Damaged Goods

By Russell T. Davies

"Hers is an entirely human tragedy," said the Doctor. "I haven't got time for such things."

This book is the first ever published Doctor Who fiction from a man called Russell the-T-stands-for-noThing Davies. You might have heard of him; he was quite well-known for resurrecting some old defunct sci-fi show a couple of years ago. I've had this book sitting on my shelf for ages but I've not got around to reading it before, though I have long basked in the smugness of knowing that I bought the book for a couple of quid back in the days before RTD's initials became inextricably linked with Doctor Who and the price of Damaged Goods on eBay skyrocketed. I also bought Lungbarrow new for 4.99 and The Dying Days a couple of years later for a mere 8 - yes, you may all hate me now.

But I digress. Those people who have managed to stick with the review this far are doubtless wanting to know, "is Damaged Goods any good?", to which I have to reply - yes, bits of it are. Unfortunately, bits of it aren't, and those are by and large the more important bits. I had a similar problem with this book to the one I have with RTD's writing for the new series - to wit, I want to like it but I just don't.

The plot is somewhat convoluted, but revolves around the Doctor tracking a contaminated shipment of cocaine in late-80s Britain to a decaying housing estate. What the cocaine is contaminated with is a little bit complicated and involves lashings of hearty ol' Gallifreyan mythology and repeated references to the ongoing Brotherhood/psychic arc that was ongoing through the NAs at the time.

Something Davies does well in both this book and the new series is settings and dialogue. The dialogue here is typically sparky and quick without ever sliding into smug one-liners, though at times the Doctor does seem a little too self-aware. The 7th Doctor here is somewhat grave, dark and brooding and not all that much like his TV persona, but this is late in the day for the NAs, by which time the 7th Doctor had developed into a rather nobler and less scatty character than McCoy ever was on screen. In fact there's more than one moment where I can almost see a prototype 9th Doctor persona poking through; the Doctor is essentially lonely, and carrying a tremendous largely self-induced burden concerning his past, his responsibilities and his guilt, as well as the past, responsibilities and guilt of the Time Lords as a whole. RTD captures the complex motivations and the forboding sense of duty version of the "Time's Champion" 7th Doctor well (apart from one scene where the Doctor picks up and later uses a gun - my own belief is that the Doctor should never touch a gun, even in a situation where he knows that it won't be fatal). Roz Forrester and Chris Cwej are the companions in attendance and here RTD does a rather less brilliant job of writing them - they both come across as rather two-dimensional, with Roz going about her business with a tired resignation that the Doctor is keeping secrets again but she'll do what he tells her to anyway, and Chris galumphing about in a rather monosyllabic, eternally optimistic, himbo-ish way. Neither fares particularly brilliantly in the story and to be honest they're quite secondary - they're the Doctor's "heavies", his eyes and ears, his messengers, his spies and his gofers, but they don't actually do that much and the Doctor spends just as much time with the book's one-off characters as he does with Roz and Chris.

These one-off characters are also something RTD does well - from the convoluted backstory intertwining the Tyler and Jericho families, Mrs Hearn, Harry Harvey, David Daniels, the Skinners, the Leathers, the Capper, and the various other residents of the Quadrant estate and beyond, I can imagine RTD having to keep detailed notes and potted biographies of each of them just to keep track of what was going on. Rarely has a Doctor Who novel had such a large cast of secondary characters and characterised them all so well; one of RTD's skills is making even unlikable characters come across in a sympathetic way, so that even if you don't agree with them you can at least understand their motivations and perspectives.

Where the book starts to go wrong is in Davies' narrative. He is given to long exposition and particularly flowery details and embellishments - occasionally the book reads like an English student writing home-grown science fiction in the staid and overly verbose style of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Lines like "a curtain of flesh being drawn open for the underlying bone's debut" left me cold. In addition, sometimes his dialogue is simply cringe-inducing ("oh, I'm shamed!") - to paraphrase the old nursery rhyme, when he's good it's very very good, but when he's bad it is horrid.

The book can be roughly divided into three sections - the first 60% or so being the best and consisting of the build-up, of the Doctor moving into the estate and building up trust in an effort to try and get past the many barriers of the residents and unlock the various secrets underneath. Here RTD's writing is at its best, with the otherworldliness of the Doctor contrasting well with the surrounding dreary environment, though at no point does the Doctor seem totally out of his depth and unable to relate to the people around him. The next 30% of the book, where it starts rapidly accelerating and large areas of late 1980s London are being laid waste to and several thousand people are spontaneously dying across the country, seemingly once again with nobody noticing, is where things start to go wrong; RTD's writing style works less well during these comparatively grandiose sequences. Finally the conclusion, filling the last 10% of the book, feels like a hurried and confused mess, where what remains of the plot unravels - there's some nonsense about someone taking over the mind of an alien war machine of unimaginable power just because they're apparently in the right place at the right time, the Doctor suddenly not having the foggiest idea what's going on or how to deal with it, and most of the surrounding environs and supporting cast detailed in the earlier bulk of the book being laid waste in an almost trivial way in the course of a couple of paragraphs. As far as I can tell the basic gist of this is that "a mother's love is even more powerful than a multidimensional war machine designed to destroy entire planets", which makes no sense whatsoever. Much like the majority of RTD's TV stories he likes to go for initial impact but doesn't seem capable of holding a logical plot together under his innate desire to chase "big drama, big emotion". I also balk at using the trite and horribly pejorative phrase "gay agenda" in relation to RTD's stories (though he certainly seems to have a "Tyler agenda", being as he uses the name here, in the new series and elsewhere) but this book does have a series of intertwined gay subplots that, although they are interesting, somewhat tragic and add the book a lot of emotional weight and a certain pathos, they don't actually seem to have an awful lot to do with the main plot.

This book does have things in common with the new series, but it also differs from it in several key areas. Damaged Goods is gory, earthy, adult and occasionally just plain nasty, whereas the new series substitutes wackiness for grittiness and has only the suggestion of body horror while rarely actually making it explicit. What this book shares with the new series is RTD's triumph of style over substance. To him it seems that ideas, dialogue and characters are far more important in and of themselves that the ability to use them all in a coherent, logical plot. That's the problem with this book specifically, and RTD's writing in general - I just don't enjoy it for that reason. The plot doesn't stand up to scrutiny. It starts well but doesn't end well. The book was nearly great, but the story falls down badly during the last quarter. Overall, especially given the praise I've seen heaped upon it from some quarters during the past couple of years as RTD's profile has hugely increased within Doctor Who fandom, I'd have to say that Damaged Goods is ultimately a disappointment.


Review by Valedictorian


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