Monday, December 3, 2012
What the Rest of Us Do (Damaged Goods)
I’ll Explain Later
We’ve skipped the largely panned but relatively plot-important The Death of Art.
Damaged Goods is by some chap named Russell T Davies, which by most accounts is the most important thing about it. Ancient Gallifreyan horrors on a 1980s council estate, with no shortage of gay culture, it would be exactly what you expected Russell T Davies in the Virgin era to be if it weren’t for all the cocaine. Very much liked, though. Dave Owen at the time declared it to be “currently [his] favorite New Adventure.” Lars Pearson, more recently, but still well before the new series was announced, said that like the definite article, it is “sometimes forgotten in Virgin New Adventures tidal wave,” although it is “one of the most mature” Doctor Who stories ever. Shannon Sullivan’s rankings, which it should be noted are mostly pre-new series, puts it as the seventh best New Adventure with an 80.7% rating. DWRG Summary. Whoniverse Discontinuity Guide entry.
In news, the former prime minister of Bulgaria is assassinated. The second OJ Simpson trial begins, because once just wasn’t enough. New Zealand agrees to pay $130 million in compensation for the 150-year-old treatment of the Maori population. And Laurent Kabilia makes significant progress towards his eventual takeover of what is still Zaire at the time. And the Conservative government’s majority manages to fall to a single seat as Peter Thurnham defects to the Lib-Dems.
While in books, it’s Damaged Goods. Like Human Nature, the perspective on Damaged Goods has shifted fundamentally since its release. Upon release it was well-liked, but sandwiched in amongst the final year of New Adventures it was, if we’re being honest, forgettable. It didn’t brutally kill off Liz Shaw, come out months late and by a different author, have Benny schtupping the Eighth Doctor, reveal the secret origins of the Doctor, or add to Kate Orman’s terrifying tally of books in a relatively short period of time. It was just a very good novel by a moderately successful television writer. Russell T Davies was still years from Queer as Folk and from becoming Russell T Davies, and he was nearly a decade from being the one who brought Doctor Who back. It was still quite acclaimed - Sullivan’s rankings shut down not long after the series returned, due in part to a lack of people submitting ratings, so its high rating there can’t be entirely chalked up to a surge of new series fans - indeed, it has by some margin the fewest votes of any novel in the top ten, and the third lowest number of any New Adventure. But it was not straightforwardly one of the most important New Adventures ever.
Now, of course, it’s the New Adventure by Russell T Davies, and its importance doesn’t even need explication. This is in some ways unfortunate. The book is quite good, and deserves to be read on its own merits. Which is all well and good, but let’s be honest here: there’s no way we’re not reading this one with the knowledge that its writer goes on to be the most important figure in Doctor Who’s history since at least Robert Holmes, if not David Whitaker. There’s no way to erase that context. This is also just inherent in the Wilderness Years, where the question of how and if Doctor Who would ever return to television hangs over everything that comes out. Still, that doesn’t mean that we don’t want to look at this in the context of its time. To this end, we’re doing two entries in a row on Davies. This one will focus primarily on what’s going on in Damaged Goods, albeit with an awareness of his future career and the ways in which Damaged Goods is or isn’t similar to the new series. Then on Wednesday we’ll look at some of his television work around the time and at how Damaged Goods fits into the arc of his career.
The really striking thing about Damaged Goods, when reading it in 2012, is that it is, on the surface, miles from the tone of the new series. The usual line on the book is to observe the use of the council estate setting, the fact that Davies used the surname Tyler for some of the characters, and, depending on the mood of the commenter, some bits about the gay stuff. This is then followed by a comment about how dark and gruesome this book is, with the conclusion being, one way or another, more a comment on the new series than on the book.
Most of this, though not quite all of it, is utter nonsense. Let’s start with the focus on council estates, since Davies’s fascination with the working class is unequivocally one of his major interests in Doctor Who, and elsewhere. Here we do need to engage in a bit of biographical criticism. Davies is the son of two classics teachers, and went to Oxford. While he’s certainly not a child of extreme privilege, the world of the Quadrant is in no way his background. Which opens the question of why he’s so interested in pitching Doctor Who into it. But perhaps more interesting is the fact that he’s terribly good at it. I am, of course, gazing in from a bit of a distance here - if Davies’s upbringing is far from that of a British council estate than my middle class American upbringing might as well be on a different planet. I’m the last person to say whether Davies accurately captures the flavor of the place.
But, and this is perhaps an impossibly wooly and vague thing to say, it feels like a depiction of a basically real place. I hesitate to use the impossibly tainted word believable, but it presents a convincing sense that Davies knows what he’s talking about. He approaches the subject matter with grace, nuance, and an ability to capture things vividly and interestingly. And his depiction of a council estate feels consistent with other cultural depictions of working class British life of the late 1980s. Which brings us around not only to how, but to why.
Let’s ground this, then, in Davies as a writer - not so much in terms of his future career, but in terms of him as an individual with documentable concerns. There is a dividing line to be drawn in Davies’s work between The Grand in 1997-98 and Queer as Folk in 1999-2000. But in reality the place this line falls is in September of 1997, when Davies had a near-fatal drug overdose that was the impetus and partial inspiration for Queer as Folk, which is itself emblematic of a more romantic worldview that persisted in his later work. Damaged Goods belongs the earlier phase of his career, which is what we’re going to look at in more detail on Wednesday. (Indeed, borders on self-plagiarism from earlier work, as we’ll see.)
