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.

Photo: Getty
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Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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