Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy, as himself. Image: Getty.
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Gayness, gak and Gallifrey: Russell T Davies’ 1996 Doctor Who novel is being dramatised, and it's amazing

It has a scene in which the Doctor’s companion Chris, a muscular blond policeman from the 30th century, experimentally tries gay sex in the back of a car. Because he’s from the future, this cures Aids.

Between 1989 and 2005, Doctor Who was, mostly, off the air. But it was still surprisingly big business and, if you were the kind of geek who wanted brand new stories about everyone's favourite Time Lord, then you could choose from a dizzying array of books, comics and audio plays.

I, I'm afraid to say, was exactly that kind of geek, and spent much of my adolescence reading the New Adventures: a series of books that, from 1991 to 1997, continued the story of Sylvester McCoy's manipulative Seventh Doctor. These did loads of innovative stuff (story arcs; characters with emotional lives), that’s been a major influence on the 21st-century series. But they also did some things you won't be seeing on TV any time soon.

One of the most radical of them was 1996's Damaged Goods, which has the distinction of being the first Doctor Who story to be written by a young TV writer by the name of Russell T Davies. It’s great; it’s also surprisingly post-watershed. And today, Big Finish, a company whose business is based largely on making Doctor Who audios, announced it was turning it into an audio play starring Sylvester McCoy himself.

(Much of the stuff in the rest of this article concerns plot twists and things you don’t find out until late in the novel. From here on in it’s one big spoiler, and if you have any interest in this story and want to come to it cold, stop reading now. You have been warned.)

Here are some interesting things about the original novel.

  • It's set on a council estate in 1987, and concerns a family called Tyler.
  • Its villain is the possessed corpse of a drug dealer called the Capper, who begins the novel by burning himself to death, then later bursts from the grave.
  • One plotline involves a desperately poor single mother selling an unwanted baby to a rich family.
  • Another involves a Gallifreyan super weapon, designed to kill giant vampires, that's somehow infected some cocaine. If you take the cocaine, eventually big bits of metal weaponry burst out of your skull.
  • It has a scene in which the Doctor's companion Chris, a muscular blond policeman from the 30th century, experimentally tries gay sex in the back of a car. Because he's from the future, this act accidentally introduces HIV-resistant antibodies into the population, contributing to an eventual cure for Aids.

How much of this will make it into the audio adaptation remains to be seen.

On the whole, despite pre-dating both of them, Damaged Goods feels oddly like the bastard offspring of the new Doctor Who (2005) and Queer as Folk (1999). I’m not knocking it: it's Doctor Who as a real grown up sci-fi novel, about characters with inner lives and prejudices, all dealing with the economic and social pressure of Thatcher's Britain. If you're into this sort of thing, as my 16-year-old self was, it’s absolutely brilliant.

It just isn’t going to be turned into the Christmas special any time soon, that’s all.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

Lady Macbeth.
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Lady Macbeth: the story Stalin hated reaches the movie screen

Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises.

Lady Macbeth (15), dir: William Oldroyd

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Nikolai Leskov’s novel about a bored, oppressed and bloodthirsty young woman, was adapted for the opera by Shoskatovich. Two years after its premiere in 1934, it had a terrible review, allegedly by Stalin himself, in Pravda. The new film version, Lady Macbeth, is set in 1865 (the year the novel was published) and feels resolutely anti-operatic in flavour, with its austere visuals and no-nonsense camerawork: static medium shots for dramatic effect or irony, hand-held wobbles to accompany special moments of impetuousness. The extraordinary disc-faced actor Florence Pugh has her hair scraped back into plaits and buns – all the put-upon teenage brides are wearing them this season – and the film feels scraped back, too. But it features certain behaviour (murder) that would feel more at home, and not so riskily close to comedy, in the hothouse of opera, rather than on and around the stark moors of low-budget British cinema.

Pugh plays Katherine, who is first seen reacting with surprise to a booming singing voice at her wedding ceremony. Unfortunately for her, it’s her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton). On the plus side, there won’t be much cause for crooning in their house, no power ballads in the shower or anything like that. The tone is set early on. He orders her to remove her nightdress. Then he climbs into bed alone. It’s not clear whether she is expected to follow, and a cut leaves the matter unresolved.

Alexander defers to his grizzled father, Boris (played by Christopher Fairbank), who purchased Katherine in a two-for-one deal with a plot of land in north-east England, on important matters such as whether she can be allowed to go to sleep before him. So it isn’t much of a loss when he is called away on business (“There’s been an explosion at the colliery!”). Ordered to stay in the house, she dozes in her crinoline, looking like an upside-down toadstool, until one day she is awakened, literally and figuratively, by the sound of the rough-and-ready groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) sexually humiliating the maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie). Katherine leaps to her rescue and gives Sebastian the most almighty shove. Pugh’s acting is exceptional; fascination, disgust and desire, as well as shock at her own strength, are all tangled up in her expression.

When Sebastian later forces his way into Katherine’s room, you want to warn them that these things don’t end well. Haven’t they seen Miss Julie? Read Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Thérèse Raquin? Well, no, because these haven’t been written yet. But the point stands: there’ll be tears before bedtime – at least if these two can lay off the hot, panting sex for more than 30 seconds.

The film’s director, William Oldroyd, and the screenwriter, Alice Birch, play a teasing game with our sympathies, sending the struggling Katherine off on a quest for independence, the stepping stones to which take the form of acts of steeply escalating cruelty. The shifting power dynamic in the house is at its most complex before the first drop of blood is spilled. Indeed, none of the deaths is as affecting as the moment when Katherine allows her excessive consumption of wine to be blamed on Anna, whose lowly status as a servant, and a dark-skinned one at that, places her below even her bullied mistress on the social scale.

There is fraught politics in the almost-love-triangle between these women and Sebastian. It doesn’t hurt that Jarvis, an Anglo-Armenian musician and actor, looks black, hinting at a racial kinship between groomsman and maid – as well as the social one – from which Katherine can only be excluded. Tension is repeatedly set up only to be resolved almost instantly. Will Alexander return home from business? Oh look, here he is. Will this latest ghastly murder be concealed? Oh look, the killer’s confessed. But the actors are good enough to convince even when the plot doesn’t. A larger problem is that Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises. Katherine begins the film as a feminist avenger and ends it as a junior version of Serial Mom, her insouciance now something close to tawdry camp. 

“Lady Macbeth” is released 28 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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