1996: Damaged Goods
October 1996. It’s been five months since Doctor Who: The Movie aired on Fox and BBC1. Despite a flurry of excitement at the start of the year, there is no Paul McGann series on the horizon. However, BBC Books have published a novelisation of the TV movie as a prelude to them launching their own, in-house book series featuring the new Doctor.
1996 is like a re-run of 1989, with added disappointment. Having been promised a revival since 1990, fans understandably got their hopes up, only to have them dashed on the indifference of the Fox network. Meanwhile, Virgin, which might have been able to rally the troops as it did in 1991, has just been denied the Doctor Who publishing licence. A deep gloom is descending, darker and more protracted than after 1989.
In the immediate term, the movie’s failure was a crushing disaster. Taking a longer view, it’s merely a blip. There are elements – like the TARDIS set design – that might, possibly, have played some part in the thinking of BBC Wales in 2004. Paul McGann’s eighth Doctor was generally liked, even by people who hated the movie, but his inclusion in the 2005 series’ official roll-call is due more to the amount of tie-in material featuring the eighth Doctor from the BBC and Big Finish than any reflection on the TV movie itself (Richard E Grant’s ninth Doctor was firmly excluded). In every other respect – particularly the half-human revelation – the TV movie is barely relevant.
More damaging was its impact on the New Adventures, now consigned to history. This was a tough time to be a fan. I’d only started following the range in 1995, and quickly become an avid reader. For me in 1996, the news that the New Adventures were ending was worse than knowing the TV movie wasn’t being picked up for a series: you can’t miss what you never had.
The final, bittersweet months of the New Adventures maintained the quality of the range since 1994, but they inevitably have an autumnal tinge, having to wrap up plot threads and write out characters to tie in to a movie that the writers knew was going nowhere. This is the backdrop to Russell T Davies’ first professional Doctor Who work, a story that had about one five hundredth the audience of the TV movie. But it’s important because seven years later Davies was the man the BBC chose to bring Doctor Who back to TV.
It’s impossible now to read the novel without consciously looking for evidence that Rose was already in Davies’ brain. Gosh, a council estate, a Time Lord war and the Tyler family! Obviously, though, that’s ridiculous. Even in 1996, Damaged Goods wasn’t even the most NuWho-ish thing Davies had done (that would be 1991’s Dark Season). Yes, you can spot the Doctor visiting Bev Tyler as a child on a terrible night, and coming back to her years later like he does to Elton in Love & Monsters. You can notice the discomfort at those who die because they’re caught in the Doctor’s wake: ‘the ranks of the Doctor’s fallen extras’. You can spot Mrs Hearn desperately flirting with the Doctor like Jackie Tyler will in Rose. You can strip away the gory details and notice that Davies re-uses the generic plot for Partners in Crime (fat capsules dissolving people into cute little Adipose rather than cocaine turning them into N-forms).
The point is that Davies is writing in the New Adventures idiom – in The Writer’s Tale he admits he looks for ways to imitate the ‘voice’ of other writers when doing rewrites. Damaged Goods reads like him imitating the ‘voice’ of the New Adventures. There’s nothing uniquely different about Damaged Goods – previous novels did drugs, sex, squalor, body horror. What the most insightful reviewers at the time noticed was Davies took the most fundamental idea of Doctor Who, putting ordinary people face to face with the extraordinary, and he did it exceptionally well.
In this respect, Davies is in the same camp as Cornell, Cartmel, right the way back to the team that invented Ian and Barbara and dropped them into a dimensionally transcendental Police Box. Even the TV movie got this right, blowing apart Grace’s world with a man that can’t die. I can’t imagine any circumstances where Davies would have a TARDIS crew consisting of a mathematical genius, a Time Lady and an electronic dog.
For me, Davies’ Doctor isn’t down to earth, he’s not ‘descending’ to our level. Instead, he lifts us up to the sky. There’s a moment in the book where the Doctor reflects, ‘the silent lives of the Quadrant’s inhabitants were escalating beyond the personal on to an epic scale’ which seems to me emblematic of Davies’ writing. Later, he writes:
‘The Doctor spoke of wars and legends and histories older than the galaxy while smaller, more intricate, equally deadly patterns took their final shape as human and Gallifreyan lots intertwined. The people now gathered in the design would not amount to the smallest scintilla against the vast panorama which had set events in motion, and yet each person played a vital role in re-creating that vista.’
For Davies, the epic is the personal, made up of individual lives every bit as important as ‘legends and histories older than the galaxy’, ‘a universe of secrets’ behind each door. You see this in Damaged Goods, and again in The Parting of the Ways – when Rose’s ‘ordinary’ life on the Powell estate is directly linked to the vast space opera of the year 200,000: ‘That fight is happening right now, and he’s fighting for us, for the whole planet, and I’m just sitting here eating chips.’
All this is in the 2005 series. All of it’s there in Damaged Goods. And in Davies’ other work, not least Century Falls. This novel isn’t a template for the future of Doctor Who, but it holds the future in its principles and values.
In 1996, though, that future never seemed more like a fading dream. The New Adventures are finished. The TV movie failed. If Doctor Who’s going to survive at all, what comes next will have to be truly remarkable.
Next Time: ‘Welcome to the final resting place of the cruel tyrant. Of the slaughterer of the ten billion, and the vessel of the final darkness. Welcome to the tomb of the Doctor’ – Alien Bodies