The presence of a book that does not merely feature drug use but that is, in a very fundamental sense, about the relationship between drug sales and the broader society, being written in a period where Davies was himself an at least semi-regular drug user gestures at some degree to which this is a book with roots in Davies’s life and experience. It’s also worth remarking in brief that the central plot points of mothers with mental illnesses and the prospect of lost or missing children resonate with Davies’s own autobiography - his mother was given an excess of morphine during his birth, leading to a psychotic break in which she believed herself to have been sent to a parallel universe in which her daughter was dead. And, since it is a persistent concern in his work, it’s worth noting that Davies’s drug use was largely a factor of the urban gay scene in which he was a tremendously active member. This also gives us some clues into where Davies is drawing his knowledge of council estate culture from: when you have a subculture assembled almost entirely by an accident of birth uncorollated to race or class a measure of diversity is inevitable. Even if the Quadrant isn’t his background, it was surely a background of people he knew and was close with.
But to treat Damaged Goods purely in terms of Davies’s biography is a mistake. There’s another obvious influence here - one that Dave Owen picks up on in his Doctor Who Magazine review: this book feels very much like Andrew Cartmel’s efforts. Which it does. But what’s more significant, perhaps, is that it’s a book that very much answers Cartmel’s specific challenge to Davies from when he submitted a script for the show while it was still on television - to write a more mundane script about “a man who is worried about his mortgage, his marriage, [or] his dog.” Given this, Davies’s novel feels in many ways like an attempt to out-Cartmel Cartmel, doing a story more grounded in the grit of everyday life than Cartmel ever managed. (The sly dig at the silly nature of Ace, in which the Doctor embarrasses himself by using “wicked” unironically in 1987, lends some credence to this theory.)
Indeed, Damaged Goods is in many ways the most straightforward execution of the epic/human divide to date in Doctor Who. On the one hand it concerns yet another ancient Gallifreyan horror, this time the N-form, a pleasantly gruesome anti-Vampire superweapon that explodes out of people’s heads. Fun times. On the other, it spends most of its actual time dealing with the lives of the people in the Quadrant, and its single biggest plot is about a mentally ill woman. It’s repeatedly hammered home that the massive death toll at the end of the novel could have been prevented had the Doctor been more attentive to her and figured out what was going on with her earlier. Where previous stories to run the epic/human scale division have featured attention to the human level, nobody prior to Davies has managed to frame quite so epic a threat in quite so intimate and personal terms. Indeed, its arguable nobody ever manages quite so stark a leap again. For all the focus on ordinary lives in Davies’s later Doctor Who work he never manages as detailed a psychological portrait as Eva Jericho, and never hinges the epic scale on a character’s interiority to quite this extent again.
Still, this, at least, is foundational for what Davies will do with the show eventually. He’s thoroughly committed to putting the Doctor in juxtapositions with things other than the middle class contexts and sci-fi epic stock elements that pepper even the best bits of the series. If anything jumps out about the Quadrant in Damaged Goods or about Eva Jericho’s mental illness it’s that these are wonderfully fresh things for the Doctor to be facing. The fact of the matter is that the human element beyond the white middle class male experience shared by the overwhelming majority of Doctor Who’s writers is almost but not completely unexplored in the history of the series. And it makes for a freshness that the New Adventures haven’t had since Human Nature. And if his later television efforts are not quite so intense in this regard, they are nonetheless still working in a similar vein.
The other thing that really jumps out about Damaged Goods, however, is how utterly bleak the ending is. Thousands of people are violently, gruesomely slaughtered by the n-form as it awakens. Virtually the entire supporting cast is cut down, children included, and often with a perverse relish. (My choice bit is “Across the Quadrant, Carl banged his head to Bon Jovi and his head fell off,” a masterpiece of underplayed horror that single-handedly obviates the need for Mark Gatiss’s entire career.) But this is, more than anything, a matter of audience. Davies is not foolish. He understands audiences well, and gets that the New Adventures are not BBC1 for children. And when given an adult audience, he’s never flinched at adult themes. As much as it’s impossible to imagine Damaged Goods slotting between Love and Monsters and Fear Her, it’s trivial to imagine how Damaged Goods could have become an episode of Torchwood.
But this bleakness fits in well in the Virgin era. Even the frockmeisters of Cornell and Orman were prone to some pretty aggressively dark material, and the whorl of the series’ history that the Psi-Powers arc occupies lends itself to this kind of grimness. If it made sense for the New Adventures to be a bit grimdark in 1993 then it’s absolutely trivial to understand why they would be in late 1996. The obsessive drive of millennial fever was heating up, we were all going to die, and, worse than all of that, Doctor Who had come back and sucked itself right back into cancellation, taking the Virgin line with it. Davies, in tracking back a decade and setting a bleak novel about psychic powers in the high Thatcher era, is tapping straightforwardly into the fin de siécle, rooting the paranoia of the late nineties in the localized dystopia of the late eighties. It’s very different from the Doctor Who Davies wrote for 2005 audiences, but then again, 1996 was very different from 2005.
If we are to insist on reading Damaged Goods in light of the future, then - and I’m far from convinced that it’s not just best to ground the book entirely in the late 1990s - the approach seems to me to be this: in it, Davies makes the definitive statement of the bleak and troubled Doctor Who of the late nineties. Damaged Goods is one of those books that does what it does well enough that it does not require repetition. This particular approach, with its paranoia and its bleakness, has found its purest expression. And by drawing the curtain on it, Davies quietly sets up the moment where the curtain rises on his own approach.