Revivals are a funny old thing. In popular culture, they tend to happen because something happened, say, twenty years ago. These revivals tend to take the form of TV specials or talking head documentaries detailing trends or fashion crimes of the time - or, in music, themed anniversary gigs or 'special editions' of albums.
Big Finish is having its very own 90s revival at the moment. Thankfully, it's chosen to leave out the dodgy fashions and the Macarena.
The 1990s were, arguably, not a brilliant time to be a Doctor Who fan. The TV series was effectively dead for the entire decade, barring around fourteen minutes in '93 and ninety in '96 when it briefly stirred from its slumber. However, Who enjoyed an extended afterlife in print through most of the 90s, where old hands and hungry young writers were given practical carte blanche to bend the rules, and take the TARDIS to new, more grown up places.
Having successfully adapted a slew of the New Adventures and Missing Adventures novels, Big Finish have now moved on to one of the big hitters, Damaged Goods, a 1996 novel by one Russell T. Davies, expertly adapted here by Jonathan Morris.
Damaged Goods is an interesting beast, looking both forwards and backwards. It's very much a New Adventure in that we have a mysterious chess-player of a Seventh Doctor, new companions, adult content, Gallifreyan super-weapons, and grisly death everywhere. However, there's also a germ of the sort of Doctor Who that Davies would bring us nine years later, with its late-80s council estate setting, strong female characters, and that instantly recognisable dialogue. In fact, the only person not talking like a character in an RTD episode of Who is the Doctor himself. Sylvester McCoy is in a mellow mood here, rrrrrrrolling his rrrrrrs, and clearly very much enjoying himself.
He's not the snappy Doctor of 2005 - instead his dialogue is mysterious and florid, much more the Cartmel Masterplan than the Bad Wolf scenario, but it's a refreshing look at what might have been if the likes of RTD had got their hands on the series earlier.
He's joined here by Travis Oliver and Yasmin Bannerman as NA Companions Chris Cwej and Roz Forrester. Both are already established by the time of the original novel, and Morris wisely doesn't waste much time introducing them, instead choosing to write them in by basically having them arrive with the Doctor and that's that. Oliver is gung-ho and likeable throughout, playing up nicely to the coded sexual come-ons he receives. Bannerman is equally good, but in truth doesn't have as much to do, being basically back-up whilst the Doctor solves mysteries and Chris.....gets involved.
The story isn't quite a straight adaptation, instead this is more the sort of rewrite that Davies himself would later perform on Paul Cornell's Human Nature - faithful, but retooled for audio with hindsight and a few changes made with Davies' blessing. There's still sex and drugs, but the famous same-sex fumble between Chris and David is now a little less explicit, and the cocaine being dealt by the Capper in the novel is now, a 'made-up drug' - Smile, perhaps in tribute to Chris Morris's 'Cake' episode of Brass Eye.
This doesn't mean the story's been in any way neutered. This feels more like the darker moments of The Second Coming and Cucumber. The dialogue sings, but it's dark as hell, with perhaps the only concession to a family audience being a note of hope at the end.
The real heart of the tale is the terrible bargain that Winnie Tyler (Michelle Collins) strikes in the 1977-set prologue. The moment where she gives away one of her twin babies, through a third party, to rich, childless Mrs Jericho (Denise Black). Collins plays a troubled everywoman, driven to do the unthinkable by desperation. Black's Mrs Jericho is utterly chilling, appearing initially meek and grief-stricken, before she literally transforms before your ears into a very prim and proper murderer, who calmly visits the vendor to announce that she has been sold a faulty child and wants an exchange, whilst all hell breaks loose around them. In fact, she's almost oblivious to it. Further darkness is added by the creepy Capper, a reanimated grinning corpse full of tentacles, played by Peter Barrett. Barrett has a tough gig, having to convey undead malevolence purely through a low, gravelly voice and gritted teeth. He pulls it off, but is overshadowed slightly by the more human menace of Mrs Jericho.
The sound design and Ken Bentley's direction are both first-rate. The cast and crew rise to the material brilliantly, and Morris brilliantly re-weaves RTD's story for audio. Morris also surprisingly drops in one or two very on-the-nose new series references which I won't bring up here. One is definitely a portent of things to come, considering Big Finish's recent announcements about a certain institute based in Cardiff. The other could be something. I'll leave you to decide. New series links or not, this is another excellent offering from Big Finish. it's perhaps the only time we'll hear a Davies story on audio, but, you never know.......