hard to do that after ten chapters of Hill Street Blues-style drama and make it work. (Not to mention that the villain of the piece is yet another ancient Time Lord gadget I swear, if I see one more Left-Handed Bacon-Stretcher of Rassilon...)