Monday, 22 May 2017

Damaged Goods written by Russel T Davies and Jonathan Morris and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: The year is 1987 and there’s a deadly new narcotic on the streets of London. As part of their investigations the Doctor and his companions Chris and Roz move into the Quadrant, a rundown housing estate. An ancient alien menace has been unleashed, a menace somehow linked to a local gang leader known as The Capper, a charmed young boy called Gabriel and his mother Winnie, the enigmatic Frei Foundation, and Eva Jericho, a woman driven to the brink of madness. As London descends into an apocalyptic nightmare, the Doctor must uncover the truth about the residents of the Quadrant and a desperate bargain made one dark Christmas Eve.

Master Manipulator: It says something about how relevant the Doctor was in his own series of novel adventures that it takes him ten minutes to turn up in this audio. The New Adventures were as interested as telling stories that featured the Doctor heavily or not and at times he could feel like a cameo in a Doctor Who range. However, as soon as the Doctor does appear in Damaged Goods (the audio), he is a major player and this the one adjustment that has been made that really stands out above the rest. He’s so much more likeable in this version, so much more dominant and Doctorish. In the original he walked about like a despairing ancient Time Lord, at a loss at how to handle the despair that filled his adventures these days. In the audio he feels much more in control, much more ready to engage with people and whilst melancholic in places, he feels like a keen observer of human behaviour and that he is there to help these people as much as he can. It’s a huge shift, and a very welcome one. As a result of his excellent characterisation, Sylvester McCoy gives a terrific performance, one of his very best as the Doctor. I would recommend this adventure just for a chance to hear McCoy’s Doctor at his powerful, dominating and yet heart-warming best. The image of the Doctor as a ghostly figure emerging from the shadows on a dark night being observed by a terrified child is a potent one. The Doctor has so many bad memories that if he started to cry he could flood the world. The Doctor was often making way for himself in advance in this period of his life and the lovely mention of a pools win for the family that lived in the flat that would allow him to do his work in the Quadrant made me smile. All these years and it still feels like he is starting from scratch every time. The Doctor admits he might not be at his best in a domestic setting like this (ultimately he is wrong) and that’s why he needs his companions to inveigle themselves into the lives of those on the Quadrant. My strongest objection to the novel was that the Doctor’s companions are treated more like his work associates than his friends…but here Morris smooths over that problem by allowing the Doctor a moment to explain why he needs his companions to head out and get close to people. Wherever he goes in the universe he has a habit of getting straight to the centre of power…and this place simply doesn’t have one. The Doctor embarrasses himself horribly when he says ‘wicked’ to a teenager, swearing that that was all the rage in 1987 (I nearly spat out my coffee at that one). His life used to be a lot simpler. Questions would be asked and he would be there with all the answers. Happy days, but dead and gone now. He misses the carefree life when he used to knock up gizmos from bits of this and that. The moment when the Doctor states that Mrs Tyler’s tragedy is an entirely human one and that he doesn’t have time for such things I saw a glimpse of that ruthless NA Doctor emerging. He condemns her, not outright but be refusing to comfort her. The Doctor is effectively useless when it comes to human understanding but is in his element when facing up to the N-Form. Bamboozling a piece of Gallifreyan war art, piece of cake. Comforting a grief-stricken woman, he wouldn’t have a clue. But at the climax he has to do both.

Ruthless Adjudicator: Yasmin Bannerman gives a perfectly fine performance…but she just isn’t Roz. The Roz I know is aggressive, unreasonable…a bit like Alfie Woodard from First Contact (that’s how I have always envisioned her). Bannerman plays the part earnestly, like a Doctor Who companion. I don’t get the impression she is a hardened Adjudicator. Frankly, she’s too nice.

Puppy Dog Eyes: In Travis Oliviers hands, Chris is much less the droopy eyed puppy that he could sometimes come across as in the books and is far more professional and able. He’s seen in this story mostly through the eyes of David Daniels, a gay guy who wants nothing more than to get inside his pants. God bless him for suggesting that maybe for once everything will be simple and they will have it sown up in a night. Simple? Doesn’t he know this is a New Adventure adaptation? David mistakes his misunderstanding over talk of their sexualities for Chris being innocent and new in town. I loved how Chris simply told David to ask him to snog him. That it is that simple. It sounds like he was going to too. 

