|by Russell T Davies|
In "Damaged Goods", Russell Davies has marked himself as the best newcomer to Doctor Who fiction since Lance Parkin eight months earlier. Davies has crafted a taut, compelling novel which falls down only slightly at the end. Certainly, "Damaged Goods" is one of the best novels Virgin has released in 1996.
As long-time readers of these reviews know, there's something important to me beyond plotting and characterisation when it comes to a good novel. That's good *writing*, which differentiates, to my mind, the best authors (Paul Cornell, Kate Orman, Andy Lane) from the poorest (David McIntee, for instance). Davies excells in this respect: "Damaged Goods" is written in a crisp, unusual but enthralling style which makes it very difficult indeed to put down.
In particular, Davies is excellent at portraying the mood of the novel, arising from not just the setting and events of the story, but also from the characters themselves. Davies is well aware of the effect the presence of a single individual can have on a scene, and nicely gets this across to the reader.
He also does a fine job of characterisation itself: "Damaged Goods" boasts one of the most well-rounded supporting casts of the almost sixty New Adventures. Davies is uncompromising in his portrayal of the residents of the Quadrant -- no one is all good or all bad, and everyone is as real as you or me. I had no trouble believing that these people could actually exist, and in a book which relies on the juxtaposition of the mundane with the bizarre to shock and enthrall the reader, this is a key to success. The regulars, too, are well-portrayed: Davies nicely balances the Doctor's two primary characterisation "styles" (the Manipulator and the Clown), and Chris in particular gets some intriguing development as he goes on a mission with a gay man who is very attracted to him. (Not only does this lightly parody Chris' amorous successes in past NAs, but it also forms the basis for one of the most intelligent, forthright, realistic portrayals of a homosexual I've ever read, in the NAs or otherwise.)
As for the plot, Davies sets things up quite nicely in first two-thirds of the book. His slow but steady unveiling of what happened on Christmas Eve 1977 is delightful (doubly a treat for those of us familiar with WB Yeats' stirring poem "Stolen Child"), and contrasts nicely with the more directly horrific actions of the Capper and the being making use of his mind. It is only towards the end of the book that Davies falters slightly. I found "Damaged Goods"' conclusion to be simply too dark and violent -- like, say, "Parasite", it needed some levity and good fortune to offset the horrors of Mrs Jericho's final actions, and never got it. I'm not one to speak out against violence and unhappy endings (on the contrary, I think both can be very effective) but I think it's mistake to leave the reader no respite, making one wonder what the point of reading the book really is. This is a shame, as the rest of "Damaged Goods" is an enriching, rewarding experience indeed.
Davies also falls into the much-balleyhooed NA trap of introducing a villain derived from the early days of Gallifreyan history. While he does use the opportunity to offer additional insight into Time Lord society, the feeling of deja vu is difficult to avoid; I hope that, when BBC Books takes over Doctor Who fiction, they will have the good sense to leave Gallifrey alone on all but the most rare and special of occasions.
These problems scarcely impinge upon the quality of "Damaged Goods" as a whole, however. No, Davies has indeed crafted a commendable novel here, one which is surely amongst the most truly "adult" of all the Virgin output. And, while some may consider the word undesirable in the context of Doctor Who, I think it's an indication of the highest quality. "Damaged Goods" is a template for Doctor Who in the Nineties; I hope Davies has the opportunity at a follow-up under the aegis of the BBC.
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