***THIS REVIEW MAY CONTAIN MINOR SPOILERS***

Forty years in the making, Tom Baker finally brings his Scratchman script to life in an exciting new novel. But is this story a fan’s dream or nightmare?

There’s something very surreal about reading Scratchman by Tom Baker. On one level, we mean that statement quite literally: it is, by all accounts, a very surreal adventure (more on that later). But also, you know, it’s an actual Doctor Who book, written by an actual Doctor Who! And yet, above all else, it’s just surreal that this book actually exists in the first place. Scratchman is, after all, a story with a long and muddled history of its own. Originally devised in the 1970s as a movie, titled Doctor Who Meets Scratchman, it sees Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor face off against (you guessed it) the evil “Scratchman”. Or, as you might also have heard of him: the Devil. (Yes, you read that right. The Devil!). It’s a story filled with big, bold ideas – and seemingly no limit to its imagination.

However, despite being written by Tom Baker himself, the movie never made it off the ground. Perhaps it had something to do with Twiggy being involved. We’ll never know. And yet, almost forty years later, we’re getting the next best thing. Tom Baker (or rather, as the book eventually admits, Tom Baker with James Goss) have swapped the screen for the page, reinvigorating the story with new life in the process. There have definitely been some changes in the transition from script to prose – which may be a good or bad thing, depending on your perspective – but nevertheless, the end result is a novel that, despite its troubled past, is a truly devilish delight.

“YOU SPEND ALL YOUR TIME RUNNING FROM THINGS, RUNNING TOWARDS THINGS, RUNNING HERE THERE AND EVERYWHERE. AREN’T YOU… EXHAUSTED?”

I Am The Doctor

Interestingly, Scratchman is split up into two ‘books’ – one set on an isolated island, and the other set in… well, spoilers! Think of it like a loose two-parter from the modern series – a pair of seemingly separate stories, connected by an overarching plot with a stonking great cliffhanger in the middle. (And trust us, it really is a doozy!). There’s also a third narrative thread that pops up every few chapters or so: the Time Lords have put the Doctor on trial (again!) for interfering with time and space, and he’s recounting his adventure in a bid to stay alive. It’s a clever device that ties the story into a cohesive whole, while simultaneously stooping everything in Doctor Who mythology.

The first (and perhaps most striking) thing you’ll notice though about Scratchman is that it’s all told in the first person. Yet, considering who its author is, that’s hardly a surprising decision. Not only is it written by a Doctor, it’s written by arguably the Doctor – the definite article, you might say! As you would expect, he absolutely nails the dialogue and mannerisms of his character. The writing feels incredibly authentic of the show’s 1970s heyday, utterly brimming with Tom’s trademark twinkle throughout. We can only imagine how much his booming tones will add to the experience if you listen to the audiobook. And yet, for all the Doctor’s madcap humour, this is a very dark and grown-up tale. Scratchman is a book you’ll want to read from behind the sofa, because like its title character, it’s only got one mission: to scare the living hell out of you…

“YOU HAVE BEEN BROUGHT HERE TO SUFFER”

Fear Makes Companions of Us All

The entire premise of Scratchman is about fear, and on that front, it certainly delivers. The first half of the novel sees the Doctor facing off against an army of zombie scarecrows. While the parallels to Human Nature are unavoidable (even if this was technically written first!), these monsters are still a frightening and tragic threat. Be warned: there are some (brief) scenes of rather graphic horror, and not every single ending is a happy one. Later, the Doctor is forced to face his own nightmares – and that’s when things get weird. The interludes with the Time Lords, as well as the Doctor’s narration, make no bones about pointing out the hilarious absurdities. But we wouldn’t be surprised if the latter half is a little too strange for some. For others though, it’ll be brilliantly bonkers, and if you’re willing to get on board then it’s a wickedly wild ride.

Rather unexpectedly though, Scratchman isn’t just an all-out scare-fest. It’s actually a rather poignant reflection on the nature of existence. By delving into the Doctor’s greatest fears, it serves as an effective study into what the character actually stands for. The Time Lords, in particular, learn a powerful lesson about their own fears and existence. (A lesson that, unbeknownst to us, may have permeated through their race for millennia to come…). Cleverly though, the book chooses not to reveal the answers to all of its biggest questions. It carefully teases you, just enough to make things interesting, without ever daring to trample on 55 years of Doctor Who history.

Elisabeth Sladen and Fourth Doctor Tom Baker
Elisabeth Sladen and Fourth Doctor Tom Baker
Love From Gallifrey, Boys!

Whatever your opinion on the actual story though, there’s one thing that cannot be denied about Scratchman. This novel is a total Doctor Who passion project, through and through. Its very existence is a fanboy’s dream, and it’s clear that Tom Baker had an absolute ball turning it into a reality. His Doctor is as alive on the page as he ever was on the television, with Baker’s love of the role shining through in his prose. And, honestly, it’s difficult not to love him back as a result. In one scene, the character emotionally reflects on his eventual death and regeneration. However, unlike David Tennant’s “I don’t want to go”, it comes across as completely earned, rather than selfish or vain. The book later closes with a touching “P.S.” from the Doctor (or is it Tom? It’s so difficult to tell them apart these days). We won’t spoil the contents here, but rest assured it’ll leave a lump in your throat.

Somehow though, despite Tom’s Doctor (naturally) taking centre stage, he’s also taken the time to shine the spotlight further afield. His companions – Sarah Jane Smith and Harry Sullivan – are especially well served, written with incredible care and affection. There’s a lovely little back-and-forth between the Doctor and the TARDIS. There are also some delightful little nods to other Doctors, past and future. And if that’s not enough, there’s an unexpected surprise in the epilogue that might rival Tom’s cameo as the Curator in The Day of the Doctor. In short: Scratchman is not just an old Doctor Who movie script, repackaged and repurposed for a modern audience. It is a tribute and a celebration of Doctor Who as a whole, tapping into the series’ core through the medium of its brightest star.

Bravo, Mr Baker. Bravo.

Doctor Who: Scratchman by Tom Baker is available now, published by BBC Books.

 

3 COMMENTS

  1. Having my doubts about how much of this Tom actually wrote and how much input James Goss had.
    Goss’ refusal to answer questions about who wrote what just adds more speculation.
    I bought this on the belief that Tom wrote it and I’ll be pretty disappointed if someone else actually did the writing.

    • I imagine Goss did most of the adapting from Baker and Marter’s original story, with Baker approving what changes were made and fleshing out his character’s lines. He’s 85, after all.

  2. Baker has always had a terrific grasp of the character of the Doctor, or at least his Doctor, as well as being old hand at devilish turns of phrase. Goss has shown in his adapted Douglas Adams novels just how good he is at getting a bead on another writer’s sense of humor and making it live in his own writing. Together they’ve brought us one of the creepiest, funniest, and most satisfying Doctor Who novels I’ve read. It may be too much to hope that this isn’t their last work together, but I still do.

    Of course, Ian Marter’s contributions should also be acknowledged. There’s a terrifically realized bit lifted directly from the original film treatment that has Harry Sullivan obliviously evading a grizzly end at the hands of a hunting scarecrow. It’s maybe my favorite bit from the whole book.

    Obviously I highly recommend the book. The audio version is read by Baker, with minimal production and lots of enthusiasm.

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