Best Guest Cast: ‘The night I sold my child…’ It’s an astonishing cast of characters, whether you’re reading the book or listening to the audio. For the most part they are confined to one setting: the Quadrant and it is a literal interpretation of you don’t know what is going on behind closed doors. Well now we get to get up close and personal and find out exactly what and the truth is the truth of humanity: there is happiness, pain, loss, despair, sex, love and everything that comes in between. The story makes the observation that just because the people in the Quadrant don’t have much money it doesn’t make them bad people. There is sometimes a terrible injustice that befalls the lower classes on Council Estates. Davies would go on to prove his point with more alacrity when Rose Tyler leaps from an Estate to the TARDIS and prove such a delightful companion that the Doctor falls in love with her. I love the idea of the Doctor and his companions moving in to the Quadrant as a very dysfunctional family, simply there to help the inhabitants. In the novel it felt like they were there just to stop the N-Form and that the people they came across were just in their way. In the audio, it feels like they genuinely care and that they are there to make a difference to people’s lives. It really helps to sell the idea as a Doctor Who story. Populated within the Quadrant are Winnie Tyler (Davies does love that surname), a single mum who has struggled to put food on the table of her children and once made a terrible deal on a dark night to try and provide the best possible life for her two children (ahem). Gabriel, her son, goes through life looking very attractive to people because he is affected by a glamour, which allows those who perceive him to see something of themselves reflected back at them. 

Standout Performance: It is a story packed full of memorable performances, Denise Black stood out for me as the finest. She has performed in all sorts of Russell T. Davies series (most memorably in Queer as Folk) so this seem a very apt casting choice. The madness of Eva Jericho is a difficult part to play without going insanely over the top and Black resists, feigning a polite insistence that her horrific acts are reasonable. That’s much scarier. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘The Capper is dead…long live the Capper.’ 
‘The world’s more full of weeping than you could understand’ – that’s a line weighed down with so much heart-breaking subtext.
‘I’ve wasted my life sitting at that boys bedside unaware that a perfectly good replacement was on the rack.’
‘I’m not saving the world over the phone!’
‘What would any mother do? Any real mother!’

Great Ideas: Smile is an illicit substance that has found its way to Earth and whenever one of the inhabitants comes in contact with it death is never far behind. It kills people in a remarkably violent and inelegant manner. The Capper is a genuinely ghoulish and fearsome monster, quite unlike anything else that has featured in a Big Finish audio. A resurrected drug dealer, touched by sophisticated weapons technology and featuring the worst aspects of humanity and Time Lord society. He’s astonishingly powerful, but crude and violent with it. He’s quite simply terrifying and the performance and direction work in unison to make him so. Those people who are capable of casting a glamour are low level psychics. Why would the Capper being selling Smile at such a ridiculously low price? Unless he wanted the drug to spread as far and as wide as possible, so everybody has had a taste. Tribophysics (mentioned in Pyramids of Mars) is an ancient art dating back to the time of legend, a means of slipping between dimensions, which is very convenient when your home world is under attack. The time of legend might as well be named the time of war, and not just for Gallifrey. There were countless civilisations forging their way through the stars, all too many of them with a taste for conquest. The technology that has fallen to Earth might be a product of any one of those races and the Doctor thinks it is being carried in the Smile. The ideas have been altered ever so slightly but the emphasis is very much the same. This was one of the major strengths of the novel lines, the New Adventures (and by extension the 8DAs) in particular, they played about with huge, mind blowing notions and had the time to explore them in some depth. These books took the science fiction that Doctor Who could handle to another level. At their best, it was a level of sophistication that the series could only hope to aspire to and could rarely reach (simply because the shows purpose is to entertain). Steven and Gabriel are part of a telepathic gestalt, and one boy would always be stronger and their separation has made Steven even weaker, close to death. They need to keep the Tylers and the Jerichos apart because if the two boys come together now…boom! Torchwood being name checked took me completely by surprise and the Doctor’s comment (‘never heard of them’) is chucklesome. I question whether news reports would have been used to inform the listener about the widespread panic about the Capper bursting free if that wasn’t a regular feature in Davies’ Doctor Who to come. However, again, it feels right. I love the moment the newsreader succumbs to the drug, proving that he too was a user. Long ago the Time Lords were artists of war. They revelled in the beauty of dying suns and they built the N-Form, a sentient sculpture that kills without compunction. There’s a piece of N-Form in every gram of Smile and once it’s ingested it becomes a dimensional vent through which the N-Form can enter the physical world. A weapon from the past (the N-Form) being activated by a War from the future (a Time War that this Doctor knows nothing about). The climax of the story featuring Mrs Jericho as the dominant mind inside the N-Form, claiming the monster as her child, is perfectly gripping. The fact that every action she has taken is from a maternal instinct to have and protect a child makes her ultimate fate, how that instinct has twisted her into a monster, all the more heart-rending. Now she’s a mother to 11,000 children. A grotesque monster of a mother. Whether it was his suggestion or not, I bet Davies was thrilled with the new ending of David and Harry bringing up a pair of children. Again, given Davies’ other output on television, it is spot on.

Audio Landscape: Listening to the soundscape on this story. It’s like Big Finish know that they have gotten their hands on something truly special and have gone all out to make sure it is brought to life with as much care as possible. Crying in agony, the Tall Man’s muffled voice, a squeaky door, pouring tea, the Capper devouring its victims, a dog barking in the distance, traffic, siren, keys, a car pulling up, banging on a door and then kicking it in, smashing a window, firebombing a flat, explosives going off inside the fire, heart monitor, hospital atmosphere, Alfred choking and gagging, vomiting, destructive N-Form extraction, the ground tearing apart and the true terror of the N-Form emerging, making a cup of tea. 

