Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Retrospective: Russell T Davies

(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide on September 25, 2003. Which should explain a lot.)

By the later stages of the Virgin New Adventures, word had spread far beyond the fan community about its quality and willing to take risks. Authors with friends and connections at the BBC, such as Ben Aaronovitch and Mark Gatiss, had communicated the enjoyment of writing for the range to other authors who'd not yet done a novel. Presumably it was this that attracted Russell T Davies, an award-winning TV dramatist, to write his novel Damaged Goods for the line. Whatever the reason, he brought a powerful intensity and a darkly different sensibility to the series.

Davies' previous work included the soap opera 'Revelations', and one can easily spot a "soap opera" influence on the novel; not in the pejorative sense it's usually used in, of cheap melodrama and endless shock revelations, but in a setting of all-too-human people, each concealing a life-time's worth of secrets and interacting with each other in a toxic cat's cradle of lies, anger, love, sorrow, and hatred. The Doctor beautifully describes the Quadrant, the housing settlement that forms the setting of Damaged Goods, as "76 fortresses", and Davies makes it seem as though he's worked out a complete life's story for each of those fortresses' inhabitants.

That's not to say that he ignores the science fiction elements of Doctor Who, though. Damaged Goods ties in quite well with the psi-powers arc it's a part of, neatly bridging The Death of Art and So Vile A Sin, even if the Brotherhood themselves play a small part. It also ties in with Gallifreyan history and legend in a way that neatly betrays Davies as a closet Doctor Who fan; no other could know not just about the War against the vampires, but also about the different colleges of Gallifreyan society as well (and the cameo by an ancestor of Benny is just the icing on the cake.) It all ties together with its human elements in a glorious tragedy that tears at the heartstrings.

But to laud the plot and characterization is to ignore Davies' true strength, his ability to generate atmosphere. When I say "glorious tragedy", I mean it; Damaged Goods generates an atmosphere of suffocating horror, despair, and dread so profound that when you finally do stop reading, it feels almost like you're surfacing. This is a book you could drown in, and it doesn't let up for even a moment.

I feel sure that Russell T Davies won't write for the range again; after all, he must have had opportunities in the almost seven years since Damaged Goods has been published. That's unfortunate, since his one novel for the range was a genuine triumph, a powerful and brilliant piece right down to its perfectly apt title. He's exactly the kind of author who needs to be invited back for a repeat performance; even if his follow-up is only half as good, it'd still be impressive.

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