Musical Cues: Howard Carter has long been my favourite Big Finish composer (although Russell Stone, Jamie Robertson and Fox & Yason also qualify with top marks) and this is one of the most impressive scores he has written. That means it is a very high standard indeed. The melancholic piano introduction gets me every time I listen to this. It screams subtly that this is going to be something quite distinct. The fresh, exciting title music gives me goose bumps, it’s one of the best versions of the original theme that Big Finish have produced (and they’ve had a fair number of stabs now). It’s a gorgeous melding of McCoy’s original and McGann’s to come, suggesting the placement of the new Adventures in between the two. I loved the apocalyptic score when the Capper tore free of its human prison and started attacking London. 

Isn’t It Odd: The subplot featuring Harry coming to terms with being gay and being assaulted and almost killed as he explores it is so watered down in the audio to be practically excised. It means the few scenes that are included from the novel feel out of place in the audio. They are typically well done for this production, but having one of his only scenes come after the theme music suggests Harry is going to be a major player in the story when that is absolutely not the case. It serves as an introduction to the Capper, I suppose.

Standout Scene: The twist that this story hangs on is rightly saved for the cliff-hanger. It’s a great cliff-hanger because it projects the story in a whole new direction that starts to make sense of Gabriel, of Eva Jericho and her son and why Winne Tyler is so protective of her children. One dark night she made a deal to protect her children, selling the sickest of them for a lump sum of money so she could look after the other two. It’s a stomach churning reveal and it comes with a bucket load of genuine emotion (regret, hatred, despair, hope). It grounds this story in real human misery in a way that Doctor Who very rarely touches. Eva Jericho couldn’t have children and had the money to buy the little boy. £30,000 was all it took. A business transaction. Who would have thought that that deal could go so wrong for the person buying the merchandise? The child was sick and has had nine painful years of treatments that has almost brought the Jericho’s to their knees. Eva Jericho in particular has been saturated in psychic misery, enough to induce madness and when she discovers that her sick boy is one of twins it sends her over the edge. The sequence of events where Eva Jericho poisons her husband’s dinner for keeping the truth from her and then turns up at Winnie Tyler’s house to exchange sons (or to return her damaged goods as the title is so horrifically revealed) are some of the most discomforting Big Finish have ever put out. The examination of madness, the implication of the sale of the child, the idea that a child can be returned so calmly as defective stock…it’s brutal human misery at its rawest. I was compelled and repulsed and I haven’t been made to feel that way on audio for a long, long time. A huge bravo to the performances in these scenes, which go above and beyond anything that I would expect in an audio drama. The small touch that Mrs Jericho is a racist and insisted on a white Anglo Saxon child, which is the cause of her calamity, adds further depth to her misfortune.

Result: An outstanding entry into the novels range and the Big Finish story of modern years that reminds me most of the main range at its densest when it producing works such as The Holy Terror, Jubilee and Davros. I had problems with the novel of this story because it was a truly ugly thing, one that focussed on the dark underbelly of domestic society in such a dark way that it made me feel uncomfortable that Doctor Who was tackling issues such as drugs, abortion and the disturbing psychological effects of loss in such an intimate and destabilising way. It was beautifully written, of course it was as it was written by Russell T Davies and the characters were painfully real in a way only he can write them but the story never felt quite like Doctor Who to me. It didn’t feature the Doctor, Chris and Roz…it featured a cold businessman and his two associates. What Jonathan Morris has done so adeptly is to take hold of that work of human cruelty and turned it into a much more accesible, slicker, pacier Doctor Who story. Whilst there is still the power of the original work and the stunning ideas, some of the more forceful characters scenes have been removed entirely or tamed to an extent so the story doesn’t feel like an emotional assault. As a result, Damaged Goods the audio is bursting with energy, creativity and humanity; scene after scene of memorable dialogue and fine performances and the whole piece culminates in an unforgettable climax. It’s a beautifully told Doctor Who story now and Morris deserves a lot of kudos for pulling that off. I’m not surprised it was nominated for an award, this is audio Who at its richest. All the ingredients are stacked up and slotted into place perfectly; unforgettable guest characters, sincere emotional interest, a fascinating science fiction concept fuelling the drama, a vivid Doctor, a plot that surprises and twists like a knife attack to the belly, genuinely frightening moments, stunning dialogue throughout and a climax that refuses to tidy things up after such a messy human ordeal has taken place. The director, sound designer and musician all deserve a great deal of credit for this story turning out as effectively as it does and the performances were all of a very high standard. I especially love the change that ties the N-Form into the Time War rather than just Ancient Gallifreyan history. Given this is written by Russell T Davies it feels right that this should be a prelude to the horrors to come to which he would thrust upon the series and deal with the aftermath. My favourite New Series writer and my favourite Big Finish writer in collaboration and what they pull off is a beautiful thing indeed: 10/